The NATO phonetic alphabet is the industry standard for use as a spelling alphabet. The official name, in fact, is the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet but in aviation we often refer to it as the ICAO phonetic alphabet, as the critical communication of letters and numbers can best be understood using a standardized spelling alphabet that is not compromised despite language barriers that often occur during international flight operations. ICAO is the International Civil Aviation Organization; hence, the ICAO phonetic alphabet.
The Phonetic Alphabet is internationally used and recognized among many industries; including the military. The Phonetic Alphabet is also often referred to as the “Military Alphabet” and has also been adopted by civil navigation, maritime operations, law enforcement, forestry, and many other agencies – in addition to being the standard in aviation.
The 26 letters of the English alphabet are paired with twenty-six code words as follows:
The ICAO Phonetic Alphabet
Phonetic Alphabet – Private Jet Tail Numbers
When Exquisite Air Charter communicates with an FBO that we will be flying in to, we provide advanced notice of the aircraft that will be coming in. The information provided generally includes the date and approximate time of arrival, how long it will stay, any services required for the crew and passengers, and the aircraft tail number. While the most common format of a private jet tail number, registered in the United States, is N – #-#-#-Letter – Letter, we recite a tail number as follows: November, One, Two, Three, Alpha Bravo. While it may seem foreign to some, for those of us with long aviation careers, not reciting letters using the phonetic alphabet is possibly more foreign. I often catch myself spelling things to people outside of aviation using the phonetic alphabet – for instance, juliet – echo – tango if I wanted to spell “jet.”
Phonetic Alphabet – Odd Spellings?
If you noticed, Alfa is not spelled Alpha? If you are a Virgo, like me, I would be willing to bet that you wanted to correct it. Not so fast; not this time! The following is a statement put out by NATO in 1955:
It is known that [the ICAO spelling alphabet] has been prepared only after the most exhaustive tests on a scientific basis by several nations. One of the firmest conclusions reached was that it was not practical to make an isolated change to clear confusion between one pair of letters. To change one word involves reconsideration of the whole alphabet to ensure that the change proposed to clear one confusion does not itself introduce others.Source: http://archives.nato.int/uploads/r/null/1/2/127039/SGM-0675-55_ENG_PDP.pdf
Phonetic Alphabet – What about numbers?
Numbers are a big part of aviation and, therefore, must be clearly communicated to ensure accurate communication. Often times, in aviation, there are poor connections, background noise, and other interferences that could otherwise cause the inaccurate relay of critical information. As a result, the following number pronunciation guide exists:
Number Pronunciation – ICAO Flights
The ICAO Phonetic Alphabet was created out of necessity but has been adopted as one of the most used forms of voice communications globally due to the need for accurate communication.
It isn’t a bad idea to learn the phonetic alphabet, as you will find that many industries use this as a standard when relaying information or confirming the spelling of information over the phone. Once you learn it, and get used to using it, you will start to recognize people using it regularly in your day-to-day civilian life.