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Podcast Episode 011: Air Traffic Controller Adam Purcell highlights the importance of listening completely and deliberately to silence during the dialogue

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It is so important to be able to focus when listening for an extended time. Adam Purcell shares his unique perspective on this as an air traffic controller. He also shares how his career path was discovered through a World War II log book, and how it changed the entire course of his life.

Adam Purcell is an enroute air traffic controller in the Melbourne Air Traffic Services Centre. The aviation bug bit at a young age, while Adam was growing up in the NSW Southern Highlands. He Learned to fly shortly after finishing high school and holds a Bachelor of Aviation from the University of New South Wales, and he worked in airline operations in Sydney before moving into air traffic control.

A qualified controller for five years, he has recently returned to operational work after completing an 18-month secondment as an instructor, teaching ab-initio trainees at the Air Traffic Control training facility in Melbourne. Outside of work, Adam has a keen interest in WWII Air Force history, and he has interviewed many veterans of the strategic night bombing campaign for a UK-based archive. He is also a keen photographer.

Tune in to learn

  • What a day in the life of an air traffic controller is like.
  • The importance of the read back and actively listening.
  • Overcoming internal and external distractions.
  • Keeping instructions straight forward and slowing down with International pilots.
  • How old memories can spark a tangent and those are the stories that trigger another story.
  • The importance of longer pauses and asking fewer questions to get more out of an interview.
  • The role of silence can be awkward, but it is also an important interview element.
  • Being aware of your audience when you look at them and how visual cues may not mean what you first think they mean.
  • How recall takes time.
  • The lost listener who moves on during the read backs and not monitoring what he is hearing.
  • How there are consequences of not listening for air traffic controllers and the pilots and planes.
  • The power of high standards for listening.

Transcript

Podcast 011: Deep Listening with Adam Purcell 

Oscar Trimboli: 

Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words.

Adam Purcell: 

I’ve recently finished as a convert as an air traffic control instructor, so I’ve spent about 18 months working in the simulator there and the lost listener comes to mind in that context.

I had a student once who I’d noticed, a tendency to move on while read backs were in progress, without actually listening to it properly. It’s very obvious as an instructor because the cursor on the screen goes off, and that’s where his mind’s going, and so you see him looking at other aircraft and not actually monitoring what he’s hearing, so I thought I’d go and lay traps for him.

Oscar Trimboli:                

Welcome to Deep Listening Impact, Beyond Words! Today I’m joined by Adam, an air traffic controller who’s going to bring us an extraordinary perspective on how to focus while listening for extended periods of time, during the interview it takes an interesting twist because his path to air traffic control was discovered through a World War II log book.

Listen out for how that changes the entire course of Adam’s life.

Oscar Trimboli:

Let’s help the audience understand a day in the life of an air traffic controller. Most of us have no idea where you sit, what you’re looking at. We have the movie based version of what an air traffic controller is but I’d love you to paint a picture of what the reality of an air traffic controller is, Adam.

Adam Purcell: 

I work on the en route air traffic control centre at Tullamarine airport. The ops room is a fairly large room. There’s at a rough guess, something like 50 consoles there, and they’re not always all occupied but when they are all occupied, it can be quite noisy. They’re physically aligned in rows; there’s three aisles of two rows, each facing each other, large quite imposing consoles with two screens each and there’s a keyboard and a mouse, and the important button that you press to make the radio work. A big overhead maps and all that sort of thing. It’s certainly not as dark and as dingy and with flashing green lights and things that you might see in the movies, it’s a reasonably well-lit room. We’re basically just sitting at a whole bunch of computers, wearing headsets and talking to airplanes.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What’s going through your mind that makes it a great shift and means you’re listening really intently to all the situations?

Adam Purcell: 

When it’s really flowing, when you’re in that zone and when all the other listeners who take part in a typical sort of day of operations are also listening, there’s very little repetition that you need to do of issuing instructions a second time because someone missed them or having to say to someone, “Say again,” because you missed them yourself. It flows and you save a lot of time because you don’t have to spend twice as long doing things again and waiting for them to be heard and waiting for them to be properly read back and all of that sort of stuff.

Listening works, it must work because you come out feeling, “Yeah that worked really well, that shift went well, I handled all the problems that came up really well, or just everything flowed and everything worked and I didn’t have to really intervene much.”

