Since the 1950s, English has been the preferred language in aviation and in March 2011 the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) fully implemented the ICAO Aviation English Proficiency Test. This requires all air traffic controllers and civil international pilots to pass with a score of at least Level 4 or above in order to obtain, or regain, those aviation qualifications.
How English Became the Mother Tongue of Aviation
English is the scientific community’s accepted language and is already widely used with international communications. English is one of the most-learned languages worldwide and the official chosen language for a high number of large global institutions.
When air travel was becoming increasingly common around the mid-twentieth century, aircraft manufacturing, design, and operations were dominated by English-speaking countries. To help reduce confusion and misunderstanding when communicating with international crews, English was selected as the official language of aviation.
Being multilingual is a huge advantage in any sector and country, and this is further incentivised by the aviation industry requirement of fluent written and spoken English as a prerequisite.
Ground Control To….
Clear communication between air traffic control and pilots is critical so it needs to be incredibly specific. Their interaction is purely vocal, with no visual assistance such as facial cues or body language. All understanding can only be achieved through verbal communication. They also use standard phraseology, which is a specialised form of phrasing and is used to ensure communication is consistent and standardised, therefore reducing the risk of any message or command being misunderstood and misinterpreted.
A Turning Point for Mainstreaming Aviation English.
Deemed the worst incident in aviation history to date, the Tenerife airport crash, was the fatal result of miscommunication. On March 27 1977, two Boeing 747s, one operated by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and the other a Pan American, collided into each other on a foggy runway. The crash caused a devasting fire which killed a total of 583 people.
With no ground tracking radar and 0% visibility for either aircraft and air traffic control, the success of both take-offs relied solely on verbal communication. Unfortunately, the Dutch KLM pilots misunderstood their ‘route clearance’ from air traffic control for ‘take-off clearance’. A combination of ambiguous phrases and radio transmission interference led to the KLM aircraft colliding straight into the Pan American aircraft during take-off.
As the world reeled in shock from the horrific event, aviation English was developed to ensure air traffic controllers and pilots could clearly and effectively communicate worldwide and avoid further tragedies like this.
Cockpit rules were changed, where the terms “Roger” and “OK” no longer being allowed when accepting messages, and key parts of the command or message must be read back to ensure the receiver has fully understood the other side.
The Tenerife airport crash is still currently the largest aviation death toll incident in history. It had a massive and lasting impact on the aviation industry.
As air travel continues to increase in popularity and volume, aviation English has never been more important in ensuring that clear and effective communication is correctly established for our crowded and busy skies.