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Read-back or Hear-back

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Category: Air Ground Communication Air Ground Communication
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: EUROCONTROL EUROCONTROL

Description

Read-back is defined as a procedure whereby the receiving station repeats a received message or an appropriate part thereof back to the transmitting station so as to obtain confirmation of correct reception. (ICAO Annex 10 Vol II).

Effects

An uncorrected erroneous read-back (known as a hear-back error) may lead to a deviation from the intended clearance and may not be detected until the controller observes the deviation on his/her situational display.

Less than required vertical or horizontal separation (and an AIRPROX) is often the result of hear-back errors.

Defences

The flight crew must read back to the air traffic controller safety-related parts of ATC clearances and instructions which are transmitted by voice. The following items must always be read back:

a) ATC route clearances;
b) clearances and instructions to enter, land on, take off from, hold short of, cross or backtrack on any runway; and
c) runway-in-use, altimeter settings, SSR codes, level instructions, heading and speed instructions and, whether issued by the controller or contained in Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) broadcasts, transition levels.

Other clearances or instructions, including conditional clearances, must be read back or acknowledged in a manner to clearly indicate that they have been understood and will be complied with.

The controller must listen to the read-back to ascertain that the clearance or instruction has been correctly acknowledged by the flight crew and shall take immediate action to correct any discrepancies revealed by the read-back. (ICAO Annex 11 Chapter 3 Para 3.7.3)

Aspects of read-back/hear-back

The pilot’s read-back must be complete and clear to ensure a complete and correct understanding by the controller. The action of reading back a clearance gives the controller an opportunity to confirm that the message has been correctly received, and if necessary, to correct any errors.

Read-back of a clearance should never be replaced by the use of terms such as “Roger”, "Wilco" or “Copied”. Likewise, a controller should not use similar terms to acknowledge a message requiring a definite answer (e.g. acknowledging a pilot’s statement that an altitude or speed restriction cannot be met).

Failure to correct faulty read-back

The absence of an acknowledgement or a correction following a clearance read-back is perceived by most flight crews as an implicit confirmation of the read-back. The absence of acknowledgement by the controller is usually the result of frequency congestion and the need for the controller to issue clearances to several aircraft in succession.

Expectations

The bias of expectation of clearance in understanding a communication can affect pilots and controllers. The bias of expectation can lead to:

  • Transposing the numbers contained in a clearance (e.g. a flight level) to what was expected, based on experience or routine; and,
  • Shifting a clearance or instruction from one parameter to another (e.g. perceiving a clearance to maintain a 280 degree heading as a clearance to climb/descend and maintain flight level 280).

Failure to request confirmation or clarification

Misunderstandings may include half-heard words or guessed-at numbers. The potential for misunderstanding numbers increases when an ATC clearance contains more than two instructions.

Reluctance to seek confirmation may cause pilots to:

  • Accept an inadequate instruction (over-reliance on ATC); or,
  • Determine for themselves the most probable interpretation.

Failing to request clarification may cause flight crew to believe erroneously that they have received an expected clearance (e.g. clearance to climb to a requested level).

Failure to question instructions

Failing to question an instruction can cause a crew to accept an altitude clearance below the minimum safe altitude or a heading that places the aircraft on collision course with another.

Solution

Pilots must read back the safety related part of all communications.

ATCOs must listen carefully to the read-back and correct any factual error or any apparent misunderstanding.

If there is any doubt in the minds of flight crew as to the precise content of a clearance, or there is any doubt about how to comply (for example the identity or location of a waypoint) then they should request a repeat of either the clearance or a specific part of it that was not understood by the request 'Say again'.

Accidents and Incidents

The following events include the missing of an incorrect read back as a factor:

  • MD82 / C441, Lambert-St Louis MI USA, 1994 (On 22 November 1994 a McDonnell Douglas MD 82 flight crew taking off from Lambert- St. Louis at night in excellent visibility suddenly became aware of a stationary Cessna 441 on the runway ahead and was unable to avoid a high speed collision. The collision destroyed the Cessna but allowed the MD82 to be brought to a controlled stop without occupant injury. The Investigation found that the Cessna 441 pilot had mistakenly believed his departure would be from the runway he had recently landed on and had entered that runway without clearance whilst still on GND frequency.)
  • A320, vicinity Oslo Norway, 2008 (On 19 December 2008, an Aeroflot Airbus A320 descended significantly below its cleared and acknowledged altitude after the crew lost situational awareness at night whilst attempting to establish on the ILS at Oslo from an extreme intercept track after a late runway change and an unchallenged incorrect readback. The Investigation concluded that the response to the EGPWS warning which resulted had been “late and slow” but that the risk of CFIT was “present but not imminent”. The context for the event was considered to have been poor communications between ATC and the aircraft in respect of changes of landing runway.)
  • B742 / A320, Frankfurt Germany, 2006 (On 12 January 2006, an Air China Boeing 747-200 which had just landed at Frankfurt failed to correctly understand and read back its taxi in clearance and the incorrect readback was not detected by the controller. The 747 then crossed another runway at night and in normal visibility whilst an A320 was landing on it. The A320 responded by increased braking and there was consequently no actual risk of collision. The controller had not noticed the incursion and, in accordance with instructions, all stop bars were unlit and the RIMCAS had been officially disabled due to too many nuisance activations.)
  • B77W, en-route, northeast of Los Angeles USA, 2016 (On 16 December 2016, a Boeing 777-300 which had just departed from runway 07R at Los Angeles was radar vectored in Class ‘B’ airspace at up to 1600 feet below the applicable minimum radar vectoring altitude. The Investigation found that the area controller’s initial vectoring had been contrary to applicable procedures and their communication confusing and that they had failed to recover the situation before it became dangerous. As a result, as the crew were responding in night IMC to a resulting EGPWS ‘PULL UP’ Warning, the aircraft had passed within approximately 0.3 nm of obstructions at the same altitude.)
  • A320 / F50, Adelaide Australia, 2016 (On 17 August 2016, a Fokker F50 crossed an active runway at Adelaide ahead of an A320 which was about to land after both its pilots and the controller involved had made assumptions about the content of radio transmissions they were aware they had not fully heard. The Investigation found that the A320 crew had responded promptly to the potential conflict by initiating a low go around over the other aircraft and noted that stop bars were not installed at Adelaide. In addition, aircraft taxiing across active runways were not required to obtain their crossing clearances on the runway control frequency.)

Related Articles

Further Reading

AGC Safety Letters:

EUROCONTROL Action Plan for Air-Ground Communications Safety: