Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the Phonetic Alphabet?

Sometimes words just have to be spelled for others. I’ve been on phone conversations where the person on the other end is spelling for me and it’s painful. “Was that a ‘b’ or a ‘p’?” Sometimes they’ll try on the fly to use words with the beginning letter trying to convey the letter: “B as in boy”. Then they’ll get stumped mumbling while they think desperately for ‘k’ words… ‘ketchup’. Okay, but is that really ketchup or catsup? Now think how much easier spelling is on a phone than over a poor quality radio channel. What we say, and how we say it is the key to our brain’s ability to error correct human speech. It’s a solved problem that was built into radio etiquette long ago.

The Sam Houston National Forest is miles away from the repeater we use for communication during the local IronMan and other public service events. With spotty cell coverage our radios are the only viable tool. But it’s really amazing how much RF a pine forest can absorb. With these events near the limits of repeater coverage it can be a challenge finding a spot that isn’t in a ‘hole’, even using my 50 watt mobile rig.

Event participants sometimes need assistance so we call in a support vehicle to pick them up. We’ll give out their bib number and gender, “Rider is female, foxtrot, with bib number, figures, 1234”, for a female with bib 1234. A male is a ‘mike’. We use letters selected from a standard phonetic, or spelling, alphabet so nobody fumbles for words.

Name the Police Officer

Spelling alphabets came about because early users of radios, like police departments, had similar problems with weak or uncertain signals. An officer calling in a license plate needs to be accurate. Unfortunately, English letters are easily confused. Did the officer, or ham during an event, say “P” or “B”?

The police started using a phonetic alphabet where the first letter of a word is the letter being transmitted. So in my case my plate is Kilo Five Romeo Uniform Delta, using the current NATO phonetic alphabet. But it took us awhile to get this far. An early alphabet used by the Los Angeles Police Department was based on people’s names:

Adam Boy Charles David Edward Frank George Henry Ida John King Lincoln 
Mary Nora Ocean Paul Queen Robert Sam Tom Union Victor William Xray 
Yellow Zebra

The New York City PD alphabet used a few different names: Charlie Peter Young. In 1948 the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) adopted the words in the NYPD alphabet with the substitution of Baker Lewis Nancy Otto Susan Thomas Zebra.

500px-FAA_Phonetic_and_Morse_Chart2
NATO Phonetic Alphabet

One motivation for changing the words in an alphabet is to improve comprehension. A local police department’s officers would understand the local accents of other officers so comprehension is high. It is more difficult to understand some words when two hams with different US regional accents are communicating. Accents helped drive the changes to the ARRL alphabet.

As implied in its name, a primary role for the ARRL in early days was relaying messages across the US and internationally. This was in the days when long distance telephone calls were so expensive an individual used them only for emergencies. A friendly local ham could insert a message into the ARRL’s National Traffic System and it would speed its way to the recipient. Unfortunately, that system doesn’t work quite as well today.

Adoption of NATO Phonetic Alphabet

The aviation industry and the military faced the same comprehension problem working across national boundaries. This led to the development of the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet also known as the NATO or International Civil Aviation Organization alphabets. It’s widely used by other organizations. The ARRL and hams fall under the jurisdiction of International Telecommunication Union which specifies the use of this alphabet, so it replaced the 1948 alphabet. The goal of these alphabets is to allow transmission of messages regardless of the speaker’s native language, signal interference or noise, and, as mentioned, weak signal strength.

There was still a problem. The various language users didn’t pronounce the words in the same way, at least following the English spelling of the word. That required pronunciation guides for different speakers. The chart shown is for English speakers. One for a French speaker would be different.

Spitting out Digits and Avoiding Deltas

numeric-alphabetThe transmission of digits is equally important. Distinguishing flight 123, a 767, from flight 456, a 737, on an airport landing approach is rather critical. In a related aviation issue, the word “Delta” is not used for “D” at airports, like Atlanta’s Hatfield-Jackson Airport, where Delta Airlines has a major presence. To avoid confusion, “Data”, “Dixie” or “David” are used.

To address the digit issue, a pronunciation guide is supplied for the digits, also. It sounds a little strange to our inner ears when we read the list. It sounds a lot better in reality, although typically hams just use our day-to-day pronunciations.

