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.