Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Parlez Vous Airplane?

I sleep late, because I'm on the night shift today. My coworker did an AM flight so I'm on deck for the evening. There's supposed to be more snow on the way early tomorrow morning, a really heavy dump, in fact, and the customer wants to get lots of work done before it arrives. They're ready to go a couple of hours before dark.

The airplane is prepared and both engines start easily this time. When the engine temperatures are up, I taxi clear of the metal buildings and call ATC for clearance. The local controller coordinates with the terminal controller, who manages traffic coming into all the local airports, whether it's a C185 following the river from Hull or a triple-seven arriving from Europe. I'm cleared by the tower controller to climb straight out, with an altitude restriction, then given a vector, then a frequency change to terminal. Terminal wants more details on what I'm doing, then clears me on course. The sun is low in the sky behind me and I turn up the cockpit lights.

The cold air is very clear and as the world darkens, I can see the bright city lights for miles around. Montreal is an island in the St. Laurence River, so there is a black band around the city where the river flows, and then more lights of the suburbs. The physical barrier of the river has prevented urban sprawl, so a lot of the surrounding land is still agricultural. I remember from history class that while the English landowners willed their estates to the eldest son, leaving the younger sons to figure out something else to do with their lives, French landholders divided theirs amongst their sons, resulting in narrower and narrower strips still ending at the river. Before darkness falls I see what I suspect is the result of such land divisions, still existing northeast of the city.

When the sky has faded to black, I'm still not really doing night flying. You never really do in the south. There's always a city or town, if not right below you then within fifty miles, and the light allows you to distinguish up from down, and land from sky without recourse to the instruments. I'm working very close to Dorval, right through one of the busiest times of the evening, so I'm in constant contact with ATC. I try to maintain a mental three-dimensional picture of the airplanes they are handling, so that I spot the descending Airbus before they all with the traffic. It's tougher when half the calls are in French, though. It's bad enough not knowing reporting points, but don't know all the vocabulary I need to understand the calls, either.

ATC in the Montréal area is officially bilingual, with service available in English or French at the pilot's choice. You simply use your preferred language to make the initial call, and they continue to address you in that language. Air France pilots always seem to choose French. I wonder if they have any difficulty with the local accent. Air Canada pilots sometimes choose one and sometimes the other, probably based on the language they are most comfortable using in the cockpit. It is amusing listening to ATC change languages effortlessly, giving the same reporting points different names depending on who they are talking to. For example, most Canadians, whether speaking English or French, pronounce the town and airport of Saint-Hubert like san-too-bear, using the liason and silent H and T of the French. But to English-speaking pilots, the controller doesn't flinch to say saynt WHO-burt with English syllable stress and pronouncing every consonant. I ask to overfly Saint-Mathieu-de-Beloeil, which I pronounce approximately san-ma-too-dbel-oy, and wait with bated breath to see if the official English pronunciation includes something like bell-OIL. Even the controller must have cringed at that thought, as he cleared me "direct Saint Matthew" and left it at that.

All the time I was flying in the Montréal area I only heard a controller flub the language once, making a traffic point out call to Air Wisconsin in French, but catching himself and then returning to perfectly accented English for the American carrier.

We finish the mission and secure the airplane for the night. It's supposed to snow all night, then turn to rain tomorrow and rain for a day before more clear weather.

Oh and I found this on the BBC website. It perfectly explains the anglophone in Québec.

The Canadian journalist Karl Mamer, author of a website on Franglais, says many Canadians speak "cereal box French", as they only get to practise it by reading the bilingual text on the back of the box in the morning.

When they then travel to French-speaking centres, like Montreal or Quebec City, their few words of French are used as a kind of peace offering to shopkeepers. He says they're thinking: "Look, I'm going to try speaking as much French as possible, showing you I'm making a sufficient effort, and then you please switch to your fluent English as soon as I've linguistically self-flagellated myself before you."


Anonymous said...

It sounds like you had a fun flight.

The same thing happens with controllers in China. They speak Chinese to all their Chinese traffic. It makes it almost impossible to keep track of where the planes are. You can also, on rare occasions, hear Japanese controllers issue instructions in Japanese, usually in response to a request made in Japanese.

I'll have to check the cereal boxes next time I walk through a store. :-)

Anonymous said...

I learned from coworkers that if you can hear any "n" sounds in "Jean Leblanc," you're saying it wrong. So my accent is decent, and I can understand a lot of what is said to me, and I found on a couple trips to Quebec City that if I stick to standard tourist vocabulary "hello" "how much is this?" I can get by. But since QC is a big tourist spot, it's ok to say a couple things in French then switch right to English.

) way better than my ability to speak it, so when I've been on trips (mainly to Quebec City)

Lord Hutton said...

The language comment is very true.

david said...

As Aviatrix knows, Ottawa Terminal and Tower are also officially bilingual, as, of course, is Montreal Centre (which extends far into Ontario), so this has been the norm for me since my first intro flight.

It's always funny to hear an Air Canada pilot speaking perfect English to Toronto Centre, then switching to French with Montreal and Ottawa, just because he can (and correcting the controller if he/she accidentally uses English).

Here's my posting from a year and a half ago collecting some French aviation vocabulary:


Anonymous said...

I learned to fly in Geneva (LSGG) which is also french-english bilingual. There is nothing wrong with it, except when frquency becomes really loaded. If some pilots can't understand each other's position reports, the controller has to re-issue them in the other language, which increases the workload.

The typical example is a french speaking VFR pilot reporting "En finale pour la piste gazon" immediately followed by a traffic information from the controller mentionning "Light aircraft on final for the grass strip"... A bit sub-optimal.

Anonymous said...

on the subject on unhelpful traffic advisories - I too live in a bi-lingual terminal area, only here in Dallas it is English, and airline-pilot Texan. If seems that when SWA and AA pilots leave the front end of Boeings, Airbus' and Embraers, and climb into their Cessnas, they get extremely southern in speech and drop all professional aviation behaviour. No-one knows what they will do next, some are outright menaces in the pattern - random unintelligeable unicom calls, or radio silence (in well equipped Bonanzas and Cessna 210s, no less). Several other pilots and controllers I know have made similar comments, it's not just me.

Anybody else seen the same?

Jim said...

122.8 is the ATF for Carp airport, and is also used at a number of airports within radio range in Ontario, Quebec and New York.

I was flying towards the practice area one day when the tell-tale screechy jumble came through the headset, followed by a Unicom operator somewhere saying "Golf - xxx - xxx - xxx, say again, you got stepped on in both official langauges".

Callsign Echo said...

In the early days of my private rating I had an absurdly handsome instructor from Spain, whose accent hit that happy medium between "That's a Spanish accent," and "WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU SAYING?"

One day two pilots were tying up the practice area freq with lots of chatter...in Spanish. My instructor was livid. He spat, "That ees illegal," and jumped on the mike. After a five minute reaming from a furious Spaniard, there was radio silence for the rest of our flight.

It impressed the heck out of me, and I didn't understand more than one word in three.

dpierce said...

I understand about switching your pronunciation to fit your audience. Someone pointed out that I do this with "Tokyo", for example, saying "to kyo" to my Japanese friends, and "to key yo" to my western friends.

I think it's the same circuit in the brain that makes me say "zee" to my American friends and "zed" to everyone else.