Message handling itself requires some adaptations. When a tricky word is being passed in a message, the sender should spell it for the recipient. For example, “This article was edited by Szczys, I spell, Sierra Zulu Charlie Zulu Yankee Sierra.” Similarly, numerics are passed as, “Hopefully this article will reach, figures, Wun Zee-ro Zee-ro Zee-ro Zee-ro page hits.” Another related technique is passing characters themselves when they are not a word. This might be for acronyms like ARRL or an airport designator like IAH – for Intercontinental Airport Houston. You’d say, “I am a member of, initials, Alph Romeo Romeo Lima”.

I memorized the NATO alphabet for use in ham radio. But there are times, like spelling my name for someone on the phone, where it’s come in handy having it on the tip of my tongue. A negative reaction I’ve seen is someone seeing the use of the alphabet is pretentious, as if hams are setting themselves as superior. Of course, it isn’t. It’s just training.

99 thoughts on “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the Phonetic Alphabet?

  1. Phonetic alphabets is standard in amatuer radio cuz everyone have different accent so by using standardize calling everyone can understand each other and easy to pick up specially in a contest.

  2. I memorized the nato alphabet while doing phone tech support… Still needed to do the “K as in Kilo” or “B like Bravo” for people to get that I was giving them a letter not the word “Bravo” but it always seemed to change the tone of people on the phone when I gave them a tracking number or something in the phonetic alphabet… One person asked if I was in the military, suspect that’s why people started treated me better when they heard the vocabulary they associated with soldiers in movies coming through the phone.

    1. I had the same exact experience; walking a random non-tech through edlin (yes!) on a DOS PC to modify the horrible damage stacker would do to your config.sys and autoexec.bat was a slow, tedious process, and using this sort of language helped tremendously; it could be a bit slower, but you largely eliminated they typing the wrong thing and having to figure out what went wrong. W00f. I don’t miss those days.

    2. I learnt the phonetic alphabet in the good old days of 27MHz Citizens Band (CB) Radio along with the ‘Q’ Code system and the 10:x system.

      Then I learnt to speak digits well when I was a meter reader at a telephone exchange. I would have weeks of reading numbers over the phone, non-stop, all day. That should be classified as psychological torture. You have no idea of what that can do to your mind.

      The I went to 24 hour time when I was on 7 day – 24 hour callout for about 7 years.

      None – of this came from the military.

      The when I did work for the military (just as a contractor) I never heard any of these except for in the cockpit of military aircraft.

      1. Win.

        Okay, I think I’ve got it – the word can either make a sound like the letter it represents, or start out with the name of the letter, but can’t start with that letter. I’ve got some; help me out with the rest, or with another rule that would help to fix the missing ones.

        A – Edelweiss
        B – ?
        C – Seashore
        D – ?
        E – Ian
        F – Phone
        G – Jesus
        H – Jai-lai
        I – Eyesight
        J – Gelatin
        K – Carrot
        L – Elevator
        M – Emma
        N – England
        O – Aupair
        P – ?
        Q – Cueball
        R – Arch
        S – Celibate
        T – ?
        U – Onion
        V – ?
        W – Ouija
        X – Extra
        Y – Wire
        Z – Xenon

  3. When I did some English communication training some time ago I learned that the NATO
    alphabet should not be used in social communication. The main reason for this is the
    military background which can be seen as lingual aggression in verbal communication
    especially outside the USA. (or NATO Partners)

    and that there are plenty of alternatives:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spelling_alphabet

    but I think as HAM, Nautical or Aerial operator its the only thing to go.

      1. While, it might be about political correctness for some people, to me it sounds more like, understanding the psychological reactions of your listeners in order to produce the most favorable reaction. If particular speech patterns make a person feel threatened or on edge, and you don’t want them to feel that way, then avoiding those speech patterns is a perfectly reasonable conversational tactic. Just be sure you acknowledge, at least to yourself, what you are doing and why.

          1. If you’re trying to talk down some nutcase with a gun who’s holding people hostage, insulting his religion might not get the result you were wanting. That’s the point of things like that. Not for talking to other nerds, but when the results might actually matter. This is why people like police and military negotiators get training in all the aspects of communication.

