Learning Morse code in the 21st century

I first saw Morse code as a nine-year old child. The dots and dashes which could represent letters were printed on the front of a set of walkie-talkies we were given as a present. I played around with it a bit, but thought sending jokes and the latest observations of our neighbors from a distance to my brother was more fun by voice. A bit later, I learned the sequences for SOS as a distress signal, but that was about all that stuck in my mind.

As a teenager, I would often listen to my father’s Hallicrafters short-wave radio to pick up foreign language broadcasts. Mostly I was trying to receive news from Paris and improve my accent for a French course, but occasionally would run across a frequency with the dits and dahs. It seemed like it would be neat to be able to understand it, but at that age girls had started to take precedence.

Later, as a young adult, I worked as an engineering trainee for a local TV station. I was definitely interested in the workings of radio and television. Ham radio seemed quite fun, but studies for college consumed nearly all my time outside of that part-time job.

Morse code
Do you know your dit from your dah?

Thus my interest in Morse code lay dormant for several decades. Until 2015. In July 2015, I started my primary flight training to fulfill a lifelong dream. When I was nine, a business associate of my mother took my brother and me up for a flight in a small four-seat plane (I cannot remember if it was high or low wing). My seven-year old brother sat on my mother’s lap in the front seat and I sat in the back. This was really exciting and look at how small our house was! I knew then I wanted to learn how to fly and at 13 even investigated the costs of flight training. Also, how would I possibly get to the local field without a driver’s license? Alas, costs were prohibitive.

I am often asked why I took up flying later in life. I say that when I was a young adult, I never had the money and later with a career and family I never had the time (a common explanation I believe.)

Finally, in 2015, I was able to free some time from a neuroscience research career and had the needed funds. I started my training in a Cessna 172N but soon purchased my own 1969 Cessna Cardinal. While studying the charts and listening to VORs (my plane has dual VORs, a DME, and an actual functioning ADF for navigational equipment), once again I heard the dits and dahs.

I tried a few times to just memorize the Morse code visually but resorted to what most pilots do and would just listen and compare to the annotations on the chart. Usually I could work it out after a few repetitions. It is of course good to identify the navigational aids, but can be tricky when juggling other concerns as a pilot. This is particularly true when flying single-pilot IFR in a Cardinal without an autopilot.

By November 2018, I had completed my commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating and had learned to fly gliders as well. After these, I had a bit more free time so decided to at last do something about learning Morse code. I started researching how to go about learning Morse code and found the website by David Finley (N11RZ), which advocated learning using the Koch method. This method was invented by a German, Ludwig Koch, back in the 1930s. It works by having you learn the letters at low full speed – about 13 words per minute – so that your brain memorizes the patterns of sound of each letter. Finley argued that this is more efficient than memorizing the patterns visually and learning to copy from the sounds at a low speed and then trying to speed up. Reportedly that produces a plateau in learning full speed that many find very frustrating and they then give up.

Morse code speed is measured in words per minute (WPM), where the standard used is the word “paris,” so five letters per word. In this day of 60 megabits per second internet connections into our homes, it is interesting to think of this in terms of the equivalent number of bits per second. The international telegraphic union alphabet contains 46 symbols—26 letters, 10 digits, and 10 control symbols and punctuation marks. The 46 symbols require 5.5 bits to encode. So each letter sent in Morse represents 5.5 bits of information. Thus a low full speed of 13 WPM corresponds to ~6 bits per second. That is 10 million times slower than the connections we routinely use today.

I didn’t really need to be able to copy Morse code at full speed to recognize the two or three letters used to identify aviation navigational aids because those are sent at approximately seven words per minute, about half full speed. Nonetheless I thought I would give the Koch method a try and learn at low full speed. None of the web articles I found actually said how long this would take, just that it would vary for each person and that a key item was consistent practice every day. At the time I thought, “What could it take—a few weeks of working on it in the evening?”

Since I was learning in the 21st century, I also thought “there must be an app for this.” A search on the Apple App Store turns up quite a few Morse code training programs. The Morse-It app had a mode that uses the Koch method of training, so I started training with that. Each session in this mode is four minutes long. You copy the letters using a keyboard and at the end it will perform a comparison and give you the percentage correct.

One starts with just the letters k -.- and m — , so the task is to learn to distinguish the dot sound in the midst of the dashes. At first this seemed quite difficult at 13 WPM and it was hard to keep up. I practiced for three blocks of two four-minute sessions every day—about 24 minutes per day. I was able to achieve over 90% accuracy on these two letters in two days, which was somewhat encouraging. At this point, the usual recommendation is to add the next letter but I thought I would try to master it to a higher level so continued another two days until I had 95% accuracy.

Sectional
Can you decode that VOR without reading the chart?

I continued with this higher accuracy goal for about seven weeks, progressing through u, a, t, l, o, w, i, n and j, but it was sometimes taking only one day to add a new letter, like o —, but then nine days to add i .. . I was getting rather frustrated at this pace and started thinking maybe this was not a very good thing to try when in one’s 50s. Being a researcher, I decided to see if there was any published literature on how long it takes to learn Morse code and to check if I was spending way longer than normal on this.

It turns out the question of efficiently training recruits to use Morse code was a question of national importance during World War II. The armed forces were attempting to train 10,000 people per month to use Morse code. Any improvement in screening eligible servicemen or in the efficiency of training could yield serious benefits at that scale. The issue was studied by several psychologists including Taylor at Harvard University. He studied Harvard undergraduates who were learning Morse code in anticipation of military service. They met for five one-hour sessions each week over for a total of 40 hours.

The students were divided into groups who used different letter orderings and techniques. One group initially used high speed transmission of letters, similar to the Koch method, whereas the other group initially used low speed transmission (about 4-6 words per minute), subsequently progressing to higher speeds. Contrary to the stated justification for using the Koch method, near the end of training, when at a similar number of hours with roughly equal speeds of transmission by both groups, the group starting with slow transmission actually had a slightly higher accuracy (though this difference was not statistically significant).

Most importantly from my perspective, the average undergraduate student in this study was able to receive 40 symbols (26 letters, 10 numerals, 4 punctuation marks) at more than 13 WPM at the end of 40 hours of training. Taylor also reported that students at the commercial schools of the time would typically take 80 hours of practice to reach this speed. Per Taylor, Tullos had reported in 1918 that Navy recruits who were trained on Morse code for four hours per day required 160 hours of practice to receive at 13 WPM.

Since I was just trying to learn the 26 letters, it seemed reasonable that this would require about 52 hours. I had only invested 28 hours at this point, so decided to press on despite my frustration. Given Taylor’s results, though, I decided to add letters after only 90% accuracy was achieved and to only practice six days a week to give my mind a chance to consolidate the week’s learning.

Progress continued at an average of seven days per letter but with variations between one and ten days. I used the Koch method ordering suggested by the Morse-It app, adding e, f, y, v, g, q, z, h, b, c, and then d. I finally achieved 90% accuracy on all 26 letters including the last, x -..-, on May 4, 2019.

I followed up with some work to consolidate this new skill, practicing a few times per week over the next two months. I toyed with the idea of adding the ten numerals and some punctuation and even perhaps getting a radio and starting some ham transmissions. Ultimately though, I decided to just stick with my original goal for Morse code and concentrate instead on training for my flight instructor certificate.

I can now rapidly and easily decode VOR and ADF Morse code identifiers while flying. It is a fun skill to have acquired after all these years and a good exercise for one’s brain. But with most NAV radios now automatically decoding the identifiers, I am not sure that use alone would make me recommend learning Morse code to other pilots. I heard that my flight instructor was recently asked by a younger student whether she would have to learn Morse code to become a pilot. Evidently she was not amused by his texted response, -. —, after she finally decoded it.

13 Comments

  • Interesting! Here’s my experience on same topic. My dad (B-29 navigator in WW II) taught me Morse code when I was nine. Two years later I became a ham radio hobbyist, continuing that through high school. Must be like learning to ride a bike; even though I never used that skill again it stayed with me with no further review or effort.

    Fast forward four decades. I’m starting as a student pilot at age 60, working with my instructor and we’re in the air doing intro to VOR navigation. Tune to the correct frequency. Check! Listen to the identifier to verify. I push the button, hear the Morse code, yep that’s it…check!

    At which point my instructor says whoa…you’ve got to look at the chart dot-dash pattern. No, I reply, I know Morse code. He suspects I’m pulling a fast one with him. Oh, OK, I say. Your first name is dah-dah, dit-dit, dah-di-dah, dit, right Mike?

    On to the truly hard parts of VOR navigation…where the hell am I now!

  • When I became a Student Pilot, I already held the Amateur Extra Class license when one of the requirements was copying Morse Code at 20 Words per Minute. That was a useful skill during my Private Pilot training, but it was even more useful during my Instrument Rating training. All I needed to do was look at the chart or approach plate at the identifier. Then, I could put the dits and dahs in my head. That saved my time, and I could concentrate on the actual approach — I shot approaches in actual for my checkride.

    As an aside, don’t try to memories the dots and dashes when learning Morse Code. All that does is slow you down, as you have to translate the dit or the dah to the corresponding dot or dash, and then you translate the pattern of dots and dashes to the character.

    The proper method is to associate a rhythm to a character. For instance, “A” is “didah” and “N” is “Dahdit”. That cuts out a translation step, and there are amateur operators who can copy code up to 60 WPM in the head. I’m not one of those lucky souls.

    • When I was the Navigator on USS Richard E. Byrd (DDG-23) I already had my general. I was on the bridge on afternoon and happened to see light signals from another ship. I realized right away that as I saw the flashes I was “hearing” the letters in my head. I started writing down the messages and would tell my Captain what I had heard. The signalmen would send down the message from the flag bridge and it was neat to see that I was right . My Captain was almost impressed.LOL. As a lowly Ensign he was careful to hide his approval. LOL

    • You can get to 60wpm with practice. You have to move from ICR (Instant Character Recognition) to IWR (Instant Word Recognition). Instant Character Recognition requires the unconscious mind to turn dits and dahs into characters. Instant Word Recognition requires the unconscious mind to turn multiple sequences of dits and dahs into words.

      If you feel like giving it a go, search “Morse Code Ninja”, then go to my practice page, select a speed, and then the Sets of X Words. You should be able to quickly move up in speed.

      73 de AD0WE

  • If you can, find the tapes from the old Heathkit General Class study course. The voice is a very pleasant young lady who starts out with the letters. Then she does the numbers, etc. The key is that the letters are transmitted at 20wpm but spaced so that they can sink in. I got up to 16wpm and who I took the code test in 1980, the code was sent at the, then, required speed of 13wpm. Piece of cake

  • I’ve been a ham (at least my wife says so) for about forty years now. The only way to really learn code is like everything else: you have to use it, which means communicate. It’s like learning a foreign language; first you hear the code, then you translate it, then you write the letter down. Later you hear it and you write the letter down. Fast coders usually run about five or six letters behind. It just becomes a rhythm and you just know what was said by the rhythm.

    Don’t know if this is true, but I always heard that Johnny Cash had learned code in the military and could copy at incredible rates.

  • As a young TWA flight officer (1968) I was required to learn morse code. However, I did learn some of the code as a boy scout, so completing my code study was a snap! Today, at age 75 I fly a Cessna 182TAA G1000 Glass cockpit airplane. One of the improvements over the old days is when I tune in a VOR or ILS it will automatically identify and put HRO or I-HRO in the frequency window next to the frequency! However, I can still listen to the code if desired.
    The question is, how much longer before both VOR & ILS go away like the the NDB’s? BTY, I just read a report on the 2019 G1000 NXi, it now has a system (EPS) similar to the B-737 MCAS! Do we really need this ultra high tech stuff on a simple single engine airplane? Additionally, they now have an emergency button on new Cirrus airplanes for the non pilot co-pilot or passenger to activate that will automatically take over flying the airplane, talking to ATC, and safely land at the nearest suitable airport if the pilot becomes incapacitated. Wow!

    I recently spoke to a group of middle school ACE students about STEM and aviation careers. And I mentioned to them the high tech stuff now becoming available. At the end of the session, one of the students ask me of all all the airplanes I had flown, including jumbo jets, which one I liked the most. She was shocked when I told her the most pleasure and enjoyment I have ever experienced was flying a Piper J3 Cub with no starter, no radio, and just four simple instruments Airspeed, Altimeter, Compass, Oil Press/Temperature. Low and slow with the door open and feeling free as a bird!

  • Great article! I always thought about learning Morse code “just for fun” and I like the research you put in here. I think I’ll make it a 2020 project 🙂

  • Thanks all for the kind remarks and interesting experiences related to Morse code. Fun to hear from others about it. …. .- .—. .—. -.— …. —- .. -.. .- -.— …

  • I was trained in Japan in 1952 on my way to Korea. Over there I operated an AM transmitter, WWII equipment, identical to the equipment on a B-17, on a Battalion net, 24/7, for a year and a half. Back home I picked up my child’s play radio, which had a key, and sent out a CQ. Much to my surprise I was answered by a neighbor. Small world.

  • When I was a Boy Scout, I set up a ham radio in my basement and learned Morse. The Scouts had a manual, which inserted the dots and dashes into each letter, so when visualizing the letter, the symbols were always there in my mind. Very efficient — it took me less than a week to learn the alphabet, but I don’t recall ever learning the numbers.

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