Communicating Through the Eye of a Storm

The view from Captain Accettura's cockpit.

The view from Captain Accettura’s cockpit.

Blogger and fellow Planet Mozilla colleague Robert Accettura tweeted last week:

It amused me because just a few days earlier, I was on a flight to Denver where rain showers over the airport necessitated air traffic control doing exactly this.

Channel 9 was available this particular flight, and it was amazing to listen in1:

Please installl the Adobe Flash Player to listen to this MP3 clip.

Many people find air traffic control difficult to understand, and that’s the primary thing that stands out about this clip: it’s incredibly easy to hear and understand what’s going on, even for the non-aviation nut enthusiast:

This clip also illustrates other notable characteristics:

  • The communication/phraseology is, as noted above, crisp and clear.
  • The messaging is consistent; every pilot on final approach can listen to the transmissions, so the fact that they’re hearing generally consistent information as they execute the approach imbues confidence; if each plane on final were getting different information, it would be a cause for concern.
  • There is constant solicitation of input from all parties; you’ll note the as the storm moves through the area, the cloud bases change, and this information is immediately and effectively made available to all.
  • Astute listeners may note a transfer of controllers at 2:56; it’s interesting to note that they both transmit back and forth for a few interactions, to ensure the communication remains consistent and the handoff is effectively and safely achieved.
  • The vectoring was slightly off for the aircraft behind us, and its approach clearance is canceled at 3:45 for a go-around; it’s worth noting that while this is a deviation2, there is virtually no change in the tone of the conversation or the character of the frequency itself

My role as a release engineer has required me to develop communication skills that are similar in nature3. But in playing that role, I’ve also had the opportunity to see various communication (anti-)patterns.

Swapping stories with my colleagues, it amazes me how often various issues that crop up in release engineering and management boil away to communication anti-patterns. It’s even more surprising when the patterns are being propagated by those who are entrusted to accurately disseminate information4.

Certainly, not everything resembled air traffic control, and one of the reasons it, as a communications medium, is so operationally successful is because the dictionary to be discussed is relatively limited in scope. But there’s still a lot of good communication-patterns illustrated that those engaged in operational behavior, especially program management, devops, and release engineering teams, can mimic to communicate more clearly and efficiently with each other, and with the teams they serve.

As Robert noted awhile ago, airplanes are generally considered the gold standard for engineering.

Similarly, air traffic control may very well represent the gold standard for operational communication.

1 My flight, United 454, checks on about 24 seconds in, at CRUUP
2 At least, from expectations; everyone wants to land, right?
3 “Operational communication” skills, I call them
4 A colleague told me of a program manager who used to purposefully withhold (different) information to (different) groups, so they could “change the message” depending on whether they were “managing up or down”; predictably, this caused more than a few disasters that then the release engineering team was expected to fix