          1. Yeah, don’t travel …

            More seriously, I some places you can end up in a shallow grave or with an endless prison sentence for saying the wrong thing.

            When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

        1. I strongly doubt that anyone needing to use the phonetic alphabet is so sensitive that they would react in that way, unless their intention was to take a shot at the other person using it in some kind of a one upmanship game. This whole idea is a constrution of some SJW rooted in their own imagination.

    1. Interesting, I’ve never thought about that.
      This has nothing to do with political correctness- it’s effective communication. Sensitivity to your audience is important for leaders, teachers, managers, salesmen and anyone who wants to ‘win friends and influence people’. The point here is that you don’t have to avoid using the NATO alphabet completely, but if you are trying to do business or win over someone who may have experienced combat from a civilian perspective, it may be a good idea to avoid verbal cues that they would associate with stressful times. It’s not a liberal agenda or over-zealous SJWs- it’s diplomacy and manners.

    2. I will start by acknowledging that what you communicated was not your own opinion, but something you received during training.

      We have a standard, known and used the world around, and there are people promulgating the idea that it should be abandoned (in some subset of contexts) for some (dar I say slipshod) alternative. And of course, we are expecting that everyone will figure out which alternative is appropriate in which context, and will arrive at the same conclusion.

      I’d rather risk offending someone and know that they can copy what I am saying. Comprehension of content trumps maintaining a theoretically non-confrontational attitude. Conveniently for my argument, if they are offended it shows enough familiarity that we have an implicit protocol agreement, clearly they understand what I am saying and why.

      I think I will stick to NATO and take my lumps when it comes to potentially offending someone. Amazingly, the people I am communicating with have a strong track record of understanding me. This might explain my lack of friends however…

      1. @Patrick
        You’ve got a point, but you’re kind of presenting a false dichotomy. There are contexts where you need sensitivity AND precision, such as trying to sweet-talk phone support workers into giving you what you want, protocol be damned.

    3. Most international communication between Amateur Radio operators could be described as social communication. This also known as the International Communications Union phonetic alphabet. As best as I can discover the use of the ITU phonetic alphabet is universally recommend (by individual national amateur Radio organizations) to facilitate telephony communication between amateur radio operators internationally, because it was design to be usable persons regardless of the native language. My guess is that for those organizations understand what matters most. Precision that can facilitate accurate communications in life and death situations. I have to be curious who who reject that precision, because of the similarty to whan NAO members have adopted for their militaries I suppose my perception could be clouded by the fact that I’m licensed by the FCC because I’m a US citizen, but many would excuse me of supporting Political Correctness in other instances. [shrug]

    4. OTOH, sometimes the tech support people are so dense they deserve the lingual aggression. I’ve had a couple of time where they asked me to spell my name, and “M as in Mother, C as cat, G as in goddammit …” didn’t get through to them, but “MIKE CHARLIE GOLF ECHO ECHO” did. (Disclaimer: my dad was a US Army radioman, so I learned the alphabet the NATO way, and I took JROTC in high school, and learned to do the Sergeant voice.)

  4. The trouble with the ITU/NATO phonetic alphabet is that it’s fairly lousy at actually making the letters distinct which kind of defies the purpose! You’ll regularly hear radio amateurs working a weak station down in the noise abandoning the official phonetics and trying others. What usually ends up getting the message through is using place names.

    1. Hm, I assumed they chose those words because they all sound different, even if you can’t make out the first letter (which is sort of the point). Never actually gave it a lot of consideration.

      Problem with place names is people not knowing them. You could choose famous capital cities, but not everybody knows them, and how many places start with X or Z? There’s also the issue of Cologne vs Koln, etc. I suppose it’s OK when both people have a similar cultural background.

      1. Willy Peter was White Phosphorus, a smoke marking / incendiary munition that also happens to stick to your target and keep burning — even under water. You can only put it out by putting it under oil so that it can’t get to oxygen… and as soon as you get out of the oil, it lights itself back up.

