The REAL Truth About Aviator Callsigns (2023)


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Ward reviews the hierarchy of aviator callsigns and how they're "awarded" to new pilots and RIOs on arrival to the fighter squadron. He also goes over a number of real world examples, including details on how he got "Mooch" as his callsign.


All right, let's talk, call signs so first off it's not just a cute nickname call signs in the fighter.

Community have a tactical utility.

So let's go to the training aids.

So let's say here we are in a section combat, spread, headed downrange into an intercept, and I see my wingman getting shot at by a sam.

So I'm going to say, screamer break right notice.

I didn't say ted williamson break right, because by that time, he'd probably already be shot, which introduces an important rule in call signs.

They can't be any more than two syllables long.

So if you spend enough time in the fighter community, your call sign becomes more than just a nickname.

It becomes your identity like share, or bono for basically 15 years of my life, mooch was all I was known as it reminds me of that scene in star wars, where luke stumbles upon ben kenobi, obi-wan, kenobi obi-wan.

Now that's a name.

I've not heard in a long time a long time.

So that's how it feels to me when somebody calls me mooch these days, because it's been a number of years, since that was my identity, but, as I said for 15 years, that was entirely my identity.

So somebody calls me mooch now I kind of feel like obi-wan kenobi.

Before we go into how aviators get call signs.

Let me talk about the hierarchy of call signs.

Let me read you an excerpt out of punk's war, the beginning of chapter 2, because I can't say it any better than I already wrote it some years ago, within the world of call signs, there existed in the unspoken hierarchy at the bottom were aviators without one.

Some were never given call signs simply because their existence was too neutral to earn them bill.

Thompson was in this group.

Several names had been thrown on him during his also ran days in vf 104, but neither bt nor butter nor t dog, nor b man stuck for the length of time it took to get a name tag made.

He remained just plain bill over the long haul, which was as strong a statement to insiders, as the most colorful call sign quote.


Bill spoke of an aviator who'd found the squadron's collective blind spot and stayed there without the flare and popularity of the charismatic, the faculties of the well-timed, good nature, buffoons or the talent of the naturally blessed and of a man.

Who'd also avoided the dubious and spiteful appellations reserved for the infamous, among them, the snakes and the darths a bill.

Whether or not actually average was guilty of exuding, the dull ineffectual residents of average, and that in some sense, was a greater crime than being a flaming.

The punishment awarded was the scarlet letter of a real name.

Just above the bills were aviators, whose call signs were formed by mindlessly placing a y at the end of their last names like jonesy and smitty.

At the same level, where the? What else are you going to call them guys like soup, campbell mac, mcmanus, pink, floyd and taco bell? All hosannas were reserved for those who practiced the art of commission those iconoclasts who brightly forged a path through the jungle of the mundane and across the tundra of textbook etiquette who reached out for what they knew in their hearts to be rightfully theirs.

The call sign earned by a quirk, a habit pattern or a single stupid, perhaps compromising and most likely embarrassing act.

A call sign that begged the tail.

A call sign that demanded the answer to why so, based on that hierarchy.

Let's talk about how somebody would get a call sign I'll use, a real world example to show you how this can go.

We had a junior pilot show up to vf 102 when I was department head and his last name was wallace so right away.

He got one of those automatic call signs.

Last name wallace, some nascar fans in the squadron they named him after the driver, rusty wallace.

So his call sign is rusty, so he went along with that as his call sign for a number of months.

The squadron was on detachment to yuma marine corps air station, where we used to do a lot of strike.

Warfare, training and he came back from a flight, blew a tire and wound up leaving the runway.

I was in the maintenance space at the time that the airplane left the runway.

We jump into one of the duty trucks drove out to where the tomcat had come to rest.

It is covered with sand.

So one of the master chiefs looked at the pilot and he said your name isn't rusty anymore, it's dusty! So there you go! That's how rusty wallace became dusty wallace, which stuck for the rest of his time in the navy.

Other examples are not so anybody with the last name of bright, smart or wise is most likely going to get the call sign.

Not so I knew a pilot who had the call sign seagull because rumor had it.

The only way you could get him to fly was to throw rocks at him like a seagull.

If you come across an aviator whose call signs killer it's not because he's a mig killer most likely it's because he probably had what's called a blue on blue in training, meaning he shot a friendly in a training scenario.

Generally, you will award somebody who does that the call sign of killer there's, also an infamous naval aviator, whose call sign is smoke because he actually shot down a u.s air force phantom during a training exercise.

If somebody has the call sign boomer, it's most likely that they inadvertently went supersonic and probably broke some windows.

Although I worked for an air wing commander whose costume was boomer and he got it because he actually played football for the lions as a punter and he was able to kick the ball very high and far so he got the call sign boomer new guy who run the call sign casper because he passed out in front of the ready room when he was giving a training.

Brief went white as a ghost and just passed out.

I think he had low blood sugar that day, but his call sign became casper.

If you find somebody whose call sign is gucci, it's generally because they're a neat freak or they dress very nicely in civilian clothes, I knew a guy whose call sign was elvis because he was hard to find so you had elvis sightings.

I saw him here.

I saw him there that kind of thing.

If you meet somebody whose call sign is stain or dumps, they probably had, let's call it gastrological distress in the airplane, as those who've read, punk's war know that actually happens in in that book.

Anybody named spanky probably got caught in a compromising position in their stateroom.

There are some call signs that are acronyms.

I knew a marine major when I was a department head on uss america, whose call sign was moto, which is short for master of the obvious another rule about call signs is never say you don't, like the one you've been given my first tour, our sister squadron had a guy whose call sign became worm, so he was sitting there without a call sign.

