19 April 2010

On Callsigns

Hollywood lied to me.

As I was growing up, I would watch the movie Top Gun, believing it was an accurate depiction of the everyday lives of military aviators. Upon arrival at Fort Rucker, I fully expected to buzz the tower in my TH-67 (don't even ask to do this over the radio) and sport a really cool one-piece flight suit (all Army aviators wear two-piece uniforms, much like the infantry). But most important of all, I looked forward to getting an awesome callsign.

Then I realized that the Army really doesn't participate in the same traditions as our Navy, Marine, and Air Force brethren. Army aviators don't get "callsigns", aside from the ones assigned from the Air Tasking Order. Such callsigns typically include a code word denoting the aircraft unit, followed by a number, such as "Reach 364". Which, no offense to my favorite blogger, but that's just not as cool as "Wolfman", "Hollywood", "Cougar", and the like.

Since the Army doesn't give its pilots cool nicknames, a budding young aviator might be tempted to pick a callsign for one's self. Most of the time, Army aviators stop short of actually doing so. I mean, picking your own awesome callsign would be the height of douchebaggery.

Yet, that never stopped some people from actually trying.

When I first arrived at flight school, I was assigned to a class of some fifteen young lieutenants. We took turns standing up and introducing ourselves. One aspiring aviator stood apart from the rest.

Standing some 5-foot-3-inches tall, one lieutenant took in the faces of all around him. Drawing on his Top Gun inspiration, he knew, deep inside his soul, that he was the best. The alpha male--the alpha male of Daleville, Alabama (quite a feat). Rising to his full Napoleon-sized height, he introduced himself, with a Spanish accent thicker than engine oil.

"My name is Lieutenant [Redacted], from [unit]".

He paused, taking a deep breath, and surveying the room. He whispered, "But you can call me..."

Suddenly, he spread his arms dramatically, proclaiming:


Several lieutenants looked on--not in awe, but in shock.


"Everyone who knows me at home calls me 'the Phantom'", said the Phantom. Drawing closer to us, he whispered, "My friends, you can do the same".


After a little research, we discovered that his unit really did call him "The Phantom". Seems every time work needed to be done, he had a nasty habit of just disappearing. Thus, he was a virtual "phantom". Wonders never cease.

Navy, Marines, Air Force: how exactly does this tradition work? I'm kind of intrigued...

Wow, looking back on the movie, it really was kind of...uh...you know....


Anonymous said...

Speaking form an Air Force perspective, callsigns usually coem about by doing something stupid and/or hilarious while airborne. So the guy who took a dump twice in flight (on an airplane with no bathroom other than a MRE bag another crew member happened to have) was thusly given the callsign "Deucer." Callsigns should be given by an aviator of higher rank than the one being named, and ideally should be decided on by a group of his peers, all of whom have a say in how to ridicule him for the rest of his career.

Most guys accept their callsigns as a badge of honor but some don't like them I guess. Anyways, more of an Air Combat Command (fighters, bombers) thing, but exists in special ops, air mobility, etc.

Unknown said...

Fortunately, I'm perfectly content having a mediocre callsign based on a mission number. It gives me one more way I can make fun of fighter pilots, who actually use callsigns -- many of whom would like to think they are in Top Gun. ;-)

Madhu said...

Well-written post.

For some reason it reminds me of the volleyball game in Meet The Parents....you know, how they keep calling each other Wolfman or whatever? It's a good thing real life ISN'T like the movies, because that movie is horrifying!

AT2(AW) said...

In the Navy pilots use callsigns more as nicknames for each other in the ready room or while on duty. You get goofy names or degrading names or strange names but they all describe either the person or an event that happened to them. Most callsigns are picked up at Fleet Replacement Squadrons where pilots are trained on their specific platform (F/A-18, EA-6B, H-60 etc...).

Flights of aircraft are identified by squadron callsign (HSC-8 = Loosefoot, VFA-154 = Knight, VFA-147= Jason) and then aircraft side number (HSC-8 aircraft 611 would then become LOOSEFOOT 611, VFA-147 a/c 201 becomes JASON 201 etc).

On Callsigns here are just a few from my squadron (HSC-8):

OnStar = Pilot who always called for technical assistance on radio for any minor malfunction during training flights

Splat = The sound he made when he apparently dove off a high dive into a pool before going to the FRS

Crash = Our Airwing Commander who had managed to survive two Class A mishaps while in training....

Andy Kravetz said...

I love this. I laughed so damn hard when I saw this video. I was going to post this post to my blog but it's a work blog. I can't. The paper would have my ass (pun intended). Great job, my friend. You cheered me up today.

And for the record, I don't have a call sign. I don't even have a street name.

MikeF said...

@AT2- nice. I'd probably be relegated to Crash.

@Andy. Not everyone can be cool like Starbucks, but you can at least give yourself a good porn name. First name plus you original street address. Mine is Mike Thornewood. Pretty sexy.

Anonymous said...

Quentin Tarantino always had Top Gun's number.

If I were picking an aviator name, it would totally have something to do with chess. "2KXP," they'd call me, wondering all the while if I could get them to check in eight moves or less.

Herbal said...


We spent all that time talking COIN and you didn't ask me about callsigns?!

There are so many, but here's a few I've seen:
- LT Mark Dold, callsign "Dark Mold"
- "El Nino" went to the most youthful new check in; later, "La Nina"
- "WUNA" aka World's Ugliest Naval Aviator
- "Slim Pickens" (Slim, for short) was John Wayne in the break and Slim Pickens in the groove (final approach)
- "Smithers" seemed to like his boss a lot.
- "Fishnet" once caught minnows in his chest
- "Cliffy" (from TV show "Cheers") knows everything
- "Grimace" was shaped like the McDonald's character
- "Phoebe" like the flighty character in 'Friends'
- "Jailbreak" had to take leave each weekend for awhile to repay his debt to society
- "Tito" always felt left out of the fun, so he became Tito...because it just wouldn't be the Jackson Five without Tito
- "Wedge" the world's simplest tool
- "Skids" tried to take off from the field with the parking brake set
- "Boom! Boom!" successfully launched from the carrier with the parking break set (and popped both mainmounts).

The Naval Safety Center has started to build a list of callsigns at their page, "What's Your Callsign?"

J. said...

Truly Quentin Tarantino's greatest contribution to film acting.