Aircraft Emergencies – Communication Strategies

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Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring!

It’s important to have a plan for if things go horribly wrong…

Crash image by Morgan Mackay – unbelievably, no-one was hurt!

Have you ever been in an aircraft emergency?

The closest to an aircraft emergency I’ve ever come has been watching flames coming out of the engine as it started up while I was sat inside the plane.

Even though we were on the ground, the level of panic and confusion on board has left a lasting impression on me, to the point that I have found myself being in the position of being the load master and just hoping nothing will go wrong.

Aircraft emergencies are some of the most dangerous situations in skydiving, and yet there is no communication strategy in place, how to efficiently communicate when needed. This is a recipe for disaster.

No communication strategy in place… is a recipe for disaster

Just imagine the implications of just a few too many jumpers panicking and trying to run to the door because of a loud bang and someone yelling “AIRCRAFT EMERGENCY!”. A rapid movement of jumpers trying to get to the door could create a serious change in the balance of the aircraft and suddenly adding another unnecessary problem for the pilot to deal with. In extreme cases the movement of the jumpers, if unchecked by the pilot could lead to a loss of control of the aircraft through an unanticipated and rapid onset of a stall condition.

There is a regularly unused and sometimes misunderstood but very important communication link between the pilot and the jumpers. Imagine though, you have someone who isn’t as cool as a cucumber, who doesn’t communicate to you in a calm and controlled manner. This could be potentially disastrous with a total breakdown in communications.

Trapping the Chimp

Commercial Aviation has clear cut communication structures for emergencies, so that everyone knows exactly what to expect if there is some sort of anomaly. This is called “Trapping the chimp”. The figuratively caged monkey in this case is not referring to a primate that might be causing the ruckus, but rather your inner chimp, the primate brain that goes into panic mode.

By giving your brain a plan what you can expect in case of an incident, you will be able to keep your higher cognitive functions (reasoning, memory etc.) intact, and stay collected and take deliberate action instead of being overwhelmed by panic.

What can we expect?

The pilot’s priorities – 1, Aviate; 2, Navigate; 3, Communicate
Image by Rob Lloyd

The Pilot’s Priorities

In case of an incident, the pilot’s priorities are:

  1. Aviate – Fly the aircraft first
  2. Navigate – Assure the aircraft is flying the correct path
  3. Communicate – Informing everyone else of his intentions

If he is putting up his hand, he is not being rude, but is probably busy with point 1, 2 or both. In extreme cases he might be so tied up by 1 and 2 that with the remaining altitude all is there left to say is that it’s time to bail out.

Emergency Communication

For the case that there is time and necessity, the aim of communication from the pilot to the jump master and then jump master to the skydivers must follow a concise and structured format to avoid panic and mitigate the risk by means of clear communication. In commercial aviation, NITS briefings serve this purpose, which can be taken over one-to-one in skydiving.

The NITS Briefing structure

NITS is an Acronym designed for concise information delivery in emergency situations which stands for:

  • Nature of the event – What is happening
  • Intentions – what actions are required
  • Time – How long will this take
  • Special information – other crucial information

If everyone is trained and knows what information to expect, the likelihood of ensuing panic and the resulting aftermath is greatly reduced.

Image by Morgan Mackay

How can we implement this practically?

If we start teaching this format of emergency communication from student status onwards, soon this will become the standard and will dissipate the fear of the unknown. But it doesn’t stop there.

DZ Operations

To put everyone on the same page on any given dropzone, the following briefings need to become standard operational procedure:

  1. Briefing of dropzone staff and pilots at the beginning of the season
  2. Briefing for jump masters before they can assume that responsibility
  3. Daily briefings for conditions

Event briefing for organizers and participants

To establish this standard even faster, at events, these procedures could be briefed as follows:

  1. Event briefing for organizers and pilots, establishing communication
  2. Event briefing from organizers for Participants, so they know what to expect
  3. Daily briefings by pilots for organizer and by organizers to participants

Daily Briefings – NUTA

Again, in the daily briefings for DZ operations, load organizers and jumpers we can follow a briefing format used in Commercial Aviation: NUTA

  1. Notice – Voice potential threats
  2. Understand – the implications
  3. Think Ahead – State how to avoid, trap and mitigate the threat

This brings everyone on the same page what dangers might be present in the current conditions and how to deal with them. NUTA is also a great way to communicate to students in the morning and during the day about the conditions. This raises awareness and teaches how to deal with them during skydives and under canopy such as high winds, turbulence, busy traffic or other potentially dangerous situations. Even If there is nothing noteworthy, it is worthwhile to check and see if a threat might have gone unnoticed by either side.

We might just get the command to get out, so it is paramount we have the solution ready and are prepared to act

Let’s stay realistic

The harsh reality of the situation is that there is an exponential increase in workload for the pilot when things go wrong, especially at altitudes below 3,000ft. Just like with our malfunction procedures, we need to stay on top of our aircraft emergency altitudes and bailout procedures. When it comes time to execute, we might just get the command to get out, so it is paramount we have the solution ready and are prepared to act.

The most common altitudes we should remember are:

  • 0-1,000ft – Stay Buckled up, Brace for an Emergency Landing
  • 1,000-3000ft – Bail on Reserve
  • 3,000ft or above – Bail on Main

Altitudes may vary depending on DZ Operational Procedures, make sure you confirm them with your local pilot, S&TA or instructor. The proposed communication strategies will most likely only be used if there is sufficient altitude and time, so over 3,000ft. However specific that might be, it still fills an important gap.

Conclusions

Aircraft emergencies are highly charged situations which need to be respected and planned for. The link between pilots and jumpers is not necessarily always the best, in some extremes we are annoyingly moving cargo that eventually falls out, and the back of the head in the front is just the taxi driver.

When things don’t go as planned, however, just like we hope the pilot has held up his end of the deal and is current on his emergency procedures, we  should do the same and come prepared. It’s essential to remain calm and collected, stay in place and resist the urge to get to the door as fast as possible, to avoid sudden shifts in weight and balance of the aircraft which would add additional unnecessary workload for the pilot.

When communication is paramount and time is of the essence, these suggested communication strategies aim to facilitate the process, decrease stress and increase effectiveness and efficiency.


Thank you to the commercial and DZ pilots who gave me inspiration and constructive feedback for this article: Chris Tootell, Minerva Scavo, Tim Douglas, Dominik Cehner, Robert Fahrenschon and Wolfgang Klein.

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Meet: Julian Barthel

Julian is a full time Flight-1 Instructor, Tunnel Coach, Freefly Coach, Load Organizer, USPA Coach Examiner and Founder of FlyinMynd.
He worked in the sport as AFF-I, TD-I and Camera Flyer for 8 years before going freelance.
Julian loves Canopy Piloting, XRW and is part of the German Canopy Piloting Team.
He was part of the current National German Head down Record (38) and the European Head down Sequential Record (3-point 24-way) as well as the current European Head Up Record (43).
Likes: Canopy Flocking, Freefly, XRW, Canopy Piloting, Dynamic Flying.
Julian is sponsored by PD, UPT, Tonfly, Alti-2 and Cypres.

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