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Understanding Aviation Language

Understanding Aviation LanguageWhether you’re an experienced pilot, a rookie, or a co-pilot, it’s important to understand the language of aviation. Here’s a refresher course on pilot speak, along with some interesting facts from the July/August issue of FAA Safety Briefing.

The language of aviation came about from a need for safety. To avoid pilots and controllers mishearing each other and potentially creating an accident, a language of aviation terms and phrases were compiled in the Pilot/Controller Glossary.

The Aviation Alphabet and Numbers

To help avoid confusion with similar sounding consonants and numbers, in March 1956 the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted a standard phonetic alphabet for aviation use:

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Pilots pronounce numbers similar to regular English, with a few exceptions:

  • The number three (3) is pronounced “tree.”
  • The number five (5) is pronounced “fife.”
  • The number nine (9) is pronounced “niner.”

Common Words and Phrases

Here are some words and phrases you might hear, and what they mean.

Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) — ATIS is recorded information on current weather and airport information, such as runways in use. Each ATIS recording has an alpha-numeric designator to distinguish it from the previous message. For example, “ATIS information Foxtrot is current.”

Squawk — Squawk refers to an aircraft’s transponder code, which can be either a standard code (1200 for visual flight rules — VFR) or a discrete code assigned by Air Traffic Control. Squawk can be used as a noun (Say your assigned squawk), an adjective (Squawk code is 2345), or as a verb (Squawk 5423).

Mayday — Mayday — meaning emergency — is a word that hopefully you won’t ever have to use. The word is derived from the French term "m’aider" meaning help me.

Roger — Why do pilots always say Roger when they’re done talking? Its origin is from the early days of aviation when we adapted practices from the telegraph industry. Since Morse code telegraph transmissions could be unreliable, the receiver would transmit a single letter “R” when they successfully received a message, so R came to mean that I have received and understood your transmission.

Our pilot forefathers and mothers needed a similar standard response. As it was not possible to transmit a Morse-coded “R,” they adopted the word “Roger,” which at the time was the phonetic alphabet version of the letter “R,” later changed to "Romeo." Today, it is still the simple acknowledgment that a pilot or controller has received and understood your last transmission.

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