I have had a few people asking me the question: How do pilots and ATC communicate over Chinese airspace? The answer is: In aviation English (which I will give an example of at the end of this blog article).
It is nothing new that most pilots operating on Chinese airlines cannot (with all due respect), speak good enough English (or none whatsoever in some cases). It would be true that the current and the future generation of Chinese pilots that are trained in Australia or the U.S.A. can converse in English, but those who are trained in China may not be able to converse in English (especially veteran pilots). The same goes for airline and military pilots from Japan, Korea, Russia, and other countries where English may not be widely used even as a second language. Having spoken to a few airline pilots from various international airlines such as Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways, British Airways, and Emirates, the problems come about when pilots whose first language is English are trying to work out what is going on when they listen to the Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) transmissions over the airwaves. It certainly does not help if the local ATC and local pilots are communicating in Chinese rather than the international aviation language (i.e. English).
Captain Bill Johnson, who flies the Boeing 777-300ER says though the problem is a global one, it can be more problematic over Chinese airspace because of the seriousness of the language issues. 'When we are flying over Chinese airspace, more times than one we have to repeat everything to make sure that the Chinese ATC and other aircraft in the immediate airspace can understand what we are saying,' said Captain Johnson who has over 20 years flying experience.
‘The main difference between flying over China or Russia, and other parts of the world is that the measurements used by Chinese and Russian ATC and pilots are in meters. The metric altitudes translate into feet, and most airlines give pilots a conversion table. The metric altitudes translate into feet, and most airlines give pilots a conversion table,’ said Captain Johnson.
Captain Syed Abdul Aziz A. Rahman who flies the Airbus A340, told me that the Chinese and Russians have devised their own meters to feet conversion tables, which can be problematic if you have never flown into Russia or China. "Basically they have assumed that 300 meters = 1000 feet. Airlines have to then change it to their own specific standard operating procedure. The First Officer (or the Pilot not flying is most cases) reads the metric equivalent in feet which is then inputted into the FMS and altitude window by the Captain (or the Pilot who is flying) who also checks the ECAM ( Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor) screen for agreement on both sides. The procedure, which takes around 5 minutes, finishes by both pilots agreeing visually and verbally," said Captain Rahman, a veteran with over 22 years flying experience. The checking procedure at the end is so important because otherwise pilots can have problems when flying over international airspace.
I fondly recall sitting in the jumpseat of a China Southern Airlines Boeing 757 from Guangzhou to Sanya where the captain hardly spoke a single word of English. He spoke some aviation language such as 'Standby', 'Affirmative', 'OK, China Southern 6748 climb to flight level 350'. But to my surprise some of the most important instructions were in Chinese, such as 'Cleared for take-off', 'Cleared to land', 'V1.....V2...Rotate' were all in Chinese! His English, with all due respect, was so limited that instead of telling me to wait he shouted aviation terms 'standby....standby!'. On that particular occasion even the First Officer could not communicate in normal English.
Captain Sheetal Rajan, a senior training Captain on the Boeing 747-400 with the Boeing company and CEO of 'Air Safety Equipment', says that even though the minimum required international standard for English is IACO Level 4 (which is equivalent to Level B1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)), he is still surprised that some pilots in places such as China and Russia tend to have a lower level of English than the international required standard. ‘I suppose they may just rely on using aviation English,’ says Captain Rajan.
Because of the amount of traffic in the skies and the quick turnaround time needed at airports for take-offs and landings, the vast majority of ATC around the world speak quickly (a crude example is the ATC at London Heathrow where a plane lands or take-offs EVERY 50 seconds or so!). In busy airspaces such as India and China it is no exception. Even a one minute delay in the aviation industry can end up costing hundreds of dollars, so ATC are always under pressure to make sure that planes get from A to B as safely and quickly as possible. With this in mind most of the ATCs whose first language is not English (i.e. Indians, Chinese, Thai, Russians etc.) tend to speak quickly to the pilots. However to eliminate confusion they have to repeat it twice over so that the pilots can understand what they are going on about. Unless, of course, there is not that much traffic around so then ATC can speak as clearly and slowly as possible (which is rare around busy airports such as Shanghai Pudong, Beijing etc.).
The skies over China can get ridiculously busy, and with the aviation industry seeing a fast growth in the country, it would only be time when Chinese pilots will need to start speaking fluent English.
Examples of aviation language:
Standby = please wait
Retard = Its an autothrottle callout during flare to retard the thrust levers (normally you hear the FMS say this 3 times….’Retard, retard, retard’)
Affirmative = OK,I understand
Flight Level 350 = 35,000 feet (similarly Flight Level 360 = 36,000 feet and so on)
Cleared for take-off/Cleared to land (easy to understand!)
Climb Up/Descend (easy to understand!)
Turn right heading 180 degrees/Turn left heading 180 degrees etc.
Speed back to 170knots (or 180 knots etc.)
The alphabet from A-Z is standard as with the police/fire/ambulance services (A= Alpha, B = Bravo, C= Charlie, D= Delta, E= Echo, F= Foxtrot, G= Golf, H= Hotel, I= India, J= Juliet, K= Kilo, L= Lima, M= Mike, N= November, O= Oscar, P= Papa, Q= Quebec, R= Romeo, S=Sierra, T=Tango, U=Uniform, V=Victor, W=Whiskey, X=X-ray, Y= Yankee, Z=Zulu !!)
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