Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Art of the Call Sign

I realize that MilBlog posts about call signs are plentiful.  In fact, I've probably covered it on these very pages in the past, but that’s what I was thinking about this past weekend.  The possibly overdone topic came to mind as I sat in my recliner on Father’s Day, watching my newly installed, and first of its kind (in my house at least) 55 inch flat screen ultraHD father’s day gift.  In my state as a just-past middle aged man, I've been squinting some, and turning up the volume a lot recently as I watched my 13 year old 27 inch Sony Trinitron tube TV, which Just. Wouldn't. Die.  Hence the "gift," one we were going to buy anyway, but why ruin a good Holiday?


Hmm, Just-past middle age.  What do you call a 47 year old guy anyway?  I think that passing away in my sleep at 85 is probably a nice round number to shoot for, and that would be 42.5 years young for a truly middle-aged man, so I’m sticking with just-past for now.  Over the hill might be something the Minnow and Teenangster would call me, but I’ll never use the term, unless I'm talking about Sarge of course.  

Speaking of my kids, the daughter was quick to acknowledge my day, but the son didn't mention it until very late in the day when I held up the card he signed for me the day prior (that his mom bought) and asked him what it was.  "Oh yeah, Happy Father's Day" he said sheepishly.   Nevertheless, it was a good Father’s Day as days-for-fathers go, which in my house are just like Mother’s Day, but with less presents and fanfare.  What I wanted to do was absolutely nothing.  So, I was sitting comfortably in my recliner, binge-watching a bit of House of Cards on Netflix before the season premiere of “The Last Ship” came on.  Sort of a guilty pleasure that one- a decent series as shows about the Navy go.  
Based on the popular novel of the same name by author William Brinkley, the story behind "The Last Ship" focuses on the crew of a lone surviving naval destroyer as they struggle to find a cure to a virus that has wiped out 80% of the world's population.  Source
It obviously has the Navy’s support, which is probably why it’s better than the shows that don’t have it.  The technical advisors are doing a good job at keeping it as accurate as it could be in a fictional world.  In last-night’s episode, the CO is out doing all sorts of action-hero stuff with an M-4 and wearing those oh-so-cool digital cammies, which I fortunately never had to wear.    

The producers must know that the Navy's uniform-du-jour, while not quite universally panned, is far from the best uni our Sailors have worn. So, they spiced him up with a leather flight jacket.  Now this isn't the first time I'd seen a Surface Warfare Officer CO wearing a flight jacket, but it is the first time with the leather version.  The green Nomex one goes quite well with khakis, but when matched with the blueberries? Probably not so much. So, the wardrobe folks gave him a ultra-cool aviators jacket which looks just ok with the cammies, but still not that great.  

So I was thinking about what a SWO's callsign would be if he found himself in a ready-room wearing a flight jacket.  Today, it might be something like "NOA" (Not an Aviator), or "Cefus" (CFS- Can't Fly Shit), or even something a little more topical like "Caitlyn," pretending to be something he's not.

I found a fun site a while back.  It was probably something my Aunt sent me, as she's always sending me links to Naval Aviation stories or those emails that list funny things pilots say, or the one I've received probably 150 million times- the one with the pilot maintenance gripes:   
Pilot: Left inside main tire almost needs replacement. 
Maintenance Chief: Almost replaced left inside main tire. 

Anyway,  it's a call sign generator, but this one throws in a reference to one of the less-than technically correct movies about the Navy (but one I still watch periodically)-  Top Gun. Check it out here if you're so inclined- the call sign thing, not the movie.  Click "Generator" at the top if you want your own.  By the way, it changes every time you click submit, which is how I got such gems as Tom "Starfish" Davis (sorta close to Tuna) and "Barracuda" (also kinda close).  For extra fun I tried out our esteemed host's name and it gave me "Stoner." Well, he did grow up in the 70s.

I know how the Navy doles out call signs, but I knew nothing about the USAF's effort until I did some research for today's post.  Apparently, it's a bit more formal than how a Navy squadron does it.  
U.S. Air Force fighter call signs are given at naming ceremonies or "namings." They are usually based on how badly you've screwed something up, a play on your name, your personality, or just the whims of the drunken mob of pilots. Usually once a pilot flies with a call sign in combat, they get to keep it for their career. But pilots may face a "hostile renaming" under certain circumstances.
The plot begins with the squadron social chairman announcing the need for a naming ceremony. it usually happens after the squadron has accumulated six to nine FNGs (F'ing New Guys/Girls) who need call signs. FNGs are the traditional call sign of all new arrivals to the squadron, even those who have been previously been given call signs. Your past call sign means nothing to your new squadron-mates. You will go through the ceremony with all the new arrivals. Woe be it to the insolent fighter pilot who shows up at the new squadron introducing himself with his previous call sign. That's a good way to mark yourself for special attention. Your bribe will need to be extra special.    Source
Huh?  "Your past call sign means nothing to your new squadron-mates."  WTF?  Of all the strange things I've heard about the USAF, that one ranks right up there with flaring to land. Juvat- how many call signs did you have?  But I digress.  In Naval Aviation, names are derived from the same types of things- screw ups (Skid- braking on the cat-shot), your real name (Dan Undra Cheever), some physical characteristic (Intake - huge schnoz), or maybe even some sexual prowess (Gretzky- for a guy's hat-trick).

While not quite as formal of a ceremony like the pilots in my sister service, a carrier squadron might just spontaneously bring it up at an AOM (All-Officers'-Meeting) in the ready room, or the CO/XO/OPSO might just announce it in the ready room upon returning from a particularly eventful flight which earned the young aviator his new nom de guerre.  

Sometimes names just don't stick.  We had a guy who just didn't fit any category for how a name is earned.  Not that he never did anything wrong or stupid, but I suppose nothing was memorable enough or could be described with a call sign.  His first name was Cory, so his tag became Cory, Call Sign Cory, Kenmon.  Another guy inexplicably left a shoe on the Co-Pilot console, but Cindy was just never really used, even after the Maintenance Master-Chief hilariously stormed into the ready room asking "Which one of you princesses left their slipper in the cockpit?"

Actually, the Hornet guys sometimes do make it a little more of a ceremony.  During my Department Head tour, all the senior Officers in the squadron went up to Lemoore for a local version of the Strike Leader Attack Training Syllabus (SLATS) course taught by NSAWC.  That first night we made our way to the O'Club where we found one of our CAG-11 squadrons welcoming a couple new pilots who had just finished the FRS that day.   They had two paper bags containing several potential starter call signs.  One of the pilots was huge.  He had even been drafted by the NY Jets before being cut in training camp, later heading to OCS and Flight School. When sitting in the cockpit, he looked like a kid in a toy car.

He reached into the bag and pulled out his slip of paper, handing it over to the squadron CO for the announcement.  The room exploded in laughter as the Skipper said "Buttercup."  He later became Tiny which is just lamely ironic, and not at all creative.

Sometimes call signs have a little more creativity put into them- the "Art" as I suggested in my title.  Some purists don't like them since you can make up a cute sentence that fits, without finding a single word, but I find that some of the funniest ones  are acronyms.

We had an ATIS in my first squadron. Great guy, but he could talk continuously and wouldn't shut up.  So ATIS he was dubbed. That got changed to OTIS when he checked in to tower stating the painful "Our Tanker Is Sour," although the aircraft wasn't even configured for tanking. We never wanted to make that call to tower as that could cause all sorts of hateful calls to our ready room.  As the only tanker-capable squadron in CAG-5 at the time, flight ops would have to be canceled if we couldn't get gas into the air for the recovery.

Some other artistic acronyms I like:


Total Utter Lack of Situational Awareness


Female Marine Hornet backseater went to hang with guys in a "gentleman's club" while in a foreign country. She decided she was more athletic than any of the girls on stage. Got up on stage, swung around the pole, promptly lost her grip, flew off stage and went headfirst into a chair, resulting in a Harry Potter like scar on her forehead and a new callsign - NADS for "Not A Decent Stripper"


Not A Guy - First Marine Corps F/A-18 female Weapon Systems Officer (WSO)


Second Marine Corps female WSO assigned to the same squadron as the first - Still Not A Guy


Last name Chaffin...think about it


Master of the obvious


FNG fresh from the other coast FRS checks into his squadron on a Monday afternoon.  He tells his boss that his household goods arrive tomorrow so he'll be in late.  He comes in before lunch to find out that he was supposed to report in at 0600 for Squadron Duty Officer turnover. The ready room board is already filled in with potential call signs including the winning tag- CLAP. He and the Senior Watch Officer get called into the Skipper's office to explain why he missed his duty day.  He accepts the blame for not checking the flight schedule, but the CO chews out the SWO because JOPA should have covered for him and the Skipper should have never known about it.  The FNG never complained, but was forever stuck with a call sign he never earned- CLAP - Cries Like a Pussy.

