Pilot chat – Are you onboard the conversation?

Aviation English is the chosen language – or listening and radiotelephony speak – for pilots, Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCO), aircraft maintenance engineers, technicians, airport crew, and airline and cabin staff.

Are you across some of the handy phrases every pilot should know?

Have you listened to the way a pilot speaks over the intercom? Can you make out everything they say?

Sometimes all those codes and terms can sound like another language. Clear and accurate communication is a part of a pilots skill set. Aviation English is another essential element in learning to fly.


Passing the radio communications exam is compulsory for all trainee pilots. A pilots role is to be fluent and knowledgeable in the various technical words and abbreviations. A pilot who can respond swiftly and accurately with an air traffic controller will significantly reduce the margin for error. In the air, mishearing can lead to a big mistake.

Some of the worst plane disasters occurred with confusion from the pronunciation of certain words. A pilot must not just break through the sound barrier, but the language barrier as well.

On a 1977 flight to Tenerife (on Spain’s Canary Islands), a Dutch captain told air traffic control: “We are at take-off”. The ATCO misheard the words, and with poor weather conditions, the control tower failed to monitor two planes headed for collision. Over 500 people were killed in what is still regarded as the worst aviation disaster in history.


The NATO spelling alphabet that you may already know (Alpha = A and Bravo = B) was first developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) after World War II.

Like all languages, the phonetic alphabet can differ around the globe. Certain Scandinavian countries have altered letters and added symbols. Some words in the NATO alphabet are spelt differently to assist with international pronunciations. For example, ‘Alfa’ is spelt without the ‘ph’ because some European languages would not pronounce it as an ‘f’. ‘Juliett’ is given an extra ‘t’ for similar reasons because, in French, with Juliet a single ‘t’ is silent.


  • AFFIRM – Don’t believe everything you saw on Top Gun! Pilots don’t say “affirmative” for ‘yes’ – the correct term is “AY-firm”.APPROACH – A plane coming into land.
  • DEADHEAD – A member of the crew who is travelling in a passenger seat. (We hate to think what they call the passengers!)
  • MAYDAY – This is one you never want to use. It’s the distress call for emergencies, such as a complete engine failure. It comes from the French’m’ aidez’, meaning ‘help me.’ A pilot will say it three times (for good luck!)
  • MEL – Minimum Equipment List – This means a part of the aircraft has malfunctioned but is not of vital importance. Can you imagine turning the plane around for a broken coffee maker?
  • PAN-PAN – This is the next level of distress down from ‘Mayday.’ Apply it situations which are severe but not life-threatening. Pan-pan originates from the French word ‘panne’, meaning a breakdown. Like ‘Mayday’ it is said three times at the start of a call. It’s not to be confused with the ‘can-can’ which is a dance you should only do in emergencies!
  • ROGER – Contrary to popular belief, not all men who work in aviation are called Roger. This code-word confirms the pilot has received a message but not yet complied.
  • SQUAWK – To squawk is to set your transponder (the device for receiving a radio signal) so that your location can be identified on radar. Pilots may be asked to ‘squawk Mode – – Charlie’ or ‘squawk ident’, which are individual settings to allow air traffic control to locate a plane.
  • STANDBY– Meaning “please wait”, this is said when the air traffic controller or pilot is too busy to receive a message.
  • WILCO – An abbreviation of “will comply”, meaning the message has is received, and the pilot will comply.

So, read up on handy phrases every pilot should know, then combine them with clear pronunciation and eager listening skills, and you are clear for takeoff.

Okay, BRAVO YANKEE ECHO! (That’s ‘over and out’ by the way). We hope the airwaves as clear for you as the skies. See you out on the runway.