Ever since the first aeroplane was created, communication between the pilot and the ground staff has been a necessity. It is hard to imagine a pilot flying blind without any ground support and something that is not even remotely possible today.
December 17th, 1903 marks the first successful flight by the Wright brothers and even they knew that communicating with the ground was an important aspect of the flight. Radios were not present at the time so they used visual aids like coloured paddles, signal flares, and even hand signs to communicate.
The communication with the ground is something we don’t give a second thought to these days but that is not how it has always been. The first air-to-ground radio communication used Morse code and since the pilots did not have the time to write full sentences while flying the plane, they used short signals for effective communication and to save time.
In the time of these Morse code messages, one of the short signals was the letter “R”, which was an abbreviation for “received”. The pilots just transmitted R in order to let the ground units know that they received the message. Now we are so used to pilots saying “Roger That” that we don’t give it a second thought. Where did these words come from and why do pilots all around the world say Roger That.
“Roger” became the designation for R in 1927 as part of the first phonetic alphabet, developed by the International Telegraph Union. But why they didn’t use received instead of “Roger?” It was 1943 when the term became popular, and there is a logical explanation why. Not everyone spoke English during World War II, and the term became part of the international aviation language.
The British and American military used the following phonetic alphabet during World War II:
“Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-ray, Yoke, Zebra.”
Today, “Romeo” is a part of the phonetic alphabet, which is adopted worldwide:
“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.”
Even though Roger has been replaced with Romeo, the phrase Roger That has stuck with the pilots and will probably continue to be used instead of received.