Aviation English, A History of

Time Line of English Language in Aviation

Prior to WWII, communication in aviation was not considered a major safety hazard. With relatively empty skies communication was not a major concern[7].


  • With the close of World War two, NATO member states held the “Convention on International Civil Aviation” in Chicago, to decide what to do about global civil air navigation issues [6].


  • The “International Civil Aviation Organization” or ICAO is formed[5].


  • ICAO instated English as the official language of aviation. ICAO advised all airports and routes to operate in their native language, but to have English available for international flights[5].

English was chosen as the international language because the nations that manufactured and operated the majority of aircraft at the time were English speaking [5].


  • A Trident and a DC-9 collide mid-air over Zagreb.

English ability cited as contributory. 176 Die.

ICAO logo (image embedded fromskybrary29 Sep 2010)
Chicago Convention signatures (image embedded fromicao.int29 Sep 2010)


English ability cited as contributory. 583 Die.

After a trying shift, the Dutch pilot of a Boeing 747 misunderstood a “clearance, after take off” for a “take off clearance” and began rolling down a fog-covered runway. He radioed to the tower (a Spanish ATCo) that he was “at takeoff”. The non-native English speaking air traffic controller took the “at” to literally mean “at the take off position”. However, through fatigue or frustration, the Dutch pilot had performed an error, that only bilingual speakers can, called “code switching”. It is when one uses two languages concurrently. In this case the Dutch infinitive “ing”, (as in taking off), but replaced with the English word “at”. Although there were many other contributory factors in this crash, this miscommunication, in part, caused what is to this day the worst aviation accident in history [4]. The crash at Tenerife and many others over the coming years contain elements of similar communication errors by, or partially attributed to non-native English speaking pilots and air traffic controllers [4].


  • An Avianca Boeing 707 suffers fuel exhaustion and crashes, JFK.

English ability cited as contributory. 73 Die.


  • American Airlines Boeing 757 Controlled Flight into Terrain, Cali, Colombia.

English ability cited as contributory. 159 Die.


  • An Illlusion 76 and a Boeing 747 collide mid-air over Charkhi Dadri, India.

English ability cited as contributory. 349 Die.


  • The FAA advises ICAO that the US would like English proficiency legislation for pilots and ATCos.


  • ICAO passed resolution A32-16 in it;

"the Council was urged to direct the Air Navigation Commission to consider the matter of English Language Proficiency … and to strengthen the relevant provisions of Annex-1 & 10- obligating Contracting States to take steps to ensure that air traffic controllers and flight crews involved in flight operations in airspace, where the use of the English language is required, are proficient in conducting and comprehending radiotelephony communications in the English language”

1977 Tenerife Disaster (image embedded from crash 1001 30 September 2010)
1995 AA 965 Cali Crash (image embedded from Wikipedia 2 October 2010)
1996 Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision (image embedded from IND TV 5 October 2010)


  • ICAO establishes the PRICE study group to review and develop a plan for the future.


  • An MD83 and a Short 360 collide on the runway in Paris.

English ability cited as contributory. The Co-pilot is killed.


  • An MD80 and a Citation collide on the runway at Linate, Milan.

English ability cited as contributory. 118 Die.


  • The ICAO Manual on the implementation of ICAO language proficiency requirements is released [6].

It expresses a reiteration of the Proficiency Requirements In Common English Study Group’s inquiries into aviation English in the 21st century’s findings; that the aviation community needs to improve its phraseologies, discipline and training [6]. The recommendations were myriad, from global legislative change right down to the little things that small operators could do to help improve the worldwide language issue from a grass roots level [6].


  • Operators and trainers are struggling to change their systems of employment, SOPs and training [6].


  • An employment shock is widely felt through employment agencies in Asia and the Middle East and expat crews are rushed in to cover the legislative gap [2].


  • It became obvious to ICAO that a large percentage of the global community, as they had loudly attested to, were not ready for the change, so the decision was made to extend the certification date to early 2011 [6].


  • A LOT Boeing 737 spends 30 minutes, unable to land and narrowly avoids a midair collision over London, due to the fact that:

"The pilots were incapable of understanding instructions"[8].


  • Some operators will still not be ready for the extended 2011 deadline[6].
ICAO manual cover (image embedded from actechbooks.com 30 September 2010)
LOT B737 (image embedded from airnews 6 September 2010)
1. ICAO (2004). Document 9835. Retrieved from ICAO on 2 October 2010.
2. ICAO (2007). ICAO annex 1 – personnel licensing. Retrieved from ICAO on 30 September 2010.
3. Skybrary (2010). English Language Proficiency Requirements. Retrieved from Skybrary on 1 October 2010.
4. Uplinger (1997). English language training for ATC must go beyond basic ATC vocabulary. Flight Safety Foundation: Airport Operations. Vol. 23 No. 5 Sep-Oct 1997
5. Wikipedia (2010). ICAO. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 30 September 2010.
6. ICAO (2010). History. Retrieved from ICAO on 30 September 2010.
7. Wikipedia (2010). Aviation History. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 30 September 2010.
8. DailyMail (2008). Daily Mail. Retrieved from DailyMail on 6 September 2010.

Want to know more?

ICAO full summary History
ICAO Doc 9835 AN/453Doc 9835.
ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements FAQ.

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