Defense Media Network

Naval Aviation Nicknames

From Fifi to Rhino, and everything in between


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).

F7U Cutlass launch

As an F7U’s J34 engines warm up a piece of toast on deck, the flight deck crew gather to witness another “Gutless Cutlass” launch, waiting for something horrible to happen. U.S. Navy via R.R. “Boom” Powell

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.

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver

Another unloved aircraft was the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. Meant to replace the beloved “Slow But Deadly” Dauntless, the Helldiver, despite more than 800 modifications ordered by the Navy prior to acceptance, including two increases in the size of the fin and vertical stabilizer, suffered from directional control problems and poor handling, especially below 90 knots. This was a problem since carrier approach speed was supposed to be 85 knots. U.S. Navy photo

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.”

PBY-5A VP-52 Black Cats Dec. 1943

Three Consolidated PBY-5A Catalinas of patrol squadron VP-52 in the southwest Pacific in December 1943. VP-52 was based at Port Moresby, New Guinea at that time and engaged in “Black Cat” (nighttime) operations. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

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.

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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.