Language and Accidents

Language-Caused Accidents: A Case Study

In the evolution of aviation safety it is often recognized that after an accident, accident investigators conduct exhaustive research in the cause of such accidents. Often, once a conclusion is reached, regulations are put in force to prevent such accidents from happening. There is one regulation, put forth by the ICAO that demands all aviators have a proficiency in the English language. This is to avoid confusion, aid in international flight operations, increase air commerce, and ensure a safer flight environment. What happens, then, if the cause of an accident is found because of this regulation? Language itself is the most complex skill humans can achieve—far beyond the difficulties of attainment of other knowledge areas (O'Grady, 2001) When discrepancies exist between any one who communicates, be it the pilots, the controllers, or even the airplane itself, misunderstanding can cause calamity and reform.

Language Confusion
In any language, the main goal is to be understood. In order for that to happen a source needs to encode a symbol, usually a spoken word, that can be decoded correctly by a receiver. Any language, whether English, mathematics, MySQL, or even whale whistles need to have symbols that have meaning. Spoken language, English for example, is a mixture of many registers that must all be decoded at once.

Phonetics is basically the study of 'noises and their meanings' Phonetics tells us that the 's,' 'z,' or 'ez,' sounds after a noun make the word a plural—or 'more than one'. Phonology tells us when to make one of these three sounds. 'horses' has a 'ez' sound because the 's' after the root is a alveolar fricative. The 'z' sound after bee is because the 'e' is voiced, and the 's' sound after 'front' is because the 't' is unvoiced.

Next, the morphology. Morphology tells us how to put phonemes together to create meaning. A word such as 'military' can turn into many other words depending on the affixes surrounding it.

ex. military—militarization—countermilitarization—demilitarization—pseudocounterdemiliterizationing—etc. Syntax tells us how to put these words together in a sentence in order to derive an even bigger meaning.

ex. Depending on how the enemies react, our military strategy should be successful in the demilitarization of their forces.

Finally, what does it all mean? Semantics helps us understand what a communicator means even though the sentence might seem to mean something else. This is most apparent in idiomatic expressions; where the sentence is different then the actual meaning.

Ex. “Take a bull by the horns” or “Hit the ground rolling”

Meaning: “Let's make sure we get started on this quickly, and thoroughly.”

So what happens then when there is a disconnect on any one of these registers? If there is an inability to decipher meaning in the smallest part of the language puzzle, then greater meaning will never be achieved. (O'Grady, 2001)

Polish Pilots
Recently a Lot Boeing 737 with ninety-three passengers aboard came within seconds of a midair collision. The plane was being piloted with two Polish-pilots who had not passed the English proficiency exam. The plane was flying into Heathrow Airport when the controllers had advised them with instructions after their instruments became unreliable. The pilots could not understand the controllers' instructions and often deviated from their vectors. Because of the Polish pilots' inability to understand clearly where they were in relationship to the airport, the controllers had to vector another plane instead in order to avoid a mid-air collision. In the final report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) it states:

“The crew of Lot 282 were not able to communicate adequately the nature and extent of their problem . . .The commander, who was making the radio calls, was not able to understand some of the instructions . . . the initial error by the co-pilot . . .was compounded by the difficulty of obtaining information from the pilots because of their limited command of English ” (Ben Webster, 2008)

Often regarded as one of the worst aviation disasters in history involved the tragic deaths of hundreds, and the mad rush to regulation. On March 27, 1977 a PanAmerican 747-121 and a KLM 747-206B collided on the runway in low visibility. However, the cause of the accident is mostly blamed for the misunderstandings between ATC, and the pilots aboard the planes. When the KLM airplane was in position and holding, the co-pilot asked for a takeoff clearance. Air Traffic Control gave the clearance instructions, but never explicitly said they were cleared for take-off. When the co-pilot read back the clearance, he stated that they were now 'taking off' Again, without the explicit wording of 'cleared for takeoff' When the controller responded back with the words 'Okay' the pilots then regarded this as further clarification that an original clearance had been given. When KLM was on the takeoff roll, the PanAmerican plane and the controllers both radioed at the same time, canceling each other's calls that the KLM should not take off yet. KLM never heard the radio call and continued resulting in a crash that killed hundreds. (NTSB, 1978)

Once the investigations were completed, it was concluded that the most probable cause of the crash was the ambiguity of the English language that led the KLM pilots to believe that they were cleared to takeoff even without a clearance. The use of a non-standard phrase 'Okay' was the likely culprit in solidifying the KLM crew of their take-off clearance. Limited visibility, of course, was an issue, but was not the cause of the ambiguity. (Mell, 2001)

“The following must also be considered factors which contributed to the accident:

1.- Inadequate language. When the KLM Co-pilot repeated off the ATC clearance, he ended with the words, “we are now at take off”. The Controller, who had not been asked for take-off clearance, and had not granted it, did not understand that they were taking off. The O.K. From the tower, which preceded the “stand by for take-off” was likewise incorrect-although irrelevant in this case because take off had already started about six and a half seconds before” (NTSB, 1978, emphasis added)

Cause and Effect
Sweeping reform of international standardization took hold in a massive effort to keep ambiguity away from pilot/controller communications. Standard phrases and wordage became regulation. For example: 'Okay' is non-standard and now replaced by 'Roger'. This change was to disambiguate an affirmative instruction to be confused with an affirmative clearance. Explicitness in communication is the goal. 'Line-up and wait' is also non-standard and is now 'taxi into position and hold'. The 'hold' being emphasized. This was to bring a standardized term to mean 'don't take off until I say to.' A 'hold' instruction is now an affirmation that the plane is allowed to taxi onto the runway, but not allowed to take off. A clearance has not been issued.

'Take-off' is now a non-standard word and is now replaced by 'departure'. This is also to disambiguate the intentions of the pilot crew and ATC to prevent an airplane from 'taking-off' when it is really ready to 'depart'. Take-off is only used in the actual takeoff roll. While waiting, 'departure' is used.

While all accidents are tragic occurrences, some benefit is derived through standardization and reform. As unfortunate as the situations surrounding the evolution of flight safety is, it is also beneficial to effectively learn and study the causes in order to prevent a future tragedy. English as a standard can cause an accident insomuch as the pilots are deficient in the fluent communication. Stricter reform and standardization has resulted, but as the Polish example hints at, is not as centric as it needs to be yet.

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