Better Pilot-Mechanic Communication Begins with Understanding
Good communication is the first step to good troubleshooting. This article is not intended to become a checklist for helicopter maintenance trouble-shooting — there are many articles already published to help the mechanic on that subject. I want to focus more on the relationship that exists between a pilot and a mechanic and miscommunications that cause frustrations between the two. Whether you are a mechanic or a pilot, we are forever “joined at the hip.” I hope I can impart some wisdom to help make this relationship a better one.
We all know the importance of good troubleshooting. It:
• Reduces wasteful spending on unnecessary parts replacement
• Reduces down time
• Reduces hours of labor, which adds to operating costs
I think we can all agree on this, but I know that some of you are going to say, “Those are great benefits for the owners and the pilots, but what do we get out of it?” I’m glad you asked.
Good troubleshooting also:
• Makes owners happy when they save money, which makes it easier when they get the bill for our labor
• Reduces our wasted time chasing misinformation
• Reduces our stress and frustration levels on the job.
• Increases our credibility and reputation in this industry
Let’s face it — the problem is not going to go away. Eventually, we (as mechanics) need to fix the problem anyway. That’s our profession.
Can we all agree that having effective troubleshooting skills benefits all of us?
Begin at the beginning
The first step before troubleshooting can begin is to identify the trouble. Note: if the pressures, temperatures, IPS, rpms, airspeeds, wear limits or damage limits, etc., are within the manufacturer’s recommended limitations for a particular aircraft, there is no problem. We must define the problem and verify that it is a problem before we can solve it. We are not here to re-engineer each aircraft into what a pilot thinks it should be. This is where our pilot-mechanic relationship is usually put to the test. This is where the pilot can be our best friend or our worst enemy.
Open communications must be established immediately to prevent missed information, or worse, misinformation. How the pilot communicates the problem to the mechanic is critical in this troubleshooting process. Whether he or she writes it up in the logbook, discusses it directly with the mechanic or passes it on through the maintenance office, how he or she describes the problem to us is all we have to start the investigation. It is up to us to get the most out of this moment.
There are pros and cons to both the written and verbal pass downs. Writing has a few benefits, such as not relying on our memory or for proof of what the pilot told us. If we have a pilot sit down and write something up, it is generally going to be abbreviated and vague. Few pilots like to put anything in writing. Sometimes we need to make a pilot write up a discrepancy before we can fix it. Another problem with written discrepancies is that we miss the opportunity to ask the pilot key questions. The pilot might have written up his or her discrepancies and headed home, never to be seen again.
The easiest and most efficient method of communicating a problem with the aircraft is face to face. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the pilot and the mechanic walking out to the aircraft and pointing to the problem. There it is. Nothing has to be said. No misinformation here. This is rare but great.
Unfortunately, far too many verbal discussions start off on the wrong foot. We know that both the pilot and the mechanic want the same thing in the end — to get the problem eliminated and the aircraft back into an airworthy condition. What happens to put these two professionals at odds with each other? Here are some hurdles that can result in the breakdown of the pilot-mechanic communications process.
• Honest misunderstandings
Let’s start with experience levels. The pilot’s experience level could be a problem in the communication process. My experience has mostly been in Part 135 HEMS maintenance where I dealt with highly-trained pilots who I felt knew more about their aircraft than the Part 91 pilots with whom I have dealt. I feel that they go through more training and testing just to maintain currency. On the other hand, I’ve also dealt with the “experienced” pilot who thought he or she knew more than me about the maintenance and did most of his or her own troubleshooting before telling me what part needed to be changed. More times than not, a part got changed unnecessarily and we were left with a problem that I had to solve anyway. It’s hard to get the real story out of a pilot who was just humiliated by his or her own poor troubleshooting skills.
The hurdle could be the mechanic’s experience level as well. Young mechanics are sometimes reluctant to ask too many questions for fear that they will be stupid questions. Sometimes good, solid information coming from an experienced pilot will go right over a young mechanic’s head and the mechanic will get lost in chasing unimportant or unrelated symptoms and never arrive at a solution. There is also the case of the old, seasoned mechanic who has a closed mind and knows what the problem is before he or she gets all of the information — or worse, just refuses to acknowledge that a problem exists in the first place. After a while, pilots don’t want to argue with this person because he or she is a bully.
Pressure can be detrimental to good pilot-mechanic communication. When you have a pilot who owns the helicopter and is responsible for all of the costs, they sometimes tend to minimize a problem when relating it to the mechanic. You get descriptions like, “No big deal,” “You can take a look but I can live with it,” “It only does it once in a while,” or “How much is this going to cost?” His or her communication is influenced by costs. How does a mechanic interpret this?
Or you can have the employee pilot who doesn’t have to pay for any of the maintenance. There is usually nothing too good for his or her aircraft. You get comments like, “I felt a little bump and I don’t feel good about flying it.” “The pressure gauge fluctuated a couple PSI, how soon can you get a new gauge?” “I don’t want to spend a lot of time chasing the problem, but I want it done right. Replace the part, but remember, I have a flight at 2:00 that I can’t miss.” In these examples, there wasn’t any solid information passed nor time for proper troubleshooting. Mechanics can also experience pressure that can affect their attitudes and communications. It could be work loads, parts availability, training limitations or working conditions. “Why is that mechanic in such a bad mood? I can’t even talk to him.” It could be for many reasons.
