Aviation Safety Letter 4-2003

Selective Hearing.Does it affect us?

Selective hearing

I experience it from time to time ... my three young kids, fastidiously absorbed in front of the tube by some second-rate cartoon show — they are experts in selective hearing. Seemingly paralysed, they somehow always manage the no-look bowl-to-mouth popcorn move. Such wasted talent, for which I feel mostly responsible, doesn't seem to agonize them as much as it does me. While ostensibly in lala-land, their little grey cells remain focused on two things: first, the business at hand (the show), and second, filtering-out superfluous voices (parents) asking for irrelevant and unimportant information (homework, cleaning-up, etc.). Detection of such a voice triggers silence and stillness - maybe it will go away . just like playing dead if you encounter a bear.

While most won't relate to the above scenario, it should come as no surprise that pilots are also experts at selective hearing. In fact anyone who has a spouse or partner - a condition that allows endless opportunities to hone one's selective hearing skills - can experience it. To simplify it, let's just say that selective hearing is the cerebral process by which we elect either to only "hear" or to conscientiously "listen." Nothing new here, right? Well, without probing further into human factor theory, let's just point out a few situations where pilots can fall victim to selective hearing in an operational setting.

Mission briefing - While we pilots are allegedly smart individuals, we sometimes fall victim to complacency when hearing repetitive tasks, particularly coming from the same person or under a familiar set of circumstances. For example, if the dispatcher or chief pilot says, ".by the way the hook release is u/s." in between routine sentences, this detail can be missed (or quickly forgotten).

Weather briefing - Some pilots often tend to hear what they want to hear during a weather briefing. That is, they don't want to hear about low clouds, low visibility, icing and particularly the term "not recommended for VFR flight." If you have the attention of a bona-fide weather briefer, acknowledge it by giving him or her your full attention (including a weather briefing on the telephone), and listening attentively to what is being said. My personal experience is that you cannot effectively interpret an aerodrome forecast (TAF) or METAR with your head down, and simultaneously listen to a weather briefing.

Radio watch - That is a huge one, and many of you have told me how difficult you find it to be an effective radio operator, whether it's talking to controllers, flight service specialists or other pilots. If you are usually nervous about radio communications, you may want to practice with a friend over the phone, or even just across the table from each other. The emphasis has to be on being attentive, and asking for clarification every time you are unsure. Minimize cockpit chitchat in or near busy areas. Exchanges between you and controllers or flight service specialists are obviously important, and nobody will ever criticize you if you ask for a repeat. Listening carefully to a taxi instruction or an IFR clearance is an integral part of having your name on that license.

Crew communication - This is an essential element of Crew Resource Management (CRM). Active listening is a crucial requirement for any pilot involved in a multi-crew environment, which may include other pilots, flight attendants, flight engineers, etc. Suffice it to say that as soon as you have more than one crew aboard your aircraft, you must be ready to effectively address any communication with the rest of the crew. If you are the only crew aboard and you have passengers, you should be ready to do the same when communicating with the passengers.

Active listening - This includes actively listening forthings such as aircraft system malfunctions, bells, horns and simply "weird noises." In particular, many pilots who forgot to lower the landing gear handle have interpreted the landing gear horn on short final as a stall warning horn or low altitude horn, with a predictable result. Let's shoot for a summer free of gear-up landings.

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