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Aviation English, Please

By Tom Hoffmann

Source: FAA Safety Briefing, May/June 2020

GA plane at tower

On a cold, Midwest morning in early January, a student pilot taxied a Cessna 150 to the active runway at his local airport and radioed ATC that he was ready for departure. ATC issued instructions to hold short of the runway while the tower dealt with two inbound aircraft. Seconds after the tower sequenced those aircraft, and despite the clear instruction to wait, the pilot taxied out and began his takeoff roll with landing traffic only a quarter-mile behind.

Less than a month later, the pilot of a twin turboprop departing a busy west coast airport flanked by mountains flew in the wrong direction after being cleared for a standard instrument departure. ATC issued a low altitude alert and directed an emergency climbing turn to avoid terrain. According to ATC, the pilot’s read-back during the departure clearance was difficult to understand. It was believed that the pilot may have misconstrued a heading assignment with a concurrently issued wind advisory.

The common thread for both incidents: inability to clearly understand and follow ATC instructions. This problem can be particularly acute when English is a second language that is further complicated by the highly specialized aviation lexicon. In fact, since 2018, approximately 60 pilot deviations — some with deadly potential — have been attributed to English language and terminology issues. With more than 40,000 foreign pilots enrolled in U.S. flight schools, the FAA is working to address this safety issue.

In general, regulations state that to be eligible for an FAA certificate or additional aircraft rating, an applicant must be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language. That includes flight engineers, dispatchers, parachute riggers, and remote pilots.

To provide a consistent baseline application of the regulation, the FAA adopted the Aviation English Language Standards (AELS), which mirror the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Operational Level 4 standards for English language proficiency. The AELS/ICAO standard encompasses six main elements: Pronunciation, Structure, Vocabulary, Fluency, Comprehension, and Interactions. For more on each element, see ICAO Document 9835

Individuals seeking an FAA certificate or rating must meet the AELS standard to be considered English proficient. It is not a “one and done” achievement for airmen; they must be able to continuously demonstrate mastery. “It is incumbent on flight and ground instructors, designated examiners, and air traffic personnel to report any observed English language deficiencies,” says Joe Foresto, an Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI) with the FAA’s General Aviation and Commercial Division. “Failure to take action may add unwanted risk to the National Airspace System (NAS).”

To help determine if an applicant or FAA certificate holder meets AELS, instructors and examiners can review Advisory Circular 60-28B ( In addition to helpful guidance on AELS criteria, the AC also breaks down the assess-ment process. Another good resource is ICAO’s rated speech sample page, which provides audio samples of pilots at varying levels of performance (

The FAA is also using education and training. “We provide volumes of information in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and the Pilot/Controller Glossary, which airman should be more aware of,” says Foresto. “However, none of it discusses what your ears and mouth should be doing when the mike is keyed.” In that vein, Foresto is spearheading work on new content for FAA handbooks and manuals to provide information on what to say, and how and when to say it. In the meantime, consider reviewing the resources listed below to better understand what’s expected of you and what you should expect from fellow NAS users with regard to English proficiency and ensuring effective communication with ATC.

Learn More

Airman Certification Standards -

FAASTeam Notice on Aviation English Language Standards -

Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.

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