Oscar Trimboli: 

Yeah. When you’re in a room, you’ve got many people speaking at the same time and you’ve probably got really high quality headphones on, but there’ll be moments where you’re distracted to you’re drifting off and your concentration is tested. How do you come back and stay focused in what you need to do?

Adam Purcell: 

The concept of the read back is quite critical in terms of air traffic control because most of the instructions that we issue is via voice or via VHF Radio, and so we need to confirm that the aircraft that we’ve given the instruction to has actually received that instruction, and so the way they do that is, that there’s defined things that they need to read back. We need to actively listen to that read back and compare what we’re hearing with what we’re seeing to make sure that it all matches, which means that I know that the clearance or whatever the instruction, whatever it is that I have issued, I’ve also entered into the system and then the aircraft has read it back and I’ve compared what I’ve entered into the system with what is read back.

That is a very deliberate process, and that’s probably the best way to catch up if you realise, “Hang on, I’m not quite sure that he said what I think he said,” or, “I’m not quite sure that he said what he was supposed to say,” there’s this nagging feeling that something’s not quite right here and the way you get it back is checking again, asking that aircraft, just confirm that clearance and you go and listen to it and compare what you’re hearing with what you’re seeing. I suppose if you do that often enough, you will get the picture back. There can be a lot of distraction in the room; there can be a lot of noise around, particularly when it’s a busy shift and everybody’s working around you as well and lots of yelling going on and all of that sort of stuff.

The headsets are reasonable but they all push their headset against their ears so you can hear it better trick is a common one depending on how much outside noise is going on but there’s also a potential for distraction inside, within my own little world on the air space that I’m working. There can be other tasks that distract from what I’m doing and there can be other… I’m trying to catch up so I’m sort of hurrying and I skip on mentally to the next task without actually listening to that read back, and I have to go back and say, “Hang on a minute, I wasn’t actually listening to that, so just say that again Stan because I didn’t hear it.” That will happen because we’re all human and we can get distracted by external things but also by internal processes as well.

Oscar Trimboli: 

I’m curious about the role of accents and I’m assuming you’re dealing with quite an international set of voices that you’re listening to in your role and how differently or how intently do you need to listen when the accent’s not something that’s familiar to you?

Adam Purcell: 

Very strongly. The international language of aviation is English, which means as a native speaker I have some sort of an advantage in that sense, but it can be a disadvantage as well because if I’m feeling a bit stressed I might be talking 90 to the dozen, and that can be a problem for international crews in particular. We have the added complication that some radios are better quality than others, and so if you add interference in the actual signal along with the words to start off, if you weren’t very distinct, you can sometimes have a bit of trouble understanding what was said. I guess one way of coping is to give that airplane lots of space because you’re not sure quite exactly what he’s going to do, but yeah, there’s more say against to international aircrafts.

Sometimes I’m not quite sure what he said and you try to keep your instructions a little bit more straightforward I suppose. You don’t try anything odd with them because you’re not quite sure that you’re going to get the message across, so you keep things nice and straightforward and nice and simple and so to move everyone else out of the way instead in preference. Certainly, when talking to international aircraft, I consciously slow down my speech I won’t group call sign numbers; for example, I’ll pronounce the individual numbers, just to make it easier for that aircraft or that pilot to hear and to understand what I’m trying to tell them.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What brought you all the way to Melbourne to become an air traffic controller?

Adam Purcell: 

It’s a bit of a long story as usual. I grew up in New South Wales, Southern Highlands in little town called Hill Top. I have two sisters, one older, one younger so as far as listening is concerned, I never really stood a chance, but my mother was a primary school teacher, and she actually took my class once or twice as a fill in at Hill Top Primary. My dad, he’s just retired as a history teacher, at that point he was at Picton High. Dad showed me when I was eight or nine years old, the war torn log book of a relative of ours who was killed flying Lancaster Bombers in World War II, and that inspired in me an aviation interest, the bug bit at that earlier age, it never really let go.

Oscar Trimboli: 

You mentioned that your father had shown you some logbooks from a Lancaster flight in World War II, and that set you on the path towards where you are today in air traffic control, but it also set you on a path of collecting oral histories on behalf of Bomber Control, and that taught you something completely different about listening.

