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What is a pilots nickname called?

The Story Behind Call Signs

The Story Behind Call Signs

Call signs have become a cornerstone of the aviation community, oftentimes invoking pride amongst aviators. But the story behind call signs and their history is unknown to many.

Call signs have become a rite of passage for aviators. It’s a point of pride to earn the moniker, whatever it may be, and call signs are even known to bond crews together.

Capt. Tony Moreno, commanding officer of Naval Aviation Schools Command (NASC) explained, “It’s your identifier and a unique aspect of Naval Aviation. People forget names, especially first names. If you went into the Mustin Beach Officer’s Club looking for Capt. Tony Moreno, no one would know who I am. Ask for CHEECH [my call sign] and everyone would immediately know who you’re looking for.”

There is a purpose in using call signs. In an article written by Kate Lang from the Department of Defense News, she explains, “These pilot nicknames can quickly identify an aircraft or individual, and they also help to confuse the enemy, who might be listening in on your communications.”

Hill Goodspeed, historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum elaborates, “They are valuable as another level of authentication/identification in making a clear distinction between aircraft in the air, particularly during times of intense, fast-paced operations.”

So where did call signs originate? Historically many aviators had nicknames. Oftentimes these nicknames came from a person’s time at the Naval Academy and mostly focused on pop culture or appearance. However, they didn’t follow aviators into the air right away.

Goodspeed explained, “While these nicknames appeared in conversation and correspondence, there is no evidence that they were part of radio procedures in the pre-World War II era, during which much of the communication between open-cockpit aircraft still consisted of hand signals.”

Call signs started to come into existence during World War II, but at that time, they were used to identify planes and ships. Typically, a ship was given a call sign, and all of the planes attached to said ship were given one collective call sign that was preceded by a serial number for each plane. Goodspeed provided the example of the USS Enterprise. The Enterprise was dubbed “Carbon” and its planes were called “Sniper.” When coming in for a landing or when the ship was discussing a plane, the plane’s call sign would be used.

Although these call signs weren’t for the aviators themselves, when pilots would communicate with the ship, they would sometimes identify themselves by first name or a nickname after using the call sign for their plane. Call signs for aviators only started to become commonplace during the 1970s.

Lang noted that, “Like aircraft, call signs for pilots became more widespread [during] Vietnam; however, official naming ceremonies for them weren’t institutionalized until the 1980s.”

Today, call signs are part of the squadron.

Moreno explained, “[Call signs] are enduring. People put them on their nametags and helmet bags. Your call sign will go on your mug at the Officer’s Club too. People even put them on their cars.”

Most pilots are given their call sign as a junior officer, and normally, it’s up to the squadron to make the pick.

Cmdr. Brandy McNabb, the executive officer at NASC explained the process, “When a new officer would arrive at the squadron without a call sign, we would write their name on a white board and start making a list of about 10 or so options. The final selection would be a special Ready Room event. We would make popcorn, review all of the options and put it to a vote to select the best call sign.”

Ultimately though, the commanding officer has final say, just to ensure the moniker is appropriate. Call signs are meant to be good natured and fun, but occasionally a commanding officer will send the squadron back to the drawing board where second and third choices are given another look.

Moreno explained, “There’s no room for bad or inappropriate call signs. They are fun loving and should be assigned in good spirits.”

While call signs are now a recognized part of the community, the ideas behind where they come from have largely remained the same. Oftentimes a call sign is awarded based on a person’s traits, be they physical or character, or stem from a play on their names. Another source for call signs are the mishaps and mistakes junior aviators run into.

“My call sign is Harry, as in Harry Potter. Back when I had short brown hair and wore my glasses all the time, our squadron had been sent a magazine in a care package and the Harry Potter movie was being featured on the cover. Everyone in my squadron kept saying I looked exactly like Harry Potter. It became a running joke and Harry stuck. People get worried calling me Harry, but I’m honestly not offended. It’s all part of the fun.” McNabb said.

