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The NATO / ICAO Phonetic Alphabet for Drone Pilots

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The FAA certification standards for Part 107 Remote Pilots include a requirement that we be proficient in radio procedures. Even though we rarely have a need to talk on the radio, drone pilots use aviation radios and air-band scanners to listen to air traffic and enhance our situational awareness.

Making sense of aviation radio communications requires an understanding of something called the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, more commonly known as the NATO Phonetic Alphabet or the ICAO Phonetic Alphabet.

Drafted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 1956, the NATO Phonetic Alphabet is used by aviators and mariners in most parts of the world. It substitutes a set of clear code words for letter names, and standardizes the pronunciation of numbers, to make it less likely that they will be misunderstood when spoken on a radio.

For example, the letters "M" and "N" can sound a lot alike over a radio, but the works "Mike" and "November" do not. Similarly, the number three and the letter "Z" can sound a lot alike, but "three" and "Zulu" do not. So we use the more-distinct clear-code words instead of the less-distinct letter and number names.

How to Understand and Use the Phonetic Spelling Alphabet

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Once you've memorized the letter and number substitutions, the phonetic spelling alphabet is actually very easy to use. You just say the clear code names corresponding to the letters and numbers instead of the letters and numbers themselves.

For example, if I wanted to spell out my first name, Richard, I would say, "Romeo, India, Charlie, Hotel, Alpha, Romeo, Delta." If I wanted to spell out the name Mary, I would say, "Mike, Alfa, Romeo, Yankee."

That's really all there is to it. Instead of saying the actual letters or numbers, you just substitute their clear code phonetic names and use the standardized pronunciations of numbers.

Please note that there are some agencies, notably many police departments and public safety agencies, that have their own phonetic spelling alphabet versions. Those alphabets are not used in aviation.

NATO / ICAO Phonetic Alphabet Clear Code Names

Here's a list of the NATO / ICAO clear code names for the letters of the alphabet as of the time this page was written (in March of 2023).

Kilo (KEE-lo)
Lima (LEE-muh)
Quebec (KEH-beck)

NATO / ICAO Number Pronunciations

Some numeral names also have a slightly different pronunciation than the standard English number names. As of this writing, the standardized pronunciations are:

0: Zero
1: One
2: Two
3: thuh-REE
4: FOE-wer
5: Fife
6: Six
7: Seven
8: Eight (ATE)
9: Niner (NINE-er)

That's really all there is to it Just memorize the clear code names and number pronunciations and use them instead of the actual letter and numeral names.

Revised March 24, 2023.

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