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What is the "phonetic" alphabet and how do private jets use it nowadays?

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What is the phonetic alphabet and how do private jets use it nowadays?

When I give my postcode over the phone, I start with "Papa Echo". If these words sound familiar, you know the phonetic alphabet, even if you use it very little.

Today, it is used in commercial and private aviation, in the military and shipping, and by anyone who needs to make sure they are understood on the phone or radio.

What is the phonetic alphabet?

The "Alpha, Bravo" alphabet is not really a phonetic alphabet, but an orthographic alphabet. It is not designed for correct pronunciation, but for spelling information in a coherent and understandable way. Its official name is the International Radiotelephone Spelling Alphabet.

If you watch thrillers or war movies, you may think it is the alphabet for pilots. It is also sometimes called aviation or military alphabet. However, its roots lie in pre-World War I alphabets to improve communication on low-quality, long-distance telephone circuits.

The history of the NATO phonetic alphabet

The first non-military international orthographic alphabet included city names from all over the world, starting with Amsterdam and ending with Zurich. It was developed by the CCIR (later the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)).

The nato phonetic alphabet was adopted by several national and international communications, military and transport organisations between 1927 and 1932. These included the International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN) (later the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)), the United States Federal Government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

At the outbreak of World War II, different military forces used different orthographic alphabets. In 1941, the United States adopted the Joint Army-Navy Radiotelephone Alphabet (or Able Baker) for all its armed forces. Some of its words, such as Charlie and Mike, have survived.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) adopted a similar one. While other British forces ironically adopted the RAF's radio alphabet, similar to that of the Royal Navy in World War I. Confused yet? The Allies certainly were. The need for the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia to communicate effectively led the Combined Communications Board to adapt the US Army alphabet for use by all three nations.

The birth of today's NATO phonetic alphabet

Meanwhile, in an attempt to create the definitive orthographic alphabet, Major Handy, director of the US Army's communications branch, asked Harvard University's Psychoacoustic Laboratory to determine the best letter words for use on "military intercoms in the intense noise encountered in modern warfare". These words formed the basis of NATO's phonetic alphabet.

Changes were introduced, including adaptations to make it suitable for French, Spanish and English speakers alike. This led to disagreements (the N was almost Nectar!). Alternative versions were tried and, at times, different alphabets were used by civilian and military authorities. However, on 1 March 1956, this final version was established:

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu.

The pilots' alphabet and the pronunciation of numbers

In airline communication, the spelling alphabet is more important than ever. It helps flight towers, ground crews and aircraft, both commercial and private, to share important information correctly and concisely in many situations:

The pilot of a private jet gives advance notice to an FBO (fixed base operator, or private terminal) of its arrival, which typically includes the date and approximate time of arrival, length of stay, amenities required for crew and passengers, and the aircraft's tail number.

The Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) provides current recorded weather and airport information (e.g. which runways are in use), and each recording has an alphanumeric identifier to distinguish it from previous recordings.

Squawk is the transponder code of an aircraft, which may be a standard code or a discrete code assigned by Air Traffic Control. Squawk is used as a noun (its squawk), adjective (Squawk code is 2345) and verb (Squawk 5423).

You will notice that numbers feature prominently, so the pilot's alphabet includes a pronunciation guide for them. It was developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. This ensures that the numbers are heard clearly, despite any background noise or interference:

"Zero, Wun, Too, Tree, Fower, Fife, Six, Seven, Ait, Niner."

Finally, if you are wondering where "Roger" comes from, in Morse code, a single R stands for received. When aviation took off, pilots started using Roger, the alphabet word for R at that time, in the same way.


Over and out!

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