The Phonetic Alphabet for Aviation

It's understood worldwide no matter what language you speak

Male pilot using navigational instruments in airplane cockpit
Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch / Getty Images

As a child, you learn the ABCs. If you want to be a pilot, you have to learn another alphabet: the aviation alphabet. 

This is the alphabet used by pilots, air traffic control, and the military, among others, to correctly issue instructions.  

The International Civil Aviation Organization created the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, tied to the English alphabet, to ensure that letters are properly pronounced and understood by air traffic controllers and pilots around the world, despite what languages are spoken.

The ICAO alphabet (as it's called for short) is used to avoid mistakes caused by letters and numbers that sound similar. Some letters—M and N, B and D—are easy to mistake for each other. That can be exacerbated if there is static or interference when communicating between the cockpit and the tower.  

For example, every aircraft has a tail number, like N719BW. When a pilot speaks with air traffic control or ground control, that plane would be identified as "November Seven One Niner Bravo Whiskey." 

Who Uses the Aviation Alphabet?

After the aviation organization created the phonetic alphabet in the 1950s, it was adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the International Maritime Organization, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, and the International Amateur Radio Union.

The Aviation Alphabet Worldwide

There are a few variations in this alphabet. Outside of North America, some pilots use the non-English spellings Alfa (instead of Alpha) and Juliett (instead of Juliet). This is because speakers of languages other than English and French may not know that "ph" is pronounced like the letter "f."  With Juliett, the extra T is added because French speakers know that the single letter T is silent. ​

The ICAO Phonetic Alphabet

ICAO offers recordings and posters that help users properly pronounce the numbers and letters. Only 11 of the 26 letters—Bravo, Ernest, Hotel, Juliet(t), Kilo, Mike, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Whiskey, and Zulu—are given English pronunciations by the agencies listed above, although it's not necessarily the same pronunciations.

  • A: Alpha
  • B: Bravo
  • C: Charlie
  • D: Delta
  • E: Echo
  • F: Foxtrot
  • G: Golf
  • H: Hotel
  • I: India
  • J: Juliet
  • K: Kilo
  • L: Lima
  • M: Mike
  • N: November
  • O: Oscar
  • P: Papa
  • Q: Quebec
  • R: Romeo
  • S: Sierra
  • T: Tango
  • U: Uniform
  • V: Victor
  • W: Whiskey
  • X: X-ray
  • Y: Yankee
  • Z: Zulu

ICAO Numbers

The ICAO also offers guidance on pronouncing numbers.

  • 0: Zero
  • 1: One
  • 2: Two
  • 3: Three
  • 4: Four
  • 5: Five
  • 6: Six
  • 7: Seven
  • 8: Eight
  • 9: Niner
  • 100: Hundred