How many languages can be spoken in one pattern?

One of the delusional fallacies I used to aid in the process of convincing myself that I could live through moving to Europe with the airplane was a fanciful notion that “English is the language of aviation.” That statement is correct if you’re an airline captain flying into national capitals. For general, aviation, it’s a different story.

That was first emphasized as the bulk of traffic pattern activity in Egelsbach, Germany was carried out in German. As there was information service, I was under no obligation to understand anything that was being said, as the info controller could provide traffic advisories to me in English, and my radio callouts were also in English. It didn’t take long to pickup some German in the pattern, as the entry and exit points, along with all pattern movements, was extremely strict, precise, and noted on the map. “Tango, delta, and kilo” denoted common routing, and “Squawk vier vier vier eins,” among other common traffic lingo was heard enough to draw sufficient comparisons and get an idea of what other airplanes were doing. It had the feeling of being brand new with a radio all over again (a reality that dates back only to June of 2015, when I got a radio in the good old USA).

I chose an American instructor for my biennial in Germany, and he advised me that some airports in Germany are approved for English and German, and some for only German, all noted in the official airport directory. I thought that was a grotesque violation of all that is holy, an overzealous need for Teutonic categorization. “They should be speaking English, its aviation,” I thought to myself, bathing in my American-centric view of the world. That, and seriously, it’s just easier if everyone would do things my way and speak my language. What kind of moron thinks Germans speak German while flying, in Germany?

I then read up on flying in France, also talking with Germans on the subject. “You’ll need to learn some phrases in French, they won’t speak English to you. Its how they are.” Aware of these warnings, I pulled up a cheat sheet of aviation terms on my iPad and plunged into France, intent on crossing the entire country, in marginal weather, for my move to Spain, without learning a word of aviation French. Every single flight service, information, and tower controller spoke English, with no reservation or chastisement, although I must confess that the accents were hard to manage on the radio. It turns out that the Franco-German Reconciliation is still a work in progress when it comes to their opinions of each other in aviation.

Arriving in Spain, it did not occur to me to check and find out what language is spoken in the pattern. For that matter, despite speaking Spanish, I had never flown once in a Spanish speaking country; therefore, I found myself realizing, as I crossed the border from France into Spain, that I didn’t know any of the terms for pattern callouts. At first, I did a traffic callout in English, then intuition told me Spanish would be smarter, even though the pattern was empty. I opted for “circuito” for pattern, and instead of downwind, “pasando al oeste al norte del aeropuerto para aterrizarme cero-siete” (passing to the west to the north of the airport en route to land zero-seven). The next time I flew, it became apparent everyone uses Spanish, or so I thought.

I thought I was moving to a Spanish-speaking place. Sure, I knew there was a regional language, Catalan, though I thought of it as a dialect, or something spoken in small, traditional villages by a select few old-as-dirt sheepherders. That would be false. Catalonia is practically its own nation, with road signs and just about everything in Catalan. What gives? I am still a linguistically inept fool, even though I speak the national language. To make matters worse, we’re 12 miles from France.

Spanish is not the only language spoken in the pattern. Catalan is intermixed with abandon, meaning that while two pilots are calling out in Spanish, another is speaking Catalan. Other days, French pilots will toss in French, which universally means “see and avoid” to me, as I don’t understand a word they are saying. To confuse things even further, a group of Brits dropped in for two weeks for some glider binge flying, and they made pattern callouts unapologetically in English. On those days, I made my callouts in both English and Spanish, with a view to self-preservation. The maximum language count I have heard, during one flight, is three, though in total, I have heard four languages spoken in this pattern.

While it sounds like a royal pain in the rear, I have come to find the entire process amusing. Unquestionably, see and avoid is being used more than ever before. At the very least, I am considering taking some Catalan and
French classes.

Left base for 25, France 2 miles behind me. Which language to speak?

Morning climb out, looking just over the border into France.

Bottom right little hill is where the border of France, Spain, and Andorra meet. National languages of French, Spanish, and Catalan, respectively. Airport in the valley over the hill.

Airport in the valley to the right, France is the left half of the valley, Spain the right.

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at

1 Comment

  1. Evan Whitehouse

    October 27, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    Humorous (alleged) radio traffic I read a long time ago, supposedly overheard at on Frankfurt Ground Control…

    A Lufthansa flight requests taxi clearance, in German.
    [Ground]: Calling Ground, please make your request in English.
    [Lufthansa]: I am a German, flying for a German airline, at a German airport. Why must I speak in English?
    [Unidentified voice with a British accent]: Because you lost the bloody war.

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