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.)
D Is for Douglas
The Douglas Company had three attack planes that earned pet names: the AD Skyraider,the A3D Skywarrior, and the A4D Skyhawk. (The A2D was a turboprop version of the AD that never made it into production due to a faulty gearbox driving its huge contra-rotating propellers, among other problems.) The Skyraider carried a huge bomb load for a single-engine aircraft, was a mainstay in Korea, and so adaptable and valuable it remained in front-line service during the war in Vietnam. By then, it was the only propeller airplane on the flight decks of the attack carriers (CVA) and so reminiscent of white scarves and open cockpits that the AD became known as the Spad, an adaptation of SPAD – the acronym for the company that produced the famous French fighter flown during World War I. The Skyraider’s designation alone led to other names. During Korea, AD in the phonetic alphabet was Able Dog. And the AD was certainly able. The 1962 change in the U.S. designation system made the Skyraider the A-1. Nothing wrong with being the top of any list.
A contemporary, the F4D Skyray, was an exotic-looking fighter with a decidedly manta ray shape. However, its designation earned it the pedestrian nickname of “Ford.”
The A3D (later simply the A-3) Skywarrior was designed to carry early atomic bombs, which were big and heavy; as a result, it was the largest airplane to operate on aircraft carriers. Because of its sheer size and general shape, calling the A-3 the “Whale” was only natural. Later heavy attack squadrons painted a whale silhouette on the tails.
While the Skywarrior was the biggest airplane to go to sea, its contemporary, the Skyhawk, was the smallest jet and represented a different approach to delivering a nuclear bomb. Instead of high, the A-4 would go in low to avoid radar detection. Instead of a crew of three, the Skyhawk had only a single pilot. Aircraft designer Ed Heinemann’s instructions to his Douglas team were to keep it simple, keep it light. Skyhawks were maneuverable and fast, so were sometimes called “Heinemann’s Hot Rod.” The diminutive size and leggy tricycle landing gear (the long struts were to provide sufficient clearance for a nuke on the centerline) reminded people of kids’ playthings and the alliterative name “Tinker Toy” fit, but a more appropriate name came after pilots learned that the A-4 could fly rings around fighters. In a dogfight, the nimble Skyhawk would turn, jink, and weave, scooting out of the gunsights of faster jets like a two-wheel scooter in traffic. The “Scooter” bore the brunt of the Navy and Marine Corps air war in Vietnam and later a two-place Scooter provided advanced training for a generation of carrier pilots.
Helicopter types earned their share of pet names; the 1950s standard rescue helo was the HUP, which was short and pronounceable. The follow-on, which was active well into Vietnam, Kaman’s Seasprite, was frequently called the “Hookey-Took” after its hard-to-say designation: HU2K. Used for CSAR (combat search and rescue), the assigned radio call was Clementine, which was soon applied to the helicopter itself. The opposite happened with the Sikorsky H-3 Sea King. Used to the compact Hookey-Took, when the H-3 was new, the USS Independence’s air boss would broadcast to the flight deck crews, “Get that big mother out of here, now!” The name stuck to the H-3 itself and “Big Mother” also became the mission call sign.
Fans of the show M.A.S.H. are familiar with the “Bubble Bell,” which as a trainer was the H-13 Grasshopper. The iconic aircraft of the Vietnam War was a helicopter, the “Huey.” The U.S. Marines were a major operator of the type and made up its nickname from the original HU-1 designation.
Not So Nice
Poor airplanes picked up derogatory nicknames. The F7U Cutlass was a radical and exotic design hindered by underpowered engines. The engines were built by Westinghouse, which also manufactured kitchen appliances. As the pilots said wryly, “Westinghouse’s toasters put out more heat than their J-34 jet engine,” and they called it the “Gutless Cutlass.” The Douglas F3D Skyknight was one of the first all-weather fighters in the Navy and Marine Corps. Although a jet, it had straight wings and a slide out of the belly instead of ejection seats. It also was underpowered and slow. Even the crews who flew it called it the “Drut” (for a hint where this term came from, spell Drut backward).
The Gutless Cutlass also was called the “Ensign Eater” for the ease with which new pilots, usually ensigns, could get into trouble because of the unreliable control systems, the lack of power, and quirky aerodynamics. The first three Cutlasses were lost after going into an unrecoverable high-speed tumble … and that was with experienced test pilots at the controls. The F7U was not the only aircraft to be called the Ensign Eater; it seems each generation had one.
