How well do you know your Alpha, Bravo, Charlie?

June 4, 2020

Have you ever misheard the letters, ‘b’ and ‘p’, ‘c’ and ‘e’ or ‘m’ and ‘n’ when someone’s said something to you during a conversation, or while you’re listening to a lecture or a presentation? .

I bet you your answer is ‘yes’, isn’t it?  That’s because the phonic sound of the letters I’ve paired above are strikingly similar.

Try them again, only quickly:  bee, pee, see, ee, em, en. Very similar sounds, aren’t they?

Imagine this scenario if you will; an airline pilot is coming in to land a Boeing 777 with two hundred and eighty passengers on board at an airport he’s not familiar with during a heavy and violent thunderstorm. Because the landing phase is one of the most difficult stages of the entire flight, the pilot is exceptionally busy, he’s monitoring the engine’s thrust, their altitude, the attitude and stability of the plane as well as communicating with his first officer as they approach the airport, looking through the gloom of the low cloud and fog to find the runway’s approach lights.

Through their headphones, in the midst of all they’re trying to concentrate on and monitor, the pilots hear the air traffic controller’s instructions which would go something like this:

Air traffic control: “Delta 345 heavy, you’re clear to land on runway M11, maintain present heading and report when runway in sight”

Delta Pilot: “Clear to land, runway N11, maintaining present heading, negative on the runway sight, Delta 345 heavy.”

Delta co-pilot: “Did he say M11?”

Delta pilot: “Negative, confirmation for runway N11, now watch the glideslope, keep it steady and retard the throttles to thirty percent, flaps to twenty please. Confirm landing checks complete.”

Delta co-pilot: “Flaps twenty, checklist complete. Still a negative on the visual for N11. Are you sure he said N11? I think I’d better read through the landing checklist again…”

So, let’s stop here for a moment and review exactly what’s going on in this hypothetical cockpit. Obviously the pilots are busy, not only are they getting the plane ready to land, which means the autopilot’s off, but they’re contending with a thunderstorm outside, the plane’s been pushed this way and that by the strong winds, they can’t see ahead of them clearly and like I mentioned, in this scenario, this airport is not familiar to either of them.

Now let’s add another complication to this already complicated situation, the airport they’re landing at is in a country where spoken English is considered the second language, so even though the air traffic controller will be speaking English, it’s not his or her mother tongue and certain sounds and phrases may be somewhat tricky for the controller to pronounce as legibly as perhaps a native English speaker could.

The situation that’s about to occur is as clear as a bell for us because we’re reading it, we can differentiate between was said and what was heard, because it’s there in black and white, isn’t it?  

Let’s backtrack to the question I asked at the beginning of this vignette. I asked if you’d ever misheard those phonically similar letters and you answered, yes. The thing is, we’re not pilots in control of a plane coming in land in difficult and stressful circumstances, attempting to focus on many important items simultaneously then apparently hearing a clear instruction for runway N11, which actually wasn’t correct, as the controller had instructed them to land on a completely different runway, informing them to land on M11.

If you’re unsure, go back to the pilots’ conversation and see where the confusion actually began.

So here we have a huge, fully loaded wide-bodied jet screaming towards a runway they shouldn’t be headed towards, using critical information they thought they’d heard when in fact, they were using vitally important information they’d actually misheard. What happens next is of course, pretty frightening, isn’t it?

Ah, I hear you cry, then why not use something that absolutely, positively differentiates the spoken ‘m’ from the heard ‘n’? Good point.

Try this then; say that the air traffic controller in our situation uses the word ‘nice’ to confirm the letter ‘n’.  And use a similar assumption that the Delta pilots use the word ‘mice’ to confirm when they’re hearing the letter ‘m’. Can you see the problem? There’s no global consistency and although there’s a certain logic to both efforts, the words ‘mice’ and ‘nice’ can be equally confusing as phonetically they sound so similar. Just like the letters ‘m’ and ‘n’ are so often misheard.


So, it’s true, the idea of matching letters to sounds had evolved in each country and developed its own phonetic alphabet used primarily by that country’s military, proving their importance on the battlefields during the years of World War Two. However, once the war was over and countries began working together for peaceful, not militaristic means, a new problem arose. How on earth do so many people, speaking so many different languages find a way to communicate clearly, concisely and in such a way to ensure no miscommunication occurs? The world needed a global standard for communication that crossed boundaries of language and pronunciation, and that’s why in 1956, NATO, (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), created its own phonetic alphabet that was created, tested and accepted and is still in use worldwide to this day.

NATO phonetic alphabet

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the world’s most widely used method of communication, the NATO phonetic alphabet.  Brilliant, isn’t it?

It’s something I use widely here at Maverick and, even though I’ve had one or two sceptical looks when this subject has first come up, I parried that scepticism with a guarantee that one day, those individuals would be glad they’d mastered it as it’d help them out in more ways than they thought possible. It’s also very nice when I get unsolicited calls out of the blue from those aforementioned doom-mongers, saying that they had in fact used the NATO alphabet in a situation, or situations where absolute clarity was required, and they were really glad I taught it to them. Praise indeed.

Anyway, I’m all done now, so thanks for sticking we on this rather wordy narrative and all I can say is that this is your host, Sierra-India-Mike-Oscar-November, signing off, and hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip of globally alphabetised voyage of discovery.

See you next time.


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