The Tactical Callsign

“I want you to climb up above the cons, push it up to mach 1.5, shoot everything, and don’t turn around – let the second wave pick up the leakers.”  Those were the words from my Ops Group Commander – who happened to be the overall commander for this particular Red Flag – as he shared his expectations with my squadron’s contingent of fighter pilots.

It was my first sortie as a mission qualified F-22 wingman, and I was eager to prove my worth as a fighter pilot.  I was number four in the first of two four-ships that would be protecting a strike train consisting of A-10s, B-52s, and British Harriers.  Due to the relatively slower speeds of the strikers they would require a longer window of protection.  This meant that every missile we carried would count as we were expecting at least a 5:1 ratio of Red Air to Blue Air escort.

We launched, topped off our fuel from a KC-135 orbiting in the tanker track, and got set up in the marshaling area.  The radios were relatively silent until it was time to push in to the target area.  Suddenly AWACS was calling a picture consisting of so many bandits I lost track.  My flight lead began doling out targeting responsibilities, and as he was doing so I heard some heavy static and something that sounded like someone playing an organ: comm jamming.  It was a lot for a young wingman to process.  Nevertheless I was determined to target my group and kill every contact in it.

I went to work digging through the mess of tracks showing up on my displays to find my targets while trying to stay on my intercept timeline.  I finally got everything doped out (or so I thought) and it was time to hammer down.

“Rocket 4, Fox 3, four-ship, south group, heavy, four contacts,” I almost screamed on the radio when I was able to get a word in.  I was so proud of myself.  I had missiles inbound and I was going to straight-up slay these guys.  About a minute went by and I saw that my missiles hadn’t timed out yet – in fact they still had about a minute to go!  Weird.  And why hasn’t anyone else called their missile shots yet?  It was about that time I noticed all of my targets turning cold (180 degrees away from me).

“Rocket 4, kill south group, four contacts, