Near Miss – Cockpit language problem

Once again the problems associated with two languages being allowed for inflight aircraft handling have been highlighted with a very serious near-miss at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on 23 May, just made public.

It should be English only for external communications!

An incoming Norwegian scheduled A320 was within 6ft of the ground when the captain aborted the landing following a safety warning system alert from air traffic controllers.

Flying in cloud the aircraft had been issued the wrong barometric settings for the altimeter when speaking in English, the air traffic controller having previously spoken to another aircraft in French with correct pressures.

In its report the Paris-based Bureau of Investigation and Analysis (BEA) whilst urging airlines to cross check settings did not mention that a possible cause of the problem was the use of two languages at the air traffic control (ATC) centre.

Communication failures have been blamed for more than a thousand deaths in plane crashes, warned an academic who has reviewed the language pilots and air traffic controllers use.

Back in 2016 Dominique Estival, a Western Sydney University linguist, pilot and flight instructor urged native English speakers to adjust their communication in the aviation industry to reduce the risk of misunderstanding by non-English speaking pilots.  “The study of aviation communication sheds light on our understanding of English, and differences between native English speakers and speakers of English as a second language in high risk situations”, Dr Estival said. “Effective communication is paramount in ensuring the success of the global aviation industry”.

Estival said that an investigation of a runway collision between two Boeing 747s in the Canary Islands in 1977 revealed the Dutch-speaking pilot’s lack of English proficiency may have contributed to the accident.

The accident, involving a Pan Am jumbo and a KLM plane, claimed the lives of 583 people – making it the deadliest mishap in aviation history.

All pilots and controllers should be qualified to level 6 English. Under an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) ruling from 2011 there are 6 ICAO official languages and although English is the Lingua Franca, they are allowed to use French. The problem is that pilots listening in may not be proficient in that language.

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