Where Did Foxtrot Come From Anyway?

“Yes, that’s A as in apple, N as in Nancy, G as in giraffe…”

And my all-time favorite, unofficial letter clarification that I’ve ever actually heard uttered from someone’s lips (to date)…”that’s U as in uterus!” Can you imagine having big, macho men all over the world coming over the airwaves with those deep, sexy, confident aviation voices announcing (insert your best pilot voice here), “Yes, this is Uterus Romeo tampon niner two sevan requesting permission to enter your airspace?” HAHAHA!

But let’s be serious, there is little else that can annoy a pilot (or military personal) quite like creating your very own, unofficial, spelling alphabet. And there is nothing more amusing than watching him (yes, or her) grimace in severe mental anguish while some poor, unsuspecting vendor spells out a 24-character address in fruit and farm animal phonetics.

He especially loves it when I say something [between snickers] like, “Oh, gee. I’m soooooo sorry, I missed that. Can you spell it one more time?” Oh, it’s so good to be me!

If you really want to impress your fly guy (or gal), however, learn the official, handy-dandy, NATO alphabet and use it. He’ll think you are seriously sierra-echo-xray-yankee.

For those of you who are go-getters, here is the real deal, the official NATO-approved phonetic alphabet utilized by aviators, military personnel, and many others around the world who use radio transmission communications in their professions.

But standby just a minute there. Foxtrot, really? While the NATO phonetic alphabet is widely accepted as the gold standard of communication, have you ever stopped to wonder where it actually came from? It’s an interesting history, actually, and one that you can use to randomly impress your non-aviation pals on your next trivia night.

Nerdy wordsmith fact: Although the alphabet in question is commonly referred to as the NATO phonetic alphabet, it’s actually not. The study of phonetics refers to the way individual sounds combine linguistically to make up the pronunciation of an entire word.

Iˈnt(ə)rəstiNG stuff, right? In the case of the NATO alphabet, however, the words being used are actually an acrophonically derived (a word that begins with the letter it represents) replacement for each letter in the desired transmission in order to prevent miscommunication via radio and telephone communications. Therefore, the NATO is actually a spelling alphabet, not a phonetic one. Just trust me on this one (and thank me when you win Double Jeopardy – phonetics for a thousand, Alex).

The need for a standard, worldwide way to communicate important information is not difficult to understand, especially considering the commonality of international air travel. Many of the letters sound phonetically similar even in English. Throw in international accents (or foreign languages), six people talking all at once, the roar of a jet engine, and the oh-so-typical radio static, and you have yourself a recipe for disaster. You know, like when an F-16 pilot accidentally mistakes fiver for fire. Oopsie!

The first spelling alphabets originated (as it can be determined) sometime in the 19th century for use by the British and American forces. They each had their own versions which they used. You can probably already see the problem developing. There was this little thing called WWII where they actually had to fly…together! Accurate communication was kind of important. Everything is all well and good until your British commander asks you if you are Able too jig at seven sugar, and you think she wants to go dancing. She does not have that ‘loving feeling,’ Maverick. Therefore, in 1943, the Allied forces adopted the Joint Army/Navy alphabet – or Able Baker alphabet (aptly named for it’s first two letters A and B) – to ease communications between the members of the allied forces.

After the end of WWII, many civil aviation pilots were drawn from the abundant military pool, and they brought the Able Baker with them. However, a new problem quickly reared it’s ugly head. Many of the sounds were only common to the English language, and there were still massive communication problems outside of the English-speaking countries. With the expansion of international travel and the explosion of civil aviation, a system that would be comprehensible worldwide was still desperately needed.

Linguist Jean-Paul Vinay worked with the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) to develop a new universal spelling alphabet for civil and military aviation. His focuses were the languages of English, French, and Spanish. Each word was to meet five main criteria: 1) Be a ‘live’ word in all three languages. 2) Be easily recognized by airmen of all three languages. 3) Be easily transmitted and read by speakers of all three languages. 4) Have similar spellings in all three languages. 5) Be devoid of objectionable meanings in any of the three languages.

On November 1, 1951, the result of his hard work was an alphabet adopted by civil aviation (but not necessarily by all military aviation). However, many problems still existed, and there was still unintelligibility of several words during transmission in several other languages.

To combat these deficiencies, an in-depth study spearheaded by the NATO allies (thus the name NATO phonetic alphabet) of the compatibility of each word was undertaken to enable a universally accepted system that would be clearly understood despite language, accent, country, noise pollution, or inflections. The final choice of code words for the letters of the alphabet (as well as for the digits) was accepted after hundreds of thousands of comprehension tests involving speakers from 31 different nationalities. The primary qualification of the word was its likelihood of being understood in the context of others. Of the original Vinay-created alphabet, only the letters C, M, N, U, and X were changed.

The finalized version of the NATO Alphabet (officially known as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet) was made effective on March 1, 1956. It was formally adopted a few years later and is still in use today by our fly guys and gals around the world!

But what about Foxtrot? The original ‘F’ word was…’fox’, people, FOX! Geez. The word fox, however, was deemed too ambiguous and was easily confused with other words and often misunderstood during the Vinay study. Since the Foxtrot was a popular dance of the era, a little trot was attached to the fox for added clarity, and apparently after all testing was completed, it made the final cut! Now, friends, you are in the know. Roger, roger?

I Llama-Otter-Vulture-Emu you, aviation family.

Angelia (a fellow Papa Whiskey)



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