How U.S. Navy Pilots Really Get Their Callsigns
A Super Hornet pilot gives us an inside look at how Naval Aviators get their often colorful but unflattering callsigns.
Let’s reminisce about fighter pilot callsigns and how they come about.
I’ll start with mine: 'The Professor,' eventually shortened to 'Prof.'
How I got it: First port call as a new guy in the squadron, we pull into Hong Kong. Everybody always chipped into buying the fanciest penthouse in a big name hotel - think 30 guys and gals crashing on the floor.
Someone was always tagged as the 'admin queen.' This individual was required to stay sober and be the adult in the room in case anything went awry and had to talk to the hotel staff.
I pulled Admin Queen duty the second night.
2am, all my compatriots are out on the town. Looking around, I noticed everybody was gone.
So, like anyone would, I change the music from rap to Beethoven and pull out my American History of Law book to pass the time.
An older squadronmate bursts in, tipsy, and sees me.
"What do we have here? It's the Professor at work!"
It was the leading contender at the callsign review board the next week that took place aboard ship.
Let's pause a bit and talk about the 'rules' for callsigns.
It's rumored that Air Force fighter jocks get to pick their own callsigns... which is where you get things like 'Ripper' and 'Ace' and 'Thor.'
Not in the Navy.
Callsigns are bequeathed for doing something stupid or memorable. The more you fight the more it sticks.
Usually a new guy in a squadron is given something like 'FNG' (Fucking New Guy) or 'New Jack' or 'Don't Speak.'
Eventually, someone does something noteworthy, and the King (or Queen) of the JOPA [Junior Officer Protection Agency] calls a kangaroo court known as a 'callsign review board.'
Everybody can propose a name. There are lots of nominations. Many are absurd and vile.
Eventually, a few finalists are named. They're voted on and by acclimation a callsign is bestowed.
The commanding officer then gets veto authority - and sometimes exercises it. In which case you go back to the white board.
I also had another callsign before my 'official' one.
Before going to the carrier for the first time before we qualify for our wings of gold, we'd all get a temporary callsign through a similar, abridged process.
Mine was 'Stink.' Let's just say I wouldn't always wash my flight suits after a flight in the middle of a Meridian Mississippi summer.
They were pungent.
That one stuck until I got to my first fleet squadron, which is when I got Professor.
Now the fun part... other call signs that were part of the 2008-2013 era of Naval Aviation.
'LOTHAR' - Loser Of The American Revolution
I'm pretty sure the guy is still in the Royal Navy and probably a squadron commander by now.
When he was a new pilot, he was the first Brit to get assigned to a front line, American F/A-18 squadron.
He took it well as only a Brit would.
This was my first fleet commanding officer. He was a grizzled old dude who originally started his aviation days as an F-14 backseater.
But before that, he was an enlisted sailor with the 'HT' rate... Hull Tech. He was one of the guys who would make sure the plumbing worked.
They were known as "shit chasers" aboard ship.
It stuck when he became an officer.
Short Little Ugly Guy.
He actually wasn't all that short. SLUGZ was one of my first mentors in the squadron who saw me through tough first days trying to figure out carrier landings.
But the name fit the personality.
He was department head when I joined my first squadron.
Rumor was that on one of his first flights in the F-14, on the landing rollout he hit a deer!
Plane was fine.
Callsign was obvious.
This was my brother's first call sign.
In flight school he had this old green station wagon while his brethren were rolling around in their fancy sports cars.
Member of our squadron was an absolute train wreck when drunk.
Literally, we painted a barcode on the side of the jet.
Verbally we called him 'R2' since he behaved like a robot. But we thought the barcode was too good to pass up.
Talks A Lot, Knows Absolutely Nothing.
This was a play on the navigational aids military aviators used to use when flying across the country.
The source of all dubious knowledge.
Dude would have an answer for everything... in detail. But he was the father of misinformation before it was cool.
