Roger, Roger

Link to article

I understand the need for a phonetic alphabet: When the need arises, speaking letters over a radio or telephone can lead to confusing letters that sound alike. But what good is an international radio code word list?

Pilot A: “M’aidez! Pouvez-vous m’aidez, si vous plait?”
Pilot B: “Oscar Kilo. Ich komme.”
Pilot A: “Merci beaucoup.”

Also: What is the selection criteria for candidate words? The article mentions the code word for R changed from Roger to Romeo. Why is Romeo better, so much so that it was worth the effort to retrain everyone formerly using Roger?

Finally: If the code word list is international, why are all the words English?

Okay, one more question: “Nine” is invariably pronounced “Niner” Is this to be cool, or is “Niner” the international standard, perhaps to avoid confusion with the German “Nein”?

Early on in the era of international flights, it was recognized that a common language was needed for pilots. English was chosen and is used by all pilots and control towers, to avoid just the confusion you suggest.

I’ll let someone else tackle your other questions.

That’s what Wikipedia says, but I read somewhere that it’s was because In low-fidelity voice transmissions, ‘nine’ and ‘five’ can sound very similar.

The selection criteria for candidate words is that they be clear (preferably unique).

You don’t want to spend precious time having to repeat and correct instructions to pilots.

So saying Met (for M) could easily be confused as Net (for N).

I don’t know why Roger (for R) was changed - perhaps possible confusion with Dodger or even Bodger?

Isn’t Roger also used to mean ‘I understand’?
Using Romeo instead makes sense to me.

I couldn’t find a good explanation as to why “Roger” was changed to “Romeo”, however, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it was because “Roger” was being used by pilots and some distinction needed to be made between “Roger” as “I understand” and “Roger” meaning the letter R.

Basically, the modern phonetic alphabet was designed so that a) all words used don’t sound like each other, and b) that words used made more sense in context; that is, they would most likely not be mistaken for any other word used in the course of a transmission. After all, when time is precious and you have to make yourself clear, you’ve got to do what you can to achieve that.


Mangetout is right. And before anyone thinks that low-fidelity voice transmissions are passe, it should be noted that sound-powered telephones remain in extensive use in US Navy ships. To state that these are low-fidelity is something of an understatement. (Of course, my experience with them usually also involved having high speed turbines running in the background, which did nothing to improve the situation.)

It’s also not simply low-fidelity technology: any environment with a large amount of background noise can lead to similar misunderstandings. I still avoid the terms “increase” and “decrease” because they’re verbotten in the Navy. We talk about “goes up” and “goes down.” It may sound stupid, but there’s much less chance of an error occuring because of phoneme confusion.

For that matter there have been countless times in the time since I’ve left the military that I was talking to customer service reps on regular telephones, and wished they’d (crude knee-jerk insult edited) had more familiarity with the standard phonetic alphabet.

OtakuLoki, I spend almost half my day on the phone to call centres with my job, and all my staff and 95% of the people I talk to use the phonetic alphabet. But maybe thats just the UK, or maybe thats just the mobile phone industry. I can’t say for sure.

essel, I didn’t mean to imply that all call centers are clueless about it. But there are enough that I’ve had problems spelling things out to them that I think that training on the phonetic is hap-hazard at best. I mean, I’ll often start by spelling my name out to them, “Lima Oscar Kilo India” and get greeted with confustion. So I repeat it as, “Loki, spelled ell as in Lima, o as in Oscar, kay as in Kilo, and i as in India.” And then have to repeat it again to make sure they got it. It was especially annoying last November when I was dealing with a computer support center in India that had never heard of the concept. I’d think, if I were setting up a call center with people who were approximately 70% fluent in the language, a tool like that would be among the first things that would be trained in.

It might be a UK/US thing. But I think it’s more some managers know it, know the usefulness, and believe that training is a good thing. And many don’t.

Five and nine are easily mistaken for each other in radio communications. This can cause safety concerns if altitude clearances are misunderstood resulting in aircraft cruising at an altitude not intended for them. There are plenty of other opportunities for confusion such as with similar sounding callsigns, radar headings, radio frequencies etc.

To try and prevent this, nine is pronounced “niner”, and five is pronounced “fife.”

Here’s the ten digits if I can remember them correctly:

0 - Zero
1 - Wun
2 - Two
3 - Tree
4 - Fower
5 - Fife
6 - Six
7 - Seven
8 - Eight
9 - Niner

Pilots tend not to bother with “tree” and “fower” or even “fife”, particularly when using relatively clear VHF communications. “Niner” is still important though.

That said, HF is still in widespread use and on a bad day you need to use all of the tricks in the book to try and make sure you can be understood. Annunciating very clearly, saying everything twice, saying numbers correctly, and sometimes even spelling out words using the phonetic alphabet. Sometimes it’s easier just calling them up on the satphone.