No matter where an aviator’s call sign comes from, the name evokes pride and a sense of belonging throughout an aviator’s career.

“Call signs are such a good camaraderie builder personal to each aviator. It’s what makes our community different from any other in the Navy.” Moreno said.

For those officers in flight school, earning a call sign represents a culmination of all the hard work and training they’ll have to complete to become an aviator.

“Flight students get really excited about the traditions of Naval Aviation. They ask us all kinds of questions about the steins that have our call signs on them in the Officer’s Club. They are excited to become part of the community and to earn their own call signs.” McNabb explained.

A great place to see call signs highlighted is the National Aviation Museum. Not only are there call signs on some of the planes on display, but the Cubi Bar Cafe has a near endless supply for patrons of the museum to examine. The Cubi Bar and Cafe originated as an Officer’s Club at NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines.

Retired Lieutenant Commander Scott Coleman, a tour guide at the National Naval Aviation Museum explained, “All the ships with their squads and units that came through would have plaques made listing everyone’s call signs.”

In 1992 it was moved in its entirety to the National Naval Aviation Museum where it still operates as a cafe open to museum patrons.

“Walk through it. That’s where you’ll find all the call signs,” Coleman urges.

The plaques truly are worth the view. Each one is more detailed and fantastic than the last, showing off not only the pride and camaraderie that these aviators shared but how much call signs have become part of the bedrock of aviation.

What is a pilots nickname called?

Up front, the question: Is «Topgun» one word or two? The Navy generally used it as a single word when referring to the squadron, officially called the Navy Fighter Weapons School. Some Navy people used two words, it was not a big deal in the 1980s but now has become more formalized as one word and usually all caps: TOPGUN. Paramount Pictures decided to use it as two words when they titled their movie, «Top Gun.»

This chart compares important specifications of the three main aircraft types in TOPGUN DAYS — A-4, F-5, and F-14 — showing top speed, fuel capacity, etc. Each type is further described in the glossary, in alphabetical order. Note: Topgun used different types of A-4 Skyhawks over the years, these specs are for the A-4F.

A-4 Skyhawk – Developed in the mid-1950s, the A-4 provided the Navy and Marine Corps with a simple, versatile aircraft that could be operated from aircraft carriers. Built by Douglas Aircraft, which later became McDonnell-Douglas, it was used extensively in Vietnam and flown by a half-dozen foreign forces. From 1974 through 1986, the Navy’s famous flight demonstration team the Blue Angels used A-4s. The TA-4 version included a second seat with complete flight controls, and hundreds were used to train student pilots and NFOs. Topgun flew single-seat A-4s with non-essential equipment removed to save weight, and the most powerful engines the Navy could fit into them. Brazil operated 3 Skyhawks as of 2020 and private companies in the United States operate Skyhawks as contracted adversary trainers.

ACM – Air combat maneuvering, a general term for training for close-in air-to-air combat with enemy fighters. Basically, dogfighting. It could involve one friendly fighter against one enemy, known as a one-versus-one or 1v1, or multiple aircraft on each side, such as 2v3. Friendly fighters are always listed before the «v.»

Afterburner, or burner – Assembly that injects pure fuel into a metal tube that extends aft of the basic engine, and ignites it. Most fighters have them. Increases thrust by fifty percent or more, but fuel consumption goes up ten times or more. The F-14’s afterburners had five stages or zones, so Zone 5 was max burner.

Angels – Altitude in thousands of feet. «Angels two-five» means 25,000 feet.

Angle of attack – The angle at which an aircraft wings meet the air stream. Despite the word “attack,” it is not related to weapons, and applies to all aircraft.

Bag – Aviator slang for the Nomex flight suit.

Bandit – An enemy aircraft. This is a refinement of the general category of bogey.

Bingo – A fuel state at which the aircraft should stop performing its mission, whether training or combat, and start returning to its base or heading for aerial refueling. Bingo is established before takeoff and varies based on conditions such as weather. It can also be used as a verb, to describe when an aircraft has reached the fuel level and bingos to its base.

