On episode 2 of the Fighter Pilot Podcast, my guest Ferg and I discussed the “5 Ws” of callsigns. That is, we stated that military aviators (who) usually receive nicknames (what) during their initial tours (when) in the fleet (where) because it’s fun (why), and that they are usually chosen based on the recipient’s name, physical features, or a recent goof up (how).
…okay, this might be a slight oversimplification, but it’s close. To be fair, there are certainly more who’s, as even non-aviator officers assigned to aviation units (e.g. maintenance and intelligence officers) are assigned callsigns. And certainly there is no time limit on the when—a sufficiently buffoonerous act warrants a new callsign for even the saltiest aviator.
But it’s the why that warrants further investigation, and it’s not just that callsigns are fun. Or funny.
While Ferg and I were correct that less-than-glamorous callsigns test the resilience and humility of the young aviators upon whom they are bestowed, we may have glossed over some of the additional benefits of callsigns in general.
For starters, using someone’s personal callsign in flight is a quick way to get their attention or direct a time-critical response. On any given mission the aircrew may have numerous ways to identify themselves: the aircraft side number around the aircraft carrier (e.g. 406), a squadron callsign for administrative portions of the flight (Winder 51), and an ATO-directed callsign for the tactical portion of the mission (Showtime 22) to name just a few.
These callsigns vary, changing on virtually every flight, so familiarity and instant recognition of your flight’s particular identification often suffers in the moment, especially during high tempo operations when each of them changes on every flight. But you generally never forget who you’re flying with, so a quick “Stoner, break right!” will nearly always illicit the proper response when time is of the essence and you just can’t remember what else to call him.
Second, callsigns serve to depersonalize situations. True, aviators tend to address one another by their callsigns no matter the setting—whether at work, on liberty, even on Sunday mornings—but a callsign still implies one portion of a person’s life, not the person’s existence as a whole. For example, in debriefs when I heard, “Jell-O, you really screwed that up…” (and believe me, I heard that plenty), I knew they were talking about me as a fighter pilot, not as a human being. It’s a subtle but important distinction.
Finally, callsign usage removes rank and levels the playing field among flight members. In a carrier air wing, it is not uncommon for the most junior aviator (e.g. a nugget) to fly with the most senior officer (the air wing commander, or CAG), and the four paygrades between them can be daunting to the nugget. While good decorum and deference is of course expected in other interactions and during the flight brief, the rank difference can be an impediment to effective operations if carried into the aircraft. Once airborne, the nugget needs to be willing to call, “Monkeybutt, say your state,” when his wingman’s fuel level must be known without worrying about the fact that he’s addressing the 20-year veteran with thousands of flight hours who leads the whole wing. Even admirals—the fortunate few who still get to fly—temporarily ditch their stars and go by callsigns in the air.
No question, callsigns are often humorous and occasionally demeaning, but their use is not simply another form of hazing. Military aviation is an unforgiving business; to do it well, a premium is placed more on competence and ability than rank. Callsigns play a role in that pursuit.
And that just may be the greatest upside of callsigns there is.
For the record, TOPGUN does not recommend the use of personal callsigns during tactical employment and there really was a CAG who went by Monkeybutt (but the PC Police later shortened it to simply Monkey).