It’s no good, is it, taking instructions over the phone about the award-winning Gloucestershire pub your friends are meeting in for Sunday lunch and finding yourself in an industrial park instead, thirsty and missing the steak and ale pie? Something that could be avoided completely by the correct application of the phonetic alphabet.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) developed the phonetic alphabet in the 1950s. This assigned code words to each of the 26 letters in the English alphabet, so that the first letter of the code word was the same as the letter of the alphabet it linked to. Yankee for Y, Echo for E and Sierra for S. Clearly, this is no place for the idiosyncracies of ptarmigan or xylophone. Each code word allows absolute clarity of pronunciation over the radio or telephone, regardless of any language barriers between the message giver and the message receiver, or any poor signal. Because sometimes, it is a matter of life or death that the message receiver gets sent to Bravo Sierra Nine, not Delta Foxtrot Nine.
The first alphabet naming system was developed in 1927 by the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations. It contained many place names, such as Amsterdam, Havana, Jerusalem and Upsala and consequential potential when applied to aviation for there to be confusion between the code for the type of aircraft and where it was flying to.
In the United Kingdom, you can track our changing world through these code words. During World War 1, the Royal Navy used Butter but the Army preferred Beer. After 1924, the RAF’s Pip trumped the Royal Navy’s Pudding.
The United States adopted the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet in 1941, standardising a system across all branches of its armed forces. Known as ‘Able Baker’ after the code words for A and B, this transferred into use in civil aviation with the World War II veterans who found jobs as pilots and ground personnel.
Many different alphabet naming systems had developed in different countries and organisations but the cooperation of Allied forces in wartime made a single, universally adopted system necessary. Hundreds of thousands of comprehension tests were carried out with 31 nationalities before the final 26 code words we use now were selected. Out went Duff, Harry and Nuts and in came Delta, Hotel and November.
The ICAO sent a recording of the new Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet to all member states in November 1955 with the final selection of:
Alfa, 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. Six names, two dances and one invention.
Any GCSE English Literature student would want to correct the spelling of the star-crossed lovers, but Juliett has a double tt for the native French speakers, who would pronounce it with a soft t otherwise.
So this is another valuable life skill that we teach young people on our Aim High scholarship weeks. Applications are open now for free-to-join weeks in October half term at Biggin Hill, Gloucestershire and Oxford Airports. They may not need to find that great pub yet, but they’ll need to find the right Control Tower. Charlie Oscar Oscar Lima.