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The Importance of Speaking Plane-ly

Aviation’s General Spoken Medium

By Susan K. Parson

Source: FAA Safety Briefing, May/June 2020

An early lesson in the “Fundamentals of Instruction” curriculum for flight instructors is that actual communication occurs only when both sender and receiver have an identical understanding of the message being conveyed. Simple, right? Well ... not so much. The wonder and woe of language is that even two people from the same cultural background can hear the same word or phrase and reach a different conclusion as to its meaning.

Misunderstandings are bad enough on the ground, but they can be positively dangerous in the aviation environment. That’s why it is so important to master “Plane English,”.

Was that really English?

English is the global aviation language — more on that shortly — and it is my native tongue. In my first flight lesson, though, my supposed fluency did nothing to help me understand the static-filled gibberish flowing from the little Cessna’s tired comm radios. I could occasionally discern a few individual words that I recognized as English. Overall, though, the words, phrases, rhythms, and cadences were completely foreign to me. I quickly realized that in addition to learning to fly a plane, I would also be learning to speak in “Plane.”

It is no small task. There are more than 1,300 terms in the FAA’s 80-page Pilot/Controller Glossary (P-CG). Abbreviations and acronyms take the total to around 2,000 words, phrases, or terms that the pilot is expected to correctly understand and use — and to do so in an environment that includes aircraft noise, multi-tasking, and less-than-perfect aeronautical radios.

Lingua Franca

As virtually every foreign pilot observes, the freedom afforded to private and recreational fliers in the U.S. is unmatched. American pilots also enjoy the benefit of having English as the foundational language for aviation communications. But if Plane English is hard for native speakers, consider how challenging both “foundational” English and “Plane” English can be if English is a second or third language.

Complete mastery of English — a complex and complicated language — is not necessary for aviation safety. Still, miscommunication due to lack of English proficiency is a probable cause or contributing factor in many aviation accidents. To address this issue, since 2008 ICAO has required that air traffic controllers and flight crew members engaged in international flights be proficient in English as a “general spoken medium” (i.e., a specified level of vocabulary and grammatical knowledge along with skills in pronunciation, word stress, rhythm, and intonation).

aviation communication

Learning the Lingo

Regardless of how you acquired proficiency in English as a “general spoken medium,” it takes time and dedicated effort first to understand, then to speak, the Plane English dialect. Newbies will fumble, stumble, and mumble though early attempts to speak Plane. Even long-time pilots sometimes find it challenging. But mastering Plane English is critical to safety, and correct use of established aeronautical terms is a hallmark of good airmanship. Articles in this issue are aimed at helping you achieve both goals. A few basic tips:

  • Study the Pilot/Controller Glossary.
  • Create a template of the fundamental “who-where-what” sequence used in Plane English.
  • Use tools such as the “LiveATC” app and/or a handheld aeronautical radio to enhance your understanding.
  • Avoid non-standard terminology. For example, don’t “take the runway” or transmit your intentions with respect to “the active” without at least providing a runway number.
  • Always aim to speak clearly, concisely, and precisely.
  • Efficiency counts, but remember that you aren’t in a speed-speaking contest with our fast-talking friends in ATC. A reasonable pace takes less time than repeated “say again” requests.

Susan K. Parson is editor of FAA Safety Briefing and a Special Assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service. She is a general aviation pilotandflightinstructor.

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