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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:

  • B738/A319 en-route, south east of Zurich Switzerland, 2013 (On 12 April 2013, a Ryanair Boeing 737-800 took a climb clearance intended for another Ryanair aircraft on the same frequency. The aircraft for which the clearance was intended did not respond and the controller did not notice that the clearance readback had come from a different aircraft. Once the wrong aircraft began to climb, from FL360 to FL380, a TCAS RA to descend occurred due to traffic just transferred to a different frequency and at FL370. That traffic received a TCAS RA to climb. STCA was activated at the ATS Unit controlling both Ryanair aircraft.)
  • C525 / B773, vicinity London City UK, 2009 (On 27 July 2009, a Cessna 525 departing from London City failed to comply with the initial 3000 feet QNH SID Stop altitude and at 4000 feet QNH in day VMC came into close proximity on an almost reciprocal heading with a Boeing 777-300ER. The 777, on which line training was being conducted, failed to follow any of the three TCAS RAs generated. Actual minimum separation was approximately 0.5nm laterally and estimated at between 100 feet and 200 feet vertically. It was noted that the Cessna had been given a stepped climb SID.)
  • A319 / A320, Naha Okinawa Japan, 2012 (On 5 July 2012, an Airbus A319 entered its departure runway at Naha without clearance ahead of an A320 already cleared to land on the same runway. The A320 was sent around. The Investigation concluded that the A319 crew - three pilots including one with sole responsibility for radio communications and a commander supervising a trainee Captain occupying the left seat - had misunderstood their clearance and their incorrect readback had not been detected by the TWR controller. It was concluded that the controller's non-use of a headset had contributed to failure to detect the incorrect readback.)
  • 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 Birmingham UK, 2019 (On 26 August 2019, an Airbus A320 attempted two autopilot-engaged non-precision approaches at Birmingham in good weather before a third one was successful. Both were commenced late and continued when unstable prior to eventual go-arounds, for one of which the aircraft was mis-configured causing an ‘Alpha Floor’ protection activation. A third non-precision approach was then completed without further event. The Investigation noted an almost identical event involving the same operator four months later, observing that all three discontinued approaches appeared to have originated in confusion arising from a slight difference between the procedures of the aircraft operator and AIP plates.)

Related Articles

Further Reading

AGC Safety Letters:

EUROCONTROL Action Plan for Air-Ground Communications Safety: