Recommendation R19990029

Recommendation issued to: Civil Aviation Safety Authority

Recommendation details
Output No: R19990029
Date issued: 08 April 1999
Safety action status:



There are currently no standards by which to assess the English language competency of pilot licence applicants. As a result, some licence applicants with inadequate English skills are being issued with licences.


Occurrence summary

The De Havilland Dash 8 was tracking inbound to Tamworth via the 040 radial of the Tamworth VOR (a radio navigation aid) at 3,500 ft in accordance with air traffic control instructions. Meanwhile, a TB10 Tobago was about to depart Tamworth via the 018 VOR radial, a track that would require the Tobago to turn across the inbound track of the Dash 8. Air traffic control had decided to limit the initial climb of the Tobago to 2,500 ft in order to ensure vertical separation with the Dash 8.

The aerodrome control task was being performed by a trainee controller under the supervision of a rated controller. The pilot of the Tobago was instructed to "line-up" and given an altitude restriction of 2,500 ft, which was read back by the pilot. However, the readback was not clear and the aircraft subsequently took-off with both the trainee controller and the rated controller uncertain as to the actual altitude read back by the pilot, who was from a non-english speaking background and had an accent that was, on occasions, difficult to understand. It was subsequently determined that the pilot of the Tobago had understood the controller to say 3,500 ft, and that was the altitude he had read back to air traffic control. The crew of the Dash 8 were given traffic information on the position of the Tobago by air traffic control and commenced a look-out for that aircraft.

Because both controllers were unsure that the 2,500 ft restriction had been correctly acknowledged, it was agreed that the trainee controller would request the pilot of the Tobago to confirm that he was maintaining that altitude. Before that could take place, the pilot of the Tobago asked the controller to confirm his assigned altitude. Again the transmission was not easy to understand. The trainee controller confirmed 2,500 ft and passed traffic information on the Dash 8 at the same time. The only reply from the pilot of the Tobago was the word "affirm" and his callsign.

In fact, the Tobago had been maintaining 3,500 ft, and it was that later transmission from air traffic control that made the pilot realise he should have been maintaining 2,500 ft. He commenced an immediate descent from 3,500 ft, but did not make any radio transmission to that effect.

The crew of the Dash 8 heard the exchange between air traffic control and the pilot of the Tobago. At almost the same time they saw the Tobago about 400 metres ahead, at the same level. They commenced an immediate descent then realised the Tobago was moving to their right. The aircraft passed with a horizontal separation of approximately 200 metres, and no discernible vertical separation. The required standard was 1,000 ft vertical separation until the aircraft had passed.

Related occurrences

A search of the Bureau's occurrence database identified 45 incidents involving Australian-registered aircraft since 1993 in which English language difficulties had contributed to the occurrence. Most of these incidents involved instructional or private flights and several occurred in proximity to aircraft engaged in fare-paying passenger operations.

Results of surveys, studies and research

In 1993, BASI reviewed the problem of pilots with limited English who were flying or learning to fly in Australia. That review identified that the regulator allowed delegates, usually chief flying instructors (CFIs), to issue student pilot licences, but did not provide CFIs with adequate information on the required knowledge of English, or the methods that could be used to test a candidate's English language competency. Operators who were approached on this matter in 1993 acknowledged that a problem existed, that the issue of a pilot's licence to an applicant who had a limited understanding of English was a dangerous practice, and that there was no uniform way of testing an applicant's competence in the largely technical English words and phrases which are used in aviation. At the conclusion of this review, BASI released Safety Advisory Notice (SAN) 930115, suggesting that the regulator, in conjunction with the industry and appropriate language experts, undertake a review of the requirements for English language competency. In response to that SAN, the then Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) replied that it was looking at implementing a standard of English language competency.

In 1995, the CAA released a discussion paper dealing with the issue of English language competency. That paper recommended that pilots and pilot trainees whose first language was not English, be required to pass a structured test for English competence prior to the issue of a pilot licence or certificate. The majority of those who responded to the discussion paper supported the move towards a formal standard of English competency. Flight instructors in particular, expressed the concern that under the current arrangements, they were being required to make determinations which they did not feel qualified to make.