After the Cutlass came another LTV product, the F8U Crusader. The first U.S. fighter to exceed 1,000 mph in level flight, it was a difficult airplane to handle and especially to land on board ship. The U.S. Navy bought 1,266 Crusaders and had 1,106 major accidents with them.
In World War II, the Ensign Eater was the SB2C Helldiver. Intended to improve the bomb load, range, and speed of the much-loved Douglas SBD Dauntless, the SB2C was large, bulky, and a handful to fly. After his first flight in one, a young pilot swore as he climbed out of the cockpit, “My God, what a beast!” Even after the initial problems were solved and throughout its successful wartime career, the SB2C Helldiver was called “The Beast,” or the even more uncomplimentary “Son-of-a-Bitch 2nd Class.”
More Than One
As there were several airplanes known as Ensign Eaters, there were different types that were each called “Yellow Peril.” It makes sense to have airplanes that student pilots train in painted brightly so others can see them and give them a wide berth. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps students from the 1930s to the mid-1960s received their primary/initial flight lessons in airplanes painted completely yellow (officially Chrome Yellow, MilSpec 13538). Open cockpit biplanes, the Naval Aircraft Factory N3N and Stearman N2S (you need a sharp eye to tell them apart at first glance), were widely used as primary trainers during the war years. Both were known as the Yellow Peril, not so much for the aircraft as for the inexperienced pilots flying them. The North American SNJ went from being an advanced trainer to a student’s first solo aircraft when it replaced the biplanes. Still in yellow paint, the SNJ trained hundreds of Navy pilots through the Korean War period. Eventually, an airplane designed to be a primary trainer replaced the SNJ, which reverted to more advanced flying. Beechcraft took its popular Bonanza, replaced the four-passenger cabin with a tandem cockpit for two pilots under a bubble canopy, swapped the signature Vee-tail for a conventional straight one, and sold it as the T-34 Mentor. Painted yellow until 1965, the T-34 assumed the Yellow Peril sobriquet. Because it was small and docile when compared to its predecessor SNJ and other airplanes in the training command, and looked rather cute, soon after its introduction the T-34 also became known as the “Teeny Weenie.”
Like Yellow Peril and Ensign Eater, several different types were known as “Dumbo.” However, Dumbo was not a nickname but the code word for air-sea rescue airplanes. Because it was used so widely in the rescue role, many think it was a nickname for Consolidated Aircraft Company’s PBY Catalina. The PBY, with its wide and long wings, may have resembled the Walt Disney flying elephant, but was hardly adorable (although forced-down aircrew and shipwrecked sailors rescued from the ocean loved the Dumbos). It was more often known by its crews as the P-Boat or Cat. Some PBYs also had the mission of attacking enemy ships, which they did effectively at night. Those Catalinas were called Black Cats. You can guess which color they were painted.
21st Century Naval Aviation Nicknames
Flight decks at the Y2K millennium were filled with nicknamed aircraft: Turkeys, Phrogs, Big Mothers, SLUFs, BUFFs, Hummers, and Hoovers. The official name – Tomcat – for the F-14 might as well have been a humorous nickname. When first proposed, the randy image of a tom cat had the prudes tsk-tsking; however, it was pointed out that toms were tough, could fight, and always made it home. The choice was also assisted by a confluence of names.
Tom Oxendine, the first American Indian to be designated a naval aviator, a distinguished World War II and Korean War fighter pilot, was the PAO (public affairs officer) at Naval Air Systems Command and partly responsible for the naming of the F-14. He knew that Grumman had always named its fighters for felines and suggested to a Grumman vice president they ought to name the F-14 the Tomcat. The executive said, “Never. Every time that name has been proposed, it’s been rejected for what tom cat implies.” Oxendine replied, “The reason to name this plane the Tomcat is that the chief of Naval Operations is Adm. Tom Moorer. The deputy chief for Naval Aviation is Vice Adm. Tom Connolly. The head of the Naval Air Systems Command is Adm. Tom Walker, and his deputy is Adm. Tom McKellen, and the public affairs officer is me, Tom Oxendine. If Tomcat has a bad reputation, you ought to hire a Madison Avenue PR firm to change the Tomcat image.” Grumman did just that.
