Flight Plan

It’s A for apple, right? Not if you’re a pilot!

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on August 07, 2019

How do pilots with varying degrees of English proficiency interact with air traffic controllers?Ashwini Phadnis makes sense of the frenzied action

A is for apple and B is for bat, right? Wrong, if you are a pilot. Then, A is for Alpha (pronounced Al Fah) and B is for Bravo (pronounced Bra Voh). Similarly, K is not for kangaroo or kite but kilo (pronounced key loh).

A pilot needs to learn not only this ‘new’ alphabet but also the right pronunciation for every letter of this alphabet and what it stands for.

Pilots also need to learn the acronyms for various cities across the globe. For example, they do not say Bengaluru when flying an aircraft to that city but, instead, say BBG, which too can be confused with PPG and could mean something completely different. So, in their communications with the air traffic controllers (ATCs) and even amongst themselves, pilots call out Bravo Bravo Golf. “These are characters developed over a period of time so that there is no ambiguity while communicating on a flight,” says an Air India pilot.

The letters of the alphabet and their correct pronunciation are contained in Annex 10 to the Convention on the International Civil Aviation Aeronautical Telecommunications manual issued by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). These were first adopted by the Council on May 30, 1949, pursuant to the provisions of Article 37 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago 1944) and designated as Annex 10 to the Convention. They became effective on March 1, 1950, and are followed by pilots across the world.

Stumped by accents

The objective of the international aeronautical telecommunications service, referred to as radio telephony, is providing telecommunication and radio aids to air navigation, which are necessary for the safety, regulation and efficiency of international air navigation.

However, even though these guidelines exist internationally and it is mandatory for pilots to follow them, problems do crop up. The most important of these is the use of different accents around the world.

Pilots concede that accents and the way words are pronounced globally make it extremely difficult to communicate with ATCs.

“The terminology is the same but even then it becomes difficult. It is only when you go often to the same country that you begin to understand the accent,” says a senior airline pilot.

What complicates matters further is that pilots fly across the globe and so have to encounter different accents in different countries. Those in Thailand, Pakistan, America and Britain have different accents, to name just a few. Closer home, accents differ between North and South India and even between North-East India and the other parts.

Indian pilots say that they find it toughest to communicate with ATCs in Thailand, China and France. “Even if I have been flying in command all my life they will send me once to China and Paris as an observer to monitor radio telephony,” says a pilot with over 25,000 hours of flying experience.

However, pilots find humour in this and difficulties in understanding the accent of an ATC are also a source of leg-pulling among them. A pilot recalls that they were flying into China and the ATC was communicating with them in the local dialect. The pilot in command asked his co-pilot to take down what the ATC was saying. “What can I take down? I do not understand a word of what he is saying,” said the flustered co-pilot. Laughing, the commander said ,“they are giving you weather, take it down” though he too had no clue about what the ATC was saying! Eventually the pilots were able to communicate with the ATC in globally accepted radio telephony and land the aircraft safely.

Needless to say, effective and comprehensible communication is a must for the safety of flights and also for facilitating thousands of flights taking off and landing in different cities at the same time across the globe. These flights are flown by pilots with different accents who are guided by ATCs who too can have different accents.

Mind your language

Proficiency in English thus becomes important. A teacher who conducts tests for pilots to check their English proficiency says that, during the test, six aspects — pronunciation, structure, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension and interactions — are tested before a pilot is allowed to fly. “Over the years, it has been noticed that accidents or incidents have happened due to miscommunication between pilots and ATCs, that is why the emphasis on English proficiency,” he says.

Pilots are ranked from 1 to 6 on their proficiency in English, with levels between 1 and 3 not accepted by the authorities. Pilots who score these levels are not allowed to fly while those scoring 4 and 5 levels are acceptable but with riders. “If a pilot has a ranking of 4 in English proficiency then he has to come back for recurrent training every three years. He is assessed on whether his skills have deteriorated or become better. A pilot at a ranking of 5 or extended level, has to come back every six years. If a pilot is at level 6, or the expert level, then he is certified for life,” the teacher adds.

This sure is food for thought for all those who think flying an aircraft is about understanding only science. You need to know your English too, else the pilot’s seat may be elusive!

Published on August 07, 2019

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