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Command of English Would Have Prevented Brazil’s Worst Air Tragedy Ever

Brasília's air control tower known as Cindacta-1 in Brazil

BrasÀ­lia's air control tower known as Cindacta-1 in Brazil Brazil's worst air accident ever, on September 29, 2006, when an executive Legacy jet piloted by two Americans collided with a Boeing 737 over the Brazilian Amazon resulting in the death of 154 people, might have been prevented if only the Brazilian flight controllers who were monitoring the smaller plane had command of the English language.

This is the understanding of Ulisses Fontenele, the former president of the ABCTA (Associação Brasileira dos Controladores de Tráfego Aéreo – Brazilian Air Traffic Controllers Association). He has called attention to the fact that less than 10% of the about 2,500 flight controllers working in Brazil are able to speak English fluently. And according to Fontenele, those who speak the language do it because they learned English on their own initiative.

He believes that the US pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino and the personnel at Brasí­lia's control tower had a hard time understanding each other. For Fontenele, there was a series of mistakes that culminated in the collision. He compared what happened to the domino effect (in which a single piece knocks down hundreds of others) and said that the tragedy might have been avoided if a single error in the sequence had not been made.

"If there was no trouble with the English when they took off there would be no accident. But there was an endless number of errors. If only one of them had been eliminated we wouldn't have any accident," he stated.

Fontenele says that nowadays Brazilian flight controllers have a six-month course where they learn some English language phraseology. The classes, which are part of what people learn to become a flight controller, teach typical terms of air control and some lingo and jargon.

"After that, depending on where the professional is going to work, he doesn't get any recycling or refreshing course. In six months there is very little you can learn. You learn the basic of the basic. This is a very big flaw in controllers' training."

The former controller believes that the little knowledge of English is not enough when a flight controller has do deal with an abnormal situation as the one with the Legacy. "If something out of  the ordinary happens, the flight controller may not be able to communicate in English. After all, all he learned were typical and basic flight control phrases for when everything is normal in the air."

Fontenele recalled another situation, albeit not tragic, which occurred decades ago, and also had to do with communications difficulty between foreign pilots and Brazilian controllers. He mentioned the story of an American pilot who was flying to Rio de Janeiro and informed the control tower that there was a fire in the soil, which can be translated as solo.

Since the word "solo" in Portuguese means earth's surface but also floor, the controller understood that the airplane's floor was on fire and forced the plane into an emergency landing in Brasí­lia.

According to the Brazilian Air Force's social communication office, since 2004 there have been agreements with English-teaching schools to improve the flight controllers' knowledge of English. That office also informed that only English-speaking controllers work with international flights.


  • Show Comments (22)

  • Scott Ikkara

    The only way to make someone learn English is by seduction.
    Ideally every pilot should learn English? But what is the motivation or incentive to learn and reatin the fluency? Chinese pilots speak Chinese, Indian pilots speak Hindi. You won’t do anything uless there is an incentive to do that.
    I think Brazilians can take a leaf out of Indians in this case. During my recent trip to Mumbai, India I came across few innovative English enhancement products called “Smarten Your English through…”. These sure-fire educational – entertainment products are developed to create interest in the larner and make him learn positively.
    The developers, Espoir Technologies Private Limited has products like “Smarten Your English through Movies”, “Smarten Your English through Success Secrets”, “Sharpen Your English through Love & Romance”, “Smarten Your Communication through WIt & Wisdom”, “Learn English through Kama Sutra” etc.
    In each of these products, school English to IELTS / GRE / GMAT level is explained through a theme. For example if you like movies, you can get 700 hours of learning material through the topics of movies alone.
    An innovative technique to spped up skill building. If it is successful in Asia, why not try it in Brazil?

  • Andy Murphy

    To Ric.Bo,Ch.C

    Did you guys read the article in the Financial Times, translated into Portuguese by Terra?. I did read the original. Quite interesting. To make it easy for our Brazilian friends to understand, I am posting the link:


    The article makes lots of sense and forecasts about the Brazilian economy for the next 4 years.

    Your turn,Ric,being a wise old gentleman (I guess in Portuguuese it is called “O velho Sabio”).

    Take care guys.

  • Ric

    No, maybe PA or NY

  • Andy Murphy

    this Ray Odierno is afrom El Salvador,right?

  • Andy Murphy

    To Ric

    “Valentino,Valentino” was really sung by Connie Franscis. She is a singer from Costa Rica with the “queenÀ‚´s” English accent. I bet you will remember her after meditating for a few mintutes. It is one of my favorite songs of hers. I still have her LP with me and once in a while enjoy listening (Whenever my player functions!).

  • Andy Murphy

    The latest news I heard was that Joe Sharkey has thrown in the towel and no longer wants to get involved. I dont blame him either,because it is not easy for a witness to receive constant hate mail and to read illogical and premature conclusions about the causes of the tragedy from parties that were not directly involved. I hope good old Joe changes his mind and come back to throw more light in his blog.

  • Winston

    ENGLISH is the internationally-agreed language of air traffic control.

  • Ric

    A Knight Without Armor in a Savage Land
    I screwed up. Well, itÀ‚´s been 50 years.

  • Ric

    Have Gun, Will Travel, Reads the Card of a Man; A Man Without Honor in a Savage Land
    No, Andy, just remembering the TV show, hero was Paladin, Have Gun Will Travel. Sorry for being so obscure. Nothing to do with English.

    I donÀ‚´t remember the song by Connie Francis.

  • Andy Murphy

    To Ric

    What is up Ric, why this song “Paladino,Paladino”?. It reminds me of the famous song “Valentino,Valentino” sung by (I think) Connie Francis. Do you think that PaladinoÀ‚´s Englis was not up to the mark?

    I am curious about your new line of thoughts on this issue.

  • Ric

    Paladino..Paladino….A man called Paladino, Have Gun, Will Travel! Yes! Thank you, Norm!!!

  • Ric

    You are beginning to cloy, Norman Kemble
    Deixa de ser besta…..

  • Let the games begin.



  • Check out ICAO

    The key point is that ICAO has recognized that English proficiency is highly variable. That is why they are implementing language proficiency requirements starting March, 2008. From the ICAO description of the manual, “This manual provides guidance on the implementation of the ICAO language proficiency Standards for flight crew and air traffic controllers. It contains comprehensive information on a range of aspects related to language proficiency and training that will assist Contracting States, operators and air traffic services providers in implementing efficient language training and testing. It also contains information that will help the language training and testing industry in providing services that are relevant to the civil aviation context.” Any English school owners out there trying to get a slice of the training pie? Only a year left!

  • Norman Kemble

    Save your money
    And donÀ¢€™t buy the ICAO manual. Showing a À¢€œproficiencyÀ¢€Â in English in practice is a very loose interpretation by host countries. The times IÀ¢€™ve flown in Brazil some controllers spoke excellent English and the rest a wide range. That is true all over the world where English is not the primary language. The other issue in some countries is their view at the time of the US. I would say that a higher percentage of the French controllers, for over 20 years, À¢€œseem to understand very littleÀ¢€Â. Of course they could still be upset that English was adopted as the official language and not French. I have been surprised over flying Cuban airspace as almost all spoke and understood English very well.

  • Andy Murphy

    Something does not sound right in this tragic air crash in which 154 souls perished.Everyone,including the media seem to speculating the causes,without waiting for the official rport to be issued. My questions are a) Why has the black box recordings of the Gol Boeing 737 never made public? b) I heard that a Columbian pilot who was flying a U.S. cargo plane from Miami and happened to be over the Amazon at the time of the accident,helped the Legacy pilots to land in Cachimbo airbase. Why was he not interviewed by any official authorities? c) Joe Sharkey says in one of his posts that Jan Paladino is the son of a Spanish mother and an Argentine father.So Jan must be familiar with Spanish which is very similar to Portuguese. Besides, lots of educated Brazilians,esspecially in the Armed forces understand English,when spoken slowly. They understand written English much better.

    I many more questions to ask.But my comment: Ladies and Gentlemen, lets wait for the official enquiry to be conducted and not indulge in any witch hunts prematurely.That way,we will be showing respect to the 154 souls who perished and their beloved ones.

  • Ric

    Yes, that word will do it nine times out of ten.

  • bo

    [quote]The former controller believes that the little knowledge of English is not enough when a flight controller has do deal with an abnormal situation as the one with the Legacy. “If something out of the ordinary happens, the flight controller may not be able to communicate in English. After all, all he learned were typical and basic flight control phrases for when everything is normal in the air.”[/quote]

    and there it is….”Housewares”!

  • Check out ICAO

    From the ICAO website (http://www.icao.int/cgi/goto_m_anb.pl?icao/en/trivia/peltrgFAQ.htm):
    In which languages does a licence holder need to demonstrate proficiency?

    Amendment 164 to Annex 1 has introduced strengthened language proficiency requirements for flight crew members and air traffic controllers. The language proficiency requirements apply to any language used for radiotelephony communications in international operations. Therefore, pilots on international flights shall demonstrate language proficiency in either English or the language used by the station on the ground. Controllers working on stations serving designated airports and routes used by international air services shall demonstrate language proficiency in English as well as in any other language(s) used by the station on the ground.

    For more information, please refer to Annex 1, Chapter 1, paragraph 1.2.9 and Attachment to Annex 1, and also to Annex 10, Volume II, Chapter 5. Please, also refer to the FAQ “Guidance on the evaluation of language proficiency”.
    By March 2008, all language proficiency must be tested. The ICAO faq has interesting information, The truly curious may spend $81 and purchase “Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements (Doc 9835)” (http://icaodsu.openface.ca/documentItemView.ch2?ID=9582)

  • kenn

    All International airline pilots and their co-pilots are required to speak English fluently. ItÀ¢€™s been that way for decades. If Brazil ever wants out of a 3RD world country status, it had better get with the programÀ¢€¦.

  • doutornova

    They use English as the international standard for communication I think…

  • Thaddeus Blanchette

    I’m confused…

    Does this mean that air traffic controllers have to learn every language of every country which flies into their country? Wouldn’t it be simpler for the airlines to just put a competent speaker of whatever the native language is on the flight?

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