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Errors and Omissions - What's in Your Documents?

Publications, yes, that's the topic for this week. I know it's not controversial or leading edge, and that's why it's worth discussing. The lack of attention to publications causes them to become less helpful and more of a hindrance to learning.

The first question you should ask if you are a leader in aviation is, "Has anyone done an audit of the publications we use?" That's right, an audit to look for content that is not accurate or written inadequately for your employees and operators.

I know of some "leaders" who ignore this straightforward but time-consuming step in hopes that nothing bad will happen because of any misinformation or misunderstanding. They instead rely on subordinates, manufacturers and the regulators to correct any errors they see. They expect that if anything happens then, the liability falls on the manufacturer or at least someone else. But what about those involved in the accident or incident? Don't leaders have an obligation to do whatever they can to reduce the risk of something going wrong during the operation of their aircraft?

Errors and omissions happen in the writing, translation and publication of operating manuals. A prime example is the first A320 manuals produced in the late '80s and early '90s. Those of us English speakers who flew the A320 back then remember the challenges in understanding all four volumes of the Airbus FCOM.

When Airbus developed the A320, it contracted manufacturers from all over the world to supply parts. These parts came from countries whose primary language was not French or English. Airbus, whose primary working language was French, translated all documents into French to understand them. When Airbus completed the operating and maintenance manuals in French, they were then translated into English. Sometimes this was done under contract from Airbus, and sometimes it was done by the customer airline.

Every time language is translated, the outcome depends on the ability of the translator to use the correct vocabulary and phrasing to make it understandable to the reader. While Airbus did their best in a challenging situation, their original English manuals for the A320 were difficult to understand.

The content caused confusion and numerous questions from those operating and instructing on the aircraft. The term "Fringlish" was coined to explain why particular words and phrases were used in the manuals. I don't know that any errors or omissions caused any severe damage, but I remember having many serious discussions about some of the content's meaning.

The importance of auditing manuals and courseware hit home with me when I became responsible for training at China Southern Airlines Zhuhai Flight Training Center. The problem became even more acute when I began working for COMAC.

At China Southern, they had many people who take aircraft manuals provided by the aircraft manufacturers in English and translate them into Chinese. So when we added new courseware, instead of using the group that did the manuals, we used a local group to translate the courseware from English to Chinese. We then had our instructors audit the text to make sure it was accurate. After many hours of editing, the courseware was ready.

After we launched the new courseware, we started getting complaints from customers about the Chinese content. They complained that they didn't understand the content in some of the modules. As an English speaker and new to the Chinese language, these complaints baffled me.

After several discussions with my staff, I discovered the characters used by China Southern for certain aviation-specific words were different from what our other Chinese customers use in their manuals. Consequently, they were having difficulty understanding what was taught. Our staff then had to develop a method of teaching the characters used by China Southern to our customers to understand the content better.

When I joined COMAC, the reverse situation presented itself. Here the documents were all being written in Chinese. Supplier documents were translated from English to Chinese so the engineers could understand them better. The engineers then wrote the content for the operations and maintenance manuals in Chinese. The manuals were then translated back into English by translators, but most had little aviation background.

The resulting text was challenging to read, let alone understand. The writers and translators lack standards in all its required forms. This doesn't mean they didn't have standards defined. They did. There was, and likely still is, a Standards Manual for technical writing sitting on each of their shelves, but they never looked at it.

The challenge when translating Chinese to English is different than the reverse. English has several words with a similar meaning, but depending on how they are combined, the meaning will change. So when you take a Chinese phrase, idea, concept and translate it into English, the translator has a choice. Add to this a translators imperfect understanding of English grammar, a lack of knowledge of the topic, and a culture that inhibits you from asking questions that might reveal you are less than knowledgeable; you get a perfect storm of errors and omissions.

I know there are hard-working and well-meaning people at COMAC tasked with correcting these issues. I hope they achieve their goal of producing safe, functional publications.

The lesson here is that no publication is perfect. Regardless of its origin or how it is developed, reference documents need to be audited by the user. Auditing operational publications should be part of the Quality Management and Safety Management Systems mandate.

If possible, operations publications should be written in ASD-STE 100 Simplified Technical English so that regardless of who reads them, they are understandable. Documents need to have proper standards developed and maintained across each related department. And content needs to be validated rigorously, particularly if you know that it was produced in a different language somewhere in its development.

Everyone makes mistakes. As a leader, you need to be responsible for the content of all the documents your staff use. You don't want errors and omissions in your documents to cost lives on your watch.

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