Airman teaches English to Afghan pilots

  • Published
  • By Maj. Richard C. Sater
  • Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan
Sometimes a language barrier can be more than an inconvenience. It can be dangerous. Consider, for example, the dialogue between an Afghan aircraft pilot and a German air-traffic controller at the local airfield during an in-flight emergency.

Maj. Susan Washington said she is well aware of the potential for disaster.

“Nobody in the tower speaks Dari [Afghanistan’s most common language], and nobody in the cockpit speaks English,” she said. “It’s a collision waiting to happen.”

She has developed a unique solution to this potentially serious problem.

Major Washington is the Afghan national army air plans team chief, which is under the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan, and she is planning the future-force structure of the Afghan air force, the air component of the army. When she first took the position, she asked the Afghan air forces commander, Lt Gen. Duran, what he needed most.

English classes were “one of his top priorities,” she said. After six weeks of planning the course content and arranging the logistics, she is teaching a basic-English class to 10 Afghan air force senior pilots.

They all work in the Kabul control tower where they help ensure that the interpreters, who have no aviation background, understand what they are conveying to the control tower staff. Critical situations, however, demand almost instantaneous communication, much of it loaded with jargon and flight-specific terminology.

“You can’t translate ‘pilot-speak’ directly,” said Major Washington, who is a pilot herself with the 32nd Air Refueling Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.

She said her goal is for her students to learn “enough operational-aircraft English to communicate in the tower.” Basic language skills will not eliminate the need for an interpreter, but it will ease the pressure and possibly prevent mishaps because of the language barrier.

Major Washington said she faces a challenging task. The coursework is based in part on materials used by the Defense Language Institute and “whatever we could find on the Internet.” Five days a week for two hours a day, 10 Afghan pilots come to class faithfully -- their homework done, eager to learn more. They sit in two rows of clean, white desks and take careful notes.

English is troublesome. Why is the plural of man men, but the plural of family is families? Or why does “he is not sick” and “he is healthy” mean the same thing? It often defies logic. But the Afghan pilots keep their humor in spite of the frustration -- and they beam when Major Washington gives them “thumbs up” for a correct response.

“We have a saying,” said Lt. Col. Khawjah Shah, speaking with the assistance of a translator. “If you know one language, you are one person. If you know 10 languages, you are 10 people.”

He is already four people, speaking Dari, Russian, Persian and Pashtu. But he recognizes a need to learn English as well.

“The profession requires it now,” he said.

The Afghan air force is about 3,600-people strong and has a headquarters in a compound adjacent to the Kabul airport. They fly Russian-built MI-8 helicopters and AN-26 cargo planes. In the future, the air force is expected to merge with the Afghan national army as its air-transport component, Major Washington said.

In the meantime, “we’re finding little ways to get things done,” she said, as well as making a big difference.