What's your sign?

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. William Powell
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Quick. What was Tom Cruise’s call sign in “Top Gun?” How about Anthony Edwards, his backseat radar intercept officer in the F-14 Tomcat?

Most fans of the military film are quick to respond with Maverick and Goose. But where do call signs like these come from, and just how are pilots “named?”

Details are scarce concerning the origin of call signs and how the first pilots were named, but the tradition became popular in World War II, said Yvonne Kincaid, an Air Force historian.

“The first call signs were likely used by ground controllers to communicate with pilots, as pilot-to-pilot radio wasn’t efficient at that time,” she said. “It was faster and easier to call a pilot by his nickname, and it would have confused the enemy in case they were listening.”

The call sign has since evolved into a tradition celebrated by each branch of the military. Naming rituals vary by branch and by squadron, but three rules universally apply: Pilots who do not have good names when they arrive at their first operational squadron, will be given new ones; they probably will not like them; and, if they complain, they will get even worse names.

“There are a few different ways a pilot can earn his call sign,” said Maj. Pedro Gonzalez, 2nd Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations. “Some natural call signs play off a person’s last name, such as Speedy Gonzalez, Allen Wrench or Specht Tater.”

Other people may get named for how they look, such as Shamu if the pilot is carrying a few extra pounds, or named after a movie character he resembles, Major Gonzalez said.

“One pilot here is called Shrek because he looks exactly like the movie character, minus the green color,” he said. “No matter what he does, he’s not going to get a different call sign.”

A pilot will often carry his call sign with him from squadron to squadron and as he moves from base to base. The exception is when a pilot draws attention to himself by acting out of the ordinary, which is another way to receive a name.

“I got my call sign, Mad Dog, after a check ride during my training,” Major Gonzalez said. “I ‘shot down’ three bad guys, which was good, but I also fired at my evaluator, who was one of the good guys.”

Mad Dog is what they call an AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile that is fired at no predetermined target. It is indiscriminating and will shoot down the first thing it sees, friend or foe, he said.

“So my squadron said they would have to send me out to battle first, let me fire off all my missiles, and then send me home so I don’t shoot any friendlies. The name stuck and also sounded pretty tactical, so I got lucky on that one,” he said.

Depending upon the squadron, a call sign will have more than one explanation behind its origin: one tactical and one highly exaggerated. In some cases, a squadron will name a pilot and then make up a tactical reason for it later. But in all cases, only 10 percent of the story has to be true.

“I was at my naming party in Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, and we had to make radio calls based on what we saw on a pretend radar screen,” said Maj. Christopher Levy, 19th Air Force air-to-air training chief. “Whether or not we got the calls right depended on what we saw. I made some good radio calls, so the squadron decided to name me Yoda. It was either because I was the all-knowing, all-seeing fighter pilot, or because I was a short, funny looking man in green with big ears.”

Similar to Major Levy’s naming party, fighter squadrons here hold solo parties to give student pilots temporary call signs following their first solo flight in an F-15 Eagle.

“I was taught all the initial fundamentals of flying the Eagle by Major Craig ‘Buick’ Dye, who is well-known amongst the other instructors here for his unique teaching style and short stature,” said 1st Lt. Jon Snyder, 2nd FS B-Course student. “So, the instructors named me Pontiac because a Pontiac is larger and quieter than a Buick, but drives worse.”

Even innocent-sounding call signs may have an embarrassing or funny story behind them, as is the case with many pilots. Torch is a relatively pleasant name, for example, but Maj. Matthew Esper, 1st FS assistant director of operations, said his story involves him “going down in flames.”

“I was selected to run the Olympic torch (before) the Atlanta Olympics,” Major Esper said. “I had to run about a mile and then hand the torch to another runner, a Special Olympian. As I approached the handoff point, I concentrated so hard on the handoff that I forgot to look at the pavement, which was slightly uneven. I tripped and fell and broke my fall with my face instead of dropping the torch. The Special Olympian thought it was the funniest thing he had ever seen and gave me no credit for not dropping the torch.”

No matter what embarrassing or funny things a pilot does, the call sign he or she receives is normally not too offensive or humiliating. Pilots still have an image to uphold as American defenders.

But as they defend America and her allies, they know one wrong move or embarrassing situation could be summed up in one word and forever immortalized as their call sign. (Courtesy of Air Education and Training Command News Service)