Bogey – Technically, this is any radar contact. It was sometimes used imprecisely, as in my early years of flying, but later we were better about using bogey to indicate an unknown aircraft and bandit to indicate an enemy.

Break – A maximum-performance turn, usually in response to a threatening aircraft or missile. Due to aerodynamics (induced drag associated with lift), a break turn caused the aircraft to rapidly lose speed, so could be used to help tactical aircraft return to base faster. They would fly to the airfield at high speed and then perform a break turn overhead the runway, slowing quickly to landing speed.

Callsign – An aviator’s nom de guerre. Callsigns developed because aviators didn’t want to use real names on the radio, and there could be multiple people with the same name. Callsigns basically replaced given names in squadrons.

CAP – Combat air patrol, a mission in which a fighter patrols assigned airspace using his radar and/or visual lookout, or other sensors. When Navy carriers operate in the open ocean, fighters were frequently assigned the mission of CAP, even though there was no enemy and no combat. These flights often became simple training flights with the fighter(s) on other CAP stations.

CO – Commanding officer. The senior officer of a squadron, could be either a pilot or an NFO. Had a callsign from his earlier days, but was always called CO or Skipper by those in the squadron.

Deployment – Term for extended overseas operations by aircraft carriers, air wings, and other ships. We usually called them «cruise.» In the 1970s, US Navy deployments could last nine months. During peacetime in the early 1980s they were seven and a half months. I n the mid 1980s the Navy reduced the standard overseas deployment to six months, and personnel retention improved.

Division – Navy term for four aircraft operating together. Also known as a four-ship.

Echo Range – The electronic warfare range near China Lake, California, officially known as restricted airspace R-2524. Electronic warfare is abbreviated E.W., which in the phonetic alphabet is «echo whiskey.» the name of the range was shortened to Echo Range.

F-5 Tiger II – Originally developed by Northrop in the 1960s, the F-5 was intended as a lightweight fighter for US allies. The F-5E and F-5F (single-seat and two-seat versions, respectively) were developed in the 1970s and had significant improvements over earlier models. Due to their similarity to the MiG-21, a common threat fighter, in size and many performance aspects, the F-5E and F were used as adversaries by several US Navy and Marine Corps squadrons, including Topgun. The US Air Force used the F-5E. As of 2021, F-5s are still used as operational fighters by countries around the world, and as adversary aircraft operated by the US Navy, US Marine Corps, and private companies.

F-14 Tomcat – A large, sophisticated, maneuverable fighter developed in the late 1960s that served in US Navy fighter squadrons from 1974 through 2006. Manufactured by Grumman Aerospace, the F-14 incorporated many lessons from Vietnam War aerial combat, and had greater maneuverability and better cockpit visibility than its predecessors. It also benefited from decades of radar and missile development, giving it one of the best long-range weapons systems ever deployed on a fighter. As of 2021, F-14s are still in service with Iran, the only other country to operate them.

FAST – Fleet Air Superiority Training, a one-week program formerly run by the Navy Fighter Weapons School to give fighter and E-2 Hawkeye aircrews specialized training in defending an aircraft carrier from a raid by bombers, cruise missiles, and jammers. The concept was to apply Topgun-level training to this challenging problem. FAST included lectures and complex scenarios in simulators.

Furball – Aviator slang for a dogfight, where friendly fighters are engaged with enemy aircraft (bandits).

ICS – Intercom system, which allowed the F-14 pilot and RIO to communicate via the microphones built in to their oxygen masks and headphone speakers in their helmets. Virtually all multi-person aircraft have ICS.

John Wayne – To do something the hard way or continue doing a task when an automatic system isn’t available.

Knots – A measure of speed, nautical miles per hour. A nautical mile is 6,000′, which is about 1/6 longer than a statute mile, so knots is roughly 1 and 1/6 faster than the mph we’re used to. Here are some common speeds:

  • 300 knots = 345 mph
  • 600 knots = 690 mph
  • 1,000 knots = 1,150 mph

Merge – The small piece of sky where friendly fighters meet enemy fighters after an intercept.

