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Jargon Watch: Pilot Lingo And The Language Of The Sky

A brief guide to how pilots talk, from Alpha to Zulu.
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Jargon Watch: Pilot Lingo And The Language Of The Sky

Pilots have a difficult job. People may joke that nowadays, all they have to do is push a button to take off and land, but it’s an onerous task to be in charge of something that literally flies through the air. And it’s one that requires a lot of communication.

Whether it be to flight attendants, the air-traffic control tower or the other planes in the sky, pilots need to be able to quickly and efficiently talk to others in order to keep everything running smoothly. They have achieved this through the creation of a complex system of shorthand jargon. While some pilot lingo grew organically from in-group communication and personal shortcuts, pilot lingo has been regulated for the past few decades so that — at least during the most important parts of the flight — it’s as specific and concise as possible. The language pilots use can literally save lives.

All of that may sound very serious, so it’s good to point out that pilot lingo, or crew-speak, can also be fun. Some lingo is used by pilots and flight attendants to sarcastically communicate to each other without the passengers understanding. The slang of the sky is a many-layered thing, and it can be vitally important or just funny.

Regulating Airport Speak

The regulation of pilot speak was brought on by the deadliest plane disaster in history: the 1977 crash at Tenerife-North Airport on the Canary Islands. It was a very foggy day, and because of a terrorist incident, a number of planes had been redirected to Tenerife-North Airport. Because of a miscommunication between air-traffic control and pilots — the ambiguity of the phrase “at takeoff” was the main problem — two planes ended up on different sides of a runway. One plane began to take off and crashed into the other, killing almost 600 people.

The language pilots use can literally save lives.

The horrific accident in Tenerife spurred the aviation community into strictly defining airport terminology to be as clear and concise as possible. There were already a number of regulations in place by this time, but this marked a turning point in the need for specificity. Before 1977, pilot lingo was a largely unregulated mix of phrases from the military and NASA. While many of these base phrases remain, they could no longer be ambiguous or have double-meanings. At any given time, there are at least 5,000 aircraft in the sky, so it’s a very delicate system to balance.

Another method for getting rid of sky ambiguity was creating a common language for all international pilots to speak: English. The European Union created a rule in 2017 where any airport with over 50,000 international flights per year must use English to communicate between pilots and air-traffic control. That includes when both the pilot and the air-traffic controller speak a different language natively. This law puts non-English speakers at a disadvantage, because they have to attain an International Civil Aviation Organization English Level Four certificate in order to become pilots. And the law hasn’t come without its problems.

Speaking English is an advantage to becoming a pilot, but it won’t suffice if you’re not properly schooled in pilot lingo. In 2017, U.K. publications were fuming about a report that non-English-speaking pilots were being given their language certificates too quickly and putting passengers’ lives at risk because they didn’t have a strong enough grasp of English. What the report also found was that English-speaking pilots were not doing too well, either. The English speakers spoke too colloquially and were never properly taught how to speak pilot lingo, because it was assumed they’d have an easy time mastering it. But it seems all pilots and air-traffic controllers need extensive training to efficiently communicate.

The Language Of The Sky

The clearest example of terminology created for clear communication is the NATO phonetic alphabet. This alphabet is recognizable from pilot movies, where pilots use phrases like “zulu alpha foxtrot” to say “ZAF.” The NATO phonetic alphabet was developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization during the 1950s and has since been widely adopted. The system made it much easier to read English letters aloud because as it was, so many letters sound similar — B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V and Z sound pretty much the same. Nowadays it’s often used to sound “pilot-y” in movies, but it truly helped communication, especially when communication took place via a walkie-talkie with poor sound quality due to interference.

Going beyond the alphabet, there’s a whole dictionary’s worth of pilot lingo. There are also various circumstances that change which lingo pilots use. For example, military flyers will use a lot of terms that probably won’t come up for commercial pilots, like “furball” for “a confused aerial fight” or “ack ack guns” for “machine guns.” Here, we’ll focus on the commercial pilot lingo, because it’ll likely be the most useful for your own flights.

Pilot lingo can pretty much be broken down into three categories. There’s the technical, like “standby” for “pause for the next transmission” and “flight level,” which means “the vertical altitude at a standard pressure” (so it’s more technical than just “altitude”). There are the euphemisms to mislead passengers, such as “last-minute paperwork” meaning “delay” and “at this time” being a nice way to say “now.” And then there are the funny: “groin scan” refers to the seatbelt check flight attendants do, and “crumb crunchers” is a somewhat rude word for “children.” With all that in mind, you’ll be ready for your next flight.

An Incomplete Guide To Pilot Lingo

  • A/C: The aircraft.
  • Air Pocket: A nice term for turbulence.
  • All-Call: All flight attendants should report on the intercom.
  • Area of Weather: A nice term for a huge storm.
  • Blue Juice: Toilet water (because it used to be blue).
  • Deadhead: Refers to a flight attendant or a pilot who is on a flight for official reasons, but not on-duty. For example, if a pilot needs to get to Atlanta, they may do so by deadheading.
  • Direct Flight: Not to be confused with a “Nonstop Flight,” a “Direct Flight” can stop along the way, but the flight number is the same throughout.
  • Equipment: The plane. If there’s an “equipment problem,” that means there’s a plane problem.
  • F/A: Flight attendant.
  • First Officer: Co-pilot.
  • Flightdeck: A term for “cockpit” that is less likely to get laughs.
  • Gate Lice: People who crowd the gate because they want to get on the plane first.
  • Landing Lips: When flight attendants put on makeup and lipstick to look refreshed as they say goodbye to passengers at the end of a flight.
  • Lounge Lizard: When a flight attendant sleeps in the airport overnight.
  • Over and Out: Actually, this isn’t a real phrase. “Over” means “end of transmission, expect response” and “out” means “end of transmission, don’t expect response.” So it’s an oxymoron.
  • Sharon Stone Jumpseat: The seat on the plane that faces the other way, named after a famous scene from Fatal Attraction.
  • Transcon: A transcontinental flight.
  • Z Time: Greenwich Mean Time.

All clear for takeoff into a new language.

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