Aviation English: Why it’s Important for Airborne Sensor Operators to Speak English

ASOG Article of the Month – September 2020

ASOG Author: Bernhard Eckhardt

You might not want to hear it; English is the de facto language for Aviation – and - flying aircraft has no margin for error. Should aircrew members whose mother tongue is not English have a good grasp of Aviation English?

Bernhard Eckhardt, a professional language trainer, answers this critical question & more regarding the importance of “Aviation English” in the Aircrew & Airborne Sensor Operator profession.


If you didn’t know, English is the official language of Aviation, so for anyone aspiring to become an aircrew member, it’s essential to have a high standard of English. A number of years ago, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) set Language Proficiency requirements for specific aviation career fields, especially for those career fields that fly internationally, i.e., passing an exam and receiving a certificate of proficiency.

Besides the technical aspect of having a good grasp of Aviation English, the feet-on-the-ramp answer is that it can save your life (plus many others) and make your professional aircrew life better. It all comes down to communication or, better yet, avoiding miscommunication.

Miscommunicating can be Deadly!

Miscommunication has been an important factor in many aviation accidents. The ICAO has acknowledged that "communications, or the lack thereof, has been shown by many accident investigations to play a significant role." For example:

Tenerife - 27 March 1977

On March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747 passenger jets, operating KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736, collided on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport on the Spanish island of Tenerife. It had resulted in 583 fatalities. Investigators emphasized mutual misunderstanding in radio communications between the KLM crew and ATC. (en.wikipedia.org)

Charkhi Dadri – 12 November 1996

On 12 November 1996, Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 763, a Boeing 747 en route from Delhi, India, to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907, an  Ilyushin Il-76 en route from Chimkent, Kazakhstan, to Delhi, collided over the village of Charkhi Dadri, around 100 km west of Delhi. The crash killed all 349 people on board both planes.  The ultimate cause was held to be the failure of Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907's pilot to follow ATC instructions, whether due to cloud turbulence or due to communication problems. (en.wikipedia.org)

Because of this, communication or miscommunicating is not a trivial thing in aviation. Besides this, it could make a big difference in many aspects of your down-to-earth professional ASO or aircrew career.

Miscommunicating can be Costly!

Besides the deadly effect of miscommunication, there are many other good or practical reasons to have a grasp of Aviation English or, better yet, having a certificate of proficiency.  Not having a functional understanding of Aviation English can affect you (or your employers) time, effort, and money. The following are a few good reasons why it’s important:

Expands training opportunities

Knowing Aviation English expands the type and availability of general and specialized training provided by institutions, manufacturers, and training organizations worldwide. Again, since English is the de facto aviation language, most aviation and other training opportunities are provided in English.

Expands job opportunities

Knowing Aviation English increases your chances of getting an excellent job in a multinational firm within your home country or of finding work overseas. If you scan many job postings related to aviation from around the world, you’ll see the posting in English, or there is a requirement for the candidate to have a good grasp of English.

Increases professional knowledge

Many Flight, Operational and Technical Manuals are written in English. Having the ability to read English will open the door to new sources of information, mitigate making financial errors because you didn’t comprehend the bottom-line, or worst yet, causing an accident because you couldn’t understand the “Caution, Warning, Note” section of a manual.

Increases effectiveness when traveling

Because English is the official language of 53 countries and is used as a lingua franca (a mutually known language) by people from all around the world. This means that whether you’re working in Vienna, or conducting flight operations in Brazil, having a good handle of English can help you effectively communicate with people from all over the world, especially around airfields and locations that cater to international travelers.   

Without saying – It increases your 360-degree effectiveness in the workplace. Having a good grasp of English and Aviation English gives you another tool in your Flight-Bag to avoid being part of an aviation accident, plus it can put you ahead of your peers and your bank account.


Now that you see the benefits, the next question is how you add this skill to your personal and professional kit. As an aircrew member, your goal is to study for and take the ICAO Aviation English exam. With that said, studying for and taking the Aviation English exam has specific standards that are different than just taking an introductory English course and passing with a letter grade. So getting the right training is critical.

In my next article, I’ll highlight everything you need to know when it comes to studying and taking the ICAO Aviation English exam, i.e., standards, proficiency levels, and more….

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