03 April, 2012

A history lesson from call signs

World empires and colonies in 1914,
also at the time of the 1. Int. Radiotelegraphic Convention.
Source Wikipedia Commons, user Andrew0921
There's a lot of history to read out from amateur radio call signs. Being interested in history as well as amateur radio I found that for some countries you can actually figure out which time period it got independence just by looking at the prefixes of the call sign. But on the other hand the history of the international conferences and the call sign allocations is as complex as politics can be so this short blog post can only scratch the surface of this complicated topic.

I have always been envious of those radio amateurs who have a call sign starting with a letter that reflects their country's name. This seems to be the privilege of big and powerful nations, or countries that were just lucky in having names that didn't overlap too much with those of other nations. Among the 1913 call signs one can find:

  • D - Deutschland/Germany
  • F - France
  • G - Great Britain
  • I - Italy
  • J - Japan
  • R - Russia
But also
    • CO to CP - Chile 
    • EA to EG - España/Spain
    • SA to SM - Sweden
    • TA to TM - Turkey (later reduced to TA-TC - was this due to the fall of the Ottoman empire?)
    International call signs were established at the 1912 London International Radiotelegraphic Convention, the 1927 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Conference in Washington D.C. and the 1947 Atlantic City ITU Conference. Therefore the call signs reflect the history of the world in this time period.

    My own country Norway which had just become independent a few years before (1905) could not get the N-series as the US were already using it. But we still got a rather large allocation, LA to LH, probably because of the size of our merchant fleet. Actually it was so big that Norwegian is included along with English and Spanish among only 10 languages that has a special Q-code: QOD7 - "Can you communicate with me in Norwegian?"

    For the most part, understanding the radio amateur call sign also means that one can understand the country of origin of aircraft also as they more or less follow the same allocation table.

    The call signs of the US have their own special history (N, W, and K) which has been covered elsewhere.

    But for other countries some observations are:
    • The V series was allocated to the British Empire, and remnants of this is seen in the call signs of Commonwealth countries like Canada (VE) and Australia (VK), former British colony India (VU), as well as what remains of British Caribbean colonies. The VR code for Hong Kong was also part of this series, but has since then shifted with the 1997 transfer to China.
    • Russia was not a signatory to the 1912 convention, so UA–UM were originally assigned to France and its colonies, and UN–UZ were assigned to Austria-Hungary and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1927, the Soviet Union was assigned the entire U series and when the USSR broke up in 1991, several former Soviet republics received blocks of U call signs. 
    • One can also recognize former French colonies because they have inherited the T call signs originally assigned to France and its colonies. Today France is left with TK (Corsica). TM and TO-TQ. Among former colonies with T call signs are: 
      • TJ - Cameroon
      • TL - the Central African Republic 
      • TN - Republic of the Congo    
      • TR - Gabon
      • TS - Tunisia
      • TT - Chad
      • TU - Côte d'Ivoire
      • TY - Benin
      • TZ - Mali 
    The only independent nations in Africa at the time of the ITU conferences were Liberia and Ethiopia who were given EL and ET. Thus Ethiopia is also among the few countries where the call sign matches the name of the nation.

    I could go on, for instance with the prefixes starting with Z which seem to indicate an origin in the British empire (ZL - New Zealand, ZS - South Africa), but with notable exceptions like ZP for Paraguay and ZV-ZZ for Brazil. But I had better stop here before I make too many historical errors.


    1. Hello Sverre,
      The call signs series for The Netherlands start with PA, from Pay-Bas and not NL. French for low coutries.
      The 1913 call signs (top link) refer to the history of the Netherlands.
      PAA to PIZ...Netherlands.
      PJA to PJM...Curacao (Dutch)
      PJN to PJZ...Surinam (Dutch)
      PKA to PMZ..Dutch East Indies
      73, Bert

    2. Hi Bert,

      Interesting, I don't know why I thought the P for the Netherlands came from Philips. Pays-Bas is the Netherlands all right, but French is not the native tongue of the Netherlands as far as I recall so it is not right up there on par with G for Great Britain, F for France and so on.

      But you are right, the Netherlands is also a former colonial power like France and Britain, so many of the old P call signs are in use by former Dutch colonies. I think that applies to PJ2 (Curacao), PJ4 (Bonaire), PZ (Suriname) and so on. PK-PO is assigned to Indonesia, but I cannot recall having had contact with any ham operators using call signs from that series.

    3. hi

      correct India uses VU(although it is allotted VU-VW)
      the aircraft sign is VT=viceroy's territory