        If you know anything about a infantryman’s sense of humor, you realize that this is hilarious. I think that the Vietnam era grenades are no longer issued, and only artillery has access to it anymore. They still use it in “Shake and bake” missions, where WP is fired behind the enemy, and HE shells are fired in front of them, walking the HE fire until it meets the WP. WP behind you, and explosive rounds landing closer and closer… you get to decide if you want to shake or bake.

      2. That dates from WW2, long before the NATO version of the alphabet came along. Back then, it was Able, Baker, Charlie … Peter … William … Zebra, The change didn’t happen until around 1960. In Korea, I still called for ‘Shell How Easy” when (as a forward observer with Love Company of the Wolfhounds) I wanted High Explosive, but my only confirmed kill was with Willy Peter that happened to be a hot round and landed square on the fuel tank of a Chinese armored vehicle, theoretically out of range of my tubes, that I was attempting to blind with smoke!

        1. Jim – I think the ‘change’ came before 1960. I joined the Navy in June of 1957. At Boot Camp we were taught
          the “Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Foxtrot . . . . . . Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu alphabet.
          We were drilled on it daily, and tested weekly at Marching Competition. At the end of the weekly competition,
          we also used the Semaphor alphabet, simultaneously with the Phonetic. We moved our arms from position to
          position, shouting the appropriate word/phonetic. The precision with which we did this governed part of our
          grade that week.

          It was to our advantage to do well, since Flags and ‘streamers’ for the flags were awarded, based on how your
          company did against 20 or 30 other companies.

          BTW, are you the Jim Kyle who wrote many articles for 73 Magazine and countless other pubs back in the
          60s & 70s?

          Thanks, if so. de (ex) WA8GDT aka W8ROI

          1. Jim – I have been on and off of RTTY over the years. Two of my favorite 73 Mag articles were yours: “The Errorless Teletype Converter”, and some time later, “Corrections to the Errorless Teletype Converter”! I started collecting parts for this device, after the ‘Corrections’ came out, but got sidetracked along the way, and never got to the layout and soldering.
            The ‘Mark AND NOT Space’ or ‘Space AND NOT Mark’ concept was a great idea. I also had access to several thousand
            McBee filing cards and started to catalog the articles in 73 Mag. I had a sorting tray and two or three ‘needles’ and one
            of the punches recommended. I may have gotten through most of the first year before THAT got sidetracked.

            My Dad worked where they used McBee cards for reporting problems all over the City of Pontiac (MI) DPW. Once they
            were taken care of, they kept the card PLUS the carbon on file for about a year. At some point, good sense drove a
            decision to junk them. My dad took a few hundred of them for simple note making. He was able to get a few thousand
            more before they hit the trash. Another friend, from a school system got me the tray, punch and ‘needles’ after THEY
            gave up on McBee. All gone now!

            Thanks for some great reading and learning. I got to a point where I would look for your name/call in the Index as my
            magazines arrived. I was one of Wayne’s ‘Lifers’, at the $73 point. That was one of my better investments in my ham
            career. Still have at least 98% of the magazines.

            For now,

            Ralph – W8ROI

          2. Jim – Your article on filing articles from magazines suggested using odinary file cards, with numbers or letter
            across the top and maybe also down the side, to establish some sort of pattern for RTTY, SSB, VHF, Moonbounce,
            etc. McBee created this idea, I don’t know when. It was when I saw my Dad using them for note pads that I thought
            back to your article and told him I would like to have all of the cards he could get before that program was ended.

            Later on, one of our friends, who worked in some school board office saw a few of my cards on McBee cards and
            said that they were going to scrap their filing system using ‘knitting needles’ and cards and move into the 20th
            Century with a real computer. So, she was able to get me one of the sorting trays and some of the ‘needles’ to
            use.

            I’ve long since forgotten how I was going to establish my categories, but I had something in mind. Don’t know
            what became of it all, probably years in a land-fill somewhere.

            Thanks & 73,

            Ralph – W8ROI

  5. Saying “K as in catsup” would not be confusing (to me anyways). I would not confuse it with A, H, or J. People who are more precision oriented (shall we say, stuck in the mud) may be confused by that, but not me.

