The Sound of (Microphone) Music
The ABCs, the One-Two-Trees, and Other Foundations of Aviation Communication
by Susan K. Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Editor
It never hurts to occasionally review the basics, possibly from a new perspective. So here goes.
One of my all-time favorite films is the 1965 classic Sound of Music. If you’ve seen the movie, you might recall the scene where Maria uses a Do-Re-Mi-to-ABC comparison to teach the building blocks of music. In Plane English, which has a full alphabet of “notes,” we express letters using the standard phonetic alphabet. Adopted in March 1956 by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the ABCs of aviation are: Alpha, 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.
Today’s version is the last in a series of “spelling alphabets,” which started in the International Telecommunications Union in the late 1920s. In 1932, the International Commission for Air Navigation (an ICAO predecessor) adopted a version using (mostly) geographic names: Amsterdam, Baltimore, Casablanca, Denmark, Edison, Florida, Gallipoli, Havana, Italia, Jerusalem, Kilogramme, Liverpool, Madagascar, New York, Oslo, Paris, Quebec, Roma, Santiago, Tripoli, Upsala, Valencia, Washington, Xanthippe, Yokohama, Zurich.
In 1941, the United States started using the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet, more commonly known as the “Able Baker” version: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-ray, Yoke, Zebra.
The Able Baker version offers a very plausible explanation for how aviators adopted “Roger” as shorthand for “I have received and understood your transmission.” In its early days, the fledgling aviation industry adopted customs, procedures, and terms from more established sectors like the telegraph business. In the telegraph business, which then used Morse code, the receiver would transmit “R” to signify successful receipt of a message. Early aviators needed a similar protocol. Since they couldn’t transmit a Morse-code “R,” they did the next best thing by transmitting the word “Roger.”
Numbers in Plane English are pronounced mostly the same as they are in regular English, with just a few exceptions. In Plane English, three (3) becomes “tree,” five (5) becomes “fife,” and nine (9) becomes “niner.” I’m not so sure about “tree” and “fife,” but I have always thought “niner” sounds a lot cooler than a plane (ahem) vanilla “nine.”
To offer an example, you properly pronounce the “name” of a U.S.-registered airplane with tail number 1359T as “one-tree-fife-niner Tango.” You probably won’t hear the “November,” the first element in the tail number of any U.S.-registered aircraft. Other countries use a different starting letter (or a combination of letters and numbers) to denote an aircraft on their registry.
Aviation transmissions follow a specific sequence: Whom you are calling: “Phoenix Approach” or “Falcon Tower;” Who you are, using the aircraft’s make, model, and tail number: “Skyhawk 1359 Tango;” Where you are: “twenty miles west” at “5,500 feet” (read from the altimeter); and What you want to do: “landing Falcon Field.”
ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service): provides current weather and airport information, such as runways in use. Each successive ATIS recording has an alpha-numeric designator (e.g., ATIS Information Foxtrot) to distinguish it from previous ones.
Squawk: This word refers to the aircraft’s transponder code (e.g., 1200). Squawk can be a noun (“say assigned squawk”), an adjective (“squawk code is 2345”), or a verb (“squawk 5423”).
Mayday (emergency): Hopefully you will never have to use this one. If you’re wondering, Mayday is a corruption of the French for “help me” (m’aidez).
Susan K. Parson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing and a Special Assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.