Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Controlling One's Language

I was very interested to learn from comments on my last ATC-related post that "How do you hear?" is the official US wording to elicit what ICAO language describes as a radio check. The US controllers clearly understood both my "request radio check" version of the call and the ICAO scale of strengths and readabilities, so this makes me curious. I have some questions specifically for any US air traffic controllers (or ATC of any country that has local differences, but the US seems to have the greatest deviation). When you initially learned radiotelephony, did you learn both US standard language and ICAO standard language as separate vocabularies? Do you have to demonstrate competence in both separately? I'm assuming your regular instructions are what I have observed: that you understand and accept both vocabularies, but give instructions in American. Will you switch to giving instructions in ICAO language if there is a difficulty in understanding or at pilot request?

As a pilot, I learned primarily the local suite of phraseology, and some of it was footnoted with "this is how it works in Canada, but it's not international." For example in Canada I never give the first letter of my callsign, because everyone knows it's C. Pilots don't receive a lot of formal R/T training in Canada. The only exam we take is a horribly outdated one that ensures we know we can be fined for swearing on the radio, and that hydrogen gas is evolved from lead-acid radio batteries. So many of what I think are standard phraseologies may be Canadian-ICAO differences. I know that American pilots do not carry a separate radio operator's licence, so presumably they have no formal test on the subject. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong).

If I were designing the system, I would declare that that pilots could use ICAO language or local differences within their own country and but be required to always use ICAO in foreign countries. By that logic, controllers would be able to use ICAO or local differences with locally registered aircraft, but stick to ICAO standard communication only with foreign-registered aircraft. That would match exactly the rules for using local languages other than English. So why isn't that the rule? I suspect it's that in English-speaking countries people quickly forget that radio language isn't the same as English.

Radio language isn't even the same all over one country. Was it Florida where I was working that the controllers kept saying "one two, twelve thousand" to reiterate that they were talking about 12,000' and not 1000' or 2000'? Turns out the Dallas and Houston controllers I worked with say "one two thousand" without any clarification, just like Canadian controllers. It must have been a regional thing.

Regardless of what language they speak, the controllers here are really good. They juggle all the incoming aircraft into a conga line for the runways at DFW and IAH, while keeping track of the planes going to little airports in between. They don't forget about me and rarely lose track of what I have requested even after several handoffs. And they watch out for the pilots who need more help. The controller was so gracious as he asks a pilot to confirm his destination and recommends a heading change that I don't know if the pilot even realized that the controller suspected he was lost. This particular pilot kept drifting back to the incorrect course, but the controller never lost patience. "What is your means of navigation?" he asked. I didn't hear the pilot answer the question, only the controller's half of the conversation was audible. I suppose the pilot was operating with a map and a directional gyro that needed to be reset to the compass at regular intervals. It was a windy night so either wind or gyro drift or a combination may have led to his difficulties, but eventually the controller gave him "no compass vectors," asking him to put the airplane into a gentle right turn and hold the bank angle until the controller told him to roll out. I admire the versatility of the controller handholding in one call and then in the next telling United to cross AZEDD at 300 knots, in a big game of three-dimensional tetris.


Matt said...

I'm currently in Oklahoma City going through initial enroute training to become a controller. As for radio checks, the book gave us the "How do you hear?" check. Our instructors (who have been around for a while) mentioned us we may have some aircraft to reply differently (such as the matrix).

As for the altitude assignment, our instructors were very adamant about us only repeating altitudes if necessary. Their logic was that repeating each altitude above 10,000' adds unnecessary words to transmissions. Obviously if needed, you repeat - but it is something they advised us not to do.

That's the lowdown from a fresh new trainee - but... I'm only a trainee... lol

Anonymous said...

Regarding the "one-two, twelve thousand" -- that happens in Pennsylvania (personal experience) and at many places in the center of the country (from listening on United's Channel 9 as a passenger). I believe it's to eliminate the confusion that might result from "one-two thousand" being interpreted as 1,200. That's just a guess, though.

Andy R said...

It could be worse. In France they talk in French to the French pilots and English to everyone else. Now that is hard to follow if you cannot speak French!!!

Julien said...

Here in Australia student pilots have to sit a multiple-choice exam that covers phraseology, frequencies at and around the local airport, operation of the radio itself (e.g. how to turn squelch off), radio wave propagation (VHF is easy, HF is tricky) and radio failure procedures.

HF is still taught in Australia because a large part of the country does not have VHF coverage (our "designated remote areas") and HF is the only way to communicate with ATC that does not involve the ELT.

And we all have to take the ICAO English language test at the same time as the PPL checkride. This also applies to native speakers since it is about understanding clearances spoken in English by persons who only have English as a second or third language.

Not being a native speaker of English I had to work real hard on radio skills and still do. Both for improving my understanding and my being understood.

The good thing is, radio training is cheap: listen to liveatc.net and practice speaking under the shower or while driving:

- Traffic Light Tower Hotel Romeo Golf a Subaru Forester at the holding point Victoria Street requests crossing King Street.
- Hotel Romeo Golf after the lights turn green cross King Street.

Plenty of fun, but better practiced with no passengers in the car.

Anonymous said...

"The only exam we take is a horribly outdated one"
This is about the only time I disagree with you. There is no universal exam in Canada. Every place is different. I was asked a few questions by my flight instructor (he also knew how competent I was) and was give my radio certificate. I know people who had to write exams and I know others who studied for a week only to be asked five questions.
To each their own.

