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Have you ever wondered why military pilots use a “call sign” instead of their name and rank when talking on the radio? It’s not simply for the fun of calling each other silly names (though there may be some of that…) The main reason is that a “call sign” (like ‘Mongo’, ‘Hook’ or ‘Boof’) lets you quickly and efficiently identify who you’re talking to on a frequency used by several people.
Imagine trying to call “Lieutenant Commander Dinglehoffermeisterson”. No one could do it without giggling – something pilots try to avoid. You need a way to identify the other pilot that is simple to remember, easily said over the radio, and quickly understood. For those reasons, the pilot in the above example would inevitably be called simply “Dingle” or “Huffer”.
Call signs are usually assigned rather than chosen by the pilot or aircrew. If you try to give yourself a cool call sign like “RocketMan” or “MadDog”, that usually makes things worse. If for reasons best left unexplored you receive the call sign “Booger”, you are usually better off just accepting it and hoping that you do something else mildly stupid that will cause them to change your call sign to something less obnoxious. Of course, there’s always the chance they could choose something worse (like “Barf” after a bout of seasickness while returning on the liberty boat).
Some call signs relate to a physical characteristic (“Big Foot” wore size 14 shoes; “Shnoz” might have a large proboscis or nose cone; “Hirsute” or “HairSuit” was naturally quite bald.), or an embarrassing incident (“WrongWay” landed on the wrong aircraft carrier.).
The exceptions to this rule are the Landing Safety Officers (LSOs). For some reason, they all seem to use the same four or five call signs, just to confuse everyone. There must be hundreds of “Hooks” (for “tailhook”); “3-Wire” (the best of the four arresting cables and your goal for every landing); “WaveOff” (for a hair-trigger tendency to turn on those lights and cause planes to unnecessarily go around or miss their landing); and “Squint” (due to a disputed landing grade?).
A pilot who liked to give really detailed explanations for why an airplane flies a particular way might become “Prof” (short for ‘Professor’). And if that same pilot was a Lieutenant Commander at the height of popularity of the TV show “Star Trek – The Next Generation”, “Prof” might acquire the call sign “Data” after the Android character played by Brent Spiner in the show. Hilarious.
The best example of a young pilot who truly earned his call sign, happened in my first A-7 squadron. (No. It wasn’t me. This is a rare story in which I am only the observer. Honestly!) The occasion was the squadron fly-off from the carrier back to its home base. In a previous story, I explained that at the end of a deployment, all the squadrons fly their airplanes off the carrier before it pulls into port because that’s the easiest way to get them home. Once the ship is docked, you have to crane the airplanes off and ship them by truck.
Ideally, all dozen or so of each squadron’s aircraft launch within a short time, rendezvous with a tanker aircraft to top off the fuel, and then proceed in formation to the home field where the families are waiting to welcome everyone home. The Commanding Officer has the honor of leading this large formation and part of the fun is showing the families a large formation of Navy planes flying together like the Blue Angels. Generally, the pre-flight briefing by the Skipper involves a statement to the effect that once you are formed up in formation, you don’t leave the formation before landing unless you have to declare an emergency. That last caveat is critical. Would “Running out of fuel” be just such an emergency? Yep, definitely.
Well, our “hero” (let’s call him “Junior”) was the junior pilot in the fly-off. This was his first fly-off and his jet was one of the last ones launched. By the time he joined up with the other 11 planes, everyone else had topped off their fuel at the tanker. The Skipper asked whether he needed gas. A quick calculation showed that he should have just enough. The three smaller four-plane formations then headed for home plate and slowly joined into a single large formation of 12 aircraft with the junior pilot in the last slot to land.
The descent into the home-field went without incident. Everyone was skilled at flying formation after the six-month deployment, even “Junior”. It was a beautiful clear day and the first pass down the runway at 800-feet and 250 knots went so well that the Skipper decided to do another. And that’s when “Junior” made his fateful, call-sign-earning decision to say nothing.
Did I mention that just as the Skipper had started the first majestic and awe-inspiring sweep past the hangar, “Junior” was startled by a bright flashing red light in his cockpit informing him that he was “LOW ON FUEL”? It meant he had anywhere from 20 minutes (best case) to 7 or 8 minutes of fuel left (due to the low altitude and high power settings flying formation).
If the Skipper had landed after that first pass as briefed, Junior’s choice not to say anything would have been more understandable because he would have been landing well inside the worst case time frame. But when the Skipper didn’t land, “Junior” should have declared an emergency, leave the formation and land immediately.
He knew they were going to criticize him for insufficient attention to his fuel state; for failure to anticipate the necessity of additional fuel. He probably used more fuel than planned due to the higher power settings needed to maintain position in a large formation. In any event, he had messed up and just wanted to land and hope no one found out.
Also on his mind was the unplanned show that his declaration of an emergency would provoke as the fire trucks and ambulances scrambled. That wasn’t the show the Skipper would want the families to see. Of course, an ejection would be far worse and that’s what “Junior” would experience if he flamed out before landing.
No one was aware of his fuel situation so “Junior” was the last man in the formation to land. Fortunately, everyone ahead of him landed safely and quickly cleared the runway. “Junior” started to believe he’d be OK. He landed and rolled to the end of the runway to avoid overheating the brakes. He didn’t want hot brakes.
He turned onto the taxi area and into the hot-brake-check area where a plane captain waited to check his brakes. Suddenly the engine flamed out – finally out of fuel. He rolled to a stop. The plane captain looked at him, puzzled. “Junior” signaled for him to safety-pin the gear (so they wouldn’t collapse with the loss of hydraulic pressure) and to chock the wheels (There’s no parking brake on an A-7.) The plane captain radio’d back to Maintenance asking for a tow for the suddenly very quiet jet. And That’s how “Junior” earned his new call sign “NAFOD” (No Apparent Fear Of Death).
The squadron and “Junior” were very lucky that day. No planes or lives were lost. When the Maintenance Officer (a senior Lieutenant Commander) learned of the flame-out, “Junior” received an extremely thorough debrief. The Squadron Safety Officer joined in and made sure “Junior” understood his almost catastrophic mistake. “Junior’s” punishment was to give a brief for all the squadron pilots, explaining his mistake and the circumstances that led to it, in the hope of preventing anyone else from making a similar error in judgement.
The change of “Junior’s” call sign became official and served as a reminder and warning to all the pilots. He became famous around the Air Wing – not in a good way. The story would be told over the years to every new pilot joining the squadron.
And nobody ever ignored a Low Fuel Light again.Published in