The Parlance of Pilots

Interesting, indeed. And I’m sure there are other applications.
From “The Parlance of Pilots,” by Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airways senior first officer, for Aeon online, June 9: Imagine a plane that flies from London to Bangkok. The pilots speak first to British air-traffic controllers but, just a few minutes after takeoff, the British controllers hand them over to Belgian or Dutch ones, who soon pass them to German controllers, and then to Czech, to Hungarian, to Romanian, to Turkish, to Iranian ones, and so on.

In flight, pilots are listening not just to controllers, but also to other pilots—Thai pilots returning from Paris, Russian pilots on their way to the Maldives, and pretty much every other conceivable combination of origin, destination, flag and crew nationality. The whole world is in the sky.

It’s hard to imagine a system more in need of a common language. And that language is English (or Englishderived Aeroese). When a Venezuelan pilot speaks to a New York air-traffic controller, or when a pilot from Brooklyn speaks to a controller in Caracas, they speak in English. It’s something to marvel at, the first time you fly to Tokyo, say, and you hear an exchange between a Japanese pilot and a Japanese air-traffic controller, both speaking carefully in Japanese-accented English. It’s standardisation and globalisation by force of bare necessity, by force of speed. . . .

When planes speak, they speak English, and more often than not with a male voice: ‘TRAFFIC, TRAFFIC’, to call our attention to another airplane; ‘ONE HUNDRED’, among other heights, as we come in to land; ‘MONITOR RADAR DISPLAY’ in certain weather conditions.

My favourite airplane vocalisation is the ‘DECIDE’ call, which I first heard on that 747 flight from Tokyo to London, when I was a wide-eyed and wide-eared guest in the cockpit. The ‘DECIDE’ call comes in a female, English-accented voice (on the 747s that I fly) that we hear as we reach the altitude or height at which we must either have sight of the runway environment or break off the approach. ‘DECIDE’, the plane implores, a decision- making tool that I’ve occasionally wondered about turning into an app to be deployed in meeting rooms in the corporate world or academia. Career counsellors might like it too—it certainly worked for me.


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