This is one of my favorite callsign stories because I'm a total nerd.
After pulling into port in Singapore, we were out at the bar.
The commanding officer of the USS Sampson, a battle group destroyer, happened to wander in.
He starts hitting on a squadron mate of mine - a very outgoing woman who was also very junior to him.
Fortunately we were able to extricate her from the situation with nothing lost but pride on the part of Sampson's CO, but she was tagged with "Delilah" after almost bringing down the skipper of the Sampson.
Skipper And Nasty Did it Yesterday.
Remember Chaser? Well, whenever the commanding officer of the USS Nimitz, callsign 'Nasty,' wanted to go flying, Chaser would fly in his backseat. We were the only two seat squadron on the boat.
Nasty would do ridiculous flybys. I'm talking high speed (near supersonic), barely above the height of the flight deck, feel the shockwave of the jet on the flight deck flybys. He was the master of the ship.
My buddy SANDY was a brand new pilot and thought it would be cool if he tried the same thing.
Not a good idea.
His excuse was literally "But Skipper and Nasty did it yesterday!"
He was grounded for a few days... and got a callsign.
Buddy's last name was Cleveland.
Best part about this story is that as we were pulling into port to San Diego after a month at sea, the local news station wanted to do a story about us.
I was dual-hatting as the squadron public affairs officer at the time, so they tell me to do the interview.
The camera crew sets up in hangar with some jets behind me... and the one they ask me to stand in front of has 'LT XYZ "Steamer" Cleveland' written in big bold letters in clear view of the camera shot.
They rolled with it and broadcasted it out to SoCal.
Dude would go high and right over the smallest thing. He was the target of a lot of ribbing just to see how angry we could get him.
Had a number of guys with this one - especially around the time Super Troopers came out.
My brother had this one temporarily - in C-2 training, he landed and blew BOTH tires on the rollout.
Marine fighter pilot - and one of the most impressive aviation leaders I've ever met - had a proclivity for older ladies ("geriatric") in his formative days.
Pudgy, white guy. He owned it.
One of our missions in the Super Hornet was to be the on-demand, airborne tanker for the air wing.
You'd launch off the ship then rendezvous with the offgoing tanker to do a "package check" of the refueling tank and hose.
If there was good gas flow, it was a "sweet" tanker, and if there was a problem, it was a "sour" tanker.
On one of his first flights, this gentleman reported back on the open ship frequency "Sweet package, sweet package."
With our minds always in the gutter, 'Sweet P' was the obvious choice.
Guy got to the fleet around the time the movie Radio came out. Not exactly sure what he did... but it wasn't smart.
He became a test pilot and is now in the Astronaut program.
Callsign for the four-star admiral I worked for - last name was Gortney and he stood no more than 5' 6" tall.
At least when I worked for him he was a great sport about it
One of my air wing commander had this callsign for the longest time. I think people were scared to tell the story. He was an intense dude, but took a quiet liking to me.
The reason I knew he liked me was whenever he saw me, he would body-check me into the walls of the carrier as we passed.
Apparently he only did that to folks that were on his good side.
I think he's a three-star admiral now.
'Don't Ask' & 'Don't Tell'
We had a pair of new squadronmates come aboard - one was a pilot, the other a weapons systems officer. When the callsign crackdown happened in 2011, we thought we could slip one past the goalie by giving those two guys matching call signs that would be painted next to each other on the jet.
Those were quickly vetoed.
Lots of other good ones:
'Rabbit,' 'Heed,' 'Mouth,' 'Gimp,' 'Waldo,' 'Cholula,' 'Sasha'... and some others I'm too timid to share in public.
Never had a Maverick though...
This piece was adapted from a Twitter thread by Ben Kohlmann. Ben flew F/A-18s with VFA-41 and VMFAT-101, serving on active duty as a Naval officer from 2004-2015. He currently serves in the USNR and spends his professional time in Venture Capital as an early-stage defense tech investor.