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The Associated Press July 26, 2010, 11:07AM ET

English skills taking off among pilots

Aviation leaders are reporting success with a decade-long push to make sure pilots and air traffic controllers around the globe are proficient in English -- the official language of aviation worldwide.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, began working on English proficiency requirements in 2000, four years after a midair collision over India between a Saudi airliner and a Kazakh cargo plane killed 349 people. Investigators said an English language barrier was a contributing factor to the crash.

Nicole Barrette-Sabourin, training officer for the ICAO's flight operations section, said most pilots can handle routine English commands. But not all can communicate with air traffic controllers when things go wrong.

"What do you do an emergency situation when no phraseology is available for that situation? What do you do when you need to convey such a message?" Barrette-Sabourin asked. "That's why we introduced those language proficiency requirements."

The dean of the University of North Dakota aerospace school, one of the largest in the world, said he's noticed an improvement in English skills among pilots in UND's long-standing international program.

"That is probably the most dramatic change I've seen with the international students," said Bruce Smith, who directs a program that includes 1,200 students and 500 teachers and staff. "We're picking from an elite group, but their English skills are remarkable."

The same is true at another popular aviation school, Embry-Ridde Aeronautical University, where one official says only a handful of students have needed extra English work before starting in-flight training.

"We definitely are very careful and make sure they are up to snuff in standards before they step foot in the cockpit," said David Zwegers, the school's director of aviation safety. "It honestly hasn't been much of an issue with us."

The reports from UND and Embry-Riddle, are encouraging, Barrette-Sabourin said.

"It has been almost 10 years now that we've been working on this, and it's very positive that the international students are proficient in English before they even start their training and education," she said. "That tells me we are slowly implementing the requirements and making a difference."

The ICAO put the requirements for private and commercial flight into effect in 2008, but have allowed some countries until March 2011 to implement them.

"In some parts of the world it is quite challenging," Barrette-Sabourin said.

Zwegers, who was born in Holland and raised in Spain, said he struggled to get his English skills up to par when he came to the United States to learn to fly.

"I knew English already but I knew the British English, the Queen's English," Zwegers said. "My instructor was from Tennessee and had a very strong southern accent. So slang and aviation English really didn't mix with me. I learned the hard way."

China is UND's largest international market, but the program includes aspiring pilots from Japan, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia. The school is training air traffic controllers from Norway.

Ken Polovitz, UND assistant dean of aviation, said the improved English ability has made the transition easier for the students who face many cultural adjustments and in many cases don't know how to drive a car.

"We've had some who have struggled (with the language) and not made it," he said. "But most of them do quite well and I'm personally just in awe of that. Imagine if you took someone off the farm here and asked them to learn Chinese. Oh my goodness."

International student pilot Malith Silva said he didn't have any trouble with his English proficiency exam to get into UND. He said while growing up in Sri Lanka he took English classes for three years in grammar school and eight years in a so-called executive school.

"Obviously it's kind of hard to pick up some of the slang in American English," Silva said. "But when it came to the formal and written English, it wasn't that hard."

Understanding hockey, for which UND is known nationally, may be more difficult.

"I've just seen one match," Silva said, chuckling. "I really want to go watch another. It's just fun and interesting to me."

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