English language -Caused Aviation Accidents: A Case Study

Crash at Tenerife

Crash at Tenerife
Crash at Tenerife

English-Caused Accidents: A Case Study

In the evolution of aviation safety it is often recognized that after an accident, accident investigators conduct exhaustive research in the cause of such accidents. Often, once a conclusion is reached, regulations are put in force to prevent such accidents from happening. There is one regulation, put forth by the ICAO that demands all aviators have a proficiency in the English language. This is to avoid confusion, aid in international flight operations, increase air commerce, and ensure a safer flight environment. What happens, then, if the cause of an accident is found because of this regulation? Language itself is the most complex skill humans can achieve—far beyond the difficulties of attainment of other knowledge areas (O'Grady, 2001) When discrepancies exist between any one who communicates, be it the pilots, the controllers, or even the airplane itself, misunderstanding can cause calamity and reform.

Language Confusion

In any language, the main goal is to be understood. In order for that to happen a source needs to encode a symbol, usually a spoken word, that can be decoded correctly by a receiver. Any language, whether English, mathematics, MySQL, or even whale whistles need to have symbols that have meaning. Spoken language, English for example, is a mixture of many registers that must all be decoded at once.

Phonetics is basically the study of 'noises and their meanings' Phonetics tells us that the 's,' 'z,' or 'ez,' sounds after a noun make the word a plural—or 'more than one'. Phonology tells us when to make one of these three sounds. 'horses' has a 'ez' sound because the 's' after the root is an alveolar fricative. The 'z' sound after bee is because the 'e' is voiced, and the 's' sound after 'front' is because the 't' is unvoiced.

Next, the morphology. Morphology tells us how to put phonemes together to create meaning. A word such as 'military' can turn into many other words depending on the affixes surrounding it.

ex. military—militarization—countermilitarization—demilitarization—pseudocounterdemiliterizationing—etc. Syntax tells us how to put these words together in a sentence in order to derive an even bigger meaning.

ex. Depending on how the enemies react, our military strategy should be successful in the demilitarization of their forces.

Finally, what does it all mean? Semantics helps us understand what a communicator means even though the sentence might seem to mean something else. This is most apparent in idiomatic expressions; where the sentence is different then the actual meaning.

Ex. “Take a bull by the horns” or “Hit the ground rolling”

Meaning: “Let's make sure we get started on this quickly, and thoroughly.”

So what happens then when there is a disconnect on any one of these registers? If there is an inability to decipher meaning in the smallest part of the language puzzle, then greater meaning will never be achieved. (O'Grady, 2001)

Polish Pilots

Recently a Lot Boeing 737 with ninety-three passengers aboard came within seconds of a midair collision. The plane was being piloted with two Polish-pilots who had not passed the English proficiency exam. The plane was flying into Heathrow Airport when the controllers had advised them with instructions after their instruments became unreliable. The pilots could not understand the controllers' instructions and often deviated from their vectors. Because of the Polish pilots' inability to understand clearly where they were in relationship to the airport, the controllers had to vector another plane instead in order to avoid a mid-air collision. In the final report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) it states:

“The crew of Lot 282 were not able to communicate adequately the nature and extent of their problem . . .The commander, who was making the radio calls, was not able to understand some of the instructions . . . the initial error by the co-pilot . . .was compounded by the difficulty of obtaining information from the pilots because of their limited command of English ” (Ben Webster, 2008)


Often regarded as one of the worst aviation disasters in history involved the tragic deaths of hundreds, and the mad rush to regulation. On March 27, 1977 a PanAmerican 747-121 and a KLM 747-206B collided on the runway in low visibility. However, the cause of the accident is mostly blamed for the misunderstandings between ATC, and the pilots aboard the planes. When the KLM airplane was in position and holding, the co-pilot asked for a takeoff clearance. Air Traffic Control gave the clearance instructions, but never explicitly said they were cleared for take-off. When the co-pilot read back the clearance, he stated that they were now 'taking off' Again, without the explicit wording of 'cleared for takeoff' When the controller responded back with the words 'Okay' the pilots then regarded this as further clarification that an original clearance had been given. When KLM was on the takeoff roll, the PanAmerican plane and the controllers both radioed at the same time, canceling each other's calls that the KLM should not take off yet. KLM never heard the radio call and continued resulting in a crash that killed hundreds. (NTSB, 1978)

Once the investigations were completed, it was concluded that the most probable cause of the crash was the ambiguity of the English language that led the KLM pilots to believe that they were cleared to takeoff even without a clearance. The use of a non-standard phrase 'Okay' was the likely culprit in solidifying the KLM crew of their take-off clearance. Limited visibility, of course, was an issue, but was not the cause of the ambiguity. (Mell, 2001)

“The following must also be considered factors which contributed to the accident:

1.- Inadequate language. When the KLM Co-pilot repeated off the ATC clearance, he ended with the words, “we are now at take off”. The Controller, who had not been asked for take-off clearance, and had not granted it, did not understand that they were taking off. The O.K. From the tower, which preceded the “stand by for take-off” was likewise incorrect-although irrelevant in this case because take off had already started about six and a half seconds before” (NTSB, 1978, emphasis added)

Cause and Effect

Sweeping reform of international standardization took hold in a massive effort to keep ambiguity away from pilot/controller communications. Standard phrases and wordage became regulation. For example: 'Okay' is non-standard and now replaced by 'Roger'. This change was to disambiguate an affirmative instruction to be confused with an affirmative clearance. Explicitness in communication is the goal. 'Line-up and wait' is also non-standard and is now 'taxi into position and hold'. The 'hold' being emphasized. This was to bring a standardized term to mean 'don't take off until I say to.' A 'hold' instruction is now an affirmation that the plane is allowed to taxi onto the runway, but not allowed to take off. A clearance has not been issued.

