What’s in a Call Sign?

 

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.

A-7E Corsair Tanker configured, refueling F-8 Crusader

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.

Joined up and heading home!

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.

Air Force A-7D landing

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.

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  1. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I got it here first!

     

    • #1
  2. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Age-restricted?  WTF?

    • #2
  3. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    The late and very great Neptunus Lex (attack pilot and USN captain) wrote a post about call signs, his own and several others:

    https://thelexicans.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/callsigns/

     

     

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Great story and great explanation of how things work. 

    I wonder, though, if “Prof” has enough hard consonants (or hard enough consonants) to avoid being confused with a name like “Boof”? Maybe best if those two aren’t in the same squadron?

     

    • #4
  5. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    David Foster (View Comment):

    The late and very great Neptunus Lex (attack pilot and USN captain) wrote a post about call signs, his own and several others:

    https://thelexicans.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/callsigns/

     

     

    Thanks Dave. That was an excellent article from Mr. Lex!  I’m hoping that other readers know of other funny call signs and their origin stories. Unfortunately some have origins or meanings that are inside jokes which if revealed, might violate the rules here….:-)

    • #5
  6. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Great story and great explanation of how things work.

    I wonder, though, if “Prof” has enough hard consonants (or hard enough consonants) to avoid being confused with a name like “Boof”? Maybe best if those two aren’t in the same squadron?

     

    You’re right. Some combinations were confusing. And it wasn’t just within a squdron. When deployed you had an entire airwing worth of call signs. In the case you mentioned, “Prof” might just be reversed to “forp” as an inside joke. I think the original “Boof” was slightly longer and shortened for general consumption…   :-)

    • #6
  7. Right Wing Teamster Lawyer Thatcher
    Right Wing Teamster Lawyer
    @RightWingTeamsterLawyer

    Still remember the credits in Top Gun whee they listed  Ben “Rabbi” Schwartz (probably not is name but a very Jewsih surname), a one of the pilots.  Wonder how he got that call sign?

    • #7
  8. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Question. Are aircraft radios secure?

    Back in the Mesozoic era, Army tactical radio nets were not secure. As part of our operational security we had to change frequencies and call signs every day. 

    • #8
  9. Dan Campbell Member
    Dan Campbell
    @DanCampbell

    A good friend of mine is a current USAF pilot whose call sign is Slip (it’s an acronym).  Unfortunately, the story behind it is NSFW.

    • #9
  10. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Dan Campbell (View Comment):

    A good friend of mine is a current USAF pilot whose call sign is Slip (it’s an acronym). Unfortunately, the story behind it is NSFW.

    The best ones always are.

    • #10
  11. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Max Knots: Call signs are usually assigned rather than chosen by the pilot or aircrew. 

    Can you give a sense of what percentage of them are not of the “trying to be cool” or the obnoxious type…like “Al” or “Bob”? 

    • #11
  12. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I’m really enjoying your flight stories, Max. Always educational and enjoyable!

    • #12
  13. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Low fuel….. all pilots have to have an never again experience. I was a newish pilot just before the 9/11 attacks and my base of operations was @ W00 located in Bowie Maryland (choice of discriminating terrorists doing recon for DC mayhem). Once the 9/11 event occurred, the screws were tightened on all flight operations in the DC area (with the lastest incarnation not so affectionally call the DC SFRC). Protocols for departing and arriving in near airports now mimicked IRF operations, so I decide I need to upgrade my skill set to include an IFR rating.

    One of the then requirements included doing a cross country flight, under instruction, using 3 different approach techniques. I naively decided to incorporate this in a “fun” flight to Florida for the annual EAA fly-in located in Lakeland Fl. It would be a long  7.5 air hour flight, which given the thirsty Cessna 172, with small tanks would require two possibly 3 stops for fuel.

