A Navy Pilot By Any Other Name …

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - June 27, 2007
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I am writing from Kingsville, Texas, where my stepson, Kyle, a captain in the United States Marine Corps, instructs flight to young aspiring Navy jet pilots. I came here to speak to a hundred or so of them and their spouses at their annual Training Wing ball, and again a few days later more informally in their squadron Ready Room.

After many animated conversations, I began to realize just how much water has passed under the hull since I soloed my first jet aircraft here at this same Naval Air Station 49 (!!!) years ago.

Of course, the airplanes themselves have become more complex, although the mechanics of flying have - with the exceptions of higher speeds and compressed reaction time - remained constant. Weapons systems associated with the planes have become much more complex and require a great deal of study and practice to maintain competency in their employment. But the difference between today’s Naval Aviators and those of my era is mostly one of culture, and that is one of personalization. Today every pilot has his or her (oops, there’s another major change) own discreet call sign.

The American public was first introduced to this concept with the popular movie Top Gun. Remember, Tom Cruise was Maverick, so named because he set himself apart, frequently going his own way. His affable radar intercept officer - more commonly referred to nowadays for anyone who sits in the rear cockpit as his “backseater” - was Goose, apparently because of his longer-than-usual neck and prominent Adam’s apple. And Maverick’s rival was Iceman because of his cool, aloofness and impersonal style.

In the days of pre-Top Gun there were no personal call signs, only squadron call signs, dictated by apparently unimaginative minions in the Pentagon; signs like Sealtest or Green River followed by the particular aircraft’s side number.

Hello, Kitty Hawk-Kitty Hawk this is Green River 942 approaching from the stern for landing.”

On the contrary, today’s call signs are very imaginative and are - as in Top Gun - based upon the pilot’s first or last name or physical characteristics or personal quirks. They are almost always funny, sometimes brutally so, and - with few exceptions - once established in the training command or a pilot’s first fleet squadron are permanent.

Characteristically, a pilot never gets to choose his/her own call sign. One of my favorites is the story of my friend, retired three-star Marine Gen. Jeff Howell, past Commander Fleet Marine Forces Pacific, headquartered at Camp H.M. Smith. As a young, new pilot in his first squadron, the true-blue Texan introduced himself in the squadron Ready Room as Ranger (Texas Ranger!). “Like hell!” cried his new mates,

“Look at the nose on that guy. Let’s call him Beak!” And Beak he was for his entire 40-year career.

In his first F-18 squadron, my stepson Kyle became so noted for his meticulous attention to good taste and style in his clothing that the squadron wives wanted him to take their husbands clothes shopping - hence his call sign, Metro. His commanding officer’s last name was Bright, so, of course, his call sign was Notso. His best buddy in the squadron in a moment of indiscretion over a few beers confided that once as a third-grader he had been placed in a Special Education class; SpEd never lived it down.

In the training squadron these past few days I’ve met Whiz, last name Gee; Skid, last name Marken; Porta, last name Johns; Thailor, last name Gay; and Spanker, last name Heinie. A female flight student’s call sign was simply Woman.

The daughter of my Texas cardiologist - Doc McCullough - is a Navy helicopter pilot. Her call sign, Chainsaw, for the brand McCullough chain saws.

Our Navy pilots of today - like all our military - study more, work harder, and face longer deployments and more dangerous challenges than ever before. Their unique call-sign culture promotes unity and esprit de corps, and perhaps most importantly, some good-natured humor to help balance out the “Notso” humorous parts of their work.

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