Besides flying aircraft, more than 7,000 Chinese pilots are grappling with a tough new problem -- The Test of English for Aviation (TEA).
In 2006, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) decided that all airline pilots who fly overseas must have a minimum level of English and would have to complete the level 4 test, the minimum acceptable level, before March 2008.
China currently has more than 14,000 pilots, of whom 8,600 pilots flying on international air routes must meet the standard, sources with General Administration of Civil Aviation (CAAC) told Xinhua.
A considerable number of Chinese pilots are ex-military who speak little or even no English.
Technical advances have reduced the size of crew in planes. Nowadays, on-flight communicators -- rather than pilots -- are responsible for accepting airport orders and keeping in touch with flying airplanes.
But machines are gradually replacing the on-flight communicators and this has in turn increased pilots' communication responsibilities.
"All communicators will retire in two to three years," said Air China pilot Liang Peng, "and we really need to improve our English skills as soon as possible."
"Starting last November, China Southern Airlines (CS) made all pilots take training courses for six straight days every month," CS pilot Zhang Yuntao told Xinhua.
All Chinese airliners have been providing training programs for the English tests, and some have even had their pilots trained overseas to ensure they have the required language skills.
"More than 700 pilots took the level-4 test in the first half of 2007 and 82 percent of them -- more than 600 -- passed," said senior CAAC official Chen Guangcheng.
That still leaves a lot of pilots.
"We simply can't find enough interviewers," he added.
The test includes a written exam and a face-to-face interview. According to ICAO, interviewers for Chinese pilots cannot be Chinese and they have to know both English and Chinese, and be familiar with civil aviation.
"ICAO only has five test centers in China and each interviewer can only test 20 interviewees per day," Chen told Xinhua, "and it's really hard to find more qualified interviewers!"
"We hope that ICAO, the CAAC and the pilots can work together and work harder to solve the problem," Chen said without explaining how the 7,000-plus pilots can pass the exam in such a short period of time or what will happen if they fail.
"It looks like an impossible mission," anonymous CAAC sources told Xinhua, "but we are trying our best."
(Xinhua News Agency June 25, 2007)