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Flying in Quebec

By Michel Gammon, for Bits and Pieces

Flying in Quebec

Many North American pilots are surprised to learn that French is frequently used as a radiotelephony language for aeronautical communications in Quebec. It’s falsely assumed that because English is the default radiotelephony language of international aviation, that it’s also the only permitted language in aviation.

International Civil Aviation Organization regulations, however, allow considerable latitude for local languages to be used around the world, and while English is the norm for international traffic, French is widely used in Quebec and other areas of the world where French is the first language of the population, including France.

There are many arguments pro and con regarding the use of French by pilots and ATC in Quebec. The purpose of this brief article isn’t to rehash them. The fact is that French has been used by pilots in Quebec for about 30 years and is likely to remain in use for the foreseeable future. This brief guide, it is hoped, will help unilingual English pilots fly safely in Quebec alongside (their often equally unilingual) French-speaking brethren.

Locations Where French Is Used
Transport Canada mandates that French ATC services be available in all controlled airspace in Quebec, at flight service stations in Quebec, and also at Ottawa International Airport.

Within Quebec, French is the most frequently heard language in aviation radiotelephony outside of large international airports. In many if not most places, it will be the only language heard, particularly in some of the smaller airports in the Quebec heartland; in 2011, a considerable portion of the Quebec population is unilingually francophone.

Practically speaking, an English-speaking pilot won’t have any issues in controlled airspace in Quebec: controllers and flight service specialists everywhere in Quebec must and do speak good English. While some transmissions between ATC and other aircraft in French may be missed, ATC will communicate with English-speaking pilots in English and issue all instructions and clearances in English when English is the language used while initiating communications with ATC.

However, in uncontrolled airspace, either when monitoring 126.7 MHz while flying VFR or when departing and approaching uncontrolled airfields, most communications will be in French. You’ll find that most French-speaking pilots will make an effort to use English if an English-speaking pilot is within the airport zone (or on a potentially conflicting route while monitoring 126.7MHz). The reality, though, is that many pilots have difficulty with effectively communicating in English.

Therefore, situational awareness could be increased if the English-speaking pilot knows some rudimentary aviation terminology, particularly the positioning of aircraft in the circuit.

Airport Operations in French
Uncontrolled airports may seem like the greatest challenge that an English-speaking pilot will face when flying in Quebec, assuming the pilot shows up at a field at a time when none of the pilots in the circuit are capable of communicating in rudimentary English. Fortunately those situations are rare.

Although I’m fluently bilingual, I’ve noticed that when a unilingual English pilot is present in the airfield zone, the vast majority of French-speaking pilots will switch to English, with a degree of proficiency that ranges from passable to excellent.

However, when monitoring the frequency prior to entering the zone, knowing a few simple French terms for the different reporting points in the circuit can help establish situational awareness.

In particular at uncontrolled airfields where pilots typically call out the mandatory reporting points and some points in between, getting a mental picture of the position of other aircraft in the circuit will be facilitated by understanding basic French terminology.

Aircraft headed for an airfield will typically make their initial call about 5 minutes or 10 n.m. or so from the airfield zone; if the airfield is in a Mandatory Frequency area, the call must be made 5 minutes prior to entry.

An arriving flight thus would typically call at the following points; at a Mandatory Frequency airfield, the bold reporting points are mandatory, and the other points are almost always broadcast as well. If the published circuit is a right-hand one, the word “droite” (right) will generally be added before “vent-arrière” (downwind) and base.

Reporting point

English phraseology

French phraseology

5 minutes inbound

Bromont Unicom, Golf Alpha Bravo Charlie, inbound for landing, 10 n.m. north at 2000, will join from upwind side

Unicom Bromont, Golf Alpha Bravo Charlie, en rapprochement, 10 milles au nord à 2000 pieds, allons joindre par le côté inactif


