Airline pilot speak: Codes pilots use and why they talk the way they do

"We're gonna be in the Hudson."

And with those final words before contact was lost, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed his US Airways Airbus A320 on New York City's Hudson River in January 2009, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew.

The tape of the conversation between Sully and the operator at New York Tracon, which controls air traffic in and around New York City, is instructive. This is Sully at the first indication of trouble, after a bird strike crippled his aircraft, identified by the call sign Cactus 1549, shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport:

"Ah this is uh Cactus 1549, hit birds, we lost thrust in both engines, we're turning back towards LaGuardia."

At this stage, the aircraft has zero power. Sullenberger's first instinct is to return to LaGuardia and make an emergency landing but he quickly realises he doesn't have enough height to turn and glide back to the runway.

"I am not sure if we can make any runway."

In the exchange that follows, the air traffic controller offers him another alternative runway, at Teterboro Airport.

"All right Cactus 1549, it's going to be a left. Traffic to runway 3-1."

Sully: "Unable"


You'd expect more voice tension from someone stalled on a freeway and requesting an assist. Sully is telling it like it is, precise and professional, economical with words but a long way short of panic. He's just a pilot, doing what a pilot does.

Where did it come from, this abundance of cool? Tom Wolfe identified it in his 1979 novel, The Right Stuff.

"Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot… coming over the intercom… with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself… the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because 'uh, folks, it might get a little choppy'…"

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According to Wolfe, the template for that delivery and that voice was laid down by Chuck Yeager, the uber stick-and-rudder pilot and hero of Wolfe's novel. Yeager was a World War II fighter pilot who once downed five German aircraft in a single day, enough to qualify for the "ace" tag on that day's efforts alone. He later became a test pilot and the first to officially break the sound barrier, at the controls of a Bell X-1 while nursing broken ribs sustained in a fall from a horse two days earlier.

And while the pilot of your next flight might not have Yeager's West Virginia drawl, the common factor among pilots is a laconic understatement that transcends national speech patterns.

In 1982, when his British Airways Boeing 747 flew through a cloud of volcanic ash over Indonesia and all four engines were progressively snuffed out, Captain Eric Moody demonstrated an abundance of The Right Stuff when he made one of the all-time gold-medal "This is your captain speaking" announcements. "We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress." Happily for all, Moody was able to restart the engines when the aircraft, in glide mode, exited the ash cloud. Some on board had already written farewell messages.

As well as a style, pilots also have a language all their own. "Arm doors and cross check" is one we hear every time your aircraft moves away from the gate.

"Last minute paperwork" from the flight deck means yup, we have a problem, most likely to do with a revision of the flight plan, and we're not going to get away on time but you're just going to have to sit tight and suck it up.

Apart from a few spare words about weather details at the destination and an announcement before the aircraft begins its descent, "Thank you for flying with us and have a great day", passengers are unlikely to hear too much from the flight deck.

In the cockpit of a commercial airliner there's a special language that pilots and co-pilots use. The autopilot is "George". "Met" is weather conditions. "Zulu" is Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the basis for civil time and time zones worldwide.

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"V1" and "Vr" or "rotate" are two expressions you won't ever hear on a commercial airliner unless you're in the cockpit, or if the crew have left the intercom on. As the plane accelerates during its takeoff roll the pilot not flying the aircraft will call "V1" when the aircraft reaches a speed too fast to abort takeoff with the remaining runway yet not fast enough for takeoff. Before he or she hears "V1", the pilot flying the aircraft can abort, after they must continue the takeoff. The next speed the non-flying pilot will call is "rotate", designated as "Vr", when the nose should be raised and the aircraft rotated into the climb attitude.

Between air traffic controllers and pilots there's another kind of shorthand. You might hear "final", short for "final approach", when an aircraft is on descent and lined up with the central line of the aircraft runway. "Ramp" is the area where aircraft are parked. The word "heavy" means a larger aircraft type, with a Maximum Takeoff Weight of 160 tonnes or more. These aircraft create wake turbulence from their wings and require extra separation between following aircraft, and the use of "heavy" reminds other pilots of that fact.

Clarity is all important, and while English is the communications standard throughout the aviation world, "B" can sound like "D", "E", "G" and several other letters, in 1956 the International Civil Aviation Organization adopted a standard phonetic alphabet for aviation use. Therefore "B" became "Bravo", with no chance of confusing it with "Delta", "Echo" or "Golf". All the letters of the phonetic alphabet are either two or three syllables for extra clarity, as opposed to the single-syllable words that denote the letters of the standard English alphabet.

Just as pilots have a language all their own, so do cabin crew. A "miracle flight" is one that has a miraculous effect on a passenger who requires wheelchair assistance to board but manages to stand and walk unaided at the end of the flight. "Crotch watch", a flight attendant walks through the cabin checking seatbelts. "The baby Jesus" is an infant passenger with doting and demanding parents, usually a first child. "Landing lips" is the makeup refresher prior to landing. Hand semaphores are commonly used to relay requests for food and beverages but if you see fingers splayed above a crew member's head to suggest antlers – stag party on board.

One communication you won't ever hear between an aircraft and air traffic control is squawk 7500, when a pilot tunes the aircraft's transponder to signify a hijacking, equal to the silent alarm button in a bank. Better hope there's a sky marshal on board, but there's no code word for that either.

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