The phonetic alphabet - tips for field safety

Apart from the armed services, emergency services and airlines to name a few, sadly, these days, when we speak to people over the phone in call centres, customer services, insurance companies or others all wanting correct spelling for our personal details or when giving us quotes, everyone spells the words in a somewhat confusing and not easily understood manner.

In our inability to recognise different accents, as well as our general slackness for correct speaking (and spelling!), the letter ‘B’ for instance may sound like the letter ‘V’ or ‘M’ may sound like ‘N’ and vice versa and so on. Even radio station presenters are guilty of incorrect usage and should know better, as there is in fact a correct radio language and spelling system called the phonetic alphabet.

As hunters, we often find ourselves in remote areas and are increasingly using and relying on radios and emergency satellite phones to keep in contact with our hunting party or family back home, or as an emergency asset to radio in positions if help is required. The use of the phonetic alphabet is key to the correct identification and information and should be learned by every hunter and indeed anyone using a radio.

The phonetic alphabet is an internationally recognised list of words used to identify letters in a message transmitted by radio or telephone. Spoken words from an approved list are substituted for letters. For example, the word ‘army’ would be ‘Alpha Romeo Mike Yankee’ when spelled in the Phonetic Alphabet. This practice helps to prevent confusion between similar-sounding letters, such as ‘M’ and ‘N’ and to clarify communications that may be garbled during transmission through bad weather or other interference.

An early version of the phonetic alphabet appears as long ago as 1913 in an edition of The Bluejackets’ Manual, which is the basic handbook for US Navy personnel. Found in the Signals section, it was paired with the Alphabetical Code Flags defined in the International Code. Both the meanings of the flags (the letter which they represent) and their names (which make up the phonetic alphabet) were selected by international agreement. Later editions also included the ‘Dot Dot Dash’ system called the Morse Code.

The words chosen to represent some letters have changed since the phonetic alphabet was first introduced and any changes can only be made by international agreement. The phonetic alphabet is also known as the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet. It was developed after World War II and the current phonetic alphabet was adopted in 1957.

The 26 code words in the NATO phonetic alphabet are assigned to the 26 letters of the English alphabet. The final choice of code words for the letters of the alphabet was made after hundreds of thousands of comprehension tests involving 31 nationalities and deemed the most suitable words despite foreign language difficulties.

Although there are some variations to this, the accompanying table shows the phonetic alphabet used by NATO and the version used by Australian General Aviation and is generally recognised as the alphabet most commonly used internationally.

When using radio or other communication devices, it is important that we communicate in a clear, correct and polite manner. Do not use foul or misleading language. Remember to speak the same and correct radio language, especially when trying to give instructions or when seeking emergency assistance, as in extreme cases, a message not correctly understood can mean the difference between life and death.

NATO phonetic alphabet

A Alpha AL-FAH
B Bravo BRAH-VO
C Charlie CHAR-LEE
D Delta DELL-TA
E Echo ECK-OH
F Foxtrot FOKS-TROT
G Golf GOLF
H Hotel HOH-TEL
I India IN-DEE-AH
J Juliett JEW-LEE-ETT
K Kilo KEY-LOH
L Lima LEE-MAH
M Mike MIKE
N November NO-VEM-BER
O Oscar OSS-CAH
P Papa PAH-PAH
Q Quebec KEH-BECK
R Romeo ROH-ME-OH
S Sierra SEE-AIR-RAH
T Tango TANG-GO
U Uniform YOU-NEE-FORM
V Victor VICK-TAH
W Whiskey WISS-KEY
X Xray ECKS-RAY
Y Yankee YANG-KEY
Z Zulu ZOO-LOO
- (hyphen) Dash DASH

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