    Planning the flight I decide the first stop would be on the SC coast, and first fuel at Grand Strand airport (North Myrtle beach) which left a comfortable hour in the tanks. Well everyone and his brother were looking to escape the long cold winter with an early spring warm shot in southern Florida, and of course CRE was having a fuel sale for all of the snow birds, and when we got to call in and request an ILS approach they could not accommodate on a CAVU day with the numbers of arrivals. Well the instructor thought this was a good chance to do the have an actual practice of in flight selecting one’s alternate airport, which was just one airport further south at Myrtle beach, which has regular commercially schedule traffic. I did the call to ATC and got vectored to the new approach point, now way out over the coast, which as a pilot of a single piston engine aircraft is always something to contempt if that is what you really want to do.

    As they say all plans are null upon contact with the enemy. My ground speed at this point in the flight was a bit slower than projected, and now the switch to the alternate airport had me minding the clock (never trust the fuel tanks gauges of piss-ant little planes). I was under the training binders, and could only sort of see just water below me (not really cheating), and not entirely cognizant of how far off ATC was guiding me, but the radio dials showed I was coming up to the intercept point. Just as I was coming on the path localizer, ATC directed me away “for traffic” (the paying customers on some airline). This was a a bit more than a 10 minute diversion, but just as I was coming on the localized again ATC did it to me again, “for traffic”. Well at this point I mentions to my instructor that I was now concerned we were getting uncomfortable close to my fuel calculations, she looks at the tank needles which were almost buried (but moved when I wagged the wings), and now she spoke to the tower and said we need to land, now, he ask if we were calling an emergency? She tersely replied we will if you divert us a third time.

    I guess the tower noticed a change in voices, quit screwing around, and let me finish the landing.

    I stayed with the line guy filling the tanks to see how much fuel he put in the plane. It took a few tens of a gallon more than what the POH said was “usable” fuel. I guess I had between 5 and 15 minute before we would have splashed in the Atlantic and become another “Pilot Error” foot note for the NTSB’s register.

    My lessons learned was carry more than a hour for diversions in slow airplanes (100 Kts is slow). Don’t let ATC bully you into crappy situations, and speak up what is on your mind to ATC. The final controller might not have have been aware this was my alternate airport, and it was a VFR day so perhaps I should have just bailed on the getting the IFR ticket requirements done, and just landed at Grand Strand as a VFR approach 40 minutes earlier.

    To this day I have never had less than a hour flying left when I top off, however upgrading to a Piper Comanche with 6 hours tanks (more if you fly high and lean out the engine) has made this an easy lesson to keep.

    The other thing I learn is an auto pilot is you best friend, something that is rarely in a training Cessna. Doing more than 8 hours of simulated IFR flying, I was physical and mental toast for my final landing at Kissimmee airport in Florida. I traded off piloting with my buddy (who was feeling “fresh”) for the chaos and special flight NOTAM instructions that accompanies all EAA fly-ins. Too much of your mental band with is typically tied to keeping the oily side of the plane facing the ground that clear strategic decision making becomes difficult after that many hours of up, down, left, right, heading, check engine, scan fuel, repeat till you are on the ground.

    • #13
  14. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):
    single piston engine aircraft

    Single engine piston aircraft.  “Single piston engine aircraft” makes it sound like you were flying a Lawnboy.

    • #14
  15. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Percival (View Comment):

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):
    single piston engine aircraft

    Single engine piston aircraft. “Single piston engine aircraft” makes it sound like you were flying a Lawnboy.

    I have a rep to uphold…

    • #15
  16. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    One of the pilots in my squadron had the callsign “Goofy” after making the mistake of mentioning he had worked summers at Disney World and had worked as that character in Fantasyland.

     

    • #16
  17. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Question. Are aircraft radios secure?

    Back in the Mesozoic era, Army tactical radio nets were not secure. As part of our operational security we had to change frequencies and call signs every day.

    When I was using them they were uhf- line of sight. Not encrypted. So you’re right; sometimes would use more generic squadron call signs. Good point. 