As part of the regulatory review which commenced in 1996, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) set up eight technical committees to review the legislation in various areas. Technical Committee Five considered the issues of personnel licensing.

A project team was formed as part of Technical Committee Five to consider the issues of English language competency for pilots. In a position paper dated 16 September 1997, this project team noted that overseas practice was similar to that currently employed in Australia. The committee did not learn of any countries which had a system in place to check the English language competency of pilots.

In May 1998, Technical Committee Five released a progress report which contained the recommendation that definitive standards for English language competency of pilots be introduced.

Since that date, all technical committees have been disbanded because of other priorities within CASA, and no further progress has been made.

Current standards and practices

Civil Aviation Regulation 5.09 paragraph 1 (a) specifies that applicants for a flight crew licence must possess "a knowledge of the English language sufficient to enable him or her to exercise safely the authority given by the licence".

At present, flying school personnel must make an assessment of the adequacy of each student's English language skills. However, CASA does not specify how English language competency should be determined.

At least one flying school (the Australian Aviation College at Parafield) has developed its own syllabus of technical English, which includes specific terms and expressions which must be understood by pilots. This syllabus covers 10 areas, including the language used in the automatic terminal information service (ATIS), circuit terminology, the description of positions and the use of key phrases.


English is the international language of aviation and a command of the language is an important flying-related skill which all pilots must possess.

The lack of English language skills of some pilots appears to be contributing to air safety incidents in Australia. The training of foreign student pilots in Australia has increased in recent years and is likely to increase further in the future. Unless action is taken to ensure that student pilots have attained a minimum standard of English language competency, it is likely that language-related incidents will become more frequent.

There has been general acknowledgment since the early 1990s that current practices with regard to English language competency of student pilots are not adequate. Despite this, no progress has been made towards the development of English language standards.

The key problem appears to be that although CASA requires licence applicants to possess English language skills, it does not provide objective guidelines or a test to enable CFIs to determine whether an applicant possesses sufficient language skills. Few flying instructors or CFIs would possess the skills to make an expert judgement of a student's language competency in the absence of such guidance.

It should be noted that although an applicant's language skills may appear to be adequate in normal circumstances, when faced with a stressful in-flight situation involving the use of technical terms, language skills may deteriorate.

Any assessment of pilot language skills would need to take into account the fact that those required of pilots largely consist of verbal comprehension and expression skills in technical English, rather than standard English conversation or writing. For example, an effective test of language skills would need to evaluate an applicant's ability to comprehend ATC instructions, ATIS broadcasts and the transmissions of other pilots, even when the clarity of radio reception is poor. To work effectively, such a test would need to be capable of being administered by CFIs, without creating a major administrative burden.

Output text

The Bureau of Air Safety Investigation recommends that CASA ensure that applicants for student pilot licences who come from a non-English speaking background, demonstrate an appropriate level of competence in the written and verbal English requirements of the aviation operational environment.

Initial response
Date issued: 07 June 1999
Response from: Civil Aviation Safety Authority
Action status: Closed - Accepted
Response text:

Language competency has been addressed as part of the project to translate the flying standards for Private (PPL) and Commercial (CPL) aeroplane licenses into competency based language. The standards themselves have not been changed but include criteria which allow for objective measurement of a pilot's performance as the training progresses. The standards will take effect from 1 September 1999.

Included in the standards are performance criteria which relate to the use of radiotelephone and intercom equipment and which require the pilot to demonstrate competency in both normal and emergency flight conditions, using standard non-standards phraseology. The pilot is also to be assessed continually on his or her ability to process and respond to instructions and be understood by ATS and other parties.

A similar requirement will be included in the standards for PPL and CPL helicopter licences on conversion to the competency based format.

As an additional aid for instructions, the Authority proposes to issue an advisory publication on assessing language competency.

Last update 01 April 2011