  6. roger
    My name is Ed. Please don’t name ailments after me, per WHO directives. Or storms.
    I interpret the delta blues thru a lot of high tech sound including delay and other processing. It is a multi-aged multi channel event. When you change the timebase of a delay it creates a warped sound, delta echo!
    de KC9ICS

      1. How in the world did she lip-read?

        BTW, back in the day on CompuServe we had one sysop (not in the forum where Rud and I met) who equalled Ms. Keller, by using Braille screen-scrapers. She was one of the sharpest people I ever ran into!

  7. I was trained in NATO phonetics both in the Air Force and as a ham radio operator. I stopped ham radio when I got a job working 911 dispatch and had to use NYPD phonetics. I was constantly getting ragged on for the NATO that would slip in by supervisors. Then when I left 911 after 10 years because of medical reasons, I got back into amateur radio and after 6 years I still have NYPD phonetics slip in when I’m not careful, and some self appointed radio cops give me problems. It’s always some kind of sierra hotel india tango, isn’t it?

    1. Haha, there’s probably some German word for this phenomenon. It’s like when I play a videogame that has awkward button mappings, I re-map them, and then suddenly it’s like I’d used the original controls my whole life.

  8. I’ve had problem using the standard phonetic alphabet in spelling my family name (which is often transcribed as ‘Single’). But “F as in Frank” has been transcribed as “F.S.N. Frank?” which, needless to say, doesn’t help the confusion any. I’ve found “Fish” is less likely to be interpreted as a name. Still, getting people to get the last two letters in the right order is like pulling teeth. I’ve seen it written down wrong even when I spell it out. It’s particularly annoying when people reply to emails with the wrong name WHEN IT’S IN THE MESSAGE.

    No, I don’t have aggression issues, why do you ask?

    1. My first name is Gregg. Two g’s on the end, NOT short for Gregory. I’m Gregg without the gory. It’s right there, in the e-mail yet most will reply and type it without the second g.

  9. we should start a hackers alphabet –
    A is for Amperage (the more the better)
    B is for Blast shield
    C is for C3H6N6O6
    D is for Delta – this one make all the difference
    E is for Explosion
    F is for very brief status assessments (F…..)
    G is for ….

  10. I live in Argentina and work at an airport. Since I’m an air traffic controller i have to use ICAO alphabet and I’m very used to it , but it happens to my that my fellow countrymen are not used to it and in spanish we have some sounds that are alike and need being clarified. So we tend to use words to clarify…

    1. I wish I could find the Spanish language version of the phonetic alphabet. An old friend of mine (who has since passed away) was a ham radio operator and told me that their Spanish phonetic alphabet followed the names of countries. Sorry now that I didn’t make a list with him.

      1. As far as I know there is no standard phonetic alphabet in spanish. Here in Argentina the police uses women names to spell when speaking through the radio for example they say Natalia-Natalia to mention an unknown man (in english you would say John Doe)

  11. I do remote troubleshooting frequently. Often the person I’m speaking to is using a poor speakerphone or cell connection (or both). Makes me quite happy when that person uses the phonetic alphabet advantageously, even if it’s a partially or fully made-up one.

    And even if someone isn’t familiar with it, I can still use it with them, and be easily understood. Although I don’t use the numeric pronunciations, I say FOUR rather than FOW-ER, NINE rather than NIN-ER, etc. The official numeric pronunciations are still understandable by someone not familiar with them, but I’ve noticed they may have to think about it for a second or two, during which time they’ll sometimes miss the next character; so those don’t always have the intended positive effect. Additionally, if I’m not sure about someone’s familiarity, I’ll do something special the first time I use a phonetic letter, for example “QUERY” becomes “Q as in Quebec (1 second pause), Uniform, Echo, Romeo, Yankee”. The “as in” on the first letter, and the deliberate pause after it, gives them the moment needed to get into the right mindset; and clarifies that I’m asking them to type single letters, not whole words.

    Learning how to be easily understood is a great skill, and when used properly a courtesy to others, who will appreciate it and often find ways to return that courtesy. Glad to see the phonetic alphabet featured here.

  12. I like the NYPD example above,
    I had a similar one when spelling over the phone to a live operator and found she was comfortable using a very feminine phonetic alphabet. Nancy Baker Sugar.
    Never heard it before or since.

