Learning by Legend

I formulated this descriptor in the third third of my carrer as I saw more and more sloppy practices and phraseology in play at work. It was as if everyone had forgotten the basics they’d learned and were just operating willy-nilly in an approximation of the standards in the ATP. I had spent my whole career in the ATP—partly because we were expected to know it in the old days, and partly because I’m the type of person who wants as much information as possible, particularly if a discussion is going to come up. And discussions frequently came up.

I guess in the early days, the discussion was more likely of the nature of being informed during training that you’d done or said something incorrectly, the instructor referring you to the pertinent sections of the ATP for review. Much of those errors were trained out of us upstairs in “D” school—the first place where application of procedures was taught. Actually, if you refer back to my discussions of “Stick Time” you’ll recognize that one needed some knowledge of procedures even before “D” school.

There were also “water cooler” discussions of a more informal nature. Of course we didn’t have water coolers in the sense of a corporate cubical environment—it’s more of a metaphor and the real life model was over a cup of coffee in the café. Those discussions often led to a small wager which was resolved upon return to the control room and a search in one of several ATPs to be found throughout the facility. I didn’t lose very many ATP wagers—see above.

However, those were the old days, and much as I hate sounding like a dinosaur, I have to cite the new breed as being less motivated to study and more inclined to be told the material they needed to learn the job. Where were they told? Training. Much as we were, but without the foundation of the book learning we older troops had done in the process of preparing for training. And it wouldn’t be a problem for that first generation of controllers who didn't have the book larnin’ that we did, because the trainer did. so the trainee got maybe 99% of the correct knowledge possessed of the instructor.

The problem arose when the trainee became an instructor. Unless they had a strong sense of curiosity about what the ATP actually said for a particular application, when it came time to train someone in it, they (and most people) relied on what they’d been told in their own training. Mark Twain put it best in his essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. In describing how Cooper had a “poor ear for words” Twain notes:

When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping—you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it.
Training from a second generation base of knowledge eventually produces much the same effect, except in terms of application of that knowledge.

The farther removed from the last classically trained instructor the worse the phenomenon becomes, as each successive generation is operating with 99% of 99%×N of the source material. Each successive genearation is thus learning by legend.

In addition to the perils of learning by legend, far too many controllers lifted procedures or rules from the book based on the title of the relevant paragraph. I first encountered this early on—perhaps as early as the '70s. The ATP had a paragraph that related to calling of traffic which means phraseology with which to tell the pilot about potential risks. It described how we were to preface the transmission with the callsign of the aircraft, then the word “traffic”, followed by the direction (predicated on an imaginary clockface based on the cockpit and with 12 o’clock representing straight ahead), and then a range, or distance. The direction of movement of the traffic could be included, as well.

The government, was nothing if not thorough and followed that paragraph by one entitled “Traffic No Longer A Factor” and which included the phraseology to be used when the title condition had been met—“clear of traffic”. I cannot count how many controllers I heard using “traffic no longer a factor” as their phraseology of choice instead of the prescribed phrase.

Another example was when the FAA added phraseology after the TWA 514 accident (Blue Ridge mountains west of IAD—1 December 1974). Without going into esoteric details unnecessary for this story, we are now required to assign an altitude restriction when clearing aircraft for an approach if they were not on a published segment of the approach at the time of the clearance. The explanation in the paragraph referred to various examples of approved published segments, such as a radial from a terminal navaid, an intersection on the approach, the Outer Compass Locater, or even the glide slope of a precision approach. What I eventually heard controllers doing, rather than what the intent of the paragraph tried to present was issuing a clearance such as, “N12345, five miles from DUBBY, maintain 3,000 until established on a segment of the approach, cleared for the VOR/DME RWY 15 approach.” They lifted a descriptive clause from the ATP and applied it to their clearance as if it was approved phraseology. Not only wasn’t it, but it’s nearly as ambiguous to the pilot as the approach clearance to TWA 514 in 1974. If you’re a procedures geek, it’s worth reading the accident report (easily found online) and then read the ATP (also online) for the current wording. See if you can defend the offensive example I cite.

Finally, and disregarding the “thorough” accolade given to the FAA above, there’re the words “join” and “intercept”. Nowhere in the ATP does it specifically say that you “join airways” and “intercept radials and localizers,” but it’s clear by analyzing every single example given of such circumstances that it is so. I long ago crafted an argument which you can readhere. It seems so clear to me, but you can’t listen to an approach control anywhere in the country without hearing someone tell an aircraft to “join the localizer”.Ack!

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Last updated: 03 September 2011