The language of the skies is a special one, and commercial air travel is my favourite thing on (above?) earth. Have you ever listened in on the in-seat cockpit-to-air-traffic-control radio channel? Try it some time. But also read this lovely piece about the parlance of pilots.
“I like how different the language of the sky is from everyday English – indeed, we might give it its own name, Aeroese (though it’s also sometimes, and less aspirationally, called Aviation English). Above all, I love how Aeroese can somehow manage, in its technical, obscuring precision, to capture the high romance of flight – an aspect of my job, no matter how much I love it, that in the cockpit we rarely have reason to consider directly.
…Imagine a plane that flies from London to Bangkok. The pilots speak first to British air-traffic controllers but, just a few minutes after takeoff, the British controllers hand them over to Belgian or Dutch ones, who soon pass them to German controllers, and then to Czech, to Hungarian, to Romanian, to Turkish, to Iranian ones, and so on. It’s hard to imagine a system more in need of a common language. And that language is English (or English-derived Aeroese). When a Venezuelan pilot speaks to a New York air-traffic controller, or when a pilot from Brooklyn speaks to a controller in Caracas, they speak in English. It’s something to marvel at, the first time you fly to Tokyo, say, and you hear an exchange between a Japanese pilot and a Japanese air-traffic controller, both speaking carefully in Japanese-accented English. It’s standardisation and globalisation by force of bare necessity, by force of speed.
Though Aeroese has predominantly English roots, a handful of common meteorological abbreviations have French origins (as do the words fuselage and aileron, of course). BR is Mist (brouillard) GR is Hail (grêle); HN is Sunset to Sunrise (horaire de nuit). MI is Shallow (a usage derived from mince) and BC is Patches (from bancs).
In a heavens-transiting industry, angels are ‘an echo caused by physical phenomena not discernible to the eye… sometimes attributed to insects or birds flying in the radar beam’… Dry snow ‘can be blown if loose, or, if compacted by hand, will fall apart on release’, while Wet snow, ‘if compacted by hand, will stick together and tend to form a snowball; specific gravity: 0.35 up to but not including 0.5’.”
— Mark Vanhoenacker, The Parlance of Pilots
- On approaching touchdown, a disembodied voice tells pilots to “DECIDE” whether to proceed or back out.
- “Speedbird” is cockpit shorthand for a British Airways flight. The maintenance office is “Speedbird Library”.
- There are set pronunciation rules, especially for numbers, to avoid confusion.
- Waypoints are identified by five-letter abbreviations, some very wry. “Many waypoint names are gibberish, but others are more colourful – DRAKE in the English Channel (for Sir Francis); BARBQ near Kansas City; WHALE in the Mediterranean, off Benghazi. When descending to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, fans of the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons will enjoy this sequence: ITAWT ITAWA PUDYE TTATT (followed by IDEED).”
- The on-board satellite phone is actually called the Batphone.
- The pilot-to-pilot ‘chat’ frequency is 123.45Hz.