He was a brand new pilot and some of the other aviators were at the front of the ready room.

Coming up with options on the dry erase board you know plays on his name the fact he was very thin tor, which was short for skeletor and they also put worm, and he said I didn't work so hard to fly tomcats to get the call sign worm, guess what his call sign instantly became worm, and many of you in the comments have asked.

Where did mooch come from when I joined vf 32, we went right on deployment.

I was the let's just call it number one draft pick top scope out of my rag class.

As I've said you, you might get an interim call sign just as a placeholder, because you've got to have one: can fighters talk to each other on the radio.

This is different than patrol planes or helicopters.

Those guys might have call signs, but they do not have a tactical utility, as fighter community call signs do.

When I joined my first squadron, my placeholder call sign was stork because I'm tall and skinny and the xo, who was my pilot for most of my time in that squadron, gave me that call sign based on the character in animal house and stork.

Here everybody thought the stork was brain damaged.

So I finished my last flight in the rag and literally walked aboard the uss independence the next day to go on my first deployment.

So, let's just say I was ill prepared for this deployment and as a function of that, I wound up having to borrow a lot of things like stamps and envelopes.

These are the pre-internet days before you had email and other ways to communicate with your significant other also.

I was generally out of money when we were in port and our first port call was to palma de mayorka in the mediterranean, and we were at some british expat bar.

It's like hey stork you're around I was like.

I don't have any of the local currency, so fuji lansdale pointed at me and said: you're a mooch and that's all it took stork was gone.

Mooch became my call sign, which again was my identity for the next 18 years.

All right that'll! Do it for this episode, if you're a first time viewer, please ring the bell and become a subscriber like this, and every episode very important to the algorithm gets us shared far and wide comment, love the comments and I try to engage as much as possible with commenters.

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What's going on with that in the meantime, I look forward to talking to you again soon.



Are pilot call signs real? ›

Callsigns are widely employed among most militaries around the world, and they are usually a group of letters, numbers or can be unique names, used to identify an individual person, vehicle, aircraft, or groupings of personnel.

Do naval aviators actually have call signs? ›

Navy pilots get their call signs through a process of selection and approval from within their squadron, which is then approved by their commanding officer. Once assigned, these call signs serve both as identifiers for those within the squadron and can become part of an aviator's legend.

How do aviators choose their call signs? ›

A few call sign ideas are usually thrown around within a squadron before a pilot's peers vote on their favorite. That name is then approved by the squadron's commanding officer. "The skipper's there to veto it just in case it's crossing any lines or getting too aggressive," said Navy Cmdr.

Are call signs a real thing? ›

The call sign is a specialized form of nickname that is used as a substitute for the aviator's given name. It is used on flight suit and flight jacket name tags, painted/displayed beneath the officer's or enlisted aircrewman's name on aircraft fuselages or canopy rails, and in radio conversations.

Do TOPGUN pilots really have call signs? ›

Call signs are a very real part of the TOPGUN program, but not all fighter pilots go by snazzy call signs. The phrase TOPGUN rolls off of the tongue much easier than the United States Naval Fighter Weapons School.

Do Navy Seals have call signs? ›

There are more permanent call signs for military units/commands (SEAL Teams, Airwings, ships…) that are not classified, but even those will change periodically, just not with every mission like the classified ones.

Do fighter pilots have call signs on their helmets? ›

Yellow, despite gaining a foot hold in the squadron over the past decades, did not make its way onto the fighter pilot helmet of the 336th F-15 drivers until not long ago. Today, pilots in the 336th wear yellow helmets ordinarily with their call signs stenciled on them (usually a sticker).

Why do pilots like aviators? ›

“Aviators” were designed to give military pilots the best possible coverage for their eyes in the sky. The teardrop shape and the rectangle shape feature larger lenses that provide full coverage for the eye sockets of pilots.

Do people get to pick their call signs? ›

Today, getting a call sign is a rite of passage. Pilots and naval aviators do not get to pick their own call signs.

How do I get an aviation callsign? ›

To apply, operators must submit via email the following criteria to either their regional contact or
  1. Name and address of operator.
  2. Name and address of the aircraft operator or organization.
  3. Type of aircraft operation or service provided.

Can you give yourself a callsign? ›

It's considered bad form to make your own call sign. While the origins of an aviation call sign can be varied, many play reference to the aviator's surname, personality traits or past feats during the pilot's career.

How are military call signs assigned? ›

Military pilots were generally given these nicknames early on in their careers, and they were referred to as just that — nicknames! Most commonly, a call sign was selected based on one's personality or physical traits. Every once in a while, you'll notice a call sign that has a pop culture reference.

Can you make up a callsign? ›

You can't just make up a call sign. Do you have any references?

How do they get their call signs in TOPGUN? ›

Much like in the fleet, the actors in Maverick were assigned call signs rather than choosing their own. Each actor was given the opportunity to pitch a new name for their characters, but none of them ended up taking it. “All of our call signs were scripted,” said actor Jay Ellis, a.k.a. Payback.

What alphabet are pilot call signs? ›

The ICAO phonetic alphabet has assigned the 26 code words to the 26 letters of the English alphabet in alphabetical order: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Do pilots on call get paid? ›

As of Jun 26, 2023, the average annual pay for an On Call Pilot in the United States is $99,206 a year. Just in case you need a simple salary calculator, that works out to be approximately $47.70 an hour.

Do private planes have call signs? ›

These registration call signs or tail numbers are what most private and commercial aircraft use when being piloted.

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