The U.S. Air Force is providing $1 million to three Purdue University aviation and science graduates for PlaneEnglish, an app to help develop and mature a suite of “critical communication skills” that advance pilot safety.
The Small Business Innovation Research Phase II award is sponsored by the U.S. Air Force and AFWERX, the service’s agile technology and innovation hub that acts as a catalyst for new ideas that lead to advanced problem-solving techniques and ultimately more efficiency.
Aeronautics and astronautics graduate Muharrem Mane, aviation and transportation technology graduate Eren Hadimioglu, and computer science graduate Sam Dickson pooled their resources and talents to launch the app, which guides users through “simple and complicated interactions with air traffic control on every phase of flight”—including taxi, takeoff, airspace entrance, and approaches.
Mane said he got the idea for the app after one of his first flights with an instructor. He remembered being told what to say to air traffic control, and he practiced it aloud before he pressed the mic button. However, by the time he keyed the mic, he had forgotten much of the information.
He told the university during a 2018 interview that he was “either too slow or I messed something up and there was another airplane close by, and the instructor didn’t have time for me to get my sentence right and clutter the airwaves.” To keep the lesson on track, the instructor took over communication duties, but the experience left a mark with Mane.
The app was designed with more than 50 guided lessons from the simple to the complex. Simulations include “visual clues that show altitude, distance from an airport, and direction.” Users must respond properly with the correct phraseology and speech rate, along with other factors. “If you only practice a handful of times, you just don’t get good at it,” Mane says.
The technology was rolled out first for the military and has proven so effective that it is trickling down to civilian general aviation use. Mane called the funding a “tremendous opportunity for us to play an even bigger part in helping the Air Force train pilots using a digital approach that’s proven popular with users.”
The app-based radio simulator is designed to help new pilots acquire radio proficiency skills in a realistic environment. The design team said the simulator is already used in “dozens of airports across the United States.”
Mane added that the technology comes at a time when the FAA has “increased focus on English language proficiency for pilots, and started asking instructors to test their students on their speaking and communication abilities.”