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Call Signs

Posted by Jolly on June 24, 2013

Fighter pilots have had nicknames or tactical call signs, really, since the beginning of the breed. However, since the 1986 movie Top Gun, with Maverick, Iceman and Goose, the general public has become much more aware of those nicknames. A news story that pertains to fighter pilots will omit the flyers real name but refer to him as Lt. Flounder. When you’re on the street and someone realizes you’re a fighter pilot, one of the first things they’ll ask, “What’s your nickname?”
Fighter pilots get these nicknames by one of six methods.
  • Length of name—A Vanlandingham becomes V+12, Kastelnick gets K9, or Vanderlinden is V11. Lots of Dutch ancestry in this group.
  • Familiar name—If you’re a Gibson there’s a good chance you’ll be Hoot. Last name Marks, nickname Karl. Smith becomes Smitty, Jones becomes Jonesy, Fox becomes Fox I or II or III.
  • Play on name—McRoberts becomes McBob. Lick is given to a fighter pilot with the last name of McCracken. Iron is given to a guy named Orr.
  • Unique Look—A big guy becomes Lurch. A short guy is nicknamed Hobbit. A fighter pilot with pointy ears becomes Elf or Spock. Chubby guys (there’s not many of those) are often named Buddha.
  • Unique ability—If you can do back flips in The Bar you might get Hop. A guy with a photographic memory becomes Rainman. If you’re a guy that takes string and snorts it in one nostril, pulls it out the other and ties a helium balloon to each end you might be Stringer.
  • Unique event—Do something funny or weird, anything with a good story behind it. Should your brakes fail on landing and you slide off the runway, you become Skid. Nasty is self-explanatory. Have two hot French Canadian chicks say to you in a Jacuzzi, “You are so hairy, like zee Hamstare.” Hamster is your nickname for life. 
How individual fighter pilots receive their nickname depends on the country and the service but in the US Air Force it’s pretty standard across the board. Some guys will show up with a nickname obtained in pilot training or fighter lead-in but those names are quickly thrown aside. Each squadron wants to place it’s own brand on their new fighter pilots. Once a fighter pilot receives mission ready status in his first fighter squadron, it’s time to be blessed with a tactical call sign. After obtaining good-to-go-to-war status, usually at the first large gathering of the squadron’s pilots, typically on a Friday in The Bar, a quasi-formal naming ceremony will take place.

USAF A-10 Warthog
Photo by Jim Hazeltine

It’s quite simple. The newly mission ready fighter pilot leaves The Bar while the remaining squadron pilots nominate nicknames with a supporting story or justification. Once nominations are complete a vote is taken and the favored nickname becomes law.
Occasionally, a fighter pilot does not like his nickname and would like a new one. He has the option to buy back his original nickname by purchasing a keg or some other item for the squadron bar. The squadron will re-nominate and re-vote. This can backfire though. I have seen an individual put up his money to buy back his name only to have others double the cash to keep the original nickname in place.
A very undesirable and dangerous precedent is for a squadron to allow guys dissatisfied with their nickname to rename themselves. I’ve seen it a couple times. A guy bitches and moans so long about his nickname that he beats down the whole squadron until, just to get him to shut up, they allow him to make a unilateral change. A particularly hyper guy, given the name Odie, like the frenzied dog in the Garfield cartoon, is unhappy. Bitch, moan, bitch, moan, the next thing you know he’s Turbine. Bung, named only because every squadron should have a Bung, suddenly becomes Deuce. That kind of behavior is chaotic and undermines the historical fabric of the squadron.
Usually, once a nickname is given, it sticks for a career and often for life. Just because he later does something dumb or outrageous doesn’t mean a guy gets a new name. Normally, if a fighter pilot moves from one squadron to another, his tactical call sign will move with him. However, if there is no real attachment to a nickname it may be allowed to quietly fade into the past and something new at the current assignment will be acceptable.

USAF F-15C Eagle
Photo by Jim Hazeltine

One fortunate aspect of the US Air Force Reserve is that fighter pilot’s tactical nicknames are also used as a flight call sign. So when a guy nicknamed Fresco goes out and leads a 4-ship formation, his air traffic control call sign is Fresco too. Most nicknames translate quite well to the ATC system but on occasion there have been minor problems. Jap, nicknamed because of his oriental appearance, having been born to an Irishman and his Japanese wife, was not allowed by ATC to use the Jap call sign. They said it was derogatory. So, Jap flew as Shogun. I’m guessing CrackHo can’t use his nickname as an in-flight call sign either.
Nicknames and tactical call signs are all about one thing, camaraderie. It creates familiarity between fighter pilots. It’s a reference point when fighter pilots gather. “Do you know Jolly, Rowdy and Borg?” “Yeah, kickass dudes but that Jolly is kind of a dick!” In the air it allows for quick identification. “Lester, come left!” They have a practical as well as an amusing application. They make a squadron closer, which makes them better. That, of course, kicks ass!!



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Speaking of Callsigns, my kid was surfing my cell phone address book the other day and I noticed him laughing his ass off and tears running down his face.  I said, "What's so funny dude?"  He responded, "Dad, who the heck are all these people?"  Then he began to read the list:

Albie, AWOL, Bam Bam, Banger, Bent, Blaster, Bluto, Blotto, Borg, Bo
Bubba, Buda, Cage, Chief, Chum, Coach, Conan, Cooney, Corn
Cow (his all time favorite), Cracker, Diablo, Dude, Elvis, Fester
Flares, Gabby, Gonzo, Goober, Grinder, Gus, Hef, Homer, Hung, Huey, Jet, Krackers, Lenny, Lester, Mange, Mota, Odie, Olly, Pappy, Pee Wee
Pheemur, Pig, Popeye, Preacher, Pup, Quizmo, Racko, Rider
Roof Guy (Not a fighter pilot, but might be a good name for one)
Rowdy, Sandy, Shoeless, Slugo, Sniz, Snowman, Stiffler, 
Strales, Tex, Ugh, Vegas, Wiz, Woody, Zues

*We stole this picture and the joke from the cover of the January 1973 National Lampoon.


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Posted by Clod on
"Bomber" was a member of our hog outfit. At a Red Flag a bunch of ventured off base to Sam's Town, watched a couple of lounge shows, and
did more than just a couple of Manhattans. Facing crew rest issues we decided it was time hit the road but one more shot at the quarter slot
ended up in a $50 jackpot. There was a hot dog stand right next to the slot machine so we thought it only prudent to have dinner and another
round of very dry Manhattans up. Bomber must have got a bad hot dog. On the way back to Nellis he redecorated the side of the car and tossed
again in the Q. Threw him in bed and at the appointed hour the next morning, got his draggin' butt out of the rack. He was complaining loudly
about the pressure he was feeling in his face, like his nose and throat were really stuffy. No shit - when he blew his nose a large chunk of wiener
came out. His callsign was then Oscar Meyer....
Posted by DonBowen on
Laughed hard when I saw this one. I sang to Clod at his going away party, along with Boot, Treeman, Lonnie Ray and snick. I also took Bombers call sign when he left the demons!
Then known as BDU later by 'bone'
Posted by Jolly on
from unnamed source:

One of the absolute best nicknames was former Blue Angel , Larry “ Fudge “ Packer.
I believe it was even on his aircraft . Naturally and regrettably , it wouldn’t be on the side of his aircraft nowadays.
Posted by Jolly on
From JJ:

Best 'call sign' that I was assited in developing was for Lt Knauf, 79 TFS, RAF Upper Heyford, circa 1982.
Call sign: 'JACK' KNAUF. Cheers!
Posted by flyingpig on
Because of a certain drunken indescreation at mcas yuma my nickname was animal.
Posted by Doc on
Jack Cass aka "Jackass"
Posted by dannypalmer1 on
Many good call signs. Jacobson was always Sshaky." "Roth" for red on the head. First flight in the squadron and taxis into another airplane was "Captain Crunch." "Drifty," "Dizzy," or "Cloud" self explanatory. Last name Doody, nick name "Howdy." Could not choose your own call sign. One guy in the squadron wanted to be called "Speed" because as he put it he was quick with the women. His nickname ended up "Baxter." When he learned of it he asked why? He was told it was from the Mary Tyler Moore show, Ted Baxter, "how do you like me so far Mare?" He stomped out of the room. Mine was "Pud." I let it be known I didn't like it, didn't want it. To this day I am "Pud" to my old squadron mates. Where but flying squadrons can anyone have such wonderful and close memories?
Posted by tulip on
Funny how call signs sometimes are attempted to be changed when the individual progresses through the ranks to stardom. We had guy called 'Fart' for obvious reasons. One sad day, when being promoted to colonel and base commander, his call sign changed to 'Blower'. This of course was widely ignored as he was further promoted and eventually made it to Chief of Staff of the Dutch Air Force.
Posted by Lousailor on
Same goes for Attack Guys, although many were from infamous events, both in the A/C and out on the town. Some didn't sound bad, but came from past mistakes. There was "Torch" (sounds cool right?), for when he scared himself landing fast at Cherry Point and got on the binders so hard they caught fire. There was "Flopper", a nugget B/N who literally passed out and hit the deck while giving his first ever brief in front of the entire squadron (and at the feet of the CO) at an AOM. Of course I got labeled for telling the occasional off-color joke - "Dirty Sanchez."
Posted by StuM on
I admire our more 'senior'leaders who have the balls to keep their callsigns as they advance through Flag/General ranks, to wit:
"Maggot" "BaBa", "Freak", "Zorro", "the Fanman", "Bwana", Tamer","Storm'n","Horndog", et al

the Baghwan
(whose name was assigned by the members of NinthAF Stan/Eval team,circa 1986)
Posted by crackho on
Hey Jolly,
I actually did fly with Cracko (no "H") at the Tucson Guard. Seems like a good idea until you get yelled at by center on guard for blowing out the top of the airspace. All your DM Hog bros give you lots of shit when you do that. We've got a Batfoukio at the Spads. Blind At The Fight's On Until Knock It Off. Took a lot of Weed to come up with that.

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