Scooter, Spad, Ford, FiFi, and Willy Fudd are among the many naval aviation nicknames given to U.S. Navy aircraft over the past 100 years. Like family pet names, some are endearing, some cute, and some, well, every pack has its cur. None of the pet names were official, but awarded by the pilots and crews who flew them. Until World War II, the U.S. Navy, as well as the Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviation, did not name aircraft types, but used a letter-number designation. Our English cousins, on the other hand, named their aircraft types, but did not have a military designation system. Gradually, American aircraft companies began naming their products, because as any salesman knows, it is far easier to sell a Helldiver than an SB2C.
Fifi from Grumman
The first U.S. Navy airplane with a nickname was Grumman’s first fighter, the FF-1. This 1932 open-cockpit biplane did not have an official title, but FF looks and sounds like “Fifi” and the airplane was cute enough to have the name stick. Three types of fighter later, Grumman began naming them after cats. The F4F Wildcat was first, although the British were already calling the exported version Martlet (a type of seabird). The follow-on F6F Hellcat became the most widely built U.S. fighter airplane ever (12,275 built with more than 11,000 in a two-year period) and shot down more enemy aircraft than any other, but never acquired a nickname. Navy ace Gene Valencia (23 victories) liked the Hellcat so much he said, “If it could cook, I’d marry it.” Endearing, but not a nickname. On the other hand, the Hellcat’s contemporary, the Chance Vought F4U Corsair, was easily recognized by its inverted gull wings and long nose, and its pilots called it the Hog and Hose Nose, among other things. There is no actual animal called a Bearcat (Grumman F8F), but a mountain legend says, “’Tis the front of a bear at one end, the front of a mountain lion at t’other and it can’t urinate, defecate, or fornicate so is the meanest critter on Earth.” The following Grumman fighters – Tigercat, Panther, Cougar, Jaguar (only two built), and Tiger – also did not acquire pet names.
It was not until the recently retired F-14 Tomcat that another Grumman fighter acquired a nickname. It was called the “Turkey,” although rarely by the folks who flew or maintained it. The name was not entirely derogatory, but based on the Tomcat’s large, awkward appearance, especially when seen from the front. Turkey was also applied to Grumman’s World War II torpedo bomber, officially the TBF/TBM Avenger, for the same reason. The Turkey may have looked splay-footed and bulbous, but it capably performed in many combat and utility roles.
Grumman manufactured a series of amphibious airplanes widely used by the Navy and the Coast Guard: Duck, Mallard, Goose, and Albatross. While the image of flying a Duck makes one smile, those were factory-assigned names. The most famous sobriquet was earned by another Grumman airplane – the “Stoof.”
Sub-hunting airplanes did not become specialized until after the Korean War. Grumman’s first try, the SF Guardian, is best forgotten. In the designation system of the day, next was the S2F Tracker. Navy requirements dictated the airplane be short in order to fit down the elevators of the small escort (CVE) aircraft carriers (which, ironically, were all gone by the time the S2F entered service), and this meant the tail had to be huge to compensate. The Stoof had a pair of large radial engines with paddle propellers like pinwheels and long wings that folded off center overhead like a child showing “how big.” The pilot’s windows bulged out on the sides and were curved in front like a clown’s eyebrows. All that was needed on the front was a painted grin (which was sometimes done) to have a “happy face.” Say Ess-two-eff several times and you’ll see where Stoof came from. Unlike Turkey, the name was acceptable; the S2F veterans organization is RAFS: Real Aviators Flew Stoofs.
The basic S2F gave rise to a cargo/passenger version that could land on carriers (COD, or Carrier Onboard Delivery) and a version that became one of the oddest-looking flying machines to enter the U.S. Navy inventory. Early warning radars had large antennas, and Grumman’s solution was to take a Stoof and put the antenna on top inside a fairing that resembled a partially filled hot water bottle. They also had to chop the big vertical tail into halves and put them out to the sides. W for early warning, F for Grumman, and the aircraft was designated the WF, which, with a Looney Tunes character in mind, was said to be “Willy Fudd.” The dome with the radar was huge, reaching halfway across the wings and covering three-quarters of the fuselage, so a logical second nickname was the Stoof with a Roof. (There was a rash of reports that a flying saucer had captured one of our Navy airplanes.)