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Fatal Words

Communication Clashes and Aircraft Crashes

On March 27, 1977, 583 people died when KLM and Pan Am 747s collided on a crowded, foggy runway in Tenerife, the Canary Islands. The cause, a miscommunication between the pilot and the air traffic controller. The pilot radioed, "We are now at takeoff," meaning that the plane was lifting off, but the tower controller misunderstood and thought the plane was waiting on the runway.

In Fatal Words, Steven Cushing explains how miscommunication has led to dozens of aircraft disasters, and he proposes innovative solutions for preventing them. He examines ambiguities in language when aviation jargon and colloquial English are mixed, when a word is used that has different meanings, and when different words are used that sound alike. To remedy these problems, Cushing proposes a visual communication system and a computerized voice mechanism to help clear up confusing language.

Fatal Words is an accessible explanation of some of the most notorious aircraft tragedies of our time, and it will appeal to scholars in communications, linguistics, and cognitive science, to aviation experts, and to general readers.

176 pages | 18 line drawings | 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 | © 1994

Cognitive Science: Language

Rhetoric and Communication

Table of Contents

Introduction: Language and Aviation Safety
Pt. I: Language-Based Communication Problems
1: Problems of Language
2: Problems of Reference
3: Problems of Inference
4: Problems Involving Repetition
Pt. II: Communication Problems Not Based on Language
5: Problems with Numbers
6: Problems with Radios
7: Problems of Compliance
8: General Problems
Pt. III: Potential Solutions
9: Immediate Fixes
10: A Long-Term Solution: An Intelligent Voice Interface for Aviation Communication
11: A Shorter-Term Solution: An Error-Resistant Visual Interface for Aviation Communication
Appendix: The Aviation Interface Research (AIR) System: Technical Description
Glossary: Standard Contractions Used in the Examples
Index of Subjects
Index of Problematic Phrases

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