If you ever watched a war movie or similar, you likely heard of “Zulu time.” Similarly, you might have encountered people using words like “Alpha” and “Bravo” when trying to spell something out.
All of those words are code words that NATO assigned to letters in the alphabet and turned into the NATO phonetic alphabet to make it easier to spell things over the radio and to avoid confusion.
Since the alphabet is also used extensively in aviation – both civil and military – I decided to write this article looking a bit at its history, as well as at the alphabet itself and its uses in civil aviation.
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A Brief History of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet
Alphabets like the NATO phonetic alphabet have been in use for about a century now. Initially, they were mainly used in military radio communications – they were a necessity as the low quality of transmissions often led to misunderstandings in the technology’s beginnings.
The use of this kind of alphabets later on spread into the civil world as well. The first such internationally recognized alphabet was developed by the International Radio Consultative Committee (the predecessor of the International Telecommunication Union).
From there on, research has been conducted into what the ideal words to use were and what their pronunciation should be. This involved comparing the words to similar words in several major languages including English, French, etc. to decrease the chances for misunderstanding and misrepresentation as much as possible.
The NATO phonetic alphabet as we know it today wasn’t adopted until 1957. And, since then, it has been adopted by many organizations including the International Civil Aviation Organization.
The NATO Phonetic Alphabet and Numbers
Now, let’s take a look at what the actual alphabet looks like, starting with the words used to spell the 26 letters of the standard English alphabet:
- A: Alpha
- B: Bravo
- C: Charlie
- D: Delta
- E: Echo
- F: Foxtrot
- G: Golf
- H: Hotel
- I: India
- J: Juliett
- K: Kilo
- L: Lima
- M: Mike
- N: November
- O: Oscar
- P: Papa
- Q: Quebec
- R: Romeo
- S: Sierra
- T: Tango
- U: Uniform
- V: Victor
- W: Whiskey
- X: X-Ray
- Y: Yankee
- Z: Zulu
As for numbers, while the words themselves are the same, four of them are pronounced differently from their standard English pronunciation to avoid confusion with other similar words that might be used during radio communication (such as fire and the German word for “no,” “nein”).
Namely, they are:
- 3 pronounced tree
- 4 pronounced fow-er
- 5 pronounced fife
- 9 pronounced niner
Uses of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet in Civil Aviation
One of the most common ways in which you might hear the NATO phonetic alphabet when listening to airband radio is when aircraft are told to taxi on certain taxiway.
So, you might hear something like Speedbird 1, taxi via Echo.
You might also hear it when aircraft without a specific callsign identify themselves. For example, an aircraft registered N225AC might call itself November two-two-fiver Alpha Charlie on the radio.
One last note: keep in mind that while runway numbers are spelled out using the NATO pronunciation, the letters sometimes attached to it – L, R, and C – are not. Instead, they are simply read left, right, and center.
So, runway 29L would be runway two-niner left and not runway two-niner Lima.
When Exceptions Have to Be Made: Taxiway Dixie
While the NATO phonetic alphabet is used all over the world uniformly – after all, that’s the main purpose of its existence – sometimes exceptions have to be made to accommodate for local conditions.
The one such example worth mentioning is the use of “D” at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport. Whereas at other airports, taxiway D would be pronounced taxiway Delta, in Atlanta, taxiway Dixie is used instead.
The reason for that is simple: to avoid confusion with Delta – the callsign of Delta Air Lines, the airline based at and operating an incredible amount of flights out of the airport.
In other words, it’s much easier to understand and mistake-prone to say Delta 225, taxi via Dixie than it is to say Delta 225, taxi via Delta.
While as a passenger, you don’t need to know the NATO phonetic alphabet, if you are an aviation enthusiast, it’s something that you should certainly learn. In fact, you will likely learn it over time as you interact with your avgeek friends, watch aviation movies, and so on.
That said, you can also learn it so that the next time you are trying to spell something over the phone you don’t have to think about what examples to use (A as in… Apple. C as in… Comet.) and instead can use the NATO phonetic alphabet.
In either case, Tango-Hotel-Alpha-November-Kilo Yankee-Oscar-Uniform Foxtrot-Oscar-Romeo Romeo-Echo-Alpha-Delta-India-November-Golf!