“Eddyville Ground, this is Cessna Four Niner Romeo Papa with Information Lima at the terminal, ready for taxi.”
“Niner Romeo Papa, taxi to Runway Six Right, left on Delta, right on Charlie, left on Foxtrot, hold short of Runway Tree Tree.”
When an Air Traffic Controller talks to a pilot on the radio, he uses a pronunciation of several numerals—tree (3), fife (5), and niner (9)—designed to cut through static and poor transmission, rendering confusion—between five and nine, for example—less likely. And this conversation uses the communications alphabet, also called the phonetic or radio alphabet, for clear and unambiguous radio exchanges.
Hundreds of such exchanges occur every day, and aviation traffic is safer because of this universally understood ABC. But as businesslike and matter-of-fact as the radio alphabet seems, a closer look shows it is packed with history, romance, mythology, literature, and the lure of faraway places.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations, adopted the communications alphabet in 1952. Soon NATO, our own armed forces, and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) also adopted the alphabet. For the U. S. Army and Navy, it replaced the Able Baker Charlie Dog Easy alphabet familiar from WWII movies. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) specifies in Chapter 4-2-7 that the ICAO phonetic alphabet be used by pilots. The version printed there is actually the ITU alphabet, which uses Alfa instead of Alpha (Spanish pilots might be tempted to say Al-pa) and Juliett instead of Juliet (so French pilots won’t say Jool-ee-ay).
Although there seems to be a solid American base to the alphabet, with homely names like Charlie and Mike as well as the patriotic Yankee, we also get hints of the more cosmopolitan. You may be figuring weights and balance in pounds, but Kilo is a reminder that there are other measures—in Lima, for instance, or Quebec, or all over India.
As for history, Alpha and Delta are taken straight from the Greek alphabet, only a step removed from an earlier form of writing using stylized pictures, or pictographs. Alpha, for example, derives ultimately from the Hebrew aleph, which meant ox. Just turn the capital A upside down to see the ox’s head.
Romeo and Juliet, of course, are Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, children of two feuding families in the Italian city of Verona. In the Greek myth, Echo was the nymph who loved the self-absorbed youth Narcissus, pining away until only her voice remained. And could Papa be Hemingway?
There’s a whiff of the getaway vacation in Hotel and Golf, and the alphabet suggests a taste of nightlife: have a Whiskey and dance the Foxtrot. If you can manage the more exotic Tango, you might prompt a “Bravo!” from the spectators.
So the next time you use the familiar letters of the radio alphabet, think of its cosmopolitan cultural background. From its Greek beginnings in Alpha to the African zest of Zulu, this bunch of letters gets past the simple ABCs!