Really? I had a pair of those as a toy fifty years ago. I always supposed the technology to have been obsolete in real applications long before I was born! Do they also have a whistle instead of a bell?

What they have is something we called a “growler.” It was a siren, hooked up to a small generator/motor. When you wished to reach someone at point X you selected that phone location on the dial, and spun the handle on the growler, and it would make the growler at the other location yowl. (I really can’t think of a better word for it.)

The benefits of the sound-powered phones compared to more modern systems are that they’re much more robust, and they don’t require power to work. Mind you, the installations I’ve seen on ships constructed in the 80’s looked and probably were identical to the installations I’ve seen on WWII era vessels. To pick one example, not quite at random, since the ear piece and the mouthpiece on the handset were the identical construction and operation, if one of the two were to go out, it’s still possible to communicate using the handset, simply by speaking into the working end, then moving it to your ear to recieve the response.

Some points on our ship were also connected by voice tubes, those old-fashioned things you see in the movies and in some kids playgrounds. Yell into the end, and listen for the answer.

This was on a guided missile cruiser commissioned in 1988.

The advantage of these forms of communication is that, in the event of heavy ship damage, they are nearly impossible to knock out.

Color me skeptical about that… If you break the pipe on a voice tube system, it won’t work at all, and if you put in multiple pipe paths for redundancy, it won’t work, either. But with an electronic system, you could put in as many redundant pathways as you wanted. You could even put a completely self-contained short-range radio (or three, or five, if you’re worried about one breaking), with a battery power supply, at each location, and then there isn’t any connecting infrastructure at all between them to get broken.

Chronos, I don’t think that naval planners expect voice tubes, nor SP phones, to maintain function when they’re actually cut by battle damage, or fire. However, both systems will work through heat, humidity, or shock damage (the ship getting knocked sideways by firing it’s own guns, for example) that could knock out a more modern system. They’re not perfect, but I do think it’s fair to say they’re more robust than more modern systems.

You don’t think the Navy has that all worked out?

On our ship, most stations were connected by dedicated voice circuits connected to headsets, with the ability to add more stations to these simply by adding headsets to the telephone system and using them to dial into the circuit. On watch stations in the Combat Information Center and the bridge, among other stations, radio circuits were routed to the same headsets. We typically had an internal circuit going in one ear, and a radio circuit in the other. Some watchstanders had more.

These were powered circuits, and they could be patched and interconnected usually by simply dialing in. In the event of a power failure, or in some circumstances where they were more appropriate, sound powered phones backed this system up. Again, they were organized into different internal circuits depending on the job involved, and could take the form of a headset or handset.

For firefighting and damage control, a special shipboard walkie-talkie was used, which interfaced with a wire antenna running through most spaces of the ship. Regular radios wouldn’t work through steel decks, hulls, and bulkheads.

Voice tubes connected the bridge with the bridge wings, CIC, and I believe the main engineering control spaces. Again, this was a system used in others broke down.

Various one way loudspeaker systems were used to pass orders directly, with the 1MC, going all over the ship, being the most often used.

If all else failed, messengers were used to pass orders and information along, and damage control qualified individuals were trained in a form of shorthand to quickly note the damage or repair state of a space.

General quarters driills would routinely simulate loss of power, loss of comms, and damage situations to test crew readiness in these areas.

Additionally, they’re absolutely maintenance free, unless you include cosmetic maintenace like painting or polishing them. They also had ancillary uses. One we enjoyed in the engine room was to ring the ring the lower level watch and then pour water down the tube when they answered back. Try THAT with a modern battery backed up multiply redundant electronic system!

Back on topic …

It was interesting to me that there is now a joint Army/Navy phonetic code. ISTR that there were some differences among the armed services. And do fire and police still use their own codes based on first names (I think)?

OK, having both types of systems would be even more robust. I should have figured they’d have the sense to do that.

Where do you find a watchstander with more than two ears?

No, what you could do was add even more circuits so that you could monitor more. You could then have two circuits going into the left ear, and two into the right. You would typically add a low traffic circuit only, just to keep tabs. Some guys got quite good at this.

At the beginning, you’d swear you need two brains as well, but you get used to it.

When I was at Sigonella, Sicily, working operations control watches for P3 flights, we were working watches with only three people and numerous voice circuits, so headphones weren’t practical. We solved this problem by keeping about five different radio nets on speaker. You’d just listen for your station or callsign, and you got to know by the sound of the circuit and whether they were using plain voice calls or callsigns what phone to answer.

My understanding is that it was originally adopted as a NATO standard, to replace the different phonetic alphabets used by the US and the UK/Canada during WW2, with use by other nations resulting from the dominance of English as a common international language.

In a mild hijack on the topic of prowords, I was taught in my radio operator course always to say “Say again” when I wanted a message repeated, as “Repeat” was used only for artillery direction and meant “Fire another mission at the same target”.