 

Adam Purcell: 

I was interviewing Bomber Command veterans, so a veteran air crew and at least one member of ground crew as well. When you’re dealing with some quite old memories, the youngest person I interviewed was about 91 and the oldest was 101, it takes a while for memories to come forth. The part of the joy of oral history is that you’re never quite sure where the memories are going to go, and as you bring up memories, it sort of elicits further memories as you go deeper into the mind, and in a way these tangents that you might fly off on, that’s where the real interesting stuff is because from an interviewed point of view, it’s unfiltered because people aren’t necessarily expecting and preparing to go down that path beforehand.

There are some interesting things that you need to bear in mind when you’re dealing particularly with older memories. One of the things about oral history is that as someone tells a story, that story in itself tends to trigger further memories that are a lot deeper, and then that memory triggers another memory that’s deeper again in the mind, that they probably haven’t thought about for 50 or 60 years, That’s the time when you get the really good stories because they’re sort of unfiltered, they haven’t thought about these before. They’ve got to the interview and it just comes out, and that’s always really valuable, but one of the things when you’re dealing with older interviewees is that their mind works even slower again.

I was interviewing one person only fairly recently and every time I asked a question, I’d get a fairly short answer and then they would pause and they would look at me directly and it seemed quite like they were expecting the next question, so I’d ask the next question; off we’d go again. After a little while, I realised and I think it was because I started talking at the same time, that they suddenly started talking again and then I realised, actually, they’ve got more to say here, it’s just taking a little while longer to come out, so I stopped asking questions. I left a longer pause and funnily enough, the interview started flowing a lot nicer after that. It just kind of kept going and I had to ask fewer questions, which meant that the interviewer was less where I wanted to go and more of where it went organically, and I think we got a much better interview out of it.

Oscar Trimboli: 

The role of silence if quite powerful. How do you bring silence into other domains? Have you learnt that there are other places you can bring it, because I venture a theory that it had little to do with their age, it just had to do with the fact that you were focused on your next question, and you may have got the same response from a 50 year old as well as 105 year old? What did the role of silence teach you?

Adam Purcell: 

It can be a little bit awkward sometimes when I’m sitting there grinning at someone waiting for them to say the next thing, particularly if they don’t actually have, or they have actually finished and it needs a fairly strong will on the part of the interviewer to go, “No, I think there’ something else here, so I’m just going to shut up and wait.”

Oscar Trimboli: 

What do you think about the roles of ands and mmhs and uhs in that context?

Adam Purcell: 

From the interviewers’ point of view, yes I suppose that it avoids contaminating the thought process with your own words, which sends you down yet another different track but from the point of oral history, we try to keep the recordings as clean as possible. As in, I try not to have my own voice on it too much, so it’s more of nonverbal cues, by nodding and smiling at appropriate moments and things like that. That doesn’t work when your interviewee is blind of course, which the 101 year old was, in which case I had to use the verbal cues but it’s a useful technique.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Terrific! I’m glad you had the opportunity to conduct the interviews and grateful that you are collecting that history as well.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What do you think our audience can learn from all those interviews that you’ve done about listening?

Adam Purcell: 

I did one not that long ago, which is actually on a different project, The Irish community in Melbourne, there’s a group called Coulters, who are set up to look at culture and the Irish dance, the music and all of that sort of stuff, and I’ve just started the project, again, an oral history project with them and I was interviewing someone, she’s about 88 and she’s very much a stalwart of the community around here. It was a little bit strange when we first started because her responses at first were quite short and then they were long pauses and I thought she’d finished because she’d sort of finished talking and look at me, and then so I’d ask my next question, but then I realised that it was actually she was finishing looking at me and then about five seconds later she’d start again.

Once I figured that out, I asked less questions and funnily enough the interview flowed a lot more and it just sort of all just came out from that. I guess being aware of your audience when you’re looking at them, if it’s a face to face interview type of thing, sometimes the visual cues that you get aren’t necessarily the visual cues you think you’re getting, if that kind of makes sense.

Oscar Trimboli: 

You beautifully highlighted the 125-400 rule. We speak at 125 words a minute, yet we can think it up to 400 and beyond. Actually, some people can go up to 1250 words per minute, and for somebody who’s recalling history of many decades previous, their ability to recall and express in a language set takes time.

