English as a Second Language

Friends ask how the 2015 air shows tour of England compares to the display and formation flying we enjoy in North America. I answer “very much the same, but for the language.”

Most of the Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary commemorations include “BBMF,” or the “Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.” Last week, a few European pilots and I joined the BBMF at the Royal International Air Tattoo, Britain’s largest air show. Our tribute included twelve Spitfires, five Hurricanes, two Me 109s, a Blenheim light bomber, and in a second phase, a Vulcan bomber and the Red Arrows, Britain’s military aerobatic team. BBMF features RAF officers taking a break from Tornados and Typhoons to fly Spitfires and Hurricanes. Good chaps to the last one, each with a nickname. Our leader, Duncan, is “Dunc.” Most take four letters from their surname and add a vowel to the end, so Parkinson becomes “Parke” with a long “e” and Milliman becomes “Milli,” pronounced as if the last “i” also is a long “e.” My surname poses problems so I became “Yank” or “Red 3,” the latter referring to my position in the lead element of the Battle of Britain demo formation.

Having sorted nicknames, you next need a dictionary to translate the pre-flight brief and verbal exchanges in the air. BBMF pilots favor oblique expressions and speak as quickly as possible. And if one word works, use three.

The engine start time is “spark up.” Doing a good job draws a “lovely” from the lead, though it is pronounced Lawv-el-ly. Tight formations are lawv-el-ly (wingmen looking across the aileron at the lead’s nose, two feet behind his tail), but if they get too close, expect to hear “don’t squeeze the water out of it.” Backing off from the formation a bit to scan panel gages is “minding your tees and pees.” “Gentlemen, continue to speak kindly to your airplanes” suggests aircraft are not breaking down in numbers. Too much backtalk and you might get “It’s my hammer,” meaning shut up and do as you’re told. “Take it forward to do the picture thing” means fly especially well in front of the crowd. Every flight has a “loser plan” for transition to different roles if one or more aircraft must land early. The expression I fear most suggests you can’t possibly miss such a conspicuous landmark. “It stands out like a dog’s bollocks.”

But I will cope as long as they let me land a Spitfire on grass.