If you’ve spent time at Soar with one of our flight instructors, you may have heard them speaking in what sounds like a foreign language. Along with all the acronyms that come with working and learning in aviation, the ‘Pilot Alphabet’ is essential knowledge for aviation enthusiasts. These 26 words correspond to the letters of the English alphabet, and are used to help those speaking over radio frequencies to understand each other.
After World War II, the spelling alphabet was developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to replace an outdated system that could be confusing. Just to put more acronyms on you, this alphabet can also be known as the NATO alphabet, after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and the ITU alphabet for the International Telecommunication Union. To develop the alphabet used today, hundreds of thousands of tests were conducted to determine which code words were more commonly understood. Tested among dozens of nationalities, the alphabet helps clear up issues such as ‘B’ sounding like ‘V’ on a bad line.
No ‘A for apple!’
Unlike when you’re spelling your name on the phone (F for Fred, anyone?), you can’t pick a random word for the letter you’re trying to say. The phonetic alphabet is specific and used all over the world in English-speaking countries. However, it is not the same everywhere. Many Scandinavian nations, for example, have different letters in their alphabet and extra symbols, so their phonetic system is a bit different to ours. Some words in the NATO alphabet are spelt differently to help pronunciation; Alfa is spelt without the ‘ph’ as some European languages would not pronounce it as an ‘f.’ Juliett is spelt with an extra ‘t’ for similar reasons; in French, Juliet would be pronounced with a silent ‘t’ at the end.
How to use the pilot alphabet
The aircraft in our fleet at Soar, and at all airlines, have call signs displayed on them for identification. Say you’re flying one of our aircraft on your first solo, and you need to communicate with the tower to find out if your runway is clear for landing. If your aircraft call sign is ‘SOAR,’ you would identify yourself as ‘Sierra Oscar Alfa Romeo.’ It sounds like the cool name of a celebrity baby, and there’s no doubt that when you master the pilot alphabet and speak it without thinking, you feel like Maverick and Iceman combined.