The language spoken in the cockpit is clear, concise and accurate. For amateurs, it may sound like fantastical gobbledygook, but the parlance of pilots follows a specific system – and has its very own beauty.
Sure, the poems and finely crafted stanzas of a Whitman or a Shakespeare have their own charm – for fans of great literature. But aviation fans prefer to listen to words with a glorious whiff of kerosene – the pilot poetry of couplets like this: 248° at D6.3 FFM/D3.5 FRD (MNM 800) RT intercept R140 TAU inbound RT intercept R084 TAU/R264 MTR climb to 5000.
The lyricism of aviators thrusts deep into the soul. Its stark, clipped majesty needs no flowery embellishment. Instead, this language relies on abbreviations, precision and accuracy. By the way, mysterious as they may sound, the lines above are nothing more than the command for a go-around maneuver over Frankfurt Airport, reduced to the essentials. It’s a lingo every pilot needs to be fluent in; a rough translation goes something like this: “Fly straight ahead on a course of 248 degrees up to 6.3 miles’ distance from FFM beacon or 3.5 miles from FRD beacon at a height of at least 800 feet. Then fly a right curve on the 140-degree radial toward the Taunus beacon. After passing the Taunus beacon, fly on the 084-degree radial toward MTR beacon or the 264-degree radial toward Metro and ascend to 5000 feet.”
Spoken in the original, this is music to the ears of aviation enthusiasts. Anyone who has listened in on pilots communicating with air traffic control will have heard some of these phrases. When the pilots of a Lufthansa A380 request pushback at the gate in San Francisco, they don’t say: “Hi there, tower folk! Can we please leave the gate now?” They will say: San Francisco ramp golf tower, Lufthansa 455 Super requests push from position 101. Once the huge Airbus reaches the runway, tower clearance will be given using syllables and acronyms that instantly conjure up visions of the inside of a cockpit. : Lufthansa 455 Super wind 290 degrees 13 knots RWY 28R cleared for takeoff.
To amateurs, the lingo of the sky is an incomprehensible string of sounds, the ultimate jargon. That’s because pilots face a particular challenge. In aviation, perhaps more than in any other field, language has to meet three sometimes very tall -orders: It has to be economical, precise and absolutely unambiguous.
There’s no time for chitchat in the cockpit; elaborate, finely turned sentences are not only pointless, they can even be dangerous in certain circumstances. A superfluous syllable or verb, or a string of letters distorted by the microphone can lead to an unnecessary or wrong maneuver. Communication in aviation depends entirely on meticulous accuracy. Fast, clear and to the point: “Reduce to the max” is the motto – express yourself as clearly, as succinctly and as precisely as possible.
Pay attention and you will soon see that this is no easy task. The most complicated tool in the cockpit is perhaps not the artificial horizon, altimeter or autopilot but “aeronese,” the language used to communicate between earth and sky. It starts with the endless abbreviations – a particular characteristic of this language, and one that predominates here more than in any other area of life. In aviation, every pilot knows that ACARS refers to the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, that TCAS is a collision warning system and that PFD stands for the Primary Flight Display – the arrangement of the six most important instruments that, back in the early days of flying, were dubbed the “sixpack”: altimeter, air-speed indicator, variometer, compass, artificial horizon and turn indicator.
Even common English words take on odd meanings in pilot speak. Who knew that “threshold” was the start of the landing runway? An apron isn’t only something you wear in the kitchen, it’s the bit of the airport where aircraft park. And just before the aircraft leaves the ground, when the pilot pulls back the sidestick, the cockpit crew will be saying “rotate,” not takeoff, which is more accurate because at this point, the plane is actually rotating around its lateral axis. Takeoff occurs a few seconds later.
Fewer words, more concentration, less language, fewer errors
The alphabet also plays a key role in aeronese. In radio communications between pilots, air traffic control and ground control, everyone uses the international ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) phonetic alphabet: It begins with Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and ends with X-Ray, Yankee and Zulu. These code words are used to avoid confusion when spelling parts of a message containing letters. Of course, the phonetic alphabet was no chance development but the result of many years of fine tuning. The military used to use different versions to communicate. A and B were spelled like “Apples” and “Butter,” and during World War I, English soldiers also used “Ack” and “Beer.” On March 1, 1956, the ICAO put an end to the confusion and introduced a new list of code words, also called the “NATO Alphabet,” which was easy to pronounce in all the world’s languages and dialects. The words that stood for each letter were easy to distinguish, thus avoiding misunderstandings, even in crackly radio communications. The alphabet was developed by the Canadian linguist and phonetician Jean-Paul Vinay, and it is still used today in aviation and marine radio communications to identify positions, reporting points or identifiers.
In fact, a great deal of aeronese comes from the military, and particularly the navy. “The condensed language of commands is the only way to communicate with precision,” explains Cord Becker, who for many years trained pilots for Lufthansa. The principle is simple. For instance, when retracting the landing gear after takeoff, the Pilot Flying (PF) will only give the order to “Gear up” once the Pilot Monitoring (PM) confirms with “positive climb” that the plane is ascending. The PM executes the command and replies briefly “Gear up.” Nothing else is said. Only in the event of a technical malfunction will the electronic systems on board report a fault with visual and acoustic signals. “Technical surveillance systems eliminate the need for much verbal interaction,” says Cord Becker, “and further reduce communication in the cockpit to what is absolutely necessary.” This is all part of the perfectionist approach of aeronese: fewer words, more concentration; less language, fewer errors.
Modern aircraft, by contrast, are very communicative. A computer voice will announce “Terrain ahead” if the aircraft is approaching a dangerous obstacle in the air. It will also count down the plane’s height indicated by the altimeter shortly before landing: “1000, 500, 400, 300 …” The plane also provides other alerts, for instance when the permitted sink rate is exceeded before landing. In the latest-generation aircraft, the systems will also alert the pilots when maximum reverse thrust is required after landing. In a loud and clear command spoken not with long words, but with minimalist precision, the aircraft will demand “Max reverse! Max reverse!”
Of course, aviators are capable of banter when they’re not busy concentrating on work. For instance, pilots will refer to the cockpit as the “pointy end” whereas “donkey” refers to an engine. Old-fashioned cockpits full of analogue instruments are fondly referred to as a “watchmaker’s shop” and the autopilot is affectionately called “George.”These terms display the joy of neologism, hyperbole and gentle self-mockery, as evidenced in the following flying instructions – boiled down to the basics: “If you push the stick forward, the houses get bigger, if you pull the stick back they get smaller.”