Defense Media Network

Naval Aviation Nicknames

From Fifi to Rhino, and everything in between


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.

AD VA-25 CVA-41 '61-SPAD

Completed too late to participate in World War II, the AD, later A-1, Skyraider was an anachronistic fixture on carrier decks filled with rapidly advancing jet aircraft. But it could carry a massive load and take punishment that would have knocked any two jets out of the sky, key qualities that made it valuable during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and engendered its “Spad” and “Able Dog” nicknames. U.S. Navy photo

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.

Douglas A-4E Skyhawk Scooter

A Douglas A-4E Skyhawk of VA-106 “Gladiators” is brought to the launching position on a steam catapult aboard USS Intrepid during flight operations in the Gulf of Tonkin, September 1968. With its stalky undercarriage, agility, and diminutive size, the Skyhawk was variously called the Tinker Toy, Heinemann’s Hot Rod, and the Scooter.

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.

SH-2F Seasprite

A right front view of a Navy SH-2F Seasprite light airborne multi-purpose system (LAMPS) helicopter landing aboard the battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62) during sea trials. The Seasprite’s original designation of HU2K and its small size earned it the nickname “Hooky Took.”U.S. Navy photo by PH2 Shayna Brennan

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.

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    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-41347">

    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.