Roger that! A pilot’s guide to aviation English
“Gloucester approach, Golf Charlie Echo Kilo Echo is a DR400 inbound from Wellesbourne, currently overhead Northleach at 2,000ft on a QNH of 1015, request joining instructions.”
It’s English, but not as you know it. While English is, ostensibly, the international language of aviation, the way pilots communicate with air traffic control is a language all of its own. Learning to speak on the aircraft radio is one of the most challenging aspects of learning to fly, and new pilots must sit written and practical exams to prove their proficiency.
Understanding ‘pilot speak’ begins with learning the NATO phonetic alphabet and memorizing a vast number of three-letter abbreviations. Many of these arose in the days of Morse code, when radio messages needed to be as succinct as possible. Thus virtually every radio call is peppered with abbreviations, such as QNH (height above sea level, an altimeter setting), POB (persons on board), VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions), and countless others. Aviation English isn’t all abbreviations, though; here are some of the other words you might hear if you were to tune into the radio frequency for your local aerodrome on a blue sky day.
Pronounced ‘AY-firm’, this simply means ‘yes’ (NOT ‘affirmative’). ‘No’ is ‘negative’.
When you’re coming in to land, you’re making an approach. The last stage of the approach, when you’re lined up with the runway, is called final approach, and you might also hear a pilot reporting their position as short final if they’re in the last stage before landing.
Aircraft usually follow a standardised flight path known as a circuit when they’re coming in to land; it keeps inbound air traffic organised and gives the pilot time for pre-landing checks. A circuit involves flying downwind at 1,000ft, parallel to the runway but in the opposite direction to the way you’re about to land. You turn onto the runway heading for your final approach via a shorter stretch known as base leg, 90 degrees to the runway, at which point you start your descent. You can fly a lefthand or righthand circuit, keeping the runway to your left or right side respectively. If you don’t do a circuit and just aim directly for the runway, you’re doing what’s known as a straight-in approach. In America, the circuit is known as the pattern.
The distress call for life-threatening emergencies, such as complete engine failures; also used in shipping. It comes either from the French ‘m’aidez’ (‘help me’), or possibly from ‘m’aider’, short for ‘venez m’aider’ (‘come and help me’), and you say it three times at the start of your radio call.
The name given to the airspace immediately above an airfield or airport; pilots might be asked to ‘report overhead’ when they’re passing over the airfield or making an overhead join (a standard procedure for joining the circuit). They might also ‘request to route through your overhead’, which means they want to fly over the airfield on their way to somewhere else.
The next level of emergency down from a Mayday; used for situations that are serious but not life-threatening, such as one engine failing on a multi-engined aircraft. The term comes from the French word ‘panne’, meaning a breakdown. You say it three times: ‘pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan’.
This means ‘message received’, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll comply (see Wilco, below). ‘R’, now pronounced ‘romeo’ in the NATO alphabet, was originally ‘roger’ – short for ‘received’.
An instruction to ‘squawk 7000’ (or any other four-digit number) means to set this code on your transponder so that your position can be identified on radar. You might also be asked to ‘squawk Mode Charlie’ or ‘squawk ident’, which are transponder settings that help air traffic control to see where you are.
When the air traffic controller or pilot is too busy to take a message, they can say ‘standby’, meaning ‘please wait’. The correct response is to say nothing and wait for them to get back to you.
An abbreviation of ‘will comply’, meaning you’ve both received the message and will do as instructed; so, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to say ‘roger’ as well.