Flying in France : « FR only » and issues surrounding the use of French for radio communications

By | 17 février 2021

France is one of a handful of countries worldwide where radio communications can take place either in the local language (French) or in English.

The circumstances in which one or both languages can (or indeed cannot) be used have long been a source of debate on various internet forums.

In this article, I will try to provide a clear picture of the situation, bearing in mind that my interpretation carries no official weight, and that pilots always remain responsible for the safe conduct of their flights.

A little background

To understand how the two languages co-exist within the French system, one really needs to grasp the general context.

The first and most obvious difference between France, and, say, the UK, is the extent to which general aviation is readily accessible. A hobby which in many other European countries is the preserve of the wealthy is open to people from all walks of life, due in no small part to government grants for aspiring pilots and a system of not-for-profit flying clubs where instructors provide their time for free.

This spirit of inclusivity means that people who speak little or no English are not excluded from flying recreationally, as long as they remain within French airspace.

As any non-French speaking pilot will quickly notice, ATC in France typically interact with local VFR traffic and Air France crews in French, while providing a service in English to everybody else. The rights and wrongs of this system are not the subject of this article.

An official French phraseology guide exists, which trainee pilots in France tend to learn informally throughout their training. There is no separate radio test as in the UK or Germany.

Because of this fairly unique bi-lingual situation, there are some ground rules that foreign pilots should be aware of.

What do the rules say?

Under French regulations, the « language to be used for radiotelephony can be either French or English, unless aeronautical publications state otherwise ».

In practice, the only case where aeronautical publications do state otherwise is on visual approach charts which indicate « FR Only » just next to the radio frequency.

An airport can be designated « French Only » for radio communications in one of four scenarios:

– At an uncontrolled airfield where the management (usually the local club) have decided to only allow French
– At an airfield with a FISO (AFIS) when outside of the FISO’s hours of operation
– At an airfield with a FISO (AFIS) where the FISO is not qualified to provide a service in English (this is actually fairly common in France)
– At an airfield with full ATC, outside of the controller’s hours of operation

Airfields where only French can be used will carry a « FR Only » note on the chart, like this one at Bordeaux Saucats (LFCS)

So if it says « FR Only », can I land?

It is worth remembering that the regulations only refer to the language used and not the one for which the pilot is qualified.

In any case, most EASA non-French speaking countries would not apply a French language qualification to your licence even if you were to obtain one! On that basis, there is nothing (at present) to stop you complying with the « FR Only » requirement by transmitting basic radio messages in French.

However, as with everything in aviation, common sense is the order of the day. You, the pilot, must decide whether you can operate into and out of « FR Only » airfields with the limited situational awareness that radio communications in a foreign language inevitably bring.

A couple of years ago, James wrote a very basic guide to French radio which you are welcome to use.

If I speak French, is it possible to get a French language qualification on my EASA licence?

If your French is sufficiently fluent, the French DGAC organise French Language Proficiency tests on request. A handful of licensing states will add it to your licence.

We can help you to organise this if required.

Please contact us.