I fly mostly in countries other than the U.S.A. English is the international language of aviation and anywhere in the world I fly I am able to communicate in some fashion in English.
Being able to communicate in a common language in busy airspace is critical to flight safety and most countries make an effort to speak English when spoken to in English. That, in no way means that when you dial in the frequency for a control tower for another country, you should expect to hear English being spoken.
For most of the places my firefighting helicopter works in Europe I am just as likely to hear the local language and dialect being used at the airport I am flying towards. The tower will answer my call in English and as long as common phraseology is used the controller will do his or her best to communicate. Sometimes our communications go smoothly and other times it is a mutually frustrating exercise in miscommunication. Strangely enough some of the very worst experiences I have had, occurred at busy international airports.
The reason for this alluded me early on in my European flying but I eventually came up with a theory. International airports that handle primarily commercial airliners have a limited variety of aircraft flying to their airport. The planes use standard instrument approach/departure procedures and the phraseology is predictable and repetitious.
When we arrive unscheduled, calling in from low level, not on any flight plan and making requests never heard before in any language it can throw air traffic controllers into stunned silence.
A request to fly through busy airspace that you have no intention of landing at is often the start of a confusing exchange between us and the tower.The controller is used to issuing a clearance and you are asking for a transition across the runway approaches,departures or in some cases directly overhead the field.
No , we don’t wish to land is how things often start out. As clearly and as calmly as possible we try to explain that our helicopter is on a mission attempting to fly directly to a fire some distance and bearing from the airport. If possible the name of the town that the fire is near is mentioned. This can be a bad idea if the town has a name with 18 consonants and three vowels. You would think that having a copilot who speaks the local language would greatly improve your chances of getting through the airspace and thankfully it sometimes does. At other times I have been entertained by a shouting match that escalated to something that had me turning my side of the radio volume way down. I remember one encounter in Athens that had my copilot so worked up that he turned to me and said in English, “this guy in the tower is a fucking idiot”. I had made a similar assessment but unfortunately for both of us on board, my copilot transmitted his opinion over the radio rather than keep our cockpit conversation private.
I told the copilot that with any luck the controller had not understood his unprofessional outburst any better than he had my initial transmissions in English. We never really found out because subsequent calls went unanswered and after a couple of minutes a female voice with no detectable accent called us up. My copilot hearing the clear spoken English gestured to me to answer, but no thank you I gestured back, it was the copilots show and he could have the majority of the time on the tower tapes now.
We got through that event unscathed with licenses intact but communication has always been a problem in our operation. When we do get on a fire the language problem presents further challenges. In some countries we operate with a foreign national copilot or Captain in our two pilot helicopter but often we add an interpreter to the crew.
The interpreter has an incredible workload when the fire and the airspace gets busy. A large fire may have as much as eight aircraft working the same area.If you are the English speaking pilot you are often the only one on the entire fire speaking English initially. The interpreter has as much as three languages and who knows how many dialects to follow.When other countries get involved as often happens you may have Italian, French,Russian and Greek pilots in the aircraft. Cockpit language will be in the language of the crew and the local language is used for air to air communications. If the fire is in Greece as an example the aircrews are often working through an interpreter who needs to monitor radios a telephone and translate and communicate to the flight crew in their common language of choice.
In our helicopter that would mean that the interpreter is talking to the other aircraft in Greek, the ground crews in Greek and translating for his own flight crew into English which may be the second or third language of preference for one of the pilots.
See and avoid while maintaining good crew resource management is vital. I prefer to monitor the radios at low volume so as to not interrupt the interpreters transmissions but when things get hectic down in the low level smoke and flame I don’t hesitate to stay clear till we have the whole story and situational picture.
Its a fire and the number one rule is do no harm,to yourself,others and the aircraft. Over the years I have had found that telling rather than asking works best when the situation gets hectic. In other words I have the interpreter tell the other aircraft, monitoring aircraft and ground crews where and what we are able and willing to do. Experienced pilots can usually always understand why we have disassociated ourselves from certain areas of a fire and prefer to work on our own with clear boundaries listed. When the fire gets into towns and villages I often suggest that we take the low ground down around the houses under the smoke and let the fixed wings work the clearer air on the sides. The big planes don’t want to be down amongst the wires and as long as they don’t drop a load in the blind we are pretty happy just seeing them when we head back to get water.
It all works 99.9% of the time and the other .1% can be the stuff of nightmares and blogs for another time.