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An aviator call sign or callsign is a nickname given to a military pilot, flight officer, and even some enlisted aviators. This call sign is a substitute for the aviator's given name, and 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. They are most commonly used in tactical jet aircraft communities (i.e., fighter and attack) than in other aircraft communities (i.e., airlift, mobility, maritime patrol), but their use is not totally exclusive to the former. Many NASA Astronauts with military aviator backgrounds are referred to during spaceflights by their call signs rather than their first names.

The origins of aviator call signs are varied. Most call signs play on or reference on the aviator's surname. Other inspirations for call signs may include personality traits, references to historical figures, or past exploits during the pilot's career. Aviator call signs nearly always must come from a member or members of the aviator's squadron, training class, or other coworker. It is considered bad form to try to give oneself a callsign. It is common for aviators to be given a fairly derogatory callsign, and the more they complain about it, the more likely it is to stick. Some stick with the aviator forever, while in other cases an aviator might have a series of call signs throughout his or her career. For example, the late Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen, USN, was originally given the callsign 'Hulk,' because of her habitual weight training; later, after a television appearance in which she wore detectable makeup, she received the callsign "Revlon" (her biography is entitled Call Sign Revlon).

In fiction

Examples from Top Gun include:

  • LT Rick 'Curly' Moe (a Three Stooges reference)
  • Major Ray 'Secks' Seckinger
  • LCDR (later CAPT) Thomas 'Sobs' Sobieck
  • LCDR (later ADM) Robert 'Rat' Willard (a reference to the 1971 film Willard)
  • LCDR (later CAPT) C.J. 'Heater' Heatley (A reference to the slang term for an AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile)
  • LT Ricky 'Organ' Hammonds (a reference to a brand of musical organ)
  • Tom Cruise's character LT Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell flies a F-14A Tomcat, with Anthony Edwards's character Nick 'Goose'Bradshaw as his Radar Intercept Officer. The film also stars Val Kilmer as Lieutnent Tom "Iceman" Kasansky, who is Maverick's rival.
  • Commander Theodore 'Spuds' Ellyson, the first United States naval aviator, whose nickname was later used for aviators who had or came close to a ramp strike near a ship's spud locker.
  • Commander Wright "Wilbur" McLeod, a historical play on the aviator's given name.
  • Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, a private aviator who illustrates how call signs can commemorate past exploits. In 1938 Corrigan filed a flight plan for a non-stop flight from New York to San Diego, but instead flew across the Atlantic to Dublin, Ireland, without authorization. In defending himself against the resulting charges, Corrigan claimed to have accidentally flown the wrong way.
  • Dwight Schultz's Captain H.M. "Howling Mad" Murdock, from the 80s TV series The A-Team (as well as his counterpart in the 2010 film adaptation, as portrayed by Sharlto Copley) is a gifted, albeit insane, can-fly-anything pilot. Aptly named, Captain Murdock displays symptoms of mental instability, as demonstrated by his weekly obsessions (ranging from inanimate objects to role playing). Whether or not he is in fact insane is often debated, due to demonstrations in his fine tuned skills of acting and mimicry.

In Tom Clancy's novel Without Remorse, fictional Vice Admiral Winslow Holland Maxwell, during World War II, received the callsign 'Winnie,' which he hated; after a mission in which he shot down three Japanese planes (all confirmed by gunsight cameras), he found a new coffee mug in the wardroom, engraved with the callsign 'Dutch.' When he later became an admiral, he displayed the mug—no longer used for coffee or pencils—in a place of honor on his desk.

In the film version of the Stephen Coonts novel Flight of the Intruder, new A-6 Intruder pilot LTJG Jack Barlow is given the call sign "Razor" because he didn't look old enough to shave. It is later changed to "Straight Razor" at the end of the film because he'd become "a real weapon" in the eyes of his CO. The book's principal character Jake Grafton has the call sign "Cool Hand," presumably derived from Cool Hand Luke due to his calm under fire.

In the animated television series SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron, the main characters Chance Furlong and Jake Clawson have the call signs "T-Bone," and "Razor," respectively. Although their call signs are technically their SwatKAT aliases, they frequently refer to each other by their call sign even when not flying.

In the show Battlestar Galactica, Kara Thrace's call sign is Starbuck, Lee Adama's call sign is Apollo, Karl Agathon's call sign is Helo, Sharon Valerii's call sign is Boomer, Sharon Agathon's call sign is Athena and William Adama's call sign is Husker.

Author and former F-14 Tomcat radar intercept officer, Ward "Mooch" Carroll wrote a trilogy about an F-14 pilot with the call sign of "Punk" due to his mistake of correcting his CO about how the Beatles were not punk rock musicians. His own RIO has the call sign "Spud" due to a scatological incident at a sex show involving a potato.


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