Alpha Bravo Charlie, overhead field at 1400

Alpha Bravo Charlie, verticale des installations à 1400 pieds


Alpha Bravo Charlie established downwind for two-three full stop

Alpha Bravo Charlie, établi vent-arrière piste deux-trois arrêt complet


Alpha Bravo Charlie, turning base two-three full stop

Alpha Bravo Charlie tourne en base deux-trois arrêt complet


Alpha Bravo Charlie final two-three, full stop

Alpha Bravo Charlie, finale deux-trois arrêt complet


Alpha Bravo Charlie backtracking runway two-three

Alpha Bravo Charlie remonte piste deux-trois

Clear of the active

Alpha Bravo Charlie, clear of the active

Alpha Bravo Charlie, piste deux-trois dégagée (or: piste deux-trois libérée)

Departing an airfield, a pilot will typically call out initial climb, leaving the circuit and leaving the airport zone. In addition, prior to departure the pilot will (or at least should) broadcast intentions for leaving the circuit, such as leaving straight out on runway heading or via the downwind:

Reporting point

English phraseology

French phraseology

Initial climb

Alpha Bravo Charlie, airborne two-three

Alpha Bravo Charlie, montée initiale piste deux-trois

Leaving the circuit

Alpha Bravo Charlie, leaving the circuit two-three, at one point five for three thousand

Alpha Bravo Charlie, quitte le circuit, à un point cinq pour trois-mille pieds

Leaving the zone

Alpha Bravo Charlie, leaving the zone, changing to en-route frequency

Alpha Bravo Charlie, quitte la zone, passons sur la fréquence de route.

Knowing the phonetic pronunciation of some keywords will help the unilingual pilot understand another aircraft’s position:




Overhead the field

À la verticale des installations

Ahh laa vayr-tee-kal days ayn-stall-ah-see-yons

Upwind side

Côté inactif

Co-tay een-ak-tiff

(Extended) Downwind

(Long) Vent-arrière

(Long) Vaan arr-ee-aire



Droe-at (rhymes with hat)






Reh-monteh (eh nearly silent)





Vent traversier

Vaan tra-vers-ee-ay








































En-Route Communications
Like elsewhere in Canada, VFR flights monitor 126.7 MHz in uncontrolled airspace unless using flight-following. It’s typical for pilots to broadcast their position and altitude at periodic intervals in order to avoid conflict with other traffic in the area. A typical position report is preceded in English with the words “traffic advisory on 126.7”, followed by call sign, aircraft type, route, current position and altitude, and the concluding words “any conflicting traffic call Alpha Bravo Charlie on 126.7”.

In French, a typical advisory would read: “Information traffic sur 126.7, Golf Alpha Bravo Charlie, Beech 23, 3000 pieds au dessus du Lac Brome, en route (se dirige vers, direction, destination) Sherbrooke, traffic en conflit Alpha Bravo Charlie sur 126.7”.

It is perhaps these communications more than comms in the circuit that will pose the most difficulty; in the circuit, it is highly likely that if an English-speaking pilot is within the circuit, the French-speaking pilots will do their best to make their position known in English. However, during en-route communications, the pilot broadcasting his position likely won’t know that an English-speaking pilot is in the environs unless prior contact had been established between the aircraft.

For this reason, I would highly recommend that unilingual English-speaking pilots use flight-following if transiting Quebec airspace unless one has at least a rudimentary proficiency with French. Flight-following is normally available to VFR traffic whether or not you filed a flight plan, but you need a transponder. The ad-hoc broadcasting of position and intentions on 126.7 MHz works reasonably well, when pilots do make the broadcasts—and understand each other. If you didn’t understand someone else’s position broadcast, ask for clarification and broadcast your own position. Make sure you have your map open and can find the places mentioned by other pilots. 

Enjoying Quebec
Quebec can be a place of unparalleled beauty to fly; from fly-in fishing to enjoying the majesty of the St. Lawrence River Valley just south of Charlevoix and its dramatic escarpments, to the gastronomic delights that await one after the plane is tied down for the night. One shouldn’t feel intimidated from enjoying Quebecers’ hospitality and taking in the scenic beauty of a province that is nearly three times the size of France. Most Quebec pilots will do their best to make an out-of-province flyer feel at ease. Some rudimentary knowledge of French aviation terminology will improve your level of situational awareness to keep the skies safe.

Michel Gammon is a systems analyst and has had his private licence for over 30 years. He currently owns a Beech Sundowner based in Bromont, Quebec.


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