Safety Corner

"Mooney Bravo Lead, converging traffic, co-altitude,10 o'clock"

posted May 22, 2018, 9:25 AM by Ashley and Maria Neboschick   [ updated May 22, 2018, 9:26 AM ]

"Lead, you're on fire."  This is the phrase that Lead doesn't want to hear, and yet simultaneously, it is the only radio call expected from Lead's wingmen.  Most with a military or previous formation experience background will recognize those words as direction from Lead that wingmen do not chatter on the radios unless ... Lead is on fire.  I'm a relative newbie with Mooney Caravan to EAA Airventure at Oshkosh, having only done it twice, but I have been to a handful of regional formation training events.  In our Mooney Caravan community, radio discipline is always briefed as a formation weak item.

The problem is that Mooney wingmen are first and foremost pilots, generally used to being in command, used to making their own decisions, and boy, do we love to talk!  Converting oneself over to a follower mentality is challenging.  Really challenging.  But that's the wingman's job: to follow Lead.  Wings must focus 100% of attention on not hitting Lead—a job done best if done relatively silently. 

Radio silence in the Caravan is important because we are a horrendously large grouping of aircraft.  With over 50 Mooneys and 100 radios and pilots and copilot passengers and back seaters and ATC and other non-Mooney aircraft approaching Oshkosh on frequency, it takes only a few extraneous calls before someone in the formation suffers cognitive overload -- and no one wants the cognitive overloaded pilot to be in the airplane flying next to them.

This problem is not unique to Mooney formators. The National Interagency Fire Center cites excessive radio chatter as a major causal factor in firefighter casualty figures. Incident commanders struggle with the desire to give everyone a radio in case of emergency or to keep the radios close hold so that the frequencies don't get jammed up.  We Mooneys all have radios...and most (if not all of us) two radios.  So, we're listening on ATC, listening on Mooney common frequency, chatting with our passengers, AND trying to follow Lead or the previous element. Wingmen are told to stay in position (don't hit lead!) and use the radio only for safety issues. But what constitutes a safety issue?  Converging traffic, co-altitude qualifies as radio-call worthy (but please specify who you are calling traffic to, since our Mooney Caravan formation is often 4 to 6 miles long!), but an aircraft in the distance might not. An abort would qualify. Definitely, a structural or other issue with another aircraft in your element.  These are "urgent" calls.  Necessary radio calls are those made by formation lead and the element leads. Unnecessary radio calls constitute just about everything else.  

All radio calls, even the "urgent" ones, ought to follow a pre-arranged sequence.  In much the same way that you make calls at an uncontrolled field -- station name, your identifier, your message, station name -- if a radio call comes in an expected format, it will be easier to understand and digest. This is why ATC calls are heavily scripted and why our formation guide tells us how to answer frequency changes. Radio calls that follow a cadence -- when things are said in an expected sequence -- add to situational awareness for all. And when placed in a stressful situation, comprehension matters. 

Last year, during a large formation takeoff, one member of our group experienced an abort. Some aircraft were airborne, some were on takeoff roll, some were still sitting on the runway.  Think a little bit about this scenario. Without being able to look behind him, Lead couldn't tell how many airborne Mooneys he had. Aircraft sitting on the runway, unless they were next up, couldn't see what had caused the abort. ATC wasn't sure what to make of the situation and they were now trying to control Mooneys in the air, a Mooney taxiing off the runway, and Mooneys on the runway but already in receipt of takeoff clearance. Within moments, the radios became heavily congested greatly adding to the confusion. People were talking on Mooney common frequency, ATC was demanding answers on tower frequency, and Lead was trying to direct the formation for airborne aircraft as well as ground aircraft. Radio discipline is important. 

Radio discipline is a skill that should be practiced so that when a situation arises that absolutely requires it, we are ready. That's not to say that followers (aka, wingmen and element leads) should not speak up. If something makes you uncomfortable, you need to say something.  If it's an immediate safety situation, then that call should be made ASAP -- on the radio.  Anyone can always call a “knock it off.”  But make these calls as per SOP, and as briefed. Worse than no call is a confusing, stress-creating call that just alarms everyone without communicating information or enhancing situational awareness. 

