Tuesday, April 10, 2012

¿Se hablas English?

Flying often produces challenges that must be overcome, including engine trouble, navigation errors, mountains you could fly into, flux capacitor problems, puking passengers, a flight attendant with the clap, chief pilots, crew schedulers, crappy schedules or even a lack of a schedule due to a lay off.

But nothing compares to air traffic controllers south of the border.

I flew a red eye from Peru and had an interesting experience. They say English is the standardized language of aviation, but for some of these controllers it isn't even their second language.

We took off from Lima and proceeded north on our assigned route. As we passed about 200 miles north of the airport we were handed off to a controller that required us to give position reports, since this area was non-radar. Picture controllers moving plastic airplanes across a table with a big map on it, like a quintessential World War Two movie.

Everything usually goes OK, unless there is something non-standard. 

Due to a volcano erupting near Bogota, traffic was rerouted to avoid the ash.

In my best Spanish accent:

CONTROLLER: "Ahhh...we need you once 360 degrees at ATIPI"

What did she say?

ME: "Confirm, one 360 degree turn at ATIPI"

CONTROLLER: "No, need once 360 at ATIPI"

Now ATIPI I understood. It was a fix that was on our flight plan. But need once 360? Didn't I just repeat that?

CONTROLLER: "Do you understand?

I think so. One 360 degree turn at the fix ATIPI.

Turns out that wasn't correct. After about 5 minutes of trying to figure out what she wanted, a Copa airlines flight, in better English, told us she wanted us to hold at ATIPI....After she relayed to him in Spanish.

Crisis averted.

A notable accident was caused due to improper English. 

In 1989, Flying Tigers Flight 66 (they were bought by FedEx) was given a clearance, that due confusion, led to disaster. The flight, on approach, was given the following clearance:

"Tiger 66, descend two four zero zero. Cleared for NDB approach runway three three."

What do you think this means? "Descend to 400" or "descend 2,400?" The crew thought he said "Descend to 400" and unfortunately they thought wrong.

As we headed north, we talked to a few more controllers.

The Panamanians are great to understand. I suppose that is the influence the United States placed on it through all our dealings with the Panama Canal.

Jamaican controllers? Ever talked to someone who was high? Ya mon.

I've just got back from a red eye and it's time for a beer and a few rounds of Battlefield 3. No matter what language you speak, getting your ass handed to you by a 12 year old in an online computer game needs no translation.