Mitigated Speech on the Flight Deck

The potentially disastrous implications of keeping your language in check.

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You were just pulled over for speeding. The officer is at your car’s window and he asks, “Do you know how fast you were going?” What would you say? You probably would not you say, “I was going exactly 51 in a 30. I know this because I do it very frequently on this road.” More than likely you would say, “I am sorry officer, I guess I wasn’t paying very close attention. I apologize if I was speeding.” 

Likewise, a weary pilot wouldn’t call a flight attendant over the PA and say, “Greg, coffee now!” They would probably wait until Greg checks on them and say, “Hi Greg. If you do have a moment, do you mind also getting me a cup of coffee? I would really appreciate it.” 

When we communicate, seldom are we direct. We often use what social psychologists call mitigated speech. That means we mollify or temper the true meaning of a sentence to be polite or deferential to authority. Speech mitigation is polite. It is a social custom. Yet, on a flight deck, it can also be detrimental. 

Fatal Flight 90

January 13, 1982 – A heavy snowstorm greeted eager passengers at Washington National Airport. The airport had closed briefly but would reopen soon. Passengers of Air Florida Flight 90 were patiently waiting while Captain Larry Wheaton[1]and First Officer Roger Pettit[2], both very experienced, walked down the jet bridge onto their Boeing 737-200. Neither had any idea that the way they talked to each other, combined with the following series of unfortunate events, would lead to their devastating fate. 

The Air Florida disaster unfolded almost methodically. Wheaton and Pettit called for clearance at 13:59. Washington National Airport was scheduled to reopen at 14:30. Around that time, Captain Wheaton requested to start the de-icing procedure. Outside, it was still snowing. The de-icing crew reported prior to de-icing, that the aircraft was covered in a half inch of snow. Around 15:10, the de-icing procedure was completed. By then, Washington National was now covered in about two to three inches of snow. When the Captain asked the station manager if the wings were snow-free, the station manager replied they were covered with, “Only a light dusting.” One minute later, at 15:16, the first officer called ground for pushback and got approval. The first problems occurred right away. First, the tug struggled to push the aircraft back. It simply could not gain traction in the snow. It took over 20 minutes until the ground crew announced the completed pushback. Second, amidst the pushback checklist, the captain failed to turn on the engine anti-ice. Snow continued to fall. They began a long taxi for departure. A full 30 minutes after the de-icing procedure, First Officer Pettit was recorded by the aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder, saying, “It has been a while since we’ve been de-iced.” Only a few minutes later, First Officer Pettit stated, “This one’s got about a quarter to a half an inch [of snow and ice] on it all the way,” referencing the wingtip on his side of the aircraft. One minute later, First Officer Pettit asked captain Wheaton, “See the difference between the right one and the left one? I don’t know why they are different.” First Officer Pettit noticed a difference in rotational speeds between on the instruments for the left and right engines. At 15:53 First Officer Pettit was recorded saying “Boy, it’s a losing battle on trying to de-ice these things. It just gives you a false sense of security, doesn’t it?” Finally, at 15:57, Air Florida Flight 90 was cleared for takeoff. Weather conditions were now marginal. Controls were transferred to the first officer, while Captain Wheaton set takeoff thrust. By 16:00 the aircraft was rolling down the runway. After power was set, Pettit voiced his next concern with the words “God, look at that thing. That don’t seem right, does it? Ah, that’s not right.” He is believed to have been referring to the airspeed indicators, to which the captain replied with a straightforward and rigid, “Yes it is.” Pettit contends, “Naw, I don’t think that’s right. Ah, maybe it is.” Captain Wheaton called out 120 knots. First Officer Pettit hesitated and replied, “I don’t know.” A moment later, Captain Wheaton called out “V1, V2,” signaling the first officer to rotate the B737 into the air. The aircraft slowly climbed. The cockpit voice recorders captured the sound of the stick shaker immediately after liftoff, signaling an aircraft stall. A second later, First Officer Pettit is heard saying, “Larry, we’re going down. Larry,” to which Captain Wheaton dishearteningly replies, “I know.” The cockpit voice recording abruptly ends. 

Air Florida Flight 90 flew only 4,000 feet from the end of the runway before colliding with D.C.’s 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River. The aircraft hit numerous cars, slid into the frozen river then rapidly sank below the surface. Fatalities included 70 passengers and 4 crew members. First Officer Pettit and Captain Wheaton did not survive. Four people in cars on the bridge died. The crash resulted in the deaths of 74 adults and 4 infants. It was a catastrophe. It was “The Disaster on the Potomac.”  

Concerns 
The CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) was recovered by the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board). During the taxi, First Officer Pettit can be heard voicing his concerns about the weather four times and the engines’ indications once. During the takeoff roll, and prior to V1, he stated his concerns over the aircraft’s speed twice. Each time, Captain Wheaton seemed either to fail to understand or to address First Officer Pettit’s concerns. Why did Flight 90 even attempt a takeoff, let alone not abort prior to V1? Why did Captain Wheaton not act on First Officer Pettit’s observations? 

The investigation concluded that the weather, ice on the aircraft, and the failure to activate the engine’s anti-ice as factors contributing to the crash. It took 11 years before a team of linguists and social psychologists published one of the first studies on what is now known as mitigated speechwhich has helped us understand why Captain Wheaton did not respond to First Officer’s Pettit concerns.


Research

In 1993, a paper titled “Efficient Decision Strategies on the Flight Deck”was published by the NASA Ames Research Center in which the social phenomenon (that would come to be known as “mitigated speech”) was first discussed. Mitigated speech is, by definition, downplaying a concern or situation. It is indirect speech. Mitigated speech is when we downplay, mollify, or pacify the meaning of a message. It is essentially the proverbial act of “sugar coating” a statement. We mitigate to be polite, or if we are being deferential to authority. We are hoping the person with command authority will act appropriately or in our favor. The researchers demonstrated specifically that when pilots mitigate speech in certain roles and situations, the results could be life-threatening. 

To demonstrate mitigated speech, researchers Ute Fischer and Judith Orasanu presented the following scenario to a group of captains and first officers.3How would you reply?

While cruising in IMC at FL 310, you notice on the weather radar an area of heavy precipitation 25 miles ahead. First Officer Henry Jones, who is flying the aircraft, is maintaining his present course at Mach .73 even though embedded thunderstorms have been reported in your area and you encounter moderate turbulence. 

You want to ensure that your aircraft will not penetrate this area. Please write out verbatim what you would say to F/O Jones.

Pilots’ responses were assigned to eight classes of communication that differed in terms of their focus, explicitness and directness.4

  1. Commands: “Turn 35 degrees right.”
  2. Crew Obligation Statements: “I think we need to deviate right about now.”
  3. Crew Suggestions: “Let’s go around the weather.”
  4. Queries: “Which direction would you like to deviate?”
  5. Preferences: “I think it would be best to turn left, you?”
  6. Hints: “That return at 25 miles looks mean.”

Sequentially, each of the examples of answers is more mitigated than the one before it. A command is not mitigated, it is direct and requires action. A hint is the most mitigated response. A hint draws minimal attention to a concern, expressing a mere hope that a person with authority will act to resolve it. According to the study, the overwhelming majority of captains choose the command. First officers on the other hand, choose the most mitigated reply possible: the hint. In conclusion, captains were direct and commanding, while first officers mitigated their speech as much as possible. 

The fact that first officers so frequently elected to hint is alarming. A hint is extremely difficult to decode. When someone is distracted, a hint is hard to detect. It beckoned social psychologists to reexamine the transcript from Flight 90. 


Psychologist’s view on Flight 90

When the NTSB listened to the cockpit recordings from Air Florida Flight 90, they heard First Officer Pettit raising numerous concerns and “red flags.” Each appeared to be ignored. When Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the New York Times bestseller Outliers(subtitled, The Story of Success), read Flight 90’s transcript, all he read were “hints.” 

If a Captain were focused on taxiing, getting a slot, and making up a delay, would he be able to decode a hint? Likely not. First Officer Pettit hinted. Unfortunately, Captain Wheaton did not pick up on that. 

  • “Boy, it is a losing battle for trying to de-ice these things, it just gives you a false sense of security.” This was a hint. 
  • “That does not look right.” This was a hint. 
  • “This one’s got about a quarter to a half an inch [of snow or ice] on it”. This was also a hint.

How would the outcome have been different if First Officer Pettit had spoken in a commanding, unmitigated, manner? During the taxi, what would have happened if First Officer Pettit had said “We are going back and de-ice again.” Or, instead of saying “I don’t think that’s right,” he had said, “Abort the takeoff!” First Officer Pettit knew what was happening was not safe nor right. He was simply unable to word it properly, which resulted in the loss of 78 lives, including his own.  

What does this all mean to you?
Today’s Crew Resource Management (CRM) classes are all about learning how to communicate effectively. Is your crew mitigating their speech? If you suspect so, inquire further until you feel you fully understand what your captain, first officer, dispatcher, flight attendant, or purser is telling you. In a hierarchically related setting, it is incredibly important to speak as clearly and as concisely as possible. It is good to be polite when time permits but be direct when this doesn’t generate action. There is no room for subtleties in pressing safety situations.

Air Florida Flight 90 exemplifies how important it is for flight crew members to be direct. Mitigated speech, however respectful or polite, is dangerous in a dire or escalating situation. Effective communication, with an awareness of the consequences of speech mitigation is critical when operating in a safety-sensitive environment.

[1]Captain Larry Wheaton was a 34-year-old airline veteran. He had 8,300 hours. Like most captains, he was a first officer with the airline before he was upgraded. His leadership style was described as laid back and approachable. 

First Officer was Roger Pettit was 31 years old, just slightly younger than Captain Wheaton. Pettit was an Air Force veteran. He flew in the Air Force as a fighter pilot. Prior to joining Air Florida, he was also an examiner and instructor on the F-15. He had 3,353 hours. He had flown nearly 1,000 of those hours with Air Florida.]

Cultural Diversity and Crew Communication, Ute Fischer, LCC, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332-0165, USA Judith Orasanu, NASA-Ames Research Ctr., MS 262-4, Moffett Field, CA 94035-1000, USA. Paper presented at the 50th Astronautical Congress in Amsterdam, Oct. 1999. Copyright © 1999 by the authors. Published by the American Institute of Astronautics and Astronautics, Inc., with permission. Released to IAF/IAA/AIAA to publish in all forms. 

4Blum-Kulka, S. House, J. & Kasper, G. (Eds.) (1989). Cross-cultural pragmatics: Requests and apologies. (Advances in Discourse Processes: Vol. 31). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing. 


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