“Yes I am.” A simple honest answer that almost had a disastrous consequence.
The French were bringing the capital ship of their Indian Ocean fleet to Durban. It was large, impressive - and it had helicopters. They were wanting to fly their helicopters in our airspace, so as a courtesy, one of junior pilots was tasked with briefing the French helicopter crews onboard about our local airspace rulings.
Sounded simple and fun. Our chosen man, who will remain unnamed, was smart, sociable and confident. Great attributes for a pilot and we knew he would represent us well. So, we flew him out to their magnificent looking ship, dropped him off with a smile on his face and headed back to Air Force Base Durban. We could not have known what was coming.
Upon landing on the Frigate our young Captain was asked a now infamous question “Are you the pilot” to which he responded as all aviators love to do, proudly and confidently, in the affirmative.
“Come with me” he was told. To his surprise he was brought up to the bridge of the ship and introduced to the ship’s Captain, not the helicopter crew. “Well these French are pretty hospitable” he thought to himself. Somewhat surprisingly the Captain then asked him, “Where to for the Naval Base?” He could easily explain and, being a helpful fellow, added. “Straight ahead Sir”.
The French then proceeded directly into our harbour with their enormous ship. On the way in, another helicopter was seen to approach. Who are they asked the French Captain? “That will be the harbour pilot” volunteered our man. Instantly he recognised the look of horror on the Frenchman’s face. Our young aviator was then ushered off the bridge with some urgency. He claimed to recognise a few French expletives on his way out. Clearly “our pilot” was not who they thought he was.
Often we say what we mean, but others do not hear what we mean, only what we actually say. English as a language is littered with ambiguities. These often come in the form of homonyms (words that are spelt the same and have a different meaning) or homophones (words that are spelt differently yet sound the same and have a different meaning). Just consider the words “take-off power” and you will at once recognise the dangers inherent in our English language.
There is power in words! So, watch your words, like you do you altimeter. Ambiguities in the air may also result in you wanting to be “forgiven for your French”. Disregarding a double meaning, can sink us all.
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