    • #17
  18. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Max Knots (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Question. Are aircraft radios secure?

    Back in the Mesozoic era, Army tactical radio nets were not secure. As part of our operational security we had to change frequencies and call signs every day.

    When I was using them they were uhf- line of sight. Not encrypted. So you’re right; sometimes would use more generic squadron call signs. Good point.

    “Red Five, standing by!”

    • #18
  19. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Right Wing Teamster Lawyer (View Comment):

    Still remember the credits in Top Gun whee they listed Ben “Rabbi” Schwartz (probably not is name but a very Jewsih surname), a one of the pilots. Wonder how he got that call sign?

    I would guess it was a Jewish reference. Nobody was politically correct back then. :-)
    Cyes. That’s the problem with many call signs!

    philo (View Comment):

    Max Knots: Call signs are usually assigned rather than chosen by the pilot or aircrew.

    Can you give a sense of what percentage of them are not of the “trying to be cool” or the obnoxious type…like “Al” or “Bob”?


    Susan Quinn (View Comment)
    :

    I’m really enjoying your flight stories, Max. Always educational and enjoyable!

    Thank you Susan. I take that as a high compliment. I always enjoy yours though they’re usually so apt and on target I can add nothing of further value. I do “like” them though. :-)

    • #19
  20. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Speaking of which, where did you get the call sign “Max Knots?”

    Something from your BDSM activities, I’ll wager.  :-)

    • #20
  21. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    philo (View Comment):

    Max Knots: Call signs are usually assigned rather than chosen by the pilot or aircrew.

    Can you give a sense of what percentage of them are not of the “trying to be cool” or the obnoxious type…like “Al” or “Bob”?

    Remember Rule #1: You don’t get to choose “cool”. And first names are never used!  Sometimes by the end of a deployment you don’t even know their first names and last names are only used on official correspondence!  
    I remember when my wife asked me the name of a new guy and all I knew was his call sign!

    • #21
  22. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):

    Low fuel….. all pilots have to have an never again experience. I was a newish pilot just before the 9/11 attacks and my base of operations…

    Great story! And totally correct. It is harder in a plane that struggles to make headway with a 20 knot headwind. LOL. The T2 Buckeye trainer was like that with its minuscule fuel tanks. That reminds me of another great story about a buddy who ended up landing at Andrew’s AFB in a heavy storm on fumes. Stay tuned for that one!  ;-)

    • #22
  23. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Question. Are aircraft radios secure?

    Back in the Mesozoic era, Army tactical radio nets were not secure. As part of our operational security we had to change frequencies and call signs every day.

    The practice when I was in a squadron in the 80’s and early 90’s is that aircraft spoke on UHF which was line of sight and considered relatively safe from interception.  That always seemed odd to me.

    They have since changed and from what I can tell use SINCGARS radios, unless the newer radios are available now.  SINCGARS radios use frequency hopping and encryption that does make them nearly impossible to decrypt and very difficult to even intercept.  Unless they have the encryption data and the hop set of frequencies.  They would still use UHF for talking to the airport, etc.

    • #23
  24. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Max Knots (View Comment):

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):

    Low fuel….. all pilots have to have an never again experience. I was a newish pilot just before the 9/11 attacks and my base of operations…

    Great story! And totally correct. It is harder in a plane that struggles to make headway with a 20 knot headwind. LOL. The T2 Buckeye trainer was like that with its minuscule fuel tanks. That reminds me of another great story about a buddy who ended up landing at Andrew’s AFB in a heavy storm on fumes. Stay tuned for that one! ;-)

    One of my flying club buddies did an “unscheduled” landing @ Andrews after a bird strike collapsed the windscreen of his twin Comanche. It was night and he was also on his way home to W00, and ADW just happened to be under his wings (and of course this was pre SFRA restrictions).