If you don't understand something in the briefing, you need to speak up -- preferably in the briefing. If you see an unsafe situation developing, you need to bring it to the attention of others. We're all in this together. We ought to study and know how to make radio calls while in formation, but perhaps equally important, we need to know how and when NOT to say it on the radio so that our use of the radios will enhance safety rather than detract from it.  The more we practice, the safer we become.

Too much radio chatter leads to pilot overload.

Crew Resource Management

posted May 22, 2018, 9:19 AM by Ashley and Maria Neboschick

Crew Resource Management (CRM), aka Cockpit Resource Management (please stifle your yawns!), has been around aviation training circles since the 1970s.  The goal of CRM training is to enhance communication and teamwork in order to make flying a more safer endeavor.  As with most things in aviation, the concept and the need for training grew out of the lessons learned of several fatal accidents.

As Mooney Formaters, we don't have "crews" per se, but we do have resources that can be put to good use to minimize the chance of accidents or incidents. Use of resources beyond those of just the pilot in command can enhance situational awareness, reduce the stress of both pilot and passengers, help the pilot to avoid becoming saturated during intense moments, and of course, enhance safety for all involved.

The main principles of CRM involve using all resources available to you as the pilot. Additional resources for Mooney Caravan pilots include passengers, formation partners, and ATC.  While the pilot in command is the final authority, he should welcome safety inputs from others both inside and outside the airplane. However, passengers during formation flight should be carefully briefed as experience and comfort levels with formation flight will vary greatly. Depending on their competency and familiarity with formation and flying in general, the passenger should feel comfortable telling the pilot when he observes something that just doesn't feel right. The pilot might explain when and how feedback ought to be relayed to the pilot -- the formation mantra "only call lead if he's on fire" might not be appropriate guidance for the passenger in your airplane.  On the other hand, the passenger must understand the intense concentration required during formation flight and know that idle conversation at inappropriate moments (that would include the entire formation flight!) could lead to disastrous results.  It's definitely a fine balance and one that you, as the pilot will have to broach with your passenger(s).  Many an accident has resulted from 'copilots' too afraid to speak up with observed safety concerns and pilots too pigheaded to hear and consider the implications of "crew" inputs.  While Mooney pilots are certainly not pigheaded, the concentration required during formation flight might lead one to ignore inputs unless they've thought about it beforehand.

And then there are the other types of passengers…ones that can be more of a hindrance than a help and these types generally include those under four feet tall.  In my aircraft, these creatures sit in the back and I can isolate their headsets so that I don't have to listen to their constant chatter.  But their presence can still be useful.  They can watch for other airplanes, check the progress of rejoining wingmen and depending upon their experience levels, alert the pilot or front passenger via a simple tap on the shoulder when something doesn't seem right.

Other formation aircraft certainly qualify as valuable resources.  When you pull onto the runway or are flying in close fingertip, observe and then really observe lead's aircraft.  If something doesn't look right, speak up….this might include checking other aircraft before takeoff for open doors or hanging items (seatbelt out the door?).  And it might include the incorrect position of gear or flaps.  In any case, wingmen are in a great position to back up lead simply because they are constantly observing him.  We like to keep radio chatter to an absolute minimum, but if you observe a safety concern, its best to speak up.

Finally, ATC can serve as a resource for formation flyers.  Lead is generally the only aircraft talking to ATC, but your own situational awareness is greatly improved if you can follow along with ATC instructions.  And if you do not understand a vital communication from ATC (such as cleared to land, for example), it might be worth a quick query to lead.  All this being said, constant chatter on the radio detracts from formation safety and so, strive to become experienced enough to handle formation position as well as monitoring of the outside world. 

Best wishes and happy CRM on your next flight!

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