Military, Training

Crew Coordination, a Hallmark of Professional Aviation

By By Steve “Elroy” Colby | November 1, 2009
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One of the most admirable aspects of military flying is the crew discipline and inter/intra-flight coordination employed day-to-day. Very early in a crew member’s training, certain fundamentals are drilled in. Among the most important are positive communication, directed assistance, sterile cockpit, effective decision-making techniques, advocacy and mutual support. The benefit of effective crew coordination is effective and safe flight management. A wise old instructor once told me, “aircraft don’t crash in compartments,” everybody has a stake in the flight’s outcome.

Positive communication includes standard phraseology, brevity words, and good old plain English when you can’t seem to remember the former. Communication standards allow efficient and clear message transmission to the crew by minimizing ambiguity. A professional post-flight critique is an effective method to stem the use of non-standard phrases or brevity. Such critiques should be supported and encouraged. A cardinal rule of cockpit communication is challenge-response. This works for checklist discipline, where a checklist challenge is presented and the flying pilot utters the response. It’s also a rule that when a perceived incorrect action is challenged, it must be responded to in order to rectify differing perceptions. Positive communication extends beyond the cockpit with ATC and controlling agencies as well. Asking when unsure is always acceptable behavior with the caveat that with a crew, one can often query within the aircraft before keying the mike for an external confirmation.


Direct assistance is the action initiated by the flying pilot when he/she cannot maintain control, position or obstacle clearance. It is essential for the pilot flying to announce loss of visual cues or references. Oftentimes, rear crews have a clear view straight below and adjacent to the aircraft, and can issue maneuver directives or fly via a hover trim controller joystick when their required assistance is announced and/or directed. Sterile cockpits provide an environment where distractions are minimized, mission communication is maximized and safety enhanced. How many times have you listened to the previous weekend’s exploits while in flight? Perhaps the crew missed a radio call, or crossed an airspace boundary while innocently yakking during a seemingly low workload flight period. Discussions should be limited to flight-related information, intentions, actions and preparations. The more complex the mission/aircraft, the farther ahead the crew must stay by keeping conversation limited to the tasks at hand.

One of the most difficult transitions for pilots with extensive single-pilot experience is developing the habit of announcing their intentions to the crew. When pilots maneuver, or change critical switch settings without previously announcing the action, a breakdown in coordination has occurred and should be critiqued. I’m not suggesting that an aircraft commander is prohibited from turning his aircraft in a collision avoidance maneuver without crew clearance. But he should always announce a turn with direction in an effort to seek further lookout in that direction for traffic or obstacles.

Another difficult habit to develop for seasoned pilots is the concept of directive over descriptive communication. In life or death, time-critical maneuvers, it is essential to tell the pilot flying what to do before explaining why. Compare: “There’s a big bird descending toward us … you may want to turn right and climb” versus “break right and climb … bird 10 o’clock, high, descending,” to understand the difference.

A healthy flight environment is one in which flight team leadership and crew climate is nurtured, fostered and refined. Effective aircraft commanders use their authority and are ultimately in charge, but are not in a vacuum. They elicit crew input, evaluate options, decide and act. When conflicts occur, they are resolved safely and quickly even if that means terminating a maneuver until resolution. Decision-making techniques are enhanced in this type of environment where a crew may assist a pilot with a decision or help by offering solutions during periods of task saturation. Proper workload distribution as a function of crew resource management is essential to balancing safety with cockpit tasks. How well a crew handles unanticipated events or emergencies is the acid test for how effectively they employ the flight team leadership and crew climate culture.

The most effective crews engage in extensive pre-mission planning, briefing and rehearsal. Rehearsal may be in a simulator or as simple as chronologically “chair flying” the mission during the briefing. Maintaining situational awareness for the entire crew is essential to the well-oiled machine. Positive communication with announcements and feedback improve situational awareness. Most importantly, when a crew member loses situational awareness it’s imperative for him to announce it, rebuild it and rejoin the crew back inside the aircraft, rather than hanging on the stab trying to play catch up. Above all, do the following: aviate, navigate, communicate, prioritize tasks, make risk-managed decisions, delegate workload and listen.

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