MiG – Acronym for Mikoyan-Gurevich, a leading builder of fighter aircraft in the Soviet Union and Russia, after the two founding designers.

Military power – The highest power a fighter’s jet engine can produce without using afterburner.

NFO – Naval Flight Officer, a US Navy or Marine Corps aircrew member who is not a pilot. NFOs were referred to by different terms for different aircraft, such as Bombardier/ Navigator (BN) in the A-6 Intruder medium bomber, and Tactical Coordinator (TACCO) in the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Most Navy aircraft do not have duplicate flight controls for NFOs. NFOs wore gold wings on their uniform similar to pilot wings, except pilot wings had one anchor in the middle, and NFO wings had two crossed anchors.

PC – Plane captain, usually an enlisted person who is responsible for an aircraft. In the US Navy, PCs are usually fairly new to a squadron, but they have broad responsibilities for routine inspection and servicing of aircraft, and preparing them for flight.

Phonetic alphabet – The use of a word to represent each letter to ensure clarity of communication over a radio. The US military phonetic alphabet is: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu. The pronunciation of numbers is also specified, but is similar to common pronunciation except for «Niner.»

RAG – Slang term for squadrons that trained aviators in specific types of aircraft. It came from “replacement air group,” a term that had been officially replaced in 1963 by “fleet replacement squadron,” but RAG was easier to say than FRS and the nickname stuck. The F-14 had two RAGs for awhile: VF-124 at NAS Miramar, and VF-101 at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach. There are RAGs for the FA-18, E-2, EA-6B, and other types, at least one RAG for every major type of aircraft the Navy flies.

RIO – Radar intercept officer, a category of Naval Flight Officer who was the second crewman in the F-14 Tomcat. For crew coordination purposes, RIOs were primarily responsible for communication and navigation, as well as operating the F-14 radar. RIOs in the F-14 did not have flight controls (throttles, control stick, and rudder pedals), although Topgun F-5Fs had flight controls in the rear cockpit. In most current fighters, the second crewman is called a weapon systems officer (WSO).

SA – Situational awareness, a broad term referring to aircrew knowledge of many factors, from minimum essentials such as their own fuel state and weapons load, to more complex subjects such as the requirements of their mission and the number and location of threatening enemy aircraft.

SDO – Squadron duty officer, the junior officer responsible for making the squadron operate effectively and safely during his watch. In a Navy fighter squadron, the SDO was usually a lieutenant or lieutenant (junior grade) who was assigned for twenty four hours and sat behind the duty desk in the ready room while aircraft were flying.

Section – Navy term for two aircraft operating together. Also known as a two-ship.

Suitcase – To have an accurate understanding of the situation; great SA.

TACTS Range – In Topgun Days, this was airspace over the desert east of Yuma, Arizona, used in conjunction with the Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System and officially known as restricted airspace R-2301 West. To communicate with the TACTS system aircraft carried a pod that was the size and shape of a Sidewinder missile. The TACTS system gathered and recorded a large amount of data from each aircraft and its weapons system. It could display multiple aircraft real-time and was useful for detailed debriefing. There are TACTS Ranges around the world, and they are sometimes known by other names such as Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI).

Tailhook – A strong hook at the end of a steel tube more than seven feet long on an F-14. Most military aircraft have arresting hooks for emergency use, but those on Navy carrier-based aircraft were designed, like the airplanes themselves, for the stress of repeated arrested landings.

TID – Tactical information display, a round display screen, nine inches in diameter, in the F-14’s rear cockpit. Symbols showed radar targets and other situation information.

XO – Executive officer. The second-ranking officer in a squadron, under the CO, could be either a pilot or an NFO. In Navy squadrons, became the CO when the current CO detached for his next duty or if he was lost. Had a callsign from his earlier days, but was always called XO by those in the squadron.

Zone 5 – Maximum afterburner in the F-14A. Minimum afterburner was Zone 1.

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