By James Morrison, CPT

Aviators are deservedly proud of achieving the “sterile cockpit” operational standard in which air crews refrain from nonessential activities during critical flight maneuvers and below 10,000 feet. Prior to the FAA’s sterile cockpit mandate in 1981, there had been several major aircraft accidents attributed to lack of operational focus and idle chatter among flight crew members. However, this concept–professional focus during safety-critical maneuvers–goes back much further than the aviation rule.

Although the U.S. Navy published its Manual of Commands and Orders in 1945 to standardize helm commands and reduce mistakes resulting from misinterpretation, the phrase, “Quiet on the bridge for the navigation detail.” is much older. My experience in this regard comes from service in the U.S. Coast Guard, founded in 1790 and the world’s fifth largest navy.


Clear and precise communication between the helmsman and the deck watch officer (DWO) is essential to safe navigation and ship handling. A set of standard helm commands, responses by the helmsman, and acknowledgment by the DWO are widely recognized in the maritime industry. The helmsman repeats any verbal commands exactly as heard to demonstrate that the command is heard and understood, and the DWO acknowledges the response for correctness. For example:

DWO: “Helmsman, mark your head.” (What’s the ship’s compass heading?)

Helmsman: “Mark 090.” (The ship is now on course 090, due east.)

DWO: “Helmsman, come right handsomely to 135.” (Turn right slowly to course 135, southeast.)

Helmsman: “130 aye.” (Command acknowledged and turn initiated.)

DWO: “Very well.” (Response acknowledged.)

Helmsman: “Passing 100…Passing 110…Passing 120…Passing 130…” (Indicating rate of change.)

Helmsman: “Steady 135.” (Heading is now 135.)

DWO: “Very well, keep her so.” (Course change acknowledged, maintain course 135.)

Those who work in reliability (the science of ensuring the right thing is accomplished, consistently, over time, no matter who the players are) call this “three-way communications.”

The sender passes the information, the receiver repeats it back verbatim, and the sender acknowledges by saying, “That’s correct.” The sender should use, “That’s correct” instead of “That’s right,” because “right” is also an indication of direction. In a narrow channel, such confusion can lead to a collision between ships and can cost lives.

Another error prevention tool in common use aboard ships is “numeric clarification.” The words “fifteen” and “fifty” sound alike and can lead to confusion. Instead, experienced hands say “one five” and “five zero.” Ordering a course of “one fifty” is unacceptable; “one five zero” is the standard. If there is any question, the number can be repeated with, “150–that’s one five zero.”

Captain Hopley Yeaton, the first officer to take command of a U.S. Revenue Cutter, knew all about three-way communications and numeric clarification in 1791. He learned the tools from the likes of Captains Nicholas Biddle, Abraham Whipple, and John Paul Jones during service in the Continental Navy. These error prevention tools and the concept of “quiet on the bridge” likely go back to the 1600s.


A more recent error prevention tool is “phonetic clarification,” which came shortly after the advent of radio communications. Of the 26 letters in the alphabet, nine of them rhyme (B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V, and Z), and a couple of others (M and N) sound similar. The NATO Alphabet, the most widely used, assigned code words to the letters of the English alphabet so that critical combinations of letters and numbers can be pronounced and understood by those who transmit and receive voice messages regardless of their native language. Developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization in the 1950s, the choice of code words for the letters of the alphabet was made after thousands of comprehension tests involving 31 nationalities. Any prior military personnel in your organization will tell you that it only takes a couple of times though the alphabet to learn it. Here is a link to a good historical site: The letters of the phonetic alphabet all have distinctive sounds and none of them rhyme. If there is any question with a communication, the letter or letters can be repeated with, “That’s ISPI, as in INDIA SIERRA PAPA INDIA.”

Another error prevention tool known to every professional mariner and well worth mentioning is “stop when unsure.” Part of a questioning attitude, “stop when unsure” keeps people out of the dangerous “figuring it out mode.” Everyone in the organization should know that it is okay not to know the answer but it is totally unacceptable not to ask for clarification or guidance. If the task is out of process (not the way we do business), out of procedure (departing from the accepted methodology), out of parameters (responses are not as expected), or out of people (it is a three-person job and there are only two of us), stop rather than trying to work it out.

So what? What can the “C-Suite” and human performance practitioners learn from common sailors? Setting the right course–communicating the organization’s core values and mission–is not enough. We must stay constantly engaged and effectively communicate with those who are actually doing the work and executing the culture change, ideally using communications tools that minimize confusion and errors.

Questions to consider:

  1. Having set the right direction (aligning processes with core values and missions), what are we as leaders doing to confirm that we are still on course?
  1. If your key performance indicators provide your navigation, how effectively are they tracking the rate of change?
  1. Are there organizational situations where error prevention tools like three-way communication, numeric clarification, phonetic clarification, and stop when unsure might be good practice?

MorrisonJAbout the Author
James Morrison, CPT is an internationally respected practitioner of Human Performance Technology and accomplishment-based instructional design. He is a results-oriented professional with proven training, performance consulting, operations, acquisition, and program management expertise across increasingly complex projects.