Pilot Parlance: Fasten Your 'Speech'-belt

Rob Kyff on

People in dangerous, high-pressure jobs sometimes relieve tension with proprietary humor. Nowhere is this more true than in the airline industry. Consider this deadpan conversation among an air traffic controller and two airline pilots:

Tower: "Delta 702, cleared for takeoff, contact departure on 124.7."

Delta 702: "Switching to departure ... By the way, as we were taxiing, we saw some kind of dead animal on the runway."

Tower: "American 635, cleared for takeoff, contact departure on 124.7. Did you copy report from Delta?"

American 635: "Switching to departure, and, yes, we copied Delta, and we've already notified our caterers."

In another instance, after a particularly bumpy landing, a flight attendant announced to the passengers: "We'll be deboarding as soon as Captain Kangaroo taxis to the gate."

Such subversive wit permeates aviation slang. Consider these "plane"-spoken terms, taken from Paul Dickson's nifty book "Slang":

To pilots, passengers are "dogs," "geese" and "paxes" (from PAX, the ticket code for passengers). Frequent fliers are "crash bait," and a passenger who causes trouble is a "hawk" or "vulture." Tourist class is "the back of the bus," "cattle class" or "the wrong side of the curtain."

"George is flying the plane now" means that the automatic pilot system has been engaged, and "we're flying through an air pocket" is a euphemism for "we're encountering turbulence."


A catering truck is a "roach coach," and the tubular truck carrying aviation fuel is a "baloney." (Though composed mostly of kerosene, aviation fuel is called "oil.")

The controlled airspace around an airport is "the birdcage"; a flight on which many passengers become airsick is a "blow show"; a near collision with another airplane is "counting the rivets"; the choice between steak and chicken offered to pilots is "leather or feather"; and an inactive runway where an incoming plane waits for an available gate is "the penalty box."

Among military pilots, taking a nap is "checking for light leaks"; jet fuel is "go juice"; an aircraft that needs continual repairs is a "hangar queen."

Terms for altitude are, well, heavenly. A thousand feet is an "angel," so "angels fifteen" means 15,000 feet above sea level. A hundred feet is a cherub, so "four cherubs" means 400 feet.

And any pilot who ejects from the cockpit becomes a lifetime member of the "Martin-Baker Fan Club," named for the company that manufactures ejection seats.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.




Mike Peters Diamond Lil Dave Whamond Fort Knox Jeff Koterba Cathy