Aviation English - Necessary Language Skills For Aircraft Operators

The language for all aviators and air traffic control officers (ATCOs) who wish to operate internationally is English. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has produced a creditable and expansive manual, which details future English-language communication requirements for aircraft operators. Those requirements come into effect on 5 March 2008.

The ICAO document, which details the English-language proficiency requirements is, to all intents and purposes, a Statement of Requirement. Training providers Worldwide, and the aviation industry as a whole, therefore need to adapt to meet the demand and the challenge faced by all concerned. The requirement is to raise standards in aviation communications globally, commonly referred to as Aviation English. However, there needs to be greater understanding that the term 'Aviation English' covers a considerably wider field of knowledge and expertise than many currently appreciate. The following is designed to provide some indication as to the degrees of enormity and complexity that the industry faces in contributing to, and in meeting the task of imposing safe English-language communication skills among aircraft operators World-wide.

Pilots and ATCOs are at the front line of aircraft operations. The extent of the training that these personnel have to endure to achieve full operational status is enormous. Training can extend to periods of up to 2 years in the case of pilots and tends to comprise one long, uninterrupted process. In the case of ATCOs, however, because of the different specialisations involved in that function and their varying degrees of complexity, training tends to be conducted in phases, as controllers' progress through their individual career paths and gain experience in the different specialisations open to them. In both cases, training is ongoing, not only because of the degree of knowledge required, due to ever-changing working locations, but also because of the continual updating of the equipment in use, ongoing revisions to the rules and regulations, and also frequent changes in the air traffic operating environment.

Following a rigorous selection process, whereby only very small percentages of individuals actually have the aptitude to be successful pilots or ATCOs, there begins a learning process that is extensive in respect of the degree of fundamental knowledge required by aircraft operators in a wide range of fields. In addition to the many practical skills required to perform their respective roles, pilots and ATCOs require extensive knowledge of the following: meteorology; physics; geography; navigation; maps and charts; theory of flight; mechanics; aircraft construction; airframes and engines; electrics, electronics and avionics; instrumentation; hydraulics; rules of the air; aviation rules and regulations, both in the air and on the ground; and air traffic control regulations. Aircraft operators are also required to have a precise and unambiguous knowledge and understanding of the following: a vast range of aviation-related definitions, some straight-forward, others quite complex; a wide range of very precise and unambiguous phraseology, to cover all routine and non-routine situations; a plethora of aviation-specific abbreviations; and a vast array of aviation-related vocabulary, which most native speakers of English seldom use in everyday life. In addition, all aircraft operators require an appreciation of medicine, biology, and human performance limitations. Furthermore, all concerned with aircraft operations are required to undergo daily briefings, both oral and written, and have to read and fully understand numerous daily and periodical publications: for example, Flight Information Publications, which provide essential information and warnings related to flight safety, and Notices to Airmen, which provide information concerning daily changes within the aviation environment. Comprehending these documents would prove a significant challenge to any aircraft operator who is not a native speaker of English. In addition to speaking and listening skills in English, therefore, reading comprehension is a skill that should also be given emphasis in any Aviation English training syllabus.

To become a successful pilot or ATCO, one requires a very high degree of a particular type of aptitude, coupled with a supreme mental agility of many different kinds. However, it is important to note that the aptitude required to be a successful pilot, is very different to that required to be an effective and competent ATCO. Nevertheless, both professions require individuals to have the ability to be extremely calm under pressure, to multi-task both mentally and physically, and to assimilate information quickly and effectively and to act upon it correctly and decisively. At the end of their rigorous and lengthy process of training, and when they have achieved full operational status, these individuals possess a wealth of knowledge and have well-honed and acute mental and physical skills. However, even fully-trained and experienced, pilots and ATCOs are continually operating at the extremes of effective human capability, whereby everyday, decisions they make as individuals can, in many cases, mean the difference between life and death for others. Therefore, at any stage within this ongoing process of professional development, to expect an aircraft operator to repeat the entire very demanding and complex training process in a second language, is a daunting prospect. Indeed, it is hard to assimilate the degree of difficulty involved, because, yet another factor comes into play: that of an individual's degree of aptitude as a linguist.

When assessing the operational and international requirement within the aviation community for precise and accurate communications in English, both in the air and on the ground, there are several factors to be considered: the vast array of different communications and means of communication in use; the skills necessary to communicate effectively, by which ever means; and the difficulties faced by non-native speakers of English, who require to perfect those communication skills, with all their inherent complexities, in a second language. Those concerned face an extremely difficult and daunting task.

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