Pilots, controllers flying to Fla. to learn new language: English Proficiency is seen as key to avoiding accidents worldwide


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The task for the student air traffic controller was routine: tell the pilot to maintain level flight and pass over a specific point before proceeding to a landing at Orlando International Airport.

But in this drill, the controller was Chinese, as was the man in the role of the pilot. They were among 15 controllers who spent the past eight weeks in Daytona Beach learning to speak and understand an unfamiliar language in which the fate of hundreds of lives can turn on a single phrase.

"TWA 754, Orlando approach," said the controller, Shu Xiaobin, identifying himself to the plane as he had been drilled. "Maintain 6,000 feet."

He continued, "Proceed direct to," then paused and said something the pilot did not understand, possibly because it sounded nothing like the destinations Shu announces in Jiangxi RTC Province or the ones heard around Beijing by the man playing the pilot, Li Jianming. "What?" Li said over his headset. "Proceed direct to what?"

This was just an exercise, at an air traffic control laboratory at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. But starting in just over a year, Chinese controllers are to begin speaking in English to all pilots, both Chinese and foreign, in all parts of China with international traffic.

Including the 15 Chinese controllers, Embry-Riddle has trained 75 such students from China in a rare international program that teaches veteran controllers to work in another language at a time when English-speaking air traffic is rapidly growing in their country. School officials say the controllers arrive with varying levels of training in English and leave with skills that are better, but uneven.

Proficiency in English among air traffic controllers and pilots is a problem around the world, and has been blamed for several recent crashes. Some airlines put an interpreter in the cockpit, and at critical moments, some pilots whose English is not adequate have been known to obtain language help from flight attendants whose English is better.

But with airplanes moving at hundreds of miles an hour in often crowded airspace, U.S. safety experts worry about such practices. They say that nothing can substitute for the language abilities of the pilots and controllers themselves. After an American Airlines jet crashed in Colombia a year ago, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration do more to help improve the language proficiency of foreign controllers worldwide.

"It's certainly an issue that needs vigilance," said Barry M. Sweedler, the director of the office of safety recommendations at the board.

This year is already the most deadly-ever for airline passengers, with 1,187 killed so far, hundreds in disasters in regions of the world where air travel is growing rapidly despite shortcomings in safety equipment and expertise.

As the world grows smaller, Sweedler and others say they think that the language gap may grow larger, because, he said, "air traffic will be expanding to nations that haven't had as great a need to have controllers proficient in English."

That description fits China. In early 1995, Delta Air Lines asked the Chinese authorities for permission to fly a new route into Beijing. Because the route would take the planes over Heilongjian, Jilin and Liaoning, three northeastern provinces where few controllers spoke English, the Civil Aviation Authority of China set a price: Delta would have to arrange to train controllers in English.

Delta sent them to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a 70-year-old institution that is the world's largest and oldest institution of higher learning dedicated to aviation. United Airlines and Federal Express, which also want to expand their routes in China, have also sponsored such courses. Financing for Shu's group was provided by Federal Express. The airlines pay about $100,000 for each group of 15 students.

China will need hundreds more because the central government has set Jan. 1, 1998, as the date when controllers and pilots are to speak English to one another in all sectors with international traffic. This is a safety measure used all over the world, so that all pilots in a sector can listen in on all conversations and know the locations of all other planes.

Pub Date: 12/09/96

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad