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English NOT Spoken Here

CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports on the dangerous problem of airline pilots who do not speak English, and what could be done to prevent further fatalities, in his two-part "Eye On America" report.

Every day, hundreds of foreign jetliners carrying thousands of people land at major U.S. airports—nearly always without incident.

But occasionally there are terrifying moments, like an episode last fall when Aeroflot's Flight 829 was inbound for Seattle.

As controllers watched helplessly, the Russian pilot started to land, not on the runway, but on a busy Seattle street near an elementary school. Meanwhile, controllers struggled to understand the pilot's message.

Problems with pilots unable to speak English have already proven deadly.

In 1990, Avianca Flight 52 from Colombia was in a holding pattern over New York and desperately low on fuel. But the co-pilot didn't know enough English to alert controllers to the urgency of the situation.

Despite repeated references to fuel concerns in radioed messages to controllers, the co-pilot never used the critical word: Emergency.

"We just lost two engines and we need priority please," the pilot said.

The jet crashed less than a minute later. The National Transportation Security Board blamed the pilots, and their lack of English for the crash.

"It's required that the crew be able to communicate in English with air traffic controllers," said Ron Morgan, the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Control Chief.

But Morgan concedes that pilots don't have to pass any English test. Right now, Morgan says there is no existing law or regulation that allows the FAA to police these communication standards.

The FAA is now pushing for international standards and greater enforcement powers to prevent incidents like the one with Aeroflot 829 in Seattle.

At schools, like Florida's Embry Riddle University, foreign students are drilled in English language skills, in an effort to close a dangerous air safety loophole.

Amy Robinson is a pilot for a major US airline. And when she's not in the cockpit, Robinson teaches foreign pilots to speak and understand English. She recently tested pilots from two Russian airlines, and was stunned by the results.

"Both the chief pilots tested the highest in both groups. One tested with 18 English words, the other one tested with 24, and that was the TOTAL they knew," said Robinson.

The English barrier has already proven deadly in a FEW crashes.
After one such crash the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA called for international English "proficiency standards". But to date NO STANDARDS have been adopted.

And controllers who most often deal with foreign pilots, those in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, warn the current system is ripe for failure. Too often, they say, repeated commands are misunderstood or even ignored.

To see Parts One and Part Two of Bob Orr's eport, click above.

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