Why English is The Language of The Skies for Pilots & Air Traffic Controllers

Why English is The Language of The Skies For Aviators and Air Traffic Controllers

English the language of the skies

Have you ever wondered how it is that aircraft fly around the world so safely? They avoid each other and make their way through the airways, flying complex procedures and landing at huge airports, usually without a hitch.

One Global Timezone!

A large part of this is due to a high degree of standardisation across every facet of aviation. Language is simply an extension of this. As an example of this standardisation, did you know that planes, airports, pilots and controllers everywhere use “Zulu” time? That is, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) otherwise known as Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) – which is London time, in the winter.

An aircraft departing Hong Kong at 6am on Monday 13th December, will strangely file a flight plan stating takeoff time as 10pm, Sunday 12 December. This makes things clearer, allowing aviation weather reports to be more easily understood by people in different parts of the world.


Standard Phonetic Alphabet – A Useful Language Spelling Code

Even if you’re not planning to be a pilot, have you ever thought about learning the standard phonetic alphabet which was developed partly by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)? Here again, see how standardisation has been widely adopted to increase mutual understanding and therefore safety. Although designed to be easily heard by speakers of diverse tongues, it draws strongly on English. English speakers are therefore at a distinct advantage in its usage.

Have you ever been on the phone and struggled to spell something out, using the normal alphabet? The problem is obvious – many of the letters sound the same over the phone line! Did you say “D” or “T” or “B”? Did you say “M” or “N”?! A common solution is to use a word which begins with that letter. Let’s say you are trying to spell the word “nice” and you start by saying “N for Naughty”. ICAO’s phonetic alphabet however gives us an elegant way out. There’s no need to say “N for…” – you just utter the agreed word, “November.” Nice! Or, to spell it out, “November India Charlie Echo!”

Learn standard phonetic alphabet, and give it a go next time you’re speaking to a call centre rep. You may well find that they are well used to this system.

Learn the Phonetic Alphabet

Why English is the Lingua Franca of the Skies

This brings us nicely to the use of English itself, which has been the official language of flying since the Chicago Convention of 1944. You sometimes hear pilots speaking over the airwaves to local air traffic control, or each other, in their own common language. English has, however, been established as the official lingua franca of flying and all who fly must have a good grasp of it. This is true above all when flying between countries. While it does give an unfair advantage to those who are already native speakers of the language, having a common tongue is clearly of great common advantage. It all comes down to that over-arching and sacred aviation principle: safety.

But why English? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, because English speaking countries have arguably contributed most to the history of flying, led by the United States. The American Wright Brothers performed the first controlled, powered heavier-than-air flight, on a North Carolina beach in 1903.

Furthermore, it makes sense to choose a language that will be understood by the greatest number of people around the world. While the native speakers of English number approx 380 million, which is fewer than both Mandarin at approx 920 million speakers and Spanish at approx 460 million speakers, the English language has become by far the most widely used tongue, with a whopping 1.1 billion speakers. This is, including those who can use it as a second language. While this is only marginally greater than Mandarin, these speakers are spread out further, in every corner of the world, in all the diverse places where aeroplanes fly.

Good English Saves Lives in the Skies

There have been several flying accidents where language was shown as a key factor. Perhaps one of the most troubling language-related aviation issues was perceived in Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509 in 1999. The crash was of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. The captain was seeing incorrect data, while the co-pilot’s instruments were showing correctly.

Rigid social structure may have helped prevent the co-pilot from being more vocal about the correcting situation. It’s therefore argued that the Korean language’s in-built hierarchy-related and indirect phrasing forms when speaking to social superiors was a factor. As one point in the 1990’s, Korean Air had more air disasters than any other airline. Many therefore argued for replacing the Korean language for English as the working language of Korean Air’s cockpit. English does not have such issues – a key reason for its use as aviation’s common language.

Difficulties in comprehending and talking to air traffic controllers was named as a main factor in the Vnukovo Airlines Flight 2801 disaster. The flight crashed on approach in Norway on 29 August 1996, causing the death of 141 people. Another tragic example is American Airlines Flight 965, which crashed into terrain killing 159 people in 1995. It remains Columbia’s worst aviation disaster. Inadequate plain language proficiency was cited as a contributing factor in this tragedy.

The Upshot: New English Standards For All

Faced with such issues, in 2008, ICAO brought in English Language Standards for pilots and air traffic controllers. All must now be tested and assessed. Level 6 is deemed an “Expert” level of English proficiency, while level 1 is “Elementary.” Meanwhile, level 4 is deemed to be “Operational” use of the English language. This is the minimum level required to act as flight crew or air traffic controllers. Those who are assessed at level 6 do not need to go through the process of being tested again. People who achieve level 5 must however be reassessed every five years and those at level 4, every three years.

Taking the English Language Skills Test

That’s right, even native speakers of English need to be tested and assessed on their language skills. The author of this article is an English language tutor and qualified commercial pilot. This did not stop the need to spend US$150 for another native speaker to judge ability to use the English language. This was connected with an airline interview. The test involved a simple role play with the examiner and a listening comprehension. It also involved explaining what was happening in an emergency situation, prompted by some pictures. An example of the test ran as follows:

Examiner: What has happened?
Candidate: The left engine is on fire.
Examiner: Did you day you have a problem with the landing gear?
Candidate: No, the left engine is on fire.
Examiner: Please explain where you are.
Candidate: I am parked on the grass at the end of the runway.

So, it was clearly not rocket science and should be simple for someone who has studied under a system such as IELTS. It is clear however that any non-English speaker wanting a career as a pilot or air traffic controller must take their English studies very seriously. If you cannot obtain ICAO aviation English level 4, you will not be able to find any job.

Preparing for The ICAO English Assessment

The ICAO English assessment does not test flying or even radio skills, but English skills. All high-quality, rigorous English training and courses such as IELTS will therefore be relevant. Communication and listening are particularly important areas to keep well-tuned.

If you are an aspiring aviator or air traffic controller, you can get a taste for real life listening and speaking. Use liveatc.net to listen to pilots speaking to air traffic controllers in real time all around the world for free.  This will help you to hone not only your aviation English but also your radiotelephony skills – give it a go! Remember, English studies are an integral part of preparation to work in the airline industry so you had better take them seriously!

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