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Story Behind Call Signs
by U.S. Navy Ensign Meaghan M. Anderson
August 23, 2022

Call signs have become a cornerstone of the aviation community, oftentimes invoking pride amongst aviators. But the story behind call signs and their history is unknown to many.

Call signs have become a rite of passage for aviators. It’s a point of pride to earn the moniker, whatever it may be, and call signs are even known to bond crews together.

Capt. Tony Moreno, commanding officer of Naval Aviation Schools Command (NASC) explained, “It’s your identifier and a unique aspect of Naval Aviation. People forget names, especially first names. If you went into the Mustin Beach Officer’s Club looking for Capt. Tony Moreno, no one would know who I am. Ask for CHEECH [my call sign] and everyone would immediately know who you’re looking for.”

August 10, 2022 - U.S. Navy Capt. Tony Moreno, commanding officer talk with a group of flight students at the Naval Aviation Schools Command. (U.S. Navy photo by Jason Bortz , NAS Pensacola)
August 10, 2022 - U.S. Navy Capt. Tony Moreno, commanding officer talk with a group of flight students at the Naval Aviation Schools Command. (U.S. Navy photo by Jason Bortz , NAS Pensacola)

There is a purpose in using call signs. In an article written by Kate Lang from the Department of Defense News, she explains, “These pilot nicknames can quickly identify an aircraft or individual, and they also help to confuse the enemy, who might be listening in on your communications.”

Hill Goodspeed, historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum elaborates, “They are valuable as another level of authentication/identification in making a clear distinction between aircraft in the air, particularly during times of intense, fast-paced operations.”

So where did call signs originate? Historically many aviators had nicknames. Oftentimes these nicknames came from a person’s time at the Naval Academy and mostly focused on pop culture or appearance. However, they didn’t follow aviators into the air right away.

Goodspeed explained, “While these nicknames appeared in conversation and correspondence, there is no evidence that they were part of radio procedures in the pre-World War II era, during which much of the communication between open-cockpit aircraft still consisted of hand signals.”

Call signs started to come into existence during World War II, but at that time, they were used to identify planes and ships. Typically, a ship was given a call sign, and all of the planes attached to said ship were given one collective call sign that was preceded by a serial number for each plane. Goodspeed provided the example of the USS Enterprise. The Enterprise was dubbed “Carbon” and its planes were called “Sniper.” When coming in for a landing or when the ship was discussing a plane, the plane’s call sign would be used.

Although these call signs weren’t for the aviators themselves, when pilots would communicate with the ship, they would sometimes identify themselves by first name or a nickname after using the call sign for their plane. Call signs for aviators only started to become commonplace during the 1970s.

Lang noted that, “Like aircraft, call signs for pilots became more widespread [during] Vietnam; however, official naming ceremonies for them weren't institutionalized until the 1980s.”

Today, call signs are part of the squadron.

Moreno explained, “[Call signs] are enduring. People put them on their nametags and helmet bags. Your call sign will go on your mug at the Officer’s Club too. People even put them on their cars.”

Most pilots are given their call sign as a junior officer, and normally, it’s up to the squadron to make the pick.

Cmdr. Brandy McNabb, the executive officer at NASC explained the process, “When a new officer would arrive at the squadron without a call sign, we would write their name on a white board and start making a list of about 10 or so options. The final selection would be a special Ready Room event. We would make popcorn, review all of the options and put it to a vote to select the best call sign.”

Ultimately though, the commanding officer has final say, just to ensure the moniker is appropriate. Call signs are meant to be good natured and fun, but occasionally a commanding officer will send the squadron back to the drawing board where second and third choices are given another look.

Moreno explained, “There’s no room for bad or inappropriate call signs. They are fun loving and should be assigned in good spirits.”

While call signs are now a recognized part of the community, the ideas behind where they come from have largely remained the same. Oftentimes a call sign is awarded based on a person’s traits, be they physical or character, or stem from a play on their names. Another source for call signs are the mishaps and mistakes junior aviators run into.

“My call sign is Harry, as in Harry Potter. Back when I had short brown hair and wore my glasses all the time, our squadron had been sent a magazine in a care package and the Harry Potter movie was being featured on the cover. Everyone in my squadron kept saying I looked exactly like Harry Potter. It became a running joke and Harry stuck. People get worried calling me Harry, but I’m honestly not offended. It’s all part of the fun.” McNabb said.

No matter where an aviator’s call sign comes from, the name evokes pride and a sense of belonging throughout an aviator’s career.

“Call signs are such a good camaraderie builder personal to each aviator. It’s what makes our community different from any other in the Navy.” Moreno said.

For those officers in flight school, earning a call sign represents a culmination of all the hard work and training they’ll have to complete to become an aviator.

“Flight students get really excited about the traditions of Naval Aviation. They ask us all kinds of questions about the steins that have our call signs on them in the Officer’s Club. They are excited to become part of the community and to earn their own call signs.” McNabb explained.

A great place to see call signs highlighted is the National Aviation Museum. Not only are there call signs on some of the planes on display, but the Cubi Bar Cafe has a near endless supply for patrons of the museum to examine. The Cubi Bar and Cafe originated as an Officer’s Club at NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines.

August 10, 2022 - Call signs presented on plaques and statues from the original Cubi Bar and Café now reside in a replica at the National Aviation Museum on Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. (U.S. Navy photo by Jason Bortz , NAS Pensacola)
August 10, 2022 - Call signs presented on plaques and statues from the original Cubi Bar and Café now reside in a replica at the National Aviation Museum on Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. (U.S. Navy photo by Jason Bortz , NAS Pensacola)

Retired Lieutenant Commander Scott Coleman, a tour guide at the National Naval Aviation Museum explained, “All the ships with their squads and units that came through would have plaques made listing everyone’s call signs.”

In 1992 it was moved in its entirety to the National Naval Aviation Museum where it still operates as a cafe open to museum patrons.

“Walk through it. That’s where you’ll find all the call signs,” Coleman urges.

The plaques truly are worth the view. Each one is more detailed and fantastic than the last, showing off not only the pride and camaraderie that these aviators shared but how much call signs have become part of the bedrock of aviation.

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