What’s in a (fighter pilot’s) name?

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Fighter aircraft have names such as Mustang, Lightning, Thunderbolt, Spitfire, Warthog (the unofficial name of the A-10 Thunderbolt II), Viper (the unofficial name of the F-16 Fighting Falcon), Tomcat, Phantom, Wildcat, Eagle, Cougar, Hellcat, and Typhoon.

Fighter pilots have names, or “callsigns,” as well. You are probably familiar with some of the callsigns of characters in Top Gun. There was Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Hollywood, Viper, Jester, Cougar, etc.

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Where do those catchy names come from?

You may wonder where a callsign comes from, or what one does to earn a callsign that sticks forever. Callsigns can be associated with your name, your profession (some people around fighter pilots get a callsign, as seen below), a noteworthy accomplishment, or something you would rather forget—and wish that everyone else would as well. What follows are some callsigns I knew during my career and how they came to be.

To begin, I’ll own up to my own callsign—Boots—to which I still answer. It starts with my last name, Hill, and then think about the gunfighters in the Wild West who were buried at Boot Hill after dying with their boots on. Fighter pilots believe they are immortal but, if they are killed, they want to die with their boots on while “in the fight” and not doing the dishes. Finally, I always wore Corcoran combat boots, the same ones worn by Army paratroopers, which hold a shine like nobody’s business, and meant the lieutenants hated seeing my boots next to theirs. The moniker stuck and I proudly wear it.

There are easily explained callsigns.

If your last name was Rhodes or something similar, you inevitably were Dusty.

My brother was a Marine F-4 pilot and he was called Mustang for much the same reason Tom Cruise was Maverick in Top Gun.

One of the pilots in my squadron had the last name of Porter, so he became Bagman.

A fellow A-10 driver had the last name of Davidson; naturally he was called Harley.

A good friend with the last name of Bruner picked up Burners, which is very fitting for one who flew an aircraft with afterburners.

When computers were becoming widespread, our squadron had a guy called Spam, not because he had a computer, but because he actually liked to eat Spam.

A fellow A-10 pilot at Myrtle Beach once made a gear-up landing in an O-2 (a militarized Cessna Skymaster); he subsequently, and permanently, got stuck with the callsign of Skids.

Another A-10 pilot with the last name of Dill became Pickle. Note, when you drop a bomb or fire ordnance in fighters, you press the pickle button, so this name was fitting for a fighter pilot.

A fellow classmate in my F-16 training course took off one day and was trying to catch up with his instructor pilot (IP) in the lead aircraft. But he was having trouble getting sufficient airspeed, even with the throttle pushed well forward. He finally did join up with the flight leader and that’s when the IP saw the problem: my classmate had never raised his gear after takeoff. He forever became Wheels.

As a commander, one of my guys had the callsign of Pid. His first name was Stuart, and his nametag was embroidered with “Stu” followed by a dash and then “Pid.” Of course, he was anything bit stupid!

We had two pilots who arrived at the 80th Fighter Squadron (the Juvats) in Korea at about the same time. One was a large, affable character, the other was a smaller version of the first. They instantly became Yogi and Boo-Boo–remember that cartoon? As you can see, timing plays a part in assigning callsigns.

Callsigns can also be based on a physical attributes. As a commander, I once took five of my F-16s and eight of my IPs to Miramar Naval Air Station outside of San Diego, California. We spent a week role-playing Soviet fighters for their students learning to fly the F-14. When I spoke with our host officer on the phone prior to our arrival, he told me his callsign was Tiny. Upon landing at Miramar, I climbed down the ladder of my F-16 and Tiny was there to greet me. He was anything but tiny! I wondered how he ever fit into the cockpit of an F-14.

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Not all callsigns are compliments.

One of my IPs who made that trip to Miramar was a guy we called Little Joe (like Michael Landon on “Bonanza”). His name was Lloyd Joseph, but, like our host at Miramar, his callsign was based on his size. I wondered how Little Joe, or L-J as we sometimes called him, fit into an F-16 cockpit. I knew when he was the last one who flew an F-16 that I climbed into because I couldn’t see over the glare shield until the generator came on line and I could raise the seat. To give you an idea of his size, L-J was a lineman on the Brigham Young football team.

I have a longtime friend who graduated college with me and we flew A-10s together at Myrtle Beach. Like me he is now retired and is also a member of the same Daedalian Flight in Atlanta. He is known as Senator, but it’s not because he’s a politician; he has a southern accent and can press the flesh with the best of them.

When I was commanding the 61st Fighter Squadron one student pilot we trained, named Roger, got a unique callsign. Roger was an F-4 pilot when the Air Force started looking for flight surgeons who would also be fully qualified fighter pilots, not just occupy the back seat on the occasional mission. As a qualified fighter pilot, he would normally go through a three-month transition course to get checked out in the F-16. However, Roger was accepted for this new program as he had the grades, passed the MCat, and had been accepted to medical school. So, he stopped flying the F-4 for four years of medical school followed by his residency to become a flight surgeon.

When he returned to flying, he had been out of the cockpit for over five years. On top of that, he was upgrading to fly the F-16. The higher-ups decided that, because Roger had been out of flying for so long and he was also upgrading to a new fighter, he would go through a six-month basic course. The other students in Roger’s class were primarily those who had just been awarded their wings. Roger was a Major and, because of his rank, he was the class commander while his classmates were a bunch of fresh-faced, young (very young!), 2nd lieutenants.

We thought long and hard about what Roger’s callsign should be. We thought of Bones (what Captain Kirk often called Doctor McCoy on Star Trek) as well as Doc (like one of the seven dwarfs in Sleeping Beauty), but those were both too easy. After much deliberation and because of the age difference between Roger and his fellow classmates, we settled on what you call an old bone: Fossil!

As for non-fighter pilots who were given a callsign, the first to come to mind were two 2nd lieutenants in Korea who were in the 8th Fighter Wing (the Wolfpack) weather shop. We liked these guys, had fun with them, and they became known as the Phoon brothers, Ty and Buff.

The Juvats also had a flight surgeon who was in the first class of women to graduate from the Air Force Academy. Her last name was O’Hare, so she was tagged with Scarlet (think Gone With the Wind). When she returned to the States, Scarlet was the flight surgeon for the 61st Fighter Squadron at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida, while I was the commander. She later married one of my pilots whose last name was Fox. As a result, we changed her callsign to Fox II, which is the radio call made when firing the heat-seeking, AIM-9 air-to-air missile. See how easy this is?

In my past I knew a Mallard, a Latka (from TV’s “Taxi”), a Juice, an Enos (from TV’s “Dukes of Hazzard”), a Bulb (like a lightbulb), and a Torch (who nearly burned down the squadron).

I’ll close with two of my favorite callsigns and why they were assigned.

  • One should never try to badger those who are assigning callsigns; but you can try and bribe them! I knew a 2nd lieutenant who wanted to be a Rock, or Flame, or Spidey, or some other super-hero, and he let everyone know it. But, because of his baby face and for making such a nuisance of himself, he got tagged with Fluffy!
  • Finally, remember the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter that was shot down by Yugoslavian forces in 1999? The mission callsign of that F-117 was “Vega 31.” When a B-2 pilot I know proposed to and subsequently married a Canadian-American lady of Yugoslavian descent, he picked up the callsign of Vega because he too was a stealth pilot “shot down” by a Yugoslavian.

There are many callsigns out there like Conan, Rocket, Fazer, Hose, Ajax, Slam, Two-G, Dizzy, and others. When you encounter someone sporting a callsign on their jacket or flight gear, ask them how they got that name. You might be in for a good laugh along with a good story!

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