20 August 2016

The parlance of pilots

The parlance of pilots is, quite simply, an amazing piece. You can read it on the aeon.co site. It was written by Mark Vanhoenacker, a senior first officer with British Airways, the author of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot (2015) and a regular contributor to The New York Times.

A few quotes:
It’s hard to imagine a system more in need of a common language. And that language is English (or English-derived Aeroese).

I like the word atmosphere, for no other reason than because we so rarely think of the air as a sphere, one that floats just above and envelops the heavier world of land and water.
Each Boeing or Airbus airplane is sold with an entire library of associated technical manuals. They’re all in English, too (a particularly remarkable fact for Airbus, which is headquartered in France). A small number of airlines might translate these manuals – an expensive endeavour, and a never-ending one, as the manuals are frequently updated.
The same is generally true of the checklists that pilots read to one another at key points in a flight. These checklists – a sheet of laminated paper or, increasingly, a display on a computer screen – are a simple but critical component of flight safety (see ‘The Checklist’(2007) by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker).

It’s also worth noting that Airbus and Boeing have distinct dialects of Aeroese. For example, there’s a system on airliners that we can regard as a sort of cruise control (though that’s not a perfect analogy). On Boeings, it’s the autothrottle; on Airbus jets, it’s theautothrust.

Another defining (and simplifying) feature of radio Aeroese is its small vocabulary. Indeed, in addition to callsigns and numbers, the words regularly used in everyday air-traffic communications probably amount to only a few dozen. Even these few words are subject to usage and pronunciation rules designed to correct the shortcomings of quotidian English.
For example, we’re instructed to pronounce three as ‘TREE’ and nine as ‘NINER’, and 25,000 as ‘two-five thousand’ (more specifically, ‘TOO FIFE TOUSAND’), not ‘twenty-five thousand’, because experience has shown that these modified pronunciations are less likely to be misunderstood.
For the technical communicator, translator or journalist, the precision of Mark Vanhoenacker's technical language combined with his sense of style makes every sentence a joy to read. If you don't believe me, just listen to the version on the aeon.co page, courtesy of curio.io. This is the sort of flow that technical writers and translators should aim for. Writing worth listening to is the name of the game.

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