By Howard Deevers
Anyone with a pilot’s license in the U. S. knows that English is the established language for aviation. Since 2008, all pilots’ licenses issued have a statement on them: “English Proficient.” English, as the official language of aviation, was established in 1944 at a Convention in Chicago, in an effort to standardize aviation in many ways. Why English?
At the time of the Convention, English speaking countries dominated the construction and certification of aircraft, and at the end of WWII, English was becoming a second language for many more countries around the world. Another thing is that English allows for easy standard communications in most of the scientific disciplines.
The ICAO standard was established for safety and ease of communications between Air Traffic Controllers and Pilots. After all, this communication is over radio, and we can’t see each other. If you have worked to get a Pilot’s license or Instrument Rating, you already know how formal the communications between pilot and controller are; most of the time.
English is a fairly new language in the history of civilization, with the origin going back only about 1400 years. If you have ever tried to read something in “Old English” you already know how much different the language is today. Many of us have studied the works of William Shakespeare who wrote in the late fifteen hundreds. His works are considered to be the beginning of “Modern English.” The language is still evolving.
In the 1956 Science Fiction movie “Forbidden Planet” the space travelers are greeted by Robby the Robot in English. The robot says that he is fluent in 187 other languages, but the captain said that “colloquial English” would be fine. That was the first time I had ever heard that expression “colloquial English.” I had to look it up when I got home. The short definition is “familiar and informal conversation.”
Many English words have roots in Latin, and other languages, most notable the Anglo-Saxon, and it continues to import words even today. Accents are different in different parts of the U S and the British, Canadian, and Australian accents are quite noticeable, but regardless of accents, we understand each other just fine. When English is a second language, you can detect very distinct accents on the radio. The result is a variety of communications, all in English, and intended to promote standardization and safety. Is there room for confusion? Sure.
On very busy times and days, it may be difficult to even make a request on the radio. The controllers are listening to many requests, with many accents and are trying to perform the best they can. If you get an instruction from ATC and don’t understand it, ask for it to be repeated. This may take more time, but can be a critical issue when flying IFR.
There are many fixes on Sectional and IFR charts that are 5 letters used to identify the fix. Some of the fixes can be pronounced easily, others, not so much. In those cases, the controllers will have to spell the name of the fix with the phonetic alphabet. This may take some time but may be the only way to actually let the pilot know what fix you are to fly to.
The most structured language you will hear on the radios is from ATC. Controllers are schooled in the language to use in almost all situations, and they are tested as well. Pilots learn the language of aviation as they are training for a rating. After getting that rating, they may adopt their “own style” of communicating.
The AIM (Aeronautical Information Manual) contains a complete Pilot/Controller Glossary. It is about 75 pages long and runs through the entire alphabet. In the introduction it says: “use of the Glossary will preclude any misunderstandings concerning the (National Airspace) system’s design, function, and purpose.” You don’t have to memorize every paragraph in the Glossary, but just reading through it will increase your communication skills, and your Controllers will appreciate that more than you will know.
Even Controllers can get relaxed and less formal, when they are not too busy, and traffic permits, such as mid-night or after mid-night when there is much less traffic. On a flight returning to Pittsburgh from Oshkosh several years ago, I was the pilot flying at about mid-night, crossing Ohio. We had stopped for fuel in Toledo. Getting flight following from Cleveland Center it was very quiet until I heard a Delta flight departing from Cleveland Airport sign in with the Center. The Center controller acknowledged the flight, then said: “When you are ready, I have a story to tell you.” That got my attention, and I wanted to listen in on the “story.” The Delta flight responded: “Go ahead.” Actually it was not a story, joke, or pun. It was a simple route change for the flight, but since they were relaxed and not so busy, the Controller and Pilot were able to be less formal.
“The Glossary will be revised, as necessary, to maintain a common understanding of the system.” With the evolution of English, we can expect changes from time to time, and it would be a good idea to refer to the Glossary at least once a year.
If you would like to attend a safety seminar “in Colloquial English” check out the ARIZONA PILOTS ASSOCIATION Web site for a location near you. Seminars, in association with the FAASTeam are free, and presented every month. Attendance counts toward your “WINGS” Awards as well. And don’t forget to Bring Your Wingman.