Interphone Overkill

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AVweb's Phil Rowe reminds us when to go easy on the interphone chatter.

Communications between the various crewmembers aboard military airplanes is typically accomplished by means of interconnected electronic devices. The interphone system is a vital part of the equipment required for efficient and coordinated flight crew operations. Pilots communicate with navigators frequently to assure mutual understanding of headings to fly, time to go and estimates to targets or destinations. Pilots and co-pilots communicate over the interphone on matters related to control and flight procedures, coordinating accomplishment of checklists, switch settings and the like. Interphones are absolutely essential.

Disciplined and professional inter-communications procedures and techniques are also essential. So it was not surprising that flight crews in the Strategic Air Command were evaluated on check flights to be sure they followed prescribed interphone procedures. It just wouldn't do for confusion to occur because of improper interphone communications practices.

Well, there are formal interphone procedures and then there are those that work. These may not be the same, as was clearly demonstrated on my B-52 aircrew some years back. Let me explain.

Back in the early days of the B-52, way back in the late 1950's, our crew was being evaluated on an annual flight check by the Wing Standardization Board ( known as "Stand-board"). An instructor/evaluator pilot, instructor/evaluator radar navigator and instructor/evaluator tail gunner flew with us on a not-so-routine mission. Regular crewmembers included the pilot (aircraft commander or AC), co-pilot, radar navigator, navigator, electronic warfare officer (EWO) and tail gunner.

The evaluators watched over our every move, from mission planning and preflight to the actual airborne mission itself. They checked our charts, fuel calculations, bombing information, radio and communications procedures and every detail of in-flight activities. It was a thorough and exhaustive evaluation. And we did pretty good. In fact the only thing we were "written up" for was sloppy interphone procedures.

We couldn't understand what they meant, because we flew a smooth and highly effective mission, accomplishing each and every scheduled activity. We made an "on-time" takeoff, a scored item. We were right on the money in our rendezvous with the tanker and successfully received the prescribed fuel transfer. It was a smooth as silk flight. Crew coordination between the six members of our B-52 flight crew was outstanding. And we hit every target successfully, even scoring a perfect hit against one of the four targets assigned.

"Frank? What's our next heading?" the pilot might typically ask of his navigator just before a planned turn.

"Zero six zero, Al," the navigator would respond, indicating that the pilot should turn to that compass heading. "Turn in 30 seconds," Frank might add.

Now that probably seems like clear and effective communications to the average reader, but it was the basis for our crew being written up for failing to communicate properly over the interphone. The evaluators were having a field day writing us up for such sloppy interphone procedures, not withstanding the fact that our coordination and exchanges of information, one crewmember to another, was effective and understood by all.

At the de-briefing on the ground, after the flight was over, the evaluators recited each and every incident of what they deemed to be improper interphone procedure. What they were "bent out of shape" by was the use of first names, failure to use prescribed phraseology and potentially lax and confusing practices. We just couldn't believe the write-ups. Nothing had none awry in flight. No confusion existed between anyone on the interphone, and all six of us were perfectly clear on who was saying what, when and why.

Though the evaluators did not actually flunk our crew, for we had indeed flown a darn good mission and propertly accomplished all required activities, they recommended a re-check within a few days to ensure that we knew "proper" interphone procedures. Our AC was livid, but he bit his tongue and didn't lose his "cool". Since the check pilot was a Lieutenant Colonel and our AC was a mere Captain, what else could he do?

"Okay crew," our pilot declared the next day, as we were planning a routine training flight. You WILL follow regulations and approved interphone procedures. Got that?"

"Yes, sir. Understand. Will do," we responded in unison. "You got it."

That next routine flight was something to remember. We didn't have any instructors or evaluators aboard, but had they been there the interphone communications would surely have pleased them. It's just that we wouldn't have gotten anything done.

"Navigator? This is the pilot, Over."

"Roger pilot. This is the navigator. Over."

"Navigator, This is the pilot. What is our next heading?"

"Pilot, this is the navigator. The next heading is zero five zero degrees, magnetic. Do you copy? Over?"

"Roger, navigator. This is the pilot. I copy heading zero five zero degrees. Advise when to turn. Out."

A few seconds pass by, and then ...

"Pilot, this is the navigator. Over."

"Roger, navigator. This is the pilot. Over."

"Pilot, turn now to heading zero six zero. Over."

"Roger, navigator. This is the pilot. Turning now to heading zero six zero degrees. Out."

"Navigator, this is the co-pilot. Over."

"Roger, co-pilot. This is the navigator. Over."

"Navigator, this is the co-pilot. Please affirm that new heading of zero six zero degrees. A moment ago you said you wanted zero five zero degrees. Over."

"Co-pilot, this is the navigator. That's affirmative on the new heading of zero six zero degrees. Over."

"Roger, navigator. This is the co-pilot. Confirming turn to zero six zero degrees now. Why the change from zero five zero degrees? Over."

"Because, damn it, this interphone chatter took too long and we missed the damn turning point. Out."

"Navigator, this is the pilot. Over."

"Yeah, what d'ya want? Over."

"Navigator, you are not following prescribed interphone procedures. Out."


Author's Postscript: This actually happened.