Some other non-acronym favorites of mine:

John Mawhinny - C/S Lick
Abe Bush - C/S Jeter
LT Leggeman - C/S Spreader
Steve "Whip" Blasch
"Semi" - short for Semi-colon.  Given to an E-2 guy who had 2 feet of his colon removed.

Well, that's enough for your Tuesday entertainment.  If you need more, check out a google groups site that includes some of these, and even yours truly.  Not sure how I got on there, but have at it.


  1. Brilliant!

    Here's a few I know personally -

    Bubbles, he's always happy
    Lick (last name McClean)
    Pencil (last name Dyckman)
    Dictator, he's a dick and looks like Mr Potato Head
    Danica - female WSO
    Satan (last name Damien)
    and of course, the ever popular LUSH.

    1. Is LUSH just for her alcoholic prowess, or some sort of acronym?

    2. It's an acronym but see this post for the gory details.

  2. Replies
    1. That's it? Not the 3 call signs, but no comebacks after the flaring to land crack?

    2. Landing takes skill. Impacting...not as much. But remember, I had both a USAF and a USN IP in F-4 school. Just had to remember which one was in the pit on any given sortie.

  3. Best call sign I ever heard was for a Marine named Benjamin Saylor. Call sign "Dover"

  4. Heh. I was a SWO--got my call sign "Mongo". Involved the rotation through the Fleet of the movie "Blazing Saddles", Philippine food and a long bus ride back to the ship.

  5. Great post Tuna. Saved for further reference.

  6. I was just reading one of Lex's old posts on call signs, and one of the funniest I read was "Precious" - at a social get together with the wives, his squadron mates overheard one hapless aviator's wife say that her husband was precious.

    So imagine going though the rest of your career with the callsign "Precious"

  7. Your squadron defiled the laws of nature if the LSOs were not the "Final Arbiters of callsigns." Just sayin...

  8. During the time I served in the AF we had NO call-signs--official or unofficial--save for that of Squadron (permanent) and cmbt strike flt assigned ones. (always changing, e.g., "Buick flight" etc) Also had no pilots/maint chiefs names on aircraft under the cockpit.. This all had to do with our maint system--was RARE to fly same bird twice in a row. Some few managed to create their own (we had a math/physics ace Nav in one squadron who was a big gambler and went by "Numbahs") and a few who were named by their fellow squadron-mates (BC comics inspired "Grog" comes to mind for a giant red-headed Russian-speaking front-seater of Russian descent--augered in in a fatal crash on a low-level down in Incirlik ) But otherwise personal call-signs were few and far between and not officially utilized/allowed during flight in any event--they were used mainly for social events or on daily basis around squadron. The official AF Squadron call-sign "naming" ceremony is obviously of more recent vintage in an attempt to ape the good PR the Navy got after TOPGUN.

    1. Hi VX. No names on cockpits during your time? I could make a joke about paint not adhering to the canvas, but I won't.

    2. It was before paint was invented.

      Or maybe that's Old NFO...

  9. Guess I'll say it: "Alemaster" was combat earned and approved. 'Nuff chest beating. regards, Alemaster

  10. Hmm, I don't remember reading that one- maybe before I started hanging out around here.

    1. Which comment are you commenting on Tuna?

      Old guys are easily confused.

    2. Hmm, it was the Lush post. Not sure why it didn't fall under your comment. Must have clicked something wrong on my phone.

    3. My phone does that to me as well.

      As to the LUSH post, you left a comment on that. So it wasn't before your time, you just forgot.

      You still sticking to that "just past middle age" thing? Fess up bro', this is the home of the OMFs - the Old Military Farts. Own it, love it, we are legion.

      Or something like that...

      What were we talking about?


  11. Never understood how the AF could change people's callsigns... Navy you were stuck until forever or you REALLY screwed the pooch...


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Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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