Errors in air-ground pilot communication: an experimental study




Aviation English, English as a second language, communication errors


Understanding aviation communication has obvious implications for flight safety and for the training of pilots and Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs). Its study also sheds light on the use of Aviation English as a type of English for a very specific purpose and on real-world communication constraints in a high-stakes environment. We present results from a study combining human factors and linguistics, in which pilots were recorded in flight simulator experiments probing communication accuracy under diverse conditions. An analysis of the audio recordings in terms of whether errors were omissions or mistakes, whether errors occurred with words or numerals, and which types of aviation information were affected, revealed complex interactions between language background, pilot qualification, workload and ATC speech rate. The differences between native English speakers (NES) and non-native English speakers (NNES) are complex and more nuanced than might be expected. These results not only are relevant for aviation safety, training and testing, but they also provide insights on communication under challenging conditions and on the relation between language proficiency and cognition, with implications for second language teaching and the use of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) in highly constrained environments.


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Author Biographies

Dominique Estival, Western Sydney University

Dominique Estival holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania (USA) and a Commercial Pilot License. She is a current Flight Instructor for general and recreational aviation in Australia and was approved as an assessor for General English Language Proficiency (GELP) and Level 6 AELP by CASA (the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority). She is a researcher at the MARCS Institute, Western Sydney University, Australia, and the co-author of Aviation English: A Lingua Franca for Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers (2016).

Brett Robert Charles Molesworth, University of New South Wales

Brett Molesworth is an Associate Professor in the School of Aviation at UNSW Sydney. He is a Human Factors specialist with qualifications in Psychology (PhD and is a registered Psychologist in Australia) and in Aviation (BAv Hons and Commercial Pilot Licence). Brett’s research focuses on understanding human performance in complex socio-technical environments.


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How to Cite

Estival, D., & Molesworth, B. R. C. (2020). Errors in air-ground pilot communication: an experimental study. The ESPecialist, 41(3).