Aviation English: Challenges & Difficulties in the Coming Decade


I’ve shared this story before: When I was a Combat Search and Rescue pilot for the US Air Force, we were directed to move the squadron from southern Iraq to East Africa to support operations in the War against Terror. It was February 2004 and I was piloting an HC-130 southbound over the Red Sea having just flown across the land mass of Saudi Arabia. Enroute to Djibouti Air Base at Flight Level 270, I switched our communications frequency from Jeddah Center to Djibouti Approach.

“Djibouti Approach, this is Fever 34, Flight Level 270, north of you. About 30 minutes out. Request airport information.” Djibouti was not broadcasting Aerodrome Terminal Information Service (ATIS) at the time. The response from Djibouti Approach gave us a clue to the communication breakdown that would continue for the remainder of the flight. “Bonjour, Fevah! Land!” Did that mean “Cleared to land?” The entire crew was perplexed. We were over 100 miles away! And we did not yet have the landing runway information or area traffic.

No one on our crew spoke French, and the Djiboutian controllers didn’t speak English. I recall that on our final approach, the Djiboutians had managed to find a US Marine who spoke French and they tried to use him as a translator. This accomplished little however, because aviation operations was not part of his skillset. Thanks to our skilled navigator and good weather conditions, we landed in Djibouti without incident.

The importance of English for Aviation was impressed upon me. I learned about the worst ground accident in the history of Aviation. Teneriffe, 1977. 583 people lost their lives because of misunderstood English between a pilot and controller. There have been a handful of others since then.

We cannot tolerate the language gap excuse for lost lives. When it comes to English proficiency, the regulatory guidance is relatively new and misunderstood. It’s also misapplied, and not well enforced. We’re trying, but we’re not there yet. While the ICAO Language Proficiency scale and the level 4 standard developed in 2003 represents progress, there is more to be done.

Many airlines or operational entities believe they’ve solved the issue of competency in Aviation English, because they hire only pilots who test at ICAO English level 5 or above. While this practice is smart, it doesn’t mitigate the pilot’s responsibility nor the airline’s responsibility to ensure they remain operationally proficient in English, as with any other maneuver they must remain proficient at.

Many of my colleagues fear that it will take another serious disaster and loss of lives to bring about a more serious approach to this issue. Stricter regulations and enforced compliance will then be imposed upon the industry. I ask, “Why wait for a disaster, that embarrasses your airline, and kills precious loved ones?”

What initiatives are we taking now to impose compliance measures responsibly and avoid a major disaster? What can we do better? If you’re a stakeholder (English teacher, government aviation authority, airline exec, flight instructor or flight school operator, ATC or pilot), I invite your input, and I look forward to hearing from you.

7 Responses to “Aviation English: Challenges & Difficulties in the Coming Decade”

  1. Connie Says:

    What about controllersin countries such as Franece and Spain, and I am sure there are more, who only talk English to non-native pilots while continuing to speak French or Spanish to their own pilots. What good is the language proficiency test if nobody deals with what should be a simple matter to fine control towers who disobey the regulation of talking English to all the pilots if there is a foreign pilot in the circuit.

  2. pilot Says:

    Hi Connie. You are right to be concerned about controllers only speaking English to the non-native pilots and using the L1 for the locals. I think it is legal for them to do this currently, but I wish it weren’t. Pilots use the radios to listen and get the big picture of what other aircraft are doing. Situational awareness deteriorates when multiple languages are tolerated in the airspace.

  3. Amy C. Andrews Says:

    Well said, thank you.

  4. Armande R Says:

    It has been checked,in many countries, that level 4 pilots and ATcs remained level 4 after 3 years. Language needs continuous practice, and unfortunately many aviators only “review” ther English just a few months before their tests. Level 4 should be valid for 2 years, even less ,5 3 or 4 years!

  5. pilot Says:

    It makes since, IMO, that Aviation English be practiced on a regular basis, say once a week for 45 min – 1hr (a lesson). We must shift the focus from TESTING FREQUENCY to PRACTICE INTERVALS. After all, this is the approach to many aviation skills, albeit, in the practice interval, there is an expectation to demonstrate a particular standard.

  6. M. B. Ingersoll Says:

    I am a retired FAA ATC. One of the fatal incidents in my career was directly attributable to the (student) pilot’s almost complete inability to communicate effectively in English. The flight school’s irresponsibility in allowing this individual to conduct a solo flight in the US was a very close second. And my first thought in reading this blog entry was the same as “pilot” expressed on 07 FEB, that pilots’ situational awareness is enhanced by listening to all the traffic on frequency – that opportunity is lost if different languages are in use. There is a reason all comms should be in one language.

  7. pilot Says:

    Thank you for your contribution to the discussion. I’ve been at some of those flight training academies (FTAs) in the USA which attract foreign flight students. I’m in favor of student pilots coming from other countries to train in the USA. However the FTAs must responsibly select students who are proficient at English. Another option is to pre-screen candidates to assess their English before they come to the USA then make a commitment to train them in Aviation English as part of their flight training routine. There are some excellent resources to assist FTAs in doing this, which I’ll soon be discussing soon. Much like the airlines, the FTAs will have to decide, “Do we spend money (cutting into our already razor thin margins) and take the lead on this issue?… or shall we wait for another mishap to occur, forcing the FAA to introduce regulations which will require us to spend more money and comply? Waiting gives the FAA the initiative in the matter. But FTOs and airlines have the opportunity right now to to pave the road to safety and set their own best practices concerning Aviation English compliance.

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