Sometimes we run into honest misunderstandings. There are more components on an average helicopter than there are on a comparably-sized airplane, and for some reason or other, each manufacturer prefers to call its components something different. Avionics and instrumentation is a whole other world of acronyms and pilot slang. It’s no wonder that this can get confusing for anybody under the best of conditions. (Or maybe I am just showing my age?)
The biggest hurdles I have come across in my career has been egos. Pilots strap an aircraft to their backs and defy gravity every day. Mechanics take that pile of metal in the corner and breathe life into it so that a pilot can go out and look like a hero. I know I have a big ego and a hard head. I’ve been banging my knuckles and my head against these aircraft for more than 45 years now. They haven’t gotten any softer.
Our egos come from our personalities. We can’t help it. I don’t believe that we molded our personalities and grew our egos because we work in aviation. I believe that we chose aviation because of our personalities.
Whether we knew it or not, we have been feeding personality data into data banks all of our lives. We started testing when we were preschool right up through college. Pre-induction test batteries prior to the military were all used to discover our personality traits. These personality traits put us into certain categories. Our personalities brought us to this career.
The following is an excerpt of a report from NASA candidate testing by Dr. Robert G. Rose, a Ph.D. industrial psychologist for NASA who has written many articles on the subject of personality traits in occupations. He has put together the following description of personality traits of most pilots and mechanics. See if you agree with the doctor.
The Pilot. Most pilots are extroverted thinkers who live in a world of facts and concrete needs. They live in the present, with their eyes constantly scanning their personal environment to make sure that everything is running smoothly and systematically. They value competence and efficiency and like to see quick results for their efforts. They are generally take-charge, assertive people. They have such a clear vision of the way that things should be that they naturally step into leadership roles. They are self-confident and aggressive. They can sometimes be very demanding and critical and are likely to express themselves without reserve if they feel someone isn’t meeting their standards. A pilot is trained in a rapid-fire environment where abnormal scenarios are dealt with instantly and systematically as per their training. Decisions must be made by him immediately. He wants hard facts and concise data condensed and to the point. Most of the conversations that he enjoys most are with the tower. We, as mechanics, can’t compete.
The Mechanic.Most mechanics are introverted thinkers. Their primary mode of living is focused internally, where they deal with things rationally and logically. They have a compelling drive to understand the way things work. Mechanics must deal with their scenarios much slower and more methodical. Thirty minutes of calm analyzing by a mechanic can seem like hours to an anguished pilot. Mechanics like and need to spend time alone because this is when they can sort things out in their minds most clearly. They absorb large quantities of impersonal facts from the external world and sort through those facts, making judgments, when they are alone. Mechanics possess a lot of natural ability which makes them good at many different kinds of things. However, they are happiest when they are centered on action-oriented tasks which require detailed, logical analysis and technical skill. They take pride in their ability to take the correct next step.
You can see the different personalities of these professionals that might tend to make them butt heads in certain circumstances. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can improve the two-way communications between the pilot and the mechanic. This will take some common sense and a little tolerance exhibited by both sides.
My philosophy has always been that the cockpit is the pilot’s office. The pilot is the expert operating this equipment and he or she is the expert in the air. I don’t fly so I don’t tell pilots how to do it. I can only explain how the systems operate and interpret the manufacturer’s maintenance manuals to determine airworthiness. I expect pilots to respect my expertise when the aircraft is on the ground and in for maintenance. I can’t expect them to understand my thinking and my procedures more than I can understand theirs. Our relationship must be built on faith and respect. This respect needs to be earned and it must be mutual.
How do we, as mechanics, create the environment needed to promote clear, two-way communications required for good troubleshooting?
• We must learn to understand and accept each other’s differences.
• We must develop good investigative/interviewing skills which include:
- Establishing a good environment for the interview (quiet office, no flight-line)
- Asking good questions (open-ended questions that begin with who, what, when, where and why)
- Utilizing good listening practices
- Practicing empathy (the capacity to see things through another’s eyes)
- Evaluating the answers
- Documenting the answers
• Once we settle on a plan of action, we must include the pilot in this process. Keep an open dialogue so that the pilot feels he or she is a part of the solution. The pilot might have more input that he or she couldn’t remember earlier.
• Answer any questions he or she may have with an honest and accurate explanation of what is going on. Most pilots are curious and want to learn. Help them to understand.
If we all realize that we are in this profession together and that we each share responsibility for the success of our missions, we will be able to eliminate some of the obstacles preventing us from reaching our goals. This article was written for mechanics but I believe that there are pilots who could learn a few things from it too. Please share it with them. We can all benefit from a little mutual understanding.
Terry L. Peed has been in Aviation for over 45 years and is a licensed A&P and IA. He is the chief inspector for Helicopter Specialties Inc., a certificated FAA repair station that performs heavy helicopter maintenance, completions with painting capabilities and avionics installations.