Supremely Calm, Supremely Confident.
Another instructive example of unflappable competence from the aviation world.
An illustration from a GE video, showing what happens when an aircraft jet engine goes into “thrust reversal” mode and suddenly slows the plane down rather than speeding it up. This happened to a FedEx crew recently in Toronto. What happened next was remarkable. (YouTube via Aircraft Science.)
Peril in the skies has an outsized hold on our imaginations. Statistically that makes no sense. You’re vastly safer on an airliner than in a car, on a staircase, or almost anywhere else. But the emotional power of aerial mishaps is undeniable.
In particular I’ve called out air traffic controllers for their culture of unflappable competence. Airline passengers rarely get to hear the back-and-forth between pilots and controllers.1 But anyone who has dealt with controllers as a pilot recognizes the shift in a controller’s tone when something is starting to go wrong. The tenser and higher-stakes the situation, the deeper, slower, and calmer the controllers make their voices sound.
Here is another dramatic illustration. It comes from the “You Can See ATC” YouTube site, and it is 8 minutes long.
I’ll do a brief set-up, and then include the embedded video for you to see for yourself—which I hope you’ll do. Following it, in a subscriber section, I’ll attach a more detailed annotation on the transcript of what you’ve heard.
—Last week, on the morning of June 21, a FedEx cargo plane was taking off from Pearson international airport in Toronto. Presumably it held a lot of cargo, but the only people aboard were the two pilots.
—The plane was a McDonnell Douglas MD-11. This is a big plane, essentially a longer version of the familiar DC-10. Like the DC-10 it has three engines: one under each wing and a third in the tail.
—Very soon after takeoff, something went badly wrong with one of the engines. For still unknown reasons its “thrust reverser” engaged. This was potentially a very serious problem.
A thrust reverser is basically an airplane’s speed brake. It re-directs much of the force of a jet engine’s airflow forward, rather than backward. Thus it harnesses the engine’s power to slow the plane down, rather than to speed it up.2
Why would such a device exist? Because thrust reversers can augment the plane’s normal brakes in bringing it to a stop after touch-down. This is especially useful if the runway’s surface is icy or slick.3
The thrust reversers would normally never be used in flight. Back in 1991, all 233 people aboard a Boeing 767
737 flown by Lauda airlines, of Austria, died when a thrust reverser somehow deployed while the plane was cruising and sent it into an unrecoverable dive. Safety systems are supposed to block the reversers from activating until the plane’s wheels are down.
So when this FedEx crew determined that, for some reason, a thrust reverser on one engine had deployed, they knew immediately that the flight couldn’t go on. It would be like driving down a freeway with one of the car’s wheels spinning in reverse. They had to get back on the ground.
—And that is what the controllers unflappably helped them to do.
You can hear the eight minutes of exchanges between controllers and the pilot4 in this YouTube clip, along with an animation meant to recreate the plane’s flight path. I do encourage you to listen, because much of the significance of the exchange is in its tone.
What to look for.
I think the whole clip is engrossing. But here are a few main points:
—The unvarying and therefore comforting nature of “ATC speak.” (ATC means Air Traffic Control.) Pilots are taught early on that the basic structure of any transmission to ATC is: Who they are, Who you are, Where you are, What you want. Thus you’ll hear the pilot saying variations on: “Toronto Tower [who they are], FedEx 247 [who you are], Runway 06 Left [where you are], cleared for takeoff [what you want or what you’re planning to do].”
Sometimes the elements get moved around. But the formulaic language is powerful and reassuring because everyone understands exactly what is intended, what the other party is signifying, what all expect to happen next. The unambiguous predictability of the phrases ends up preparing all parties to deal with the unpredictable.
—The adjustment-to-circumstances by the air traffic controllers. When a plane has to get back to a busy international airport, that’s the first domino to fall in what becomes a long chain. Inbound planes need to be put in holding patterns or directed to other airports. Pending departures must wait. The ground crew is told to prepare “the equipment” — the fire trucks and ambulances that will be positioned next to the runway when the injured plane touches down.
The controllers in this case are working with others at the airport to make all this happen. But they don’t trouble the pilot with any of it. They mention external complications to the pilots minimally while the plane is struggling through the sky.
Mainly this comes at time 3:35 of the video, when a controller asks the pilot for “the numbers.” This is a request for specifics on how much fuel, and how many people, the plane is carrying. The fuel request is to judge the risk of fire if there’s a crash landing. The inquiry about people, which comes in the ritual phrase “Say souls on board,” is a way of asking how many people might be hurt or killed if things go wrong.
—The surreal calm. Listen to the controllers and the pilot, and imagine being in these circumstances yourself.
In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe made a semi-joke about the hyper-casual pilot drawl: “Well, we’re experiencing just a little bit of bumpy air” as a passenger plane slams violently up and down. But the calm of these controllers and the flight crew is no joke and is a practiced skill.
—Being “in” or “out” of character. There’s one other tonal element to listen for, which my wife, Deb, who is a linguist and who has listened to countless ATC exchanges in our little plane, pointed out to me. The controllers, she said, had moved “out of character.” That is, in normal circumstances they could sound brisk or even brusque, all business, professionally impersonal. At busy airports they sound busy and don’t waste even one second of airtime on a needless word.
But these controllers, as you’ll hear, have shifted to a different register. They are solicitous to the pilot. Several times they say “thank you” or call him “sir.” For instance, “You can have any runway you want, sir.” At another point, “Glad everything’s OK.” It’s the change to greater calm under greater stress.5
The pilot on the radio, by contrast, stays “in character” for many professional pilots. His matter-of-fact initial announcement that “we’re declaring an emergency.” At another point, “it’s just a thrust reverser that’s deployed.” Just !
Is this the deliberate culture of aviators? Or because they were too focused and busy for histrionics? Because inside the cockpit they knew the situation was not as dire as it might seem from afar? I don’t know, but once Deb pointed out the “in character” point I noticed it too.
Those are the highlights. A line-by-line annotation is below.