Anonymous said...


Mixed language ATC is something that makes me very uncomfortable. Pilot situational awareness in a mixed language environment is severely degraded. Taking away everyone's awareness of what's going on around them removes one layer of protection against controller error. The first indication a pilot might get that a controller has, for example, cleared two planes to use the same runway at once is the other airplane's landing lights shining in the cockpit.

There's no easy solution to this--local French traffic can't be expected to speak ICAO English and all pilots flying into French airspace can't be expected to speak French--but mixed language ATC environments are an accident waiting to happen.

Replacing voice with language-neutral data links would be a good step but that's a long way off.

Anonymous said...

I'll grab an ATC friend of mine to comment on altitude, but from what I remember from reading the 7110 (the controller equivalent of the FAA's FAR/AIM) altitudes should be given as follows:
1-8,000 as "one-thousand, two-thousand" etc
9,000 "niner- thousand"
10-17,999 "one-zero thousand, one-four thousand, one-eight thousand, five hundred" etc.
and then Flight Levels.
If a controller needs to clarify for whatever reason, he or she should say something like
"one-two thousand, twelve thousand" but I don't remember that being "official" the shortening to "one-two, twelve thousand" may have resulted from something like that though.

Radio Station License: In the US, you only need one for international travel I think, that or it comes with the plane. Either way, as a not-yet-IFR rated PP ASEL I don't need one. I was told by a few CFI's here that if/when I needed one it could be purchased from the FAA for a small fee ($6 I think?). An ATP might know better, as the jet pilots I know who I have asked, all have them.

Aviatrix said...

"The only exam we take is a horribly outdated one"
This is about the only time I disagree with you. There is no universal exam in Canada.

There is an Industry Canada standard exam for Radiotelephone Operators, but issuing authority for the certificate is delegated to most flight schools, and the exam is so bad that many schools don't administer it (even though they are supposed to), and some instead (or as well) have local procedures exams.

Anonymous said...

My favorite part of old school phraseology are the numbers. "tree" == 3, "fow-er" == 4, "fife" == 5, and of course "niner" == 9. I have found that using them actually does help ATC hear correctly, especially on my initial call-up.

Heard on last trip: "Rochester altimeter 2 triple niner". Guess niner niner niner was just too much.

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear 'Trix:

I urge you to read THIS.

Best rgds,


Anonymous said...

re: two language ATC - After some initial 'angst' the system works well in the province of Quebec and Ottawa. If you fly here regularly it's not hard to learn key words in French to alert you to nearby traffic. Pilots whose first language is French actually understand clearances more clearly, thus increasing the overall safety.

Anonymous said...

As a Dallas-area pilot I agree 100% (or more!) about the excellence of the controllers here.I have never heard anything other than infinite patience even when severely provoked.

There was no formal training or testing on radio phraseology for any of my FAA ratings. The examiner just made sure that I could communicate well during the practical part of the test. It wasn't until I got my instrument rating which of course involves frequent radio calls that I became fully comfortable with using the radio. I also listen to airline pilots on my airband radio, and every time when flying United (which pipes cockpit radio communications on channel 9 to the passengers).

Mu instrument instructor did make sure that I knew what readbacks were mandatory, but no-one has ever formally tested me on them. I have noticed that the controllers for Mckinney and DFW approach tend to be a little more co-operative with pilots who use proper terminology and good readbacks, but that's only a matter of degree.

BTW, enjoy your time at Longview (KGGG)! Get some Chicken Fried Steak if you can afford the calories. If I see a green haired Aviatrix piloting a Charlie Golf using ICAO terms somewhere over NE TX, I will wing waggle as you go past.

Anonymous said...

In the US there is no requirement for a radio operators license. Despite what is often taught in flight schools, neither is there a requirement for a radio station license for an airplane radio.

If you fly outside the US you are required to have some sort of license, so pilots generally get the "Restricted Radiotelophone Operator's Permit" No test is required, You just fill out some forms and give them $60.

Anonymous said...

Both my spouse and I have taken and passed the horribly outdated version of the exam. It's funny because the stuff on there that flubs you up, doesn't have any safety relevance, more regulatory. The exam comes from an old typewritten paper that has been photocopied to death so I can assume it was conjured around the time Orville and Wilbur were still signing pilot certs! It was still an accomplishment and milestone on my way to PPL. One of the more fun aspect was learning the ICAO phoenetic alphabet. The way we learned it was to play the license plate game while driving. If the plate ahead of you was 028 TFX you'd race to be the first to call "Tango Foxtrot X-ray!"
She still likes to mess with me and will say "unicorn" or "ostritch". We'll see if ATC concurs...

Anonymous said...

Huh. Last year, I asked an American controller the best way to ask for a radio check, and he said to say, "Radio check."

He wasn't an old fogey, either.

Matthew Stibbe said...

In the UK we say "request radio check" and on three flying trips to the US (PPL, IR and CPL training) controllers understood this fine.

However, we do use the national callsign letter in radio calls, so "G-ABCD" is golf alpha bravo charlie delta or golf charlie delta. Similarly, it's common in the UK for people to fly N-registered aircraft and say November as part of the callsign.

For example, my initial call at Denham would be "Denham Information, november one four seven lima delta, request radio check and airfield information for circuits." or whatever.