'Take-off' is now a non-standard word and is now replaced by 'departure'. This is also to disambiguate the intentions of the pilot crew and ATC to prevent an airplane from 'taking-off' when it is really ready to 'depart'. Take-off is only used in the actual takeoff roll. While waiting, 'departure' is used.

While all accidents are tragic occurrences, some benefit is derived through standardization and reform. As unfortunate as the situations surrounding the evolution of flight safety is, it is also beneficial to effectively learn and study the causes in order to prevent a future tragedy. English as a standard can cause an accident insomuch as the pilots are deficient in the fluent communication. Stricter reform and standardization has resulted, but as the Polish example hints at, is not as centric as it needs to be yet.

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Comments 11 comments

Michael Egerton 7 years ago

Great article. Thanks for writing it.

Fletch 44 profile image

Fletch 44 6 years ago

Nice hub man.

Balmus Elena Ioana 4 years ago

I find your topic extremely interesting. I wish I read it sooner.

heloboss 4 years ago

"Line Up and Wait" is the new standard...not as stated in the article. "Taxi into Position and Hold" has been replaced. The author is correct inasmuch as language being a barrier to communication, but he seems to blame the language instead of the improper and insufficient certification of the pilots and other aviation operators who have been grated permission to operate without the proper level of fluency and understanding.

Anthony Stephens 4 years ago

Reference the "Line Up and Wait" instruction; the ruling should be reviewed again in terms of the possibility for ambiguity. Yes, it is a known fact that Europe aviation industry has been using the phrase for decades. We have only just recently been directed via FAA officials to start using it. I feel it is a step in the wrong direction, having been a controller for 26 years. Taxi into position and hold is a clear and unambiguous control instruction. It shouldn't have to take another incident like the one mentioned in the article to get us in the US to see the necessity for keeping "taxi into position and hold" in our standard phraseology.


Whisper 4 years ago

The trouble with the English language is that it is the most precise yet the most confusing language in the world. Unfortunately the dual meaning of many words and similarly sounding of many others leaves an unacceptable amount of room for error in an industry that cannot accept ambiguity. This is why "standard phraseology" became the norm.

What occurred was specific words and phrases were given defined meanings. In doing this the meanings were expected to alleviate all confusion, a noble idea that did not achieve the ideal set as its goal.

In my experience the result only partially successful because of the nonstandard standard. Confused? I should think so. What I mean is rather than a single set of standard phrases, there are multiple sets. I have controlled in three countries and trained in two others and in each of these countries I have encountered different standard phrases designed to eliminate confusion. Aviation, almost by definition, is an international activity yet there remains national control of the "meaning" of terms. Many of the words we use have achieved an internationally defined meaning. I am aware that all words and phrases to be used in aviation will never be outside the realm of ambiguity but with the amount of international and intercontinental flight, I think it is time for a single set of world wide defined words and phrases.

Another area that needs to be addressed is enlightening controllers to the use of "localisms" and "slang" terms. I remember hearing a controller who's mother tongue was English instructing an aircraft to taxi to a specific location. The pilot was easily identified as a non-native English speaker and had informed the controller he was not familiar with the airfield was instructed to "taxi left and straight ahead." The controller had no doubt as to what he intended to convey but even though this occurred several years ago, I still question whether the pilot was initially confused by the instruction. Perhaps it be clearer to use instructions like "turn left onto taxiway XX, your parking area will then be at your 12 o'clock, advise in sight."

Whatever occurs we must strive of eliminate confusion, especially to those who are not fluent in English. However, for those of us who are, we must guard against assuming what we transmit will not unintentionally mislead the receiver of that transmission. I once made a transmission to an aircraft to "remain one half mile south of" thinking I was being very clear in my instruction. The pilot, hearing the "one" and not being a native English speaker thought my intention was for him to remain 1 1/2 miles south. I later found out from him that if I had used the words "a half mile south" he would of understood. To my knowledge there is no standard phraseology for such a situation and suspect there will never be. We cannot regulate every situation or every word nor would it be reasonable to do so. I do however, advocate for a greater effort for a single, world wide, phraseology.

Charles 4 years ago

NotEnglish but..... Arrogance........read the repoert!

DE WISPELAERE 4 years ago

Read-back and hear-back was often identified as the cause of ATS incidents.

Deviaton from standard phraseology should be avoided at all times

Onklo Eng profile image

Onklo Eng 3 years ago

Dankon pro via artikolo.

jes, the research has shown much of that issue can be solved by using Esperanto but no one would like to listen to that suggestion. They rather take the risk of each flying in and out of the planes.

I could not provide you with the article by a pilot but you can perhaps get the search engine to help you.

KL 2 years ago

Line up and wait - There is no ambiguity in using this phraseology. Local deviations occur, but an ICAO level 4 in english should be the absolute minimum for pilots and controllers alike. What the "actual" level of english is depends a great deal of the testing culture, average english skills of the population and who is conducting the testing in each country.

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