Adam Purcell: 

Yes, certainly does, particularly when you’re dealing with 95 year old memories. I very much had to take that into account as well, plus the memories that I was evoking weren’t always nice ones, being of course of war time things, that’s a slightly different situation but yeah. That was a very interesting experience doing all of those. 

Oscar Trimboli:

If you were to bring that concentration into a personal situation or some other context like interviewing people for historical oral interviews, what would that concentration look like when you’re listening outside of the air traffic control room?

Adam Purcell:

It’s a little bit different because as a controller, I can’t see the person I’m talking to, so I’m staring intently at a screen, that’s very much different as an interviewer, being able to see the person you’re talking to and being able to gauge something of their reaction and even whether they’re finished or not, whether they’re finished talking or something like that, is a lot easier if you can see someone. The sort of concentration that we apply as controllers it was obviously very applied and very technical in the way we do it. It’s a more free flowing world in, let’s call it the real world, and that sort of concentration isn’t, I don’t really think practical because you’ll probably find yourself very tired at the end of the day from doing that sort of mental activity for that long. Yeah, it can be a difficult thing.

I think any air traffic controller will be a good listener while they’re at work but certainly, if talk to my partner, she’ll probably say I’m not so good at home probably because I don’t concentrate as much. The old, “I didn’t quite catch that,” and clarifying something if you realise you don’t understand it, is probably one of the best principles that I can think of. I’m not particularly good at doing that myself unfortunately, but that would be something that I would try to do to improve my own listening.

Oscar Trimboli:

So Adam, in your role as an instructor listening is quite critical for yourself as the instructor but also for the people undergoing simulations and examinations. Have you got any stories about active listening in that context?

Adam Purcell: 

I’ve recently finished as a convert as an air traffic control instructor, so I’ve spent about 18 months working in the simulator there and the lost listener comes to mind in that context.

I had a student once who I’d noticed, a tendency to move on while read backs were in progress, without actually listening to it properly. It’s very obvious as an instructor because the cursor on the screen goes off, and that’s where his mind’s going, and so you see him looking at other aircraft and not actually monitoring what he’s hearing, so I thought I’d go and lay traps for him. I went out to what we call the blipping room, which is where the blipping, or the simulator operators work and said to the person who was working with us, “Can you make your next five read backs incorrect please?” Went back in sat down and so the next five read backs were incorrect, and the student picked up the first one, and he successfully picked up the second one, and he picked up the third one. About this point he realised the reason I’d left the room, turned around to me and with a wink and said, “Aha, I know what you were doing now. Ha-ha that won’t catch me again,” and surprise, proceeded to miss the next two read backs.

When I told him that he’d missed the next two, and subsequent, there is two throughout the rest of the run, he didn’t actually believe me. I had to go and get a recording of the simulator, of the run that we’d done and play it back to him before he realised that actually, he was moving on and the consequences of moving on was that he’d missed those read backs. Although it didn’t happen on that run, there were other occasions where I’d do something similar. I’d tell the blippy to make the aircraft do what it had read back not what it was cleared to do, and the first thing the student knew about it was when the aircraft would leave a level or two, and left instead of right or something like that. “What’s it doing that for?” I’d say, “Well, you told it to,” and again we’d have to go and pull the tapes and actually look at to go, “Oh, it did read it back incorrectly,” and that usually doesn’t end well if that happens in an exam situation. That usually doesn’t end well for the student in terms of furthering their career.

Oscar Trimboli:

Yeah, and this shows the power of having high standards for listening and it’s great to see that that’s applied in the simulations scenarios so that they can be focused and not distracted when it comes to the real world. As someone who spends a lot of time on QF401 from Sydney to Melbourne, first thing at 6 AM, I’m delighted that people like you Adam, and CASA are in charge of the airspace in Australia and makes it one of the safest in the world, thank you.

Adam Purcell: 

Thank you very much.

Delta, Echo, Echo, Papa, Lima, India, Sierra, Tango, Echo, November, India, November, Golf.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What a fascinating interview. I expected Adam to come in and talk about air traffic control and the concentration required but I was delighted to take another flight path and discover that he was an oral historian. His beautiful example of the role of silence in bringing more power and more meaning to a story, and this was a highlight of the podcast for me. Thanks for listening.

Delta, Echo, Echo, Papa, Lima, India, Sierra, Tango, Echo, November, India, November, Golf.

Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words.

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