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.