Level 4 Is NOT Good Enough

In 2004, I was piloting a US Air Force HC-130 southbound over the Red Sea.  Enroute to Djibouti Air Base at Flight Level 270.  We were handed off from Jeddah Center to Djibouti Approach. I radioed; “Djibouti Approach, this is Fever 34, FL270 north of you, about 30 minutes out, request airport information.” The response I received was a jovial and confusing ‘Bonjour, Fevah! Land!’ A nervous laughter erupted among our aircrew as I began seeking clarification. I mean you don’t get a clearance to land from approach control. And from that far away, at that altitude, I don’t think that was the controller’s intent. A US Marine corporal who was stationed there happened to be proficient in French, and although he had nothing to do with air traffic control, he served as an intermediary between the controller we couldn’t understand, and who couldn’t understand me. We also had a skilled navigator, so we landed safely. And I was awaken to the notion that the international aviation arena is facing a big challenge when it comes to the language of the skies. 

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is a part of the United Nations has declared English as the "lingua franca" for international aviation operations.  Instituted in March 2011 for ICAO member states, pilots and air traffic controllers must be endorsed by their flight governing authority at level 4 or higher on a scale of 6 regarding their level of English.  Controllers and pilots are now focused on "passing" the exam rather than maintaining the proficiency needed to operate safely. 

"New methods to switch from passing the mandatory test results to actual training must be taken to ensure maintaining safety standards and situational awareness", emphasize experts from Baltic Aviation Academy.  I couldn't agree more. 

Aviation English e-learning programs such as Climb Level 4 help develop competency in the ICAO's main areas of assessment: pronunciation, structure, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension and interactions.   A license to use such software gives the trainee access to a vast database of aviation related English language learning activities.  I believe significant value is added to this license when it is used in conjunction with regular live sessions with a qualified teacher of English for Aviation. 

You've heard the mantra, "A good pilot is always learning."  Nowhere was this philosophy more respected than in the United States Air Force.  My pilot training in the Air Force never stopped.  After getting my wings, it was on to weapon system qualification in the C-130.  Then on to mission specific qualification.  After finally finishing the 2 year program to prepare for a combat assignment, the training continues, even in the theatre of operations.

Aircraft commanders (PICs) and copilots are constantly paired with instructors and evaluators on their missions, in order to get "checked out" on various maneuvers.  As an HC/MC-130 pilot this could be common instrument work such as a PAR and an ASR once every 30 to 60 days.  Or it could be a tactical maneuver such as a short field landing every 60 days, or an airdrop.  The most frequent was night low level navigation on night vision goggles, which had to be accomplished once a month under the supervision of an instructor pilot.  

My point is, given that communication is so critical to aviation safety, a pilot's proficiency in the language used to communicate is critical. We know that language deteriorates if it is not used regularly.  Additionally ICAO recommends continuous language development and assessment.  Non-native English speaking pilots and controllers need more than just an exam to pass every 3 to 5 years.  They need regular "live sessions" to maintain proficiency, and especially the confidence to say what must be said in non-routine situations.

Lives are at stake.  The ICAO level 4 requirement is a necessity, but we cannot support pilots being like students in high school, who just study to pass a test, and then quickly forget what was learned. Which pilot do you want in command of your next international flight: One that was able to pass the TEA and achieve level 4?… or one who has confidence in their communication abilities, because they routinely practice and maintain their English?  Which pilot will communicate more proficiently and professionally in an emergency situation?   

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