    It was raining, he was covering in feathers and bird guts, and he was met by a squad of heavily armed gentleman, and the ranking enlisted guy was not accepting his “issue” and keep repeating get back in your plane and leave the field. I love the linear thinking of the boys they always put in-charge of security details… at least they allowed him to stay the 20 minutes or so until the showers stopped, and he could make the a slow hop back to Bowie.

    • #24
  25. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Calls signs often were obscene if they sounded tame and tame if they sounded off-color, though that’s not a hard rule.  My call sign was “Skyler” because I was short and scrawny and very young looking, so I resembled Skyler Fishhawk of Shoe comics, whose uncle Cosmo kept sending him to summer camp and he always wound up accidentally spending the summer with the Marines.

    In my squadron, Stain got his name because of a bout of diarrhea while in flight.  I was listening to the radio when the B/N called in an emergency for “disabled pilot.” That should have gotten attention, but the duty officer was pre-occupied.  They landed without incident, but the seat was a mess. I was so proud of my seat mechs who took it in stride and cleaned it up without a single word of protest.

    Crusher got his call sign because when we were in a rental van one time, he slammed the sliding door on Major Hurley’s thumb.

    Then there was the guy who seemingly got a new call sign every month until he was finally cashiered from the squadron.

    My CO was called Sunshine because even as a lieutenant, he always looked glum.

    Electric had a tendency to lose his cool and light up on some unsuspecting junior Marine.  He was proud of it.  He was also proud that he gave his pregnant wife the clap.  Go figure.

    There are all types.

    Gambler, who passed away recently, was my boss.  I never learned how he got his name, but his helmet was painted with 8’s and aces.

    • #25
  26. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Skyler (View Comment):
    Calls signs often were obscene if they sounded tame and tame if they sounded off-color, though that’s not a hard rule.  My call sign was “Skyler” because I was short and scrawny and very young looking, so I resembled Skyler Fishhawk of Shoe comics, whose uncle Cosmo kept sending him to summer camp and he always wound up accidentally spending the summer with the Marines.

    I loved Shoe.  Do you remember the ultimate country song name they had?

    More or less, “The freight train of your lies smashed into a truckload of my dreams at the crossroads of a lifetime of loving you and the prison of this old guitar my daddy gave me.”

    • #26
  27. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Calls signs often were obscene if they sounded tame and tame if they sounded off-color, though that’s not a hard rule. My call sign was “Skyler” because I was short and scrawny and very young looking, so I resembled Skyler Fishhawk of Shoe comics, whose uncle Cosmo kept sending him to summer camp and he always wound up accidentally spending the summer with the Marines.

     

    There are all types.

    Gambler, who passed away recently, was my boss. I never learned how he got his name, but his helmet was painted with 8’s and aces.

    Great examples! Here are a couple others:  Kermit – French Exchange pilot; Toad – Last name = leap; Minnow – went for swim returning from liberty in Naples, (Italy); Brick – had red hair; Spidey – name sounded similar to ‘spiderman’. Most of those guys are commercial pilots now. (Hi guys, if you see this…)  Someone with an imagination could have fun generating bogus call signs and their back stories. But not today!

    • #27
  28. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Speaking of call signs, did any of you see the Wild Cards?

     

    • #28
  29. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Speaking of call signs, did any of you see the Wild Cards?

    One of my favorite shows, much underrated. The Angry Angel” is my favorite episode.  The writing lacked a bit, they clearly were styling themselves after “Combat!” to a degree.  Only ran one season and they had to rush into the finale.  With a few better cast members, this could have been an all-time great.

    • #29
  30. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Skyler (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Speaking of call signs, did any of you see the Wild Cards?

    One of my favorite shows, much underrated. The Angry Angel” is my favorite episode. The writing lacked a bit, they clearly were styling themselves after “Combat!” to a degree. Only ran one season and they had to rush into the finale. With a few better cast members, this could have been an all-time great.

    I think it already was an all-time great.  :-)

    And of course, they had R. Lee Ermey in the premiere episodes/movie.

    • #30