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#169 “Reft Downwind”

I’m dithering.  I’m dithering about the future of my children.  On the one hand, this could be really depressing.  On the other, it could be a big adventure, one that I will not be alive to witness.

As Woody Guthrie said, “The times, they are a’changin’”. Chinese, Pakistani, Indian and other nationals will be the predominant forces in the labor and manufacturing markets.  Our education system and youth’s sense of entitlement will spell the end of our civilization’s seat at the power table.  At first, this fact makes me a defeatist about the future of my children and any children they may have.  But maybe not.  Maybe they should just roll with the punches and learn Mandarin or Hindi.

Gawd we’re an arrogant race.  “Slopes, Pakkis, chinks, gooks, kaffirs”… all those terms are simply evidence of our misplaced and fearful  attitude toward people who simply don’t look or sound like us. I was flying with a student in the pattern at the Madras, Oregon, airport.  In the pattern with me was a 172 with a Chinese student aboard.  Those of us who fly in this area are familiar with the Chinese students.  Hillsboro Aviation evidently has a contract to train Chinese nationals.  I can only assume that they are destined to become airline pilots.  In the meantime, they are learning both to fly and to speak English.


A group of Chinese students gather in front of the Prineville, Oregon FBO.


 The latter puts all of us for whom English is our native language to the test.  The Chinese students don’t speak English very well.  Add to that the fact that their instructors encourage them to make lots of calls and to announce every position in the pattern and you’ve got airwaves which are congested with thick Chinese accents. Those accents are hard to understand by us locals.  Ahh, there’s the rub!  Many of our locals fail to consider what these Chinese students are up against.  They are in a foreign country, learning a new skill and at the same time being forced to communicate in a foreign language and fly like “Acme”.  I might add that English and Mandarin are about as different as any two languages can be.

The Chinese student in the pattern with me that day had decided to exit the Madras pattern and return to Prineville from whence he’d come.  He transmitted, “Uh, Madras tlaffic, Cessna thlee thlee foah too seben on reft downwind depachuh flom thlee foah, noathbound…”

Realizing that he couldn’t be on a northerly course AND on left downwind from runway three four, I decided to give the kid a hand.

“Cessna on downwind, this is the one-forty.  I don’t think you’re northbound.  Where are you going?”

Not used to plain English transmissions, he thought for a minute, then answered, “Uh thlee thlee foah too seben going to Pihvil…”

“That’s what I thought”, I replied.  “You’re southbound to Prineville.  It’s no factor.  I’ve got you in sight.  Have a good flight”.

Grateful, he replied, “Oh, thank-you velly much!”

“No problem”, I replied.  Then, thinking about his situation, I added, “Oh and by the way, your English is a lot better than my Mandarin.”

And then his instructor, who I didn’t even know was in that airplane, keyed his mic and said, “Oh, I don’t know, Brian, your Mandarin is pretty good”.

I had to chuckle.  I don’t speak ANY Mandarin, with the possible exception of knowing how to say “Thank you”.   And I still don’t know who that instructor was or how he knew who I was.

But my point is that we are all on this planet together.  Chinese, American, Mexican, Arabs and even those pesty Serbians.  We need to think twice about criticizing others for their stumbling efforts to learn a foreign language or a new skill.  Maybe we just need to occasionally put ourselves in their shoes.

There’s an old joke about a Lufthansa Captain who insists upon speaking German to an air traffic controller at the Frankfurt Airport.  The Controller tells the captain that English is the language of aviation and that he needs to speak English.  The German replies, “I am a German  flying a German Airplane in German  Airspace.  Why should I speak English?”  The controller, an Englishman, replies, “Because we won the war, old boy”.

It’s true that we won the war and I’m grateful for it.  But that old joke ignores the need for a bit of understanding on the part of all of us, pilots and non-pilots as well.

And maybe some flying schools need to hire English tutors as well as flight instructors!

In the meantime, I take my hat off to those Chinese students and wish them Happy Swooping!


5 comments to #169 “Reft Downwind”

  • rick

    Once,, while on approach in IMC, I heard a Chinese student make one of those long winded radio calls that for some reason their CFIs encourage. ATC transmitted, ‘whatever you just said, just do it’. It was funny but only in a radar environment.

    Another time, not so funny, I was making a night approach in snotty IMC when ATC (in that tone of voice several octaves higher that makes the listener sit up straight), What are you doing now!!!, you are supposed to be flying the VOR-A.” The reply, “We done (with) that apploach, we do know eye lo less (ILS). It just so happened to be the ILS I was on! Just as I was ready to call the miss early then bug outta there, ATC says, Put the big E on your heading and leave my airspace! He was flying an EMB-170 which means he was climbing up my six…assuming accuracy of his position report. Not even a radar environment is enough sometimes.

    Another time, I’m waiting IFR departure from Podunk in non-radar when I hear, “Podunk tlaffic, won mile, inblund lunway toe fluh”. I wait and wait, nothing more. announce my departure and suddenly the radio comes alive with him again. He finally appeared so I called if he has a CFI onboard. He does, CFI comes on, so I mildly scold him that letting the student make mistakes presents teachable moments I reminded him this is the real world and you crossed the line letting his mistakes interfere.

    Anyway, I only put these scenarios here because they are funny now, or in some cases funny at the moment too. Brian, keep writing and learning. No one knows it all and my apologies if I come across that way.

    • brian

      I think that Rick very accurately reports what CAN happen mainly due to linguistic problems. Let’s not forget that “when the student fails to learn, the instructor has failed to teach”, something that Rick also points out. Thank you, Rick. Your input is appreciated and I think we can all learn from those incidents.

  • Ed Elkins

    Bang On Brian!!

  • Rob West

    Well put. I’ve been the pilot speaking English when everyone else was speaking another language and it’s challenging even when it’s your native tongue.

    My hat’s off to these young folks that take on so much at once. A little empathy goes a long way.

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