“Phrog” is the name given to the Boeing Vertol H-46 Sea Knight helicopter. While rarely based on aircraft carriers, they are instrumental in jumping with heavy loads from stores and ammo ships during vertical replenishments (VertReps) at sea and hopping supplies (5 tons) and troops (17 equipped Marines) into combat zones. The up-down flights and squat appearance make Phrog a good name. The odd spelling likely comes from a fad begun with the F-4 Phantom II. The F-4 was piloted by Phantom Phlyers and maintained by Phantom Phixers and used other terms normally beginning with “F.” The joke, of course, is only good in writing.
Grumman’s superlative attack aircraft, the A-6 Intruder, was not a pretty airplane by any standards. The crews just said Truder, but others thought it the “BUFF,” as in Big Ugly Fat Fellow. The light attack squadrons flew LTV’s A-7 Corsair (another Jr., or II, after the famous F4U), which looked like an F-8 Crusader shrunk in the laundry. They were “SLUFs” (Short Little Ugly Fellows).
Onomatopoeia, words based on sounds, named the other two aircraft common on aircraft carriers from the 1970s into the 21st century (one of which will be operational for the foreseeable future). The Stoof’s replacement was the twin-jet, four-crew Lockheed S-3 Viking. For range and endurance, the engines were high-bypass turbo-fans (the same as on most of today’s airliners). On takeoff at high power, the S-3 sounded like a vacuum cleaner doing a shag carpet. Approaching the ship, the sound was a distinct whoop, whoop, whoop like vacuuming upholstery. The S-3 became the “Hoover” after a popular brand of vacuum cleaners.
The Grumman E-2 Hawkeye for radar surveillance and command and control is essential to modern warfare. A single E-2 with three operators in the back (fondly called Moles for their lack of windows) can control all the air traffic over the northeast United States. The Hawkeye and its COD derivative are the last carrier-based propeller aircraft in the U.S. Navy. It is the propellers that give them the nickname “Hummer.” In flight or on the ground, the turbo-props hum. On the carrier, the E-2 makes a loud hum taxiing onto the catapult and a quiet hum when at full power and ready to launch – unnerving, but the result of blades designed to be efficient at high power.
What names will show up in the future? The F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornet kept the basic designation when it grew into the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. (By the rules, it should have received a new number, but the defense acquisition process being what it is …) However, unofficially, its prominent pointy nose gave it the moniker “Rhino,” appropriate for an airplane noted for the ferocity of its attacks.
Because a Super Hornet weighs substantially more than a “Legacy Hornet,” its Rhino appellation when in the pattern is also a safety issue, as is calling the EA-18G, officially the Growler, a Grizzly when in the carrier landing pattern.
For the vertical fliers, Sikorsky’s H-60 helicopter is the Seahawk, and unofficially the Knighthawk, in the Navy, the VH-60 “Whitehawk” in the Marine VIP squadron HMX-1, and Jayhawk in the Coast Guard, with a collection of prefix and suffix letters for its many specializations. The radical V-22 with its huge tilting rotor blades will probably stay Osprey, as terms like Super Fan or Double Pinwheel are too long for a pet name.
What if there is no pilot? Unmanned combat air systems (UCAS) will be in the fleet soon. Will they earn endearing names or be lumped with famous fictional robots: Gort, Robby, Dalek, C3PO, and R2D2?
The result of the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) program is the F-35, which will eventually equip the Air Force as well as the Marines and Navy. The F-35 was assigned the awkward name Lightning II. As with previous aircraft, the fliers and fixers will probably come up with a better moniker. The Lightning II just might become the Bug or Deuce. No matter what the names, the future of naval aviation looks bright going into its second 100 years. Nicknames and all.
This article was first published in Air Power at Sea: 100 Years of Naval Aviation.
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12:12 AM August 3, 2012
While working on restoring an F7U for the USS Midway Museum, I had to do a bit of research on it. My favorite bit I learned was from the pilot’s operating handbook, which diagramed the proper way for the pilot to climb onto the Cutlass and enter the cockpit. At the end of two pages of pictures showing how it was done, it then warned if there was any other way to get into the cockpit, use it! Some planes earned endearing nicknames, but all of the over half-dozen that I read describing the Cutlass sounded more like curses.