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Pilot Lingo 101: Aviation phonetics and linguistics

  • Author: Colleen Mondor
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published August 29, 2013

Aviation lingo can baffle landlovers. And readers. To say nothing of passengers, clients or editors.

From "go-around" to "hold short," a language has evolved among sky people that's heavily influenced by aviation's military roots, federal regulation and even NASA. Entire conversations take place between pilots in the course of daily business that are a mystery to nonpilots.

An example among Bethel commuter pilots:

"I was in my sled at the end of the train in the racetrack waiting for the zone to pop up to a mile so Center would clear us to land. It took forever."

Translation:

"I was in my Cessna 207 at the end of the line of aircraft in the holding pattern waiting for visibility to increase to one mile so Anchorage Center would clear the aircraft to land. It took forever."

Got that? (There will be a test later.)

Phenomenology and sociolinguistics

There's no local tongue in the sky. Here are a few common phrases used frequently by aviators. Keep in mind, though, this list is by no means exhaustive. If you're confused, consult your favorite search engine or gently ask your pilot to elaborate. Pilots enjoy telling stories of derring-do and heroic feats; expect less enthusiasm when their capabilities are called into question.

Radio frequencies:

  • shotgun
  • pistol
  • jumbo
  • nice day
  • Pilots:

  • Newbie
  • Hot wings
  • Bush rat
  • Crashes and aircraft damage:

  • Bending metal
  • Mining for aluminum
  • Munching one (engine failure)
  • Operations and Equipment:

  • Bump run: A long trip with multiple stops.Exception: Not to be confused with milk runs, a local variant referencing Alaska Airlines' Southeast cargo hauls.
  • Fish finder: The Capstone or Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS)
  • Goodbye kiss: A pilot's letter of resignation
  • Penalty box: Insubordination on the job. Crap planes on crap schedules for the pilots who tick off management.
  • Tickets punched: Loss of pilot's licenses due to suspension, crash or getting caught by the FAA.
  • Hero goggles: Getting the job done no matter the miserable conditions.Alaska air carrier to pilot employee: "I realize it's 4 degrees and wind's blowing sideways. Put on your damn hero goggles and get it done."
  • Stealth mode: An approach without using radio on an uncontrolled field.
  • Phonetics: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, roger roger

    All pilots in training will master the official aviation phonetic alphabet prior to an inaugural solo flight. Dating back to 1927, the first phonetic alphabet was developed by the International Telegraph Union and consisted entirely of place names: Amsterdam, Baltimore, Casablanca, Denmark.....

    As aviation matured, military powers invested in air forces and pilot phonetics adapted to the acronym-heavy masculine nature of warfare.

    The British Royal Navy and Air Forces developed their own phonetic alphabets, followed by the U.S. military, which brought America and post-WWII cinema the wartime speak: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox....

    Both the RAF and U.S. military used "Roger" frequently during the war, as it stood for the letter "R" and was the short answer for "Received," though Romeo has supplanted Roger for R.

    When I was in college and learning to fly we had to learn the phonetic alphabet forwards and backwards but what seems daunting to nonpilots quickly becomes second-hand when immersed in the skytribe and av-junkie culture. (Same goes for picking up any secondary language). Using the alphabet makes it easier to understand official communications from control towers, approach and departure control, flight service, and fellow pilots.

    The phonetic alphabet as formally adopted worldwide since 1956: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu.

    It removes confusion in crowded airspace where controllers are directing multiple aircraft with differing speeds, requirements and requests. Very quickly, it becomes second-hand nature to pilots, just as obvious as lowering the nose and adding power to fly out of a stall, or cursing ground control for making you wait forever for landing aircraft. For pilots, the alphabet is just another part of flying.

    Truthfully, lingo is one of the easiest-to-remember and least dangerous of all that's required of the modern aviator.

    Did we miss a common phrase at your hangar? Does your dispatch do things differently? Leave your favorites in the comments below or email me.

    Colleen Mondor is a pilot, former Alaska air carrier dispatcher and Alaska Dispatch aviation translator. Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com

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