Knowing Your ABCs

I was speaking to a friend about flying and she asked about language issues when flying around mainland Europe. These are thankfully few and far between as English is generally accepted or even required for speaking on the radio. I’ve written before about struggling to understand a French controller with a strong accent but generally I know what to expect in a radio call which makes it a lot easier to understand the detail.

It did make me remember a flight into Altenrhein (St Gallen), an airfield in Switzerland on the coast of Lake Constance. It was a gorgeous flight, my first time over the Alps, but it mainly sticks in my mind as the place where I forgot my ABC’s. I became completely confused as to what language I was speaking simply because of the difference in alphabets.

Altenrhein on Lake Constance

As I was approaching our destination storm clouds had begun to gather and I was somewhat stressed. I was there for the first time and the load was high. Someone spoke on the radio in German – just asking a quick question, not anything critical – and I started feeling serious language interference.

I speak fluent German but I don’t speak Aviation German and even where it might be allowed, I wouldn’t speak German to ATC as it would cause a higher workload for me. I suspect there are a lot of Europeans who are most comfortable speaking in English when it comes to radio communications, simply because that’s what they are taught and the speech patterns and routines are so ingrained.

Anyway, none of this would have made a difference if things were quiet. As I was already stressed and dealing with a heavy workload, the part of my brain that deals with keeping my words straight was temporarily distracted.

At that moment, the controller asked me how I was coming in. European airfields use VFR reporting points for where you can enter their area which are based on the points of the compass: November, Echo, Sierra, Whiskey. Often there are additional reporting points further out which are marked with a single letter.

On this flight, I was coming in via point Z. Zee, I thought to myself, and then immediately corrected myself to British English. I should say Zed, not Zee! I keyed the microphone but somehow that didn’t seem right. I let go as I thought it through. The controller doesn’t sound English. I’m not in England. I’m in Switzerland! How do the Swiss say Z?

I opened my mouth again to speak and the words on the tip of my tongue were: I’m coming in via Zurich. Luckily, the controller chose that moment to ask the question again. That split second delay gave me the chance to work out what I was supposed to be saying. “November 666 Echo X-ray is approaching the airfield for runway 28 via point Zulu.” International alphabet to the rescue!

My brain was faster than my mouth on that occasion, but only just.

Category: Miscellaneous,

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