  13. The cruelest thing ever done to internet tech support people is Symmetric Mail Transport Protocol or SMTP. If you do not want to make your phone techs hate you, do not name your mail servers smtp.blahwhatever.com

    “Now type ess em tee pee…” “FNPT?”

    My surname is one that has roots in various chunks of Europe with many spellings, but was Americanized a long time ago to be spelled *exactly* as it sounds – yet most people insist on throwing in an I or C or extra A or swapping the L and 2nd E. About 50% of Pennsylvania seems to have the name on a street or building… If I lived there I might possibly encounter someone who can spell it. I’ve a friend with the surname Floerchinger and people have an easier time spelling that properly.

    What makes me cry the most for the sad state of literacy in America is when people are posting ads on Craigslist or selling stuff on eBay and they have photos with the name of the item stamped, molded, printed, painted, on a label or cast right into the metal of the thing and they cannot type it correctly with it directly in front of them. It says Pitney Bowes right there on the postage meter! Why the heck did you type Pittney Bows?

    1. Look over the comments here. Wanting detailed and accurate descriptions of something is what the “SJWs” do or something. I guess literacy is the new “liburl agenda”.

      Quite agreed though. I’ve been cleaning up my employees reports and documentation lately and I cannot believe the amount of inaccuracies just in spelling. I swear, if i read “payed” one more time; I will flip a table.

  14. I once had a chat with a WWII Australian pilot who flew with the (British) Royal Air Force. Their phonetic alphabet at the time was not very well thought out in that the words did not flow easily into one another. He once flew an aircraft call-sign IKI, which under the RAF alphabet at the time was read as Ink King Ink. Say that quickly a few times, then say India Kilo India as per the modern phonetic alphabet and see how the modern words flow much easier.

          1. Some languages (many Slavic ones) don’t use Y letter at all, so it only shows up and is recognizable as a math symbol. Germans are not unique in this respect.

  15. I work technical sales/support over the phone. I use the NATO alphabet all the time, because people insist on asking important questions about veeeerrryyy expensive equipment while on crappy cell phones while driving. Most people I run into who comment on it at all ask If I was ever a pilot. (No.) It works, it’s standardized, and that’s all I ask of it.
    I wish more people took the time to learn it. I get the “M” as “umbrella” type spellers all the time too.

    The one thing that confuses me, is the variety of names I get. My name is Thomas. I introduce my self as Thomas. What I get back is “Oh, hi Donald / Ronald / Michael / Chris.”

    I was raised between family members of Southeastern, North Eastern, and Southern British Accents, and had a year or so of speech therapy after a surgery when I was much younger, Most people tell me that I speak with a non-accent. I don’t see how they get Michael out of Thomas….

    1. It’s from those crappy cell phones (or rather, over-compressed codecs) again. I read somewhere that Bell Telephone initially rejected the idea of using satellites for relaying telephone signals because people wouldn’t accept the slight delay caused by the path length. NOW look at what we accept.

  16. Anybody remember Joss Whedon’s series “The Dollhouse”? All of its residents had names from the NATO alphabet. There. Now everybody knows I watched a Joss Whedon series……

  17. This can be a very useful thing to know, even if you have nothing to do with the military. I remember when my father was suddenly taken to hospital, talking to the ward sister on the phone and trying to describe his medicines. “Cholestyramine” is not a word most people are familiar with. Charlie Hotel Oscar Lima Echo Sierra Tango Yankee Romeo Alpha Mike India November Echo would at least have been clear, but I didn’t know how to spell it at the time.

  18. Well when I first moved in UK 4 months ago, I had to always spell my Greek name which is quite long many times for bank accounts, NI Number, etc…… using the phonetic alphabet always did the trick and no representative asked even once to repeat the letter (unless there was a really bad connection).

    So yes it is useful even for everyday things.

  19. Thats just the NATO version, theres a version in pretty much every country, all slightly different (based around common names in that country)

    If i would use the NATO version a lot of people wouldn’t understand me, if i use the Dutch names version, everybody (dutch, obviously) understands me

  20. Every April radio ham newsletters carry various joke versions of phonetic alphabets. A snippet of one of many examples:

    A – Are
    B – Bee
    C – Cite
    D – Double Yew
    E – Eye

    and so on.

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