What Did Orville and Wilbur Wright do for Ham Radio?

In December 1903, the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur made the first powered manned flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It was a tremendous achievement and has been recorded in history as the official birth of the world’s aviation industry. Their aircraft made a flight of a few hundred feet at an altitude just high enough to rise above the heads of spectators at the scene. Their aircraft’s speed was no more than leisurely jogging pace. Nonetheless they achieved something no-one else had done before them.

Even more interesting is that only 66 years later manned flight had developed to the point of carrying three men to the Moon. Apollo 11 reached an altitude of 239,000 miles, flew over a half million miles at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour. That speed, which was necessary to break free from Earth’s gravity, is equivalent to Mach 32. The fastest airplane in the world can only achieve Mach 3. That’s a tad over jogging speed.

The Wright Brothers’ airplane, known as the Wright Flyer and Apollo 11 had one big thing in common (and it is the essence of this story) – both were very noisy flying machines. The Wright Flyer was a noisy machine because it had an open cockpit so the noise of the engine and the wind were a discomfort that its pilots had to bear. Apollo 11 was a noisy flying machine because the giant Saturn rocket that lifted it into space had five huge motors that burned thousands of gallons of liquid fuel as it hoisted 6.2 million of pounds of spacecraft off the launchpad.

Bear with me because the link to ham radio is getting closer. But first an observation that the noise problem has not really gotten any better. As an employee of the formerly giant international Canadian-owned company Nortel (that has now vanished into fairy dust) I once had the privilege of flying from Toronto to Ottawa aboard the President’s corporate Falcon executive jet. The seats were nice but the ride was not so good. That executive jet had a low cabin height – and was very noisy!

And therein lies the rub as Shakespeare was fond of saying. Airplanes can be noisy. Pilots have to stay in contact with the ground and although English is the standard language of aviation around the world, English is not always spoken in the same way. Accents, dialects and regional lexicons make our language anything but standard. A Canadian pilot flying over Australia, for example, may be confused by the way in which English is spoken there. In the noisy environment of an airplane it would be easy to incorrectly copy a controller’s instruction.

Canadians to the rescue! The head office of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is in Montreal. And it was in Montreal in the 1940s that a decision was made to adopt a standardized way of speaking the letters of the alphabet and numbers too. Whether the speaker is from the Australian outback, a Cockney working in the tower at London’s Heathrow Airport, or an Indian flight controller in Delhi, each will use the same ICAO phonetic alphabet.

The ICAO phonetic alphabet has been adopted by other agencies and is used worldwide. I wish ham operators would adopt it some day. It is very precise but many hams still invent their own. Ok, guilty here. I am Victor Alpha Tree (yes “tree” in ICAO talk) Kilo Oscar Tango but I prefer “Victor Alpha Three Keeps On Transmitting”. Maybe we should all have stuck with Morse Code. There are still “accents” in Morse Code caused by the different types of key that operators use and their sending style, but at least you will never hear a CW operator saying “can you spell that for me?”

If Orville and Wilbur hadn’t invented the airplane we would never have needed the ICAO phonetic alphabet. We might never have developed space travel either and we wouldn’t have had AMSAT birds in the sky and the International Space Station (which always has licensed amateur radio astronauts on board). So hams have a lot to thank those guys for. Incidentally, the Wright brothers were from Dayton, Ohio – yes, that Dayton!

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