The Parlance of Pilots.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a pilot with British Airways, and writes engagingly about the language of the air:

The day I first flew in the cockpit of an airliner, I fell in love with the sights, of course, but also the sounds. […] I fell in love with what I saw from the airplane that day. But I was equally struck by the clipped, technical majesty of the words I heard through the expensive-looking noise-cancelling headset the pilots had handed to me. The pilots spoke of ‘localisers’ and ‘glideslopes’ and ‘veerefs plus five’ (VREF, I now know, is a baseline landing speed). On the radio they talked, in terms I could barely understand, to a series of laconic folks who identified themselves as ‘Maastricht Control’ and ‘London Centre’ and the all-powerful-sounding ‘Heathrow Director’. And the plane itself spoke out loud as we neared the ground, announcing our heights and then, all of a sudden, asking us in a brisk, clear voice, to ‘DECIDE.’ […]

A prominent feature of Aeroese is its deep nautical roots. Think port and starboard, forward and aft; deck; log; captain and first officer; bulkhead, hold and galley; rudder and tiller; wake; knot; even waves, as in mountain waves, an atmospheric disturbance that can produce turbulence. And of course the word aeronautical itself. […]

So what does Aeroese actually sound like on the radio? You can listen to certain air-traffic frequencies online – although most exchanges contain terms and certainly nuances that wouldn’t be apparent to non-Aeroese speakers. ‘Descend flight level 100, then reduce minimum clean.’ ‘Establish localiser two-seven-right, when established descend glide.’ And: ‘Check 63 north 40 west 1830 flight level 340 estimate 64 north 50 west 19 hundred CLAVY next.’ These examples from recent flights of mine I wouldn’t have been able to begin to make sense of as a teenager, even one who loved airplanes and read all he could about them.

Lots of good stuff there. Thanks, Jack!

Unrelated, but I support this Open Letter to the Linguistic Society of America about “the widespread problem of sexual harassment and the failure of existing responses from the academic units where our members study and work.” (More links and discussion at the Log.) I saw that at Yale forty years ago and it’s depressing that things haven’t gotten much better since.

Update. The LSA Executive Committee responds; they seem to be taking it seriously.


  1. I worked for a publisher, Prentice Hall, in the 1980s when we published a book by Fiona Roberston called Airspeak: Radiotelephony Communication for Pilots. It was from our English as a Foreign Language people, as I recall, in a series called English for Specific Purposes (Hotel, Business etc). As the clip from Mark Vanhoenacker suggests, native English-speakers don’t automatically know what pilots are talking about; the language of aviation is not so much English itself as (as the intro to Airspeak puts it) “the world’s most successful semi-artificial international language: English-based RT phraseology and procedures”.

    My father was an airline pilot, and when I was a teenager up until 1974, when he retired on Boeing 707s, my brother and I could take turns sitting on the flight deck with him (or his colleagues, if he wasn’t flying) for landings and takeoffs on trips between London and Kuwait, where he worked (usually three of each – not so many non-stop flights back then). Happy days, and I loved the view, the machinery and the controls, though I don’t remember hearing that much oddly exotic techno-language as the flight deck was noisy. (Now, of course, it is locked, and the kids of a BA captain I know at my pub can’t do the same thing that I could.)

    JG Ballard, the writer, briefly trained as an RAF pilot in Canada, and I believe had some vague notion of becoming a nuclear bomber pilot and then an airline captain. Born in 1930 and training on NATO air bases in the 1950s, he at one very small point in his life was on a career path similar to that of fully half of the Apollo moon-walkers, also 1930-born. Ballard had a fabulous way with words and the textures of various technical languages which he deploys in his works all over the place (he also trained a couple of years in medicine at Cambridge, and was assistant editor of the scientific journal Chemistry and Industry for four years).

    But I think he would have made a pretty disastrous military or commercial pilot – I can’t imagine him fully concentrating on the issue at hand. He was disciplined in his writing and his child-rearing – with the early death of his wife he had three kids under 7 he then raised solo, writing in between taking them to school and collecting them, then dedicating most of the rest of the day to watching TV with them. But in long stretches of flying I can imagine his attention wandering from his instruments and he would be more likely to be admiring, as he put it in his memoir Miracles of Life, extraordinary atmospheric effects like triple suns blazing through the frozen haze. Or contemplating the coming all-encompassing media landscape, or atomic armageddon, or the sculptural and sexual possibilities of devastating crashes, or the joyous breakdown of social life in a high rise.

    And I don’t think my father or any of his colleagues would have been any good at writing like JG Ballard. Several pilots have been good writers on flying – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Cecil Lewis, Michael (Apollo 11) Collins, Mark Vanhoenacker, many more no doubt. And an ex-pilot like Roald Dahl has made a career writing some weird stuff (albeit after a serious head injury from a plane crash). But I wonder how many working airline pilots are also accomplished writers of violent thrillers or surreal psychiatric science fiction? They might get taken off their flight decks! I bet they don’t use their own names if they do.

    When Ballard submitted his Crash, in which the protagonists become sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car-crashes, one publisher’s reader said “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!”. He was then 43 and if he had also been a BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) captain at the time on the VC-10 or early 747, well, he might well have been relieved of his duties.

    (Sorry for banging on so long!)

  2. (Sorry for banging on so long!)

    Not at all, it’s great stuff! And I agree about Ballard; a wonderful writer, but I wouldn’t have wanted to fly in a plane he was piloting.

  3. Always nice to get an inside look at activities we will never ever be involved in.

  4. mixes live ATC chatter and ambient music.

  5. I notice that the British writer uses “airplane” rather than “aeroplane”. Is this also part of the parlance of pilots?

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