What’d you say?

Several years ago I had the great pleasure of being a restoration specialist at Tom Reilly’s Warbird Museum in Kissimmee, Florida. It was there I got to put my Airframe and Powerplant certificate to work rebuilding a B-17, maintaining a trio of B-25s, beginning the restoration of a P-40, and generally fiddling with some really amazing aircraft.

Even better than working on the aircraft was the chance to meet and make friends with some truly talented and dedicated folks. Our crew came from all over the map. There was a German guy with a background in cars. We had a Finnish fellow who was skilled with a camera. A couple highly successful treasure hunters from the midwest, a kid from Puerto Rico, a New Jersey native with a slow southern drawl, and a former B-17 pilot all gathered together on a daily basis to put bits of metal into the shape of an airplane. It was amazing.

Truthfully, most of those folks weren’t A&P mechanics. They had skills though — impressive skills in many cases. One fellow in particular was a sheet metal marvel. Give him an aluminum sheet, a bean-bag, and a ball peen hammer and he could make pretty much whatever you needed. Want a set of wheel pants? No problem. He could do it.

One day this metal-working master craftsman and I were working together, riveting sheet metal to wing ribs. He stood on one side of the jig while I was on the other. We took turns shooting and bucking. It was a good day.

At some point we started talking about projects we’d worked on, projects we wanted to work on, and our plans for the future. As I wrapped up one of my stories he held up a hand as a caution and said, “You have to talk slower and use smaller words, I was educated locally.”

That was one of the funniest lines I’d ever heard. We both laughed hard, but he wasn’t kidding. What he was really saying was, “I don’t understand you.” And that caught my attention.

My vocabulary and his were not quite in sync and as a result he honestly had difficulty following my story. We were both speaking English, but we weren’t speaking the same language. There was a communication breakdown between us.

Fortunately, he was honest enough to bring the problem to my attention, which gave both of us a chance to adjust and continue. More than a decade later we’re still friends. He’s still a marvel at transforming metal into pretty much whatever he wants it to be. I’m still telling stories.

Another example goes like this. I once heard an A&P student ask a teacher-in-training if vortex generators were AC devices or DC devices. The trainee answered. “I don’t know. I’ll have to go look it up.”

If you’re an airplane geek, that’s funny (and true). If you’re not it’s just confusing and weird.

Communication. It ain’t as easy as it looks.

I mention this because AirVenture is going on at this very moment. Thousands upon thousands have descended on Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to celebrate the diversity and adventure of aviation in its various forms. Many of those people are pilots, but many of them are not. Quite a few are certified to take a wrench or a rivet gun to an aircraft, but most aren’t.

In that massive mix of humanity, tower controllers mix with musicians, line service workers rub elbows with accountants, and rabid aviation enthusiasts are accompanied to the festivities by spouses, friends, and co-workers who can’t tell a tailwheel from an outer marker.

Miscommunication is one of the greatest obstacles to progress for any human endeavor. Whether we make it to an airshow this season or not, it is worth remembering that our enthusiasm may be apparent, but what we’re enthusiastic about may be a complete mystery to those we’re with.

As we introduce our friends and family to the aviation we love, we would do well to remember that they may have no idea what we’re talking about. That’s okay. If we’re aware of the problem we can adjust and become our own interpreters.

Let’s tell a good story, but let’s commit to telling it using language our audience can understand. For instance, as we stand beside the runway judging landings we might find that instead of telling our non-aviation oriented friend, “That guy’s so far above the glideslope he’s got four white PAPI lights and no chance of getting down before running out of pavement.” We might just point and say, “That guy’s too high. He’ll have to go around and try again.”

Now that just makes sense.




  1. says

    Dennis McLain hit the nail on the head. I was an instructor at a Post Secondary School teaching automotive repair for 14 years and determining the level of the students understanding was easy for me because I was there once. I was awarded ‘Instructor of the year’ for 2008 – 2009 and the award hinged on my student evaluations. The evaluation forms had all the standard questions and mine were all high, but the kicker was the comments the students wrote in their ‘comment’ section. “Best instructor… I understood this guy..I couldn’t sleep in his his class…I understood every word he said. ….etc etc”
    Not only did I tell them how to do it safely, but I explained the hazards and what could go wrong if it was not completed correctly. And Yes, there are more than one way to ‘skin a cat’ and if you don’t believe that, watch a left handed person do the same task.
    He’ll do it safely and correctly, but differently.

  2. j sharkey says

    A wise old politician once advised me that, when speaking to the average mixed group of people, any explanation should be kept to about a fourth grade level. Not dumbed down, but presented simply and clearly.

  3. Paul says

    Communication remains the weakest link in any system of human endeavor. That’s true for the transmitter and the receiver. Some people knowingly and purposefully talk over other people’s heads for the sake of appearances while others hear what they want to hear. Then there’s the lowest common denominator problem that this oped highlights in which the transmitter is admonished to climb down from a lofty informed/educated level to the uninformed/uneducated lower level of the receiver. While it sounds good in practice, it is actually working in reverse, i.e. aiding and abetting ignorance rather than eliminating it. I will refer to that as “dumbing down” a term heard frequently these days in political circles. If the receiver doesn’t understand and is worthy and wanting of learning, he/she should and will ask for an explanation as in: “What did you mean by….?” or the transmitter recognizing a failure to understand should offer to explain and thus inform, educate and eliminate ignorance.

    We are living in the so-called Information Age because of the proliferation of information (and misinformation) brought about by the Internet or as it’s referred to colloquially, the Information Highway which has truly become a global network. Yet oddly enough we seem to have a greater percentage of uninformed and uneducated people (and low information voters) than at any time in our history. Why? One word: Lazy! If you recognize a lack of understanding, an unfamiliarity with the subject, an obvious discrepancy or something just doesn’t sound right or appears to be too good to be true, you can remedy that if you want but you have to want to first. The information is there, more so now than ever before.

  4. Dennis McLain says

    Excellent story and very true. One of the keys to good communication is to start where the listener’s understanding of the subject is. You can’t explain the principles of flight to someone who does not know what an airplane is.

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