What’s In A (Nick)Name?

What’s in a nickname? If you had a chance to give yourself a nickname what would it be? Would your nickname be a result of shortening your given name? For instance, Abby may be short for Abilene, Cal for Calvin, Annie for Anastasia, or Bill for William. If you had your choice, would you be Tiny, Hercules, Knuckles, or something different like Dabo? Let’s face it, nicknames are more often a result of what others choose for us. A small, quick kid may be “Squirrel” and big stocky kid “Tank”.

It’s the same for military call signs. A pilot may want to be referred to as “Shooter” or “Maverick”, but call signs are often not as cool as one might expect. They most likely come from a pilot’s “buddies” who may see the pilot do something odd, funny, or even stupid. One pilot earned the name “Berlin” because he turned his aircraft into a wall as he was taxiing. It could be based on physical appearance like a pilot called “Inch” who is only 5’4” inches tall. How about a play on a person’s name like the pilot whose real name is Michael Keaton and gets pegged by other pilots as “Batman”. We’ve even heard of a pilot with the last name of Holmes who got the call sign “Mobile” for mobile homes.

It happens the same with aircraft. The military may have an official name for each plane, but that does not stop the aircrew community from attributing their own.

The B-52 is officially known as the Stratofortress. This behemoth of the sky has other unofficial nicknames given by the pilots that flew them. The B-52 is quite large with a length just over 159 feet long and a wingspan 185 feet wide. Because of its massive size, the B-52 has a nickname among U.S. Air Force personnel as “BUFF” which is short for “Big Ugly Fat F*****” or to some, Big Ugly Fat Fellow.

Then there is the F-16 multi-role fighter aircraft. It is commonly known as the Fighting Falcon. The F-16 received that name officially on July 21, 1980, following a plane naming contest held by the U.S. Air Force in 1976 and won by USAF TSgt Joseph Kurdell. Before the Air Force chose Falcon as the official name, the pilots and mechanics that operated and maintained the aircraft began referring to the F-16 as the “Viper”. This name evolved because it resembled a cobra as it approached you. To this day it is still referred to as the Viper among the F-16 community.

The Douglas A3D-1 Skywarrior was a strategic bomber with a three-man crew. During its service, it was the heaviest aircraft to operate from an aircraft carrier. This earned the A3D the nickname “The Whale”. As the plane’s designers looked for more ways to reduce weight, they would eliminate ejection seats for the three crewmembers. Doing so would lead the aircrews to suggest the A3D stood for “All Three Dead”.

The Vought F-8 Crusader, the Navy and Marine Corps’ premier air superiority aircraft of its time, was known by several names. “The Last Gunfighter” was the F-8’s more widely accepted title. It dominated MiG-17s so much during the Vietnam War that the V-8 was also known as “MiG Master” and “MiG Killer”. In fact, in 1967 a U.S. Navy pilot was lining up on the rear of a North Vietnamese MiG. Before the Naval Aviator could even fire, the MiG pilot ejected from his perfectly good aircraft.

When it came to aircraft that might kill its own operator, the F-104 Starfighter was up to the task. This sleek-looking aircraft was fast and it looked the part. It would be stated that the F-104 looked like it was flying at Mach 2 while sitting on the ramp and because of its slender design, was referred to as the “Missile With a Man In It”. But, the F-104 was also known to be a death trap. During high angles of attack, the F-104’s combination of narrow wings and a long body created high wing loading, and its high vertical stabilizer would cause the aircraft to pitch its nose upward violently, stall, roll-over and then go into an uncontrollable flat spin that pilots were unable to recover from. This phenomenon caused crashes and many deaths. It also earned the F-104 another nickname, the “Widowmaker”.

There are aircraft of other nations that receive nicknames also. These countries like Russia and China have not traditionally given all of their aircraft an official name. To make their aircraft easier to identify, rather than using Russia or Chinese designations, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) assigns those aircraft a NATO reporting name. This name uses English words that are easily understood. For instance, the Russian aircraft designated the MiG-17 has a NATO reporting name of Fresco and their MiG-31 is the Foxhound. The Chinese aircraft, Chengdu J-7 has a NATO reporting name of Fishcan and the Chengdu J-10 is Firebird.

Though aircraft are assigned official names by their manufacturer, nearly all will earn other titles from those who fly and maintain them due to performance, reliability, safety, or other factors.

Below are eleven more aircraft official name and designations along with corresponding nicknames and the reasoning behind them.

11 Military Aircraft Nickname Origins

  1. U-2: The U-2 spyplane is known as the “Dragonlady” because it is very difficult to fly and can be quite unforgiving if a pilot was unskilled or inept.
  2. F-14: Though its official name was Tomcat, the F-14 also had a nickname of “Turkey” used by those who worked around it on a carrier. The name is related to how the F-14 looks as it sat at the catapults going through control checks while the flaps, elevators, speed brakes, ailerons, and rudders all moving about resembling a turkey’s feathers ruffling. Additionally, as the F-14 returned to the carrier, the big F-14 Tomcat looked a large bird trying to land.
  3. T-38: The T-38 Talon is a supersonic trainer jet serving the U.S. military for over 50 years. It is also called the “White Rocket” because NASA also flew the T-38 and their paint scheme was largely white with a blue stripe down its side.
  4. F-4: The F-4 Phantom’s primary mission was to be an all-weather long-range intercept-fighter-bomber. Due to its rhinoceros-like toughness and unique design, it was also nicknamed “Rhino”
  5. A-6: The A-6 Intruder’s unique shape when viewed from the side, with its large, blunt nose leading back to a slender tail, led aircrew members to refer to it as the “Drumstick”, “Double Ugly”, and the “Iron Tadpole”.
  6. F-117: Officially named “Nighthawk” the unique shape of this twin-engine stealth attack aircraft was called “Stink Bug” by some staffers because of the way it looked from underneath. Many F-117 pilots would simply call it the “Black Jet” for obvious reasons.
  7. A-37: During the Vietnam War, the A-37 Dragonfly was not the flashy fighter jet like the F-4 Phantom. It flew low and slow, dropping their bombs with an accuracy of within 45 feet, becoming a favorite close-air-support asset for ground forces. Its unofficial names of “Tweet” or “6,000-pound Dog Whistle” was due to the very high pitched squeal produced by its 21,000 rpm turbine blades.
  8. E-2: The propellers of the E-2 Hawkeye makes a loud humming noise as it is taxiing around the carrier and prepares to launch. This resulted in the carrier flight deck crew to give the E-2 an affectionate alternative name of “Hummer”.
  9. C-141: The retired USAF C-141 Starlifter had many unofficial nicknames given to it by its crew. During Vietnam, it got the name “Hanoi Taxi” after transporting more than 500 POWs that had been held by North Vietnam. Also, due to how violently loud it was inside the aircraft in flight, the crew named it the “Tube of Pain”
  10. C-17: The C-17 Globemaster III was developed to replace the C-141 Starlifter. This giant workhorse has a bulky appearance and with its winglets that look like big antlers, crew members would refer to the C-17 also as “The Moose”. To further associate the name with the aircraft, the C-17 was said to make strange moose like noises during refueling.
  11. F-15: The F-15 Eagle is a big fighter with enormous wings giving it a very large surface space. It is because of the 608 square feet of surface space that it is referred to as the “flying tennis court”. The F-15E version is also referred to as the “Mudhen” because of its dark gray paint scheme and air-to-ground role.

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