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English Proficiency for Pilots

Updated: Jul 22

Aviation is a society and a culture on its own. The language of aviation is English.

It is necessary for safety, and continuity, to have one language for men and women who choose to become part of the flying culture.


A Little Humour


Overheard on Munich Ground Control:

Lufthansa (in German): "Ground, what is our start clearance time?"

Ground (in English): "If you want an answer you must speak in English."

Lufthansa (in English): "I am a German, flying a German airplane, in Germany. Why must I speak English?"

Unknown voice from another plane (in a beautiful British accent): "Because you lost the bloody war."

xXx

Jokes aside, in aviation history, there have been aircraft accidents claiming hundreds of lives, due to something as simple as misunderstandings. Cultural as well as language barriers have been found to be the culprits.


Communication in Aviation

As a pilot you need to be an independent and clear thinker, but also someone who is capable of being part of a team. Autocratic behaviour in cockpits has cost many lives, which is why it is compulsory for Commercial Pilots to do CRM, (Cockpit Resource Management), courses annually. Some Captains have joked that CRM has saved their marriages, since it is all about communication.


Team Work

When you fly, even if you are the sole occupant of the aircraft, you are part of a team including other pilots sharing the same air space and Air Traffic Control. Birds flock together and so do pilots, no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, your situational awareness and ability to communicate clearly and precisely is part of your personal responsibility to aviation safety. It is here that spoken English proficiency is vital to effective communication.


ICAO Standard

English Proficiency is therefor a major part of getting your PPL. It is also an ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation), standard, of which South Africa is a member. It is not difficult if your grasp on English is already good. There are six levels of English Proficiency. Levels one, two and three are no good, because if your English is judged at this level, you will not get your PPL. You will probably also be struggling to read and understand this. The minimum level to get a PPL is a four. See the table below:


PROFICIENCY LEVEL PROFICIENCY TESTING INTERVAL

Level 6: Expert............................................. Retesting not required

Level 5: Extended........................................ Retesting required every six years

Level 4: Operational (Minimum level)........ Retesting required every three years

Level 3: Pre-operational.............................. License not issued / maintained

Level 2: Elementary..................................... License not issued / maintained

Level 1: Pre-elementary............................... License not issued / maintained



English Proficiency - how to get rated:


One of two methods.

Method 1:

You find approved Language Proficiency Interviewers. (They come in pairs: a language expert, and a subject matter expert). Together they give you your English Language Proficiency Test. It is entirely oral, there is no written test. They will work through an approved flight school. You can find them through your own flying school.


You fill in a bio-data questionnaire, and speak to the two interviewers for 10 to 20 minutes. They assess your comprehension and oral skills in English and decide on your level of proficiency.


The interview is recorded and kept for a set period as it is considered high stakes since it has a direct effect on your license.


It costs somewhere between 700ZAR - 950ZAR depending on where you go, and they will give you all the necessary forms. All you do is show up, perform well, and pay.


Method 2 - Level 6:

Provide evidence of Expert English Proficiency, (level 6 - no re-testing, ever), to the CAA, (Civil Aviation Authority).

  • Provide a certified copy of your School Leavers certificate - Matric, O or M Level, having a lowest symbol of "D" (or equivalent) for English First Language. (Don't worry whether it is HG or SG, they don't split hairs.) or

  • Provide a certified copy of a SAQA recognised minimum two year tertiary qualification with English as either a subject, or as the language of tuition and examination. or

  • Provide proof of being a present or past native of a nation where English is the first language, eg. UK, USA, Australia or New Zealand. AND

  • (Part 2 of Method 2): Submit a declaration that you do not suffer from a significant speech impediment or have any heavy accent that would make the spoken English language difficult to understand. Method 2 - Level 4:

  • Provide a certified copy of your School Leavers certificate - Matric, O or M Level, having a lowest symbol of "C" (or equivalent) for English Second Language.(Also, don't worry whether it is HG or SG, they don't consider any difference.) AND

  • (Part 2 of Method 2): Submit a declaration that you do not suffer from a significant speech impediment or have any heavy accent that would make the spoken English language difficult to understand.

Affidavit It is best to do this on an affidavit stamped by a Commissioner of Oaths. You might as well have it done at the same time as you get your logbook copies stamped just before you send or take your documentation to the CAA for the issuing of your PPL license. Click this link to see an Affidavit you may use. Please note for Method 2, other qualifications may count for English Proficiency, so contact CAA on 011-545 1000 and ask for Licensing to confirm. If your results would put you at Level 4, but you feel you deserve a higher level, you will have to be tested as in Method 1.


END


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