In military aviation, a callsign is the hook upon which radio communication is suspended. There are all kinds of callsigns: for units, bases, ships, control centers—and Sierra Hotel aviators. The latter draws by far the most attention, as per the 1986 movie Top Gun with “Maverick”, “Goose,” “Viper,” and “Iceman.” The film was a live-action cartoon but it did popularize naval aviation—and the callsign culture.
Recently callsigns made the news when a naval officer objected to the suggestions made by his Norfolk squadronmates. Some highly un-PC monikers were thrown about, questioning the individual’s masculinity. Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a naval flight officer, seemed skeptical, claiming he had never heard any uncomplimentary callsigns in his forty years of experience.
In truth, “callsign” has become a synonym for “nickname.” The ensign in Norfolk is an administrative officer and therefore not eligible for a genuine callsign, which is intended for in-flight transmissions.
Obviously callsigns didn’t exist before airborne radios. Squadrons and bases had code words-cum-callsigns from the 1930s but the practice of a specific pilot adopting a callsign apparently originated in the Italian Air Force in World War II. A piloto rose to squadron command and thereby adopted his academy nickname: Gato. Seems that as a cadet he had accepted a dare to skin and eat a cat.
In the U.S. Navy individual callsigns apparently emerged circa the early 60s. Veterans (read: survivors) of those days recall that division leaders began using their nicknames to identify their four-plane flights, thus “Punchy” was accompanied by Punchy Two, Three, and Four. However, squadrons retained their formal callsigns, followed by each airplane’s side number. “Old Salt 301” belonged to the skipper of Attack Squadron 163, but each squadron in the air wing had a dedicated “CAG bird” with the wing commander’s name painted thereon. Known as “double nuts”, it would be “Old Salt 300” or, for the lower-numbered squadrons, perhaps Charger 100 and Hunter 200.
Many callsigns are inevitable. All Rhodes are “Dusty,” every Lane is “Shady,” and any Gibson is “Hoot.” The skipper and executive officer are "CO" and "XO" while the ordnance warrant officer always is “Gunner.” But most names are far more esoteric. A quick scan of the The Hook magazine over the years produces some notable monikers: Barf, Cuddles, Dirt, Gonzo, Loaf, Manhole, Rattler, Speedface, and Talent. The reasons behind each make diverting speculation.
Probably the most astute comment ever made on the subject was penned by the late aviation photographer George Hall who said, “If pilots were allowed to pick their own callsigns there would be as many ‘Killers’ at Ramstein as there are McDougals in Edinburgh.”
Fact is, many callsigns are the result of a screwup or embarrassment. An aviator called “Hook” likely failed to lower his tailhook prior to a carrier landing attempt. One friend, an Eagle driver, confides that he was dubbed "Skippy"--something to do with a blonde, a jar of peanut butter, and mucho tequila. Other names are so blatant that it’s mildly astonishing that they ever got painted on airplanes. “Master” Bates leaps to mind.
A kickass Cruasader pilot (and future MiG killer) chose a self-deprecating callsign. He said, “The other guys wanted to be Warrior or Gladiator but I could beat them one on one so I wanted to humiliate them with the most disgusting name I could think of. That’s how I became ‘Rat.’”
Some official callsigns just don’t make the cut. Two Navy wing commanders from 1965 were “Earlobe” for CAG-7 and “Smoke Tree” for CAG-16. The recipients declined such mundane monikers: Harry Gerhard opted for “Cobra” while James Bond Stockdale used “Zero Zero Seven.”
In the Air Force, callsigns frequently are rotated among units, either as some wings are disbanded or to confuse potential enemies. For instance, “Killer” has been assigned to units flying A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s at three separate bases. “King” is even more eclectic, being used by USAF and USN fighters, surveillance planes, helos, and transports. “Magic” has been used by allied forces from the Netherlands to Japan.
Then there’s “Tiger.” A-10s, B-1s, C-130s, KC-135s, E-2s, F-15s, F-16s, H-53s, and P-3s. But even that is exceeded by no fewer than 20 “Vipers,” only half of which refer to F-16s. If you’re curious, check this impressive site:
Some unit callsigns are more involved than it may seem. For instance, Air Force transports usually have five-letter callsigns such as “Heavy” or “Amway.”
One of the most enduring callsigns is “Horseback,” the radio handle of Colonel Don Blakeslee commanding the fabled Fourth Fighter Group in England in 1944. Just the ticket for a unit flying Mustangs!
However, other callsigns become politically unacceptable. Consider Navy helicopter squadron HS-2, known throughout the Tonkin Gulf as “Chink.” A friend of mine piloted Chink 69 to a spectacular rescue in Haiphong Harbor in 1967, receiving a well deserved Silver Star in the process. But today that’s verboten—probably considered as offensive as “Gook.” Sometimes we’re permitted to slay the enemy but perish forbid we should ever insult him!
Some other favorites: Bison (325th FW), Bronco (A-10s and F-16s among others); Busy Bee (VA-146), City Desk (VF-154), Feedbag (VF-191), Ghost Rider (VA-164), Rampage (VAQ-138) and Showtime (VF-96).
Readers are invited to submit their favorite callsigns in the comments section. If you have trouble signing on (as many do) just drop me an egram and I’ll insert it later.