One of the more spectacular crashes was that of Helios Airways Flight 522 Boeing 737 which flew on with a dead cockpit crew until it crashed into a Greek mountainside. The root problem was a breakdown in communication in the cockpit.

Guy Leitch

THE HELIOS 522 CRASH is a good example of how having crew of different languages on the flight deck can have fatal consequences. The Captain was German, the First Officer Greek and the ground engineer British. With that polyglot, the crew did not effectively troubleshoot a warning horn and did not notice a pressurisation switch set to manual instead of automatic, resulting in 121 deaths. The report concluded that; “Language difficulties prolonged resolution of the problem.”

In theory the Helios crew should have been speaking English on the flight deck. But it is an absurdly difficult language for non-English speakers to use. I have been writing about things aviation for 30 years and I still don’t know for sure how to spell takeoff, (take off?) taking-off, taxiing and many others. People who should know better write that planes sleep in hangers (not hangars).

The litany of difficulties is endless. So why is English the universal language of aviation?

‘the spread of English through movies’

The key reason is surprising. 100 years ago, in a little appreciated technological breakthrough that was to change the world, an American called Freeman Harrison Owens invented the first effective way of adding a synchronised soundtrack to movies. Before that Hollywood had been producing silent movies, which had subtitles in whatever language. But with the arrival of ‘talkies’ made in Hollywood; the almost universal language of movies became English. It was this attachment of English soundtracks to films that did more than anything else, including the entire British Empire, to make English the universal language.

The spread of English through movies coincided with the development of airliners capable of flying between different countries, and thus the need for a common aviation language. The demands of World War II with the rise of plane builders such as Boeing and Douglas meant that aviation was intrinsically an English-speaking industry. The adoption of English was no doubt helped by the aircraft operating manuals being written in English, as were flight instruction programmes.

And then in 1946 the Chicago convention was held – where else? – but in an English-speaking country, and that gave rise to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Did the pilot ask the co-joe to pull the gear up – or just to cheer up?

And so aviation came to be Anglicized. What this means is that you can fly anywhere in the world using English. Even though everyone else may be using their local language with ATC, you can demand to converse in English.

This is not very nice for people who have been brought up in a non-English speaking country and I’m grateful to have been born into an English-speaking environment. Still, it took me some wrangling at CAA to get a Level 6 English Proficiency rating.

The difficulties of integrating non-English speakers into the aviation environment is nowhere more evident than flying VFR around Oudtshoorn or Beaufort West. There the airwaves are filled with Chinese student pilots massacring Yinglish. This, and the quasi-military style, makes forming an image of what’s going on around you, more than difficult.

Recognising the threat to safety from bad English speakers, ICAO was somewhat reluctantly forced to develop SARPs for language proficiency standards in the early 2000s. Yet even 20 years after English language testing requirements for pilots and air traffic controllers were introduced by ICAO, the challenge of using English continues to threaten global aviation safety.

The hazards of English miscommunication are legion – like the Captain who asked the co-joe for takeoff power so the Co-joe took off the power by pulling the power levers back. Another possibly apocryphal story is of a DC3 captain who, during the takeoff roll, looked across at his co-joe who was a bit glum. “Cheer up” the captain said. So the co-joe pulled the gear up.

By most reckonings the worst case of miscommunication was the Tenerife disaster. KLM Captain Jacob van Zanten and his crew had almost reached their time and duty limit and were keen to get going. This impatience is seen to have contributed to his rash mistake when he received the communication, “You are not cleared for take-off” from ATC. Hearing just the word “cleared’’ he accelerated down the runway – while the Pan Am 747 was still trying to find the exit taxiway in the heavy fog.

The Tenerife disaster is the classic example of mis-communication.

Similarly, the cockpit voice recorder of the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 in New York revealed that the pilot did not declare an emergency when critically low on fuel. The co-joe said “we’re running out of fuel” instead of declaring a Mayday or at least calling Pan Pan. In her book Aviation English, Dr Estival says, “While in plain English, “we’re running out of fuel” may sound like a declaration of emergency, in the context of controller-pilot communications, where there is a specific prescribed phraseology for the declaration of an emergency, this statement would not be interpreted as such.”

When the crew of American Airlines Flight 965 got themselves completely disoriented trying to reprogram their 757’s flight management system, the ATC did not know enough English to tell the crew that he did not understand their problem. The 757 impacted a mountain top above Bogota.

Even within English speaking countries there is plenty of scope for screw-ups due to different conventions, phraseology or practices. South African pilots visiting Maun (myself included) incur the wrath of ATC and the local Maun pilots when they confuse takeoff instructions as issued by Maun, (eg: “Alpha Bravo Charlie, Runway 08. Straight ahead to 4500 feet, turn right onto heading. Report zone outbound”) with a takeoff clearance as issued in SA: (eg “Alpha Bravo Charlie, Cleared takeoff 08. Straight ahead to 4500 feet, turn right onto heading. Report zone outbound”). The one word difference is small but crucial to safety. Being used to receiving after takeoff instructions in the takeoff clearance, the South Africans just go ahead and takeoff. Yet Maun ATC has not yet issued the actual takeoff clearance. If there is someone on short final, it is an accident waiting to happen.

“Any conf l i c t ing
t raf f i c ple as e
a d v i s e .”

One of the most spectacular failures of mis-communication happened between supposedly proficient English speakers and is a common hazard in busy VFR skies such as under the JHB TMA. In 1978, Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182, a Boeing 727, had a mid-air collision with a Cessna 172. Initial communication kept the planes apart even though it is reported that communication between the crew and ATC “sounded nervous prior to the crash.” Then, in the transmissions between ATC and Flight 182, the crucial word “passed” appears to have been misheard as “passing,” causing the controllers to believe that the Boeing crew had seen the Cessna go past. In fact, they had lost sight of it. The Cessna hit the 727’s right wing and both aircraft fell into a San Diego suburb, killing all 135 onboard on the 727, seven people on the ground, and both the Cessna pilots. It was concluded that if the crew of Flight 182 had managed to clearly communicate to ATC that they had lost sight of the C172, the crash would have been averted.

This one sends chills down my spine. How many times have I hopefully told ATC that I have the other traffic in sight while I am still looking for it?

Pacific Southwest Flight 182 is a good example of making sure you really do have “the traffic in sight”.

The impact of limited English proficiency is insidious and sometimes difficult to discern. It doesn’t help when the sky is filled with weekend warriors using bad phrasing. One that drives many nuts is “This is Piper Cherokee Alpha Bravo Charlie on 124.8, with a QNH of 1015, currently abeam XYZ,” and then further aggravated by, “Any conflicting traffic please advise.” A completely pointless broadcast that clutters already bursting TIBA frequencies.

The ICAO language proficiency standards were an important first step. Yet many challenges remain. There are no ICAO language standards for maintenance technicians, and there are no ICAO reading proficiency requirements for pilots, ATC or maintenance technicians. Yet aeroplanes are increasingly complex machines. Pilots and technicians learn to operate, maintain and repair aircraft with English signs by studying complex manuals not written for a foreign language audience.

ICAO language specialist Elizabeth Mathews says that improving safety in aviation requires the difficult task of improving human performance. “Raising the English language proficiency level of pilots, ATC and maintenance technicians through global access to safety focused aviation English curricula is the single most effective measure the industry can take.”

No industry has done more to make the world smaller than aviation. Whether we are flying a Pappa Charlie or a Boeing, we share a single airspace. Language in aviation is a worldwide problem that can be solved through global collaboration to raise standards. So for now, I don’t see any threat to the dominance of English.

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