Don't be Afraid to Use Your CUS Words to Stay Safe
On a recent training flight, I was reminded of the importance of using CUS words. No, I’m not talking about using vulgarity – I am referring to the three CUS words used to ensure safe operations in a multicrew environment. Those words are concerned, uncomfortable, safety.
The first threat level and corresponding CUS word is concerned, as in, “I am concerned with our approach speed.” Using this word does a couple of things, not the least of which is putting your copilot on notice that something may not be going according to plan. In this example about speed, mentioning that you are concerned gives the other pilot a gentle reminder to check some parameter that may be outside of the desired flight profile.
This level can also be used if the planned route of flight would take the aircraft toward marginal conditions that can be avoided. Another example might be that both pilots are not spending enough time looking for traffic when operating in visual conditions. When a pilot notices this, a simple, “I’m concerned about traffic in the area, how about I handle the flight computer while you scan for traffic.”
This second level word shows an elevated risk level has been identified that should be corrected or mitigated to avoid an unsafe condition. An example of this might be the flight approaching the landing area where the crosswind component exceeds the personal limitations of the pilot flying; perhaps he is new to the aircraft type or unfamiliar with the local area.
The pilot flying can say, “Based on the wind conditions, I’m uncomfortable taking this landing. Would you take this one or follow me through on the controls?” Of course, in a single-pilot operation, one can recognize when they feel uncomfortable and can then make the decision to divert or wait until conditions at the field improve.
This is the highest level of threat and is reserved for times when one pilot believes that continuing the flight unchanged can lead to a violation or mishap. An example of this could be low-level aerobatics or flying through clouds when the aircraft is not equipped for instrument flight.
In a powered airplane, the scenario may involve trying to force the airplane onto the ground with little usable runway remaining. The objection may go something like this, “Go around! This is not safe.”
As you can see, the CUS words act to trigger a response and to alert the other pilot that something isn’t right. Regardless of what words are used, the system requires open communication and trust between the pilots operating the aircraft. Both pilots, irrespective of experience, should be open to accepting critiques that enhance safety. Depending on the phase of flight, a more detailed discussion of the event may have to wait until after landing, when a proper debrief can be accomplished.
That brings me to an event that occurred during a recent training flight with a new (to me) instructor. My instructor and I were on the ground in a glider. The landing and departure configuration was takeoff North, land South. In other words, takeoffs are performed towards the landing traffic. We had just connected to the tow plane, which was in position ahead of us with engine running, awaiting our signal that we were ready to launch. One glider was on a midfield downwind, the other glider was entering a 45-degree entry to downwind.
As I completed the predeparture checklist, the first glider landed and there was a moment of apparent confusion between the second landing glider, our tow pilot, and my instructor. I made a radio call that we would wait for landing traffic. My instructor asked if I was ready to go. I said, “I don’t want to expedite.” For one reason or another, my instructor said, “Let’s go.” Despite my feelings against rushing, I didn’t take the opportunity to restate my desire to hold position.
As this was happening, the glider on downwind had heard our call that we would wait for them to land. Trying to be a team player, the landing glider began an early turn to base just as my instructor and I gave the signal to our tow pilot to start our takeoff roll. By turning base early, the landing glider was trying to minimize the time we had to wait on the ground. Our glider rolled down the runway and lifted into ground effect. Out of the corner of my eye to the right, I saw the landing glider now on base turning final. The tow plane lifted off and we began our climbing turn to the left away from the airfield.
This turned out to be a non-event but was a great example of how rushing our departure led to reduced safety margins for our glider, the tow plane, and the landing glider. In total, there were five pilots affected by the decision to rush our launch. Being a rated power pilot, I felt that I should have spoken up more forcefully to my instructor to voice that I was both concerned and uncomfortable with expediting the departure. I second guessed myself because I was still learning in gliders and the gliderport was not my home base. In short, I deferred to authority.
After an otherwise uneventful flight, my instructor and I debriefed the departure sequence and talked about how our decisions, the decisions of the pilots in the second landing glider, and the dynamic environment led to our reduction in safety margins. It was decided that when the time was right, we would approach the pilots in the other glider and bring them in on the debrief as well.
When we entered the office of the instructor who was flying the second landing glider, he was discussing the flight with his student who had been aboard during the “miscommunication.” The instructor has many years of experience and was quite capable of handling the event. His experience and wisdom were readily apparent when he opened his mouth to respond to my instructor’s mea culpa.
“It turned out to be a great learning experience for us all,” He said. “That’s why I never like to rush a takeoff. Who among us has rushed a launch only to find that we have missed something important on the checklist, like latching a canopy or powering on the avionics?”
I kept silent and allowed the dialogue to continue between the two instructors. My instructor and I both knew that I had objected to the departure but I also knew that nothing would be gained by me throwing him under the bus by saying, “I told you so!” When he was comfortable, my instructor did mention to the group that I had opposed us expediting.
If something doesn’t feel right, if your gut is telling you that something is missing, listen to that quiet voice inside your head. No matter if you are flying alone or with a copilot, instructor, or friend, establishing an open dialogue regarding the safety of flight is an important aspect that should not be overlooked in the predeparture briefing of each flight. The relatively new relationship between me and the instructor, the local procedures, and several other factors contributed to a very dynamic flight environment – so much happened so quickly.
Don’t rush. Few things are so important that choosing to rush is worth the risk you take if something goes wrong. There is a saying that goes something like this: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Take your time to do things safely.
Lastly, remember to use your CUS words if the situation requires it. Consider the consequences of sitting silently as the flight continues toward a hazardous condition. If your copilot, instructor, or friend has an ego so fragile that they can’t accept your suggestions on safety, maybe you should reconsider getting into the cockpit with them.