An aviator call sign or callsign is a nickname given to a American or Canadian military pilot or other flight officer. This call sign is a substitute for the officer's given name, and is used on name tags, planes, and radio conversations.
The etymology for an aviator's call sign is varied. Most call signs play on or reference on the aviator's surname. Examples (taken from Top Gun credits) include:
- Lt. Rick 'Curly' Moe (a Three Stooges reference)
- Maj. Ray 'Secks' Seckinger
- LCdr. Thomas 'Sobs' Sobieck
- LCdr. Robert 'Rat' Willard (a reference to the 1971 film Willard)
- LCdr. 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)
Other inspirations for call signs may include personality traits, references to historical figures, or past exploits during the pilot's career:
- Tom Cruise's Top Gun character Lt. Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell (or an ironic inversion of a trait, as in Mark Hamill's by-the-book Wing Commander character, Col. Christopher 'Maverick' Blair).
- Cdr. 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.
- Cdr. 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 he filed a flight plan for a non-stop flight from New York to San Diego, and he ended up (purposely, of course) across the Atlantic in Dublin, Ireland. When the government came down on him, he said "I must have flown the wrong way". Interestingly, he was one of the mechanics who built the Spirit of St. Louis.
Aviator call signs nearly always must come from a member 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 newer aviators to be initially assigned a fairly derogatory callsign, with the expectation that the new member will work hard enough to earn the respect of their community, and with it a better (and usually permanent) callsign. Some stick with the aviator forever, while in other cases an aviator might have a series of call signs throughout his or her career.
The late Lt Kara Hultgreen 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 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.
Author and former F-14 Tomcat radar intercept officer Ward 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.
- What's your sign? from Air Force Link