Multilingual ATC Airman sets sights for diplomacy

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Adam R. Shanks
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Throughout the world, the universal language of aviation is English. However, one Airman at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, has been honing his fluency in multiple languages since birth.

Staff Sgt. Dhanajay Patel, an ATC watch supervisor-in-training assigned to the 6th Operations Support Squadron, can speak English, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Spanish and some French.

“I was born in Gujarat, India, so Gujarati came naturally since my parents spoke it,” said Patel. “But we travelled a lot in India and since the country has more than 200 different languages, I started to pick up on Urdu and Hindi.”

After moving to the U.S. and going to school, Patel, who already knew English, began taking Spanish classes throughout his education. Then, while attending the University of Connecticut, he was offered the opportunity to study abroad in Guatemala.

“During the trip, I didn’t know Spanish too well, but the family I was staying with in a small village in the mountains, only spoke Spanish,” said Patel. “So I had to use a dictionary to effectively communicate with them, and eventually I started to understand the words and phrases necessary to talk to others.”

However, Patel’s multilingualism didn’t show its value until a deployment as an air traffic controller working alongside Pakistani controllers.

“After joining the military, I started working on my Urdu, which is the official language of Pakistan,” said Patel. “So during my deployment, the Pakistani controllers’ eyes lit up when they heard that I could speak their native language.

“It made the deployment easier on both sides, because we could effectively communicate the mission with no language barrier.”

While serving on the same deployment, Patel bridged another gap in the language barrier with a Pakistani security guard assigned to police their ATC tower. Patel recalled that every day, Airmen would ask the guard if he wanted them to bring him back something to eat after their lunch.

“Every time, he would ask for bread, and everyone had a puzzled look on their face,” laughed Patel. “But it wasn’t until I spoke to him in Urdu that I discovered that bread was the only word for food he knew, and he was actually wanting a chicken sandwich.”

As Patel moves along in his career, his eyes are set on completing his bachelor’s degree in international political economy, and eventually to commission as a foreign affairs officer.

“From the experience I had during my deployment, I enjoyed being able to talk to other nations and learn their point of view,” said Patel. “I challenged myself when I became an air traffic controller, and I’m looking for another challenge - to serve as a diplomat.”

With a diplomatic job not too far from his grasp, he is also training to become a watch supervisor, meaning he will supervise air traffic control for approximately 18,000 aircraft per year at MacDill.

“The amount of responsibility a watch supervisor has is compared to that of a company-grade officer,” said Master Sgt. Raymond Armijo, the tower chief controller assigned to the 6th OSS. “I have no doubt Staff Sgt. Patel will perform well, and the tower, as well as the 6th OSS, are lucky to have such a talented NCO.”