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What Is Aviation English?

If “pilot speak” sounds like another language to you, you’re not far off.

Aviation English is the internationally-established language of the skies, consisting of about three hundred terms that are a combination of professional jargon and plain English. With the expansion of air travel during the 20th century, concerns about the ability of pilots and air traffic controllers to communicate effectively across cultures and languages arose. In 1951, the International Civil Aviation Organization recommended that English be accepted as the lingua franca of the sky, and within a few years, Aviation English exams had become a requirement for all pilots involved in international flight, including native English speakers.

Why the requirement?

Some of the deadliest accidents in aviation history have been caused by language barriers and miscommunications. In 1977, two Boeing 747 passenger jets collided on a runway on the Spanish island of Tenerife, killing 583 people. This was largely due to the use of non-standardized aviation language, including ambiguous use of the term ‘OK’ during communications between the crew of one aircraft and airport controllers whose job was to give takeoff clearance.

Similarly, in 1996, Saudi Arabian Airlines flight 763 and Kazakhstan Airlines flight 1907 collided in mid-air over the village of Charkhi Dadri, about sixty miles west of Delhi. All 349 people aboard both planes were killed, and the accident was largely attributed to communication errors.

Aviation English was created as a dialect that – when used correctly – is completely free of ambiguities and can help avoid these kinds of tragedies.

What are they talking about, anyway?

The talk of the skies covers a range of topics including navigation and operation of the aircraft, electronics and avionics, physics, rules of the air, instruments, and more. Airline pilots must be able to speak clearly and specifically, using terms that are unambiguous and exact.

Are there different levels of proficiency?

The short answer is yes. Before becoming a pilot, candidates must sit an Aviation English proficiency exam. They are evaluated on their pronunciation, sentence structure, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and interactions with others, and must show that they have at least an intermediary level of English knowledge, known as “Operational Level 4.” Pilots at this level are reassessed every three years, while those at “Operational Level 5” are reassessed every six years.

Significantly, although native English speakers are automatically awarded “Operational Level 6” status, which is the highest level of proficiency, they may struggle to communicate effectively in Aviation English. They are often prone to the use of non-standard terms, to speaking excessively and too quickly, and they may sometimes treat non-native speakers with impatience. These failings have been shown to worsen in emergency situations, thus emphasizing how important it is that native English speakers train in Aviation English with as much seriousness as non-native speakers and do not assume that the ability to speak standard English effectively suggests the same in Aviation English.

What are some terms used in the skies?

If you want to sound like a pilot (or if you just want to play one on TV), you can try learning some of the jargon used in-flight. Here are a few terms to get you started:

Affirm: Contrary to what we’re used to seeing in the movies, pilots don’t use the word “affirmative.” Instead, to mean yes, they say “affirm,” and they pronounce it “AY-firm.”
Approach: Heading toward land.
Deadhead: A crew member that is travelling in a passenger seat (not to be confused with fans of the Grateful Dead, who are also called deadheads).
Squawk: To set a transponder, which is a device that receives radio signals, so that a radar on the ground can identify the precise location of the aircraft. Pilots are often asked to “squawk ident” or “squawk Mode Charlie” which are unique transponder settings that help air traffic controllers find them.
Standby: This means exactly what you think… “please wait.”
Wilco: An abbreviation of the words ‘will comply,’ wilco means that pilot has heard the message and plans to comply.

Looking for clear, precise, and unambiguous translation or interpretation help? ALTA offers a wide range of services, including language proficiency testing and language training, across dozens of languages. Contact ALTA to get started today.

About the Author: Danielle Martin has taught multiple subjects to students in three different states. She previously spent time as a literary agent’s assistant and video editor. Danielle writes about education, health, and lifestyle topics, and she also enjoys writing fiction.

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