Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta … the phonetic alphabet which ensures error-free communication celebrated its 70th anniversary this month. Launched on November 1, 1951, the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, commonly known as the NATO Spelling Alphabet, continues to unify the global aviation industry.
The phonetic alphabet has 26 words for the 26 letters of the English alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec , Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.
Interestingly, India is the only country, and Lima and Quebec are the only two cities on the list.
A typical air traffic control (ATC) instruction to the pilot who directs an aircraft on a runway will be something like this: Alpha Bravo Charlie on the November taxiway crosses runway one eight. The pilot’s response will be “in November, crossing the One Eight, Alpha, Bravo Charlie track”.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the United Nations specialized agency for civil aviation – has adopted the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet to facilitate communication by telephone or radio and to avoid misunderstandings when parties of a message containing letters and numbers are spelled out. It has continued to exist for 70 years.
ICAO has adopted its phonetic alphabet as the universal standard for communicating English letters by telephone or radio. The minimum word requirements were to have similar spelling in English, French and Spanish and to be living words in each of those languages. Some similar sounding letters (M and N or G and J) can cause confusion between two people communicating with different accents or when the lines of communication are poor. The phonetic alphabet helps limit confusion between the cockpit and the tower, says an ICAO report.
“When you use the alphabets of the radiotelephony, you can’t mistake a word,” says Mohan Ranganathan, aviation consultant and former pilot. For the aviation industry, the phonetic alphabet is the most critical language of communication, said a retired pilot with more than 30 years of international flying. “Overall, all over the world, communication conforms to ICAO standards, with the exception of pronunciation. But when they fly to Saudi Arabia, the letter W, which is called Whiskey, they call it Water, ”he said.