One Way to Learn Morse Code

There on your chart adjacent to every radio NavAid symbol is the small box that gives you the (usually) three letter identifier and the relevant frequency, and the cryptic (exactly!) dot-dash symbols that represent the Morse Code transmission for that device. Here is one more thing to thrash around with while navigating cross-country when your attention ought to be outside the airplane or elsewhere. When you ident a NavAid, you have to either find the symbol on the sectional or, more likely, find the place where you copied it during your pre-flight planning.

Unless, of course, you know Morse Code! Then you just listen to the blips and beeps and amaze your friends by saying "Yup, B-D-R, just like its 'sposed to be", and going blithely on with your aviating.

"But", you say, "I've looked at the Morse alphabet and I could never remember that A is dot-dash and B is dash-dot-dot-dot and C is whatever. There's no pattern to it and it's too hard to memorize just by brute force."

Relax. I'm here to let you in on a secret. There is a pattern to it and it's easy to memorize using a couple of simple mnemonic tricks (I did it in about two hours).

The Revenge of Etian Smurd

Think for a minute about telephone Area Codes in the context of the old rotary dial telephones (remember those?). Back when Ma Bell (remember her?) assigned the Area Codes, it was considered desirable that the areas with the most subscribers should have the quickest codes. By quickest, I mean the ones that used the fewest dial pulses. So New York City got 212 (five pulses), L.A. and Chicago got 213 and 312 respectively (six pulses each), and Idaho got 208 (twenty pulses).

The point is that Morse works the same way. The letter that appears the most often in English language text ("E" is the New York of our alphabet) gets the quickest Morse identifier: dot (or dit or (your choice). "T", the Chicago of letters, gets dash, dah or -. And poor "Q", the alphabet's own private Idaho, gets - - - .

There have been many analyses of the frequencies of use of the letters in the Roman (i.e., our) alphabet. As you might expect, cryptanalysts find them fascinating. Many of them disagree in some detail or other, but it is possible to reconstruct the pattern that the original Morse encoder (ol' Sam himself) was probably working with.

Let's assign point values to the Morse encodings of the letters of the alphabet using the following scheme: one point for a , two points for a -, and one point for a space. So "E" ( ) gets 1, "T" (- ) gets 2, "A" ( - ) gets one each for the dot and the space and two for the dash or 4 in all, and "Q" (- - - ) gets ... let's see, 2 each for the three dashes is 6 plus 1 for the dot plus 3 for the spaces ... 10 points! The whole alphabet looks like this:

A - 4 points N - 4 points
B - 8 points O - - - 8 points
C - - 9 points P - - 9 points
D - 6 points Q - - - 10 points
E 1 point R - 6 points
F - 8 points S 5 points
G - 6 points T - 2 points
H 7 points U - 6 points
I 3 points V - 8 points
J - - - 10 points W - - 7 points
K - - 7 points X - - 9 points
L - 8 points Y - - - 10 points
M - - 5 points Z - - 9 points

What a mess! But maybe we can rearrange the alphabet in something other than the usual order and see if a pattern emerges. Let's look at the following groups:

Group I 1 to 4 points E T I A N
Group II 5 to 6 points S M U R D
Group III 7 points H W K G
Group IV 8 points O V F L B
Group V 9 points P X Z C
Group VI 10 points J Y Q

Care for a sip of ETIAN?

Many cryptanalytic analyses of letter frequency include E, T, I, A and N among the most frequently used letters, and therefore the Morse Codes for these are the simplest:

To commit the first group to memory, note that the simple codes are clear and sparkling and light, like a bottle of Etian Water (sic). Simplest first, the "E" is just a dot and the "T" is just a dash. The "I", the only "3 pointer", is two dots and the "A" and "N" are a dot and dash together.

As is most often the case, the dot comes first and moves "through" any dashes, so "A" is dot-dash and "N" is dash-dot.

What in Blazes is a SMURD?

I don't know either, but if you can retain the nonsense word "smurd" in your memory, you have the key to the second group:

This is really easy. First off, SMURD starts with "S" and the two Morse letters everyone knows are "S" ( ) and "O" ( - - - ). You're just going to have to remember that "M", the other 5-pointer, is two dashes, but that's not too hard.

The U R D trio is another case of "the dots moving through the dashes. "U", the first one, has the dots up front. For "R", a dot moves to the rear, then for "D", the second dot joins it. (Now, if it works better for you to envision the dash elbowing its way up to the front of the line, I don't care. Whether your glass is half empty or half full, it's all the same to me.)

What time is it, Doctor H.?

Group III, the 7 point codes, is arranged in honor of the consonants (less one) in the name of Dr. Stephen Hawking, the great British astrophysicist. That's HaWKiNG. (We already did N in Group I, so let's not bother here):

The "H" is gotten using the simplest way to make 7 points - the four dots and the three spaces between.

The W K G trio is a variation on the theme initiated by the U R D group. (In fact, the most trouble I have is avoiding getting "R" and "K" mixed up.) Again, the dot at the head of the line makes its way to the back as you go from "W" to "G". Remember, "U", "R", and "D" are permutations of two dots and a dash while "W", "K" and "G" are rearrangements of one dot and two dashes.

Now for the Fat Ones

The codes are becoming more complex as we go down the alphabet. In fact some of them are absolutely fat and flabby. So I'm going to call Group IV the Overflab Group. That's OVerFLaB. (Hey, I'm sorry! If you come up with a better mnemonic, please let me know.)

As I said earlier, everybody knows "S" and "O". Here's "O": the famous three dashes. And, believe it or not, "V" is the third Morse letter most folks are familiar with. Think of the first four notes of Beethoven's "V"th Symphony: you know, "dit-dit-dit-dah".

The quartet of "V", "F", "L" and "B" form a lovely pattern as dots detach themselves from the initial grouping and move to the right (or maybe it's that pushy dash again with the sharp elbows). In any event the Overflab Quintet has a big fat "O" as it loudmouth lead and a harmonizing backup quartet. Look at them. It's actually pretty!

Papa X-Ray Zulu Charlie

Okay, so I gave up. The motley collection in Group V, the 9-pointers, just didn't suggest a mnemonic to me so I sat around saying "Papa X-Ray Zulu Charlie" to myself until it was engraved a half-inch deep in my cerebral cortex. Again, if you can think of a mnemonic that works, let me know.

All of these codes are made up of a pair of dots and a pair of dashes but the arrangements are a bit arcane. I'd suggest that you tie the codes to the letters in pairs. The "X" is just the "P" turned "inside out". And the "C" is like the "Z" except the dots are apart instead of together.

One thing you might try is remembering the name "Anna Minn". (In my mind, she's a mysterious Eurasion beauty in a Smilin' Jack comic strip.) She brings all of the codes in this group of Morse letters. For example, "AN" = " -" + "- " = - - , which is P! And so on using "NA", "MI" and "NN".

Watch Out for the Candlestick!

Group VI, the 10-pointers, has us saying "Jack, You're Quick!" (You remember the dude who vaulted over candlesticks?)

As befits letters with 10 point totals, the codes are loaded with dashes and have only one dot. Just as you'd expect, the dot starts at the beginning of the group and "precesses" through toward the end.

Happy Encoding and Decoding

So here's the whole array, in the order just discussed, for you to memorize, crib from, laugh at or whatever:

E 1 point G - - 7 points
T - 2 points O - - - 8 points
I 3 points V - 8 points
A - 4 points F - 8 points
N - 4 points L - 8 points
S 5 points B - 8 points
M - - 5 points P - - 9 points
U - 6 points X - - 9 points
R - 6 points Z - - 9 points
D - 6 points C - - 9 points
H 7 points J - - - 10 points
W - - 7 points Y - - - 10 points
K - - 7 points Q - - - 10 points

Frank Van Haste is a Private Pilot who flies out of [-][--][--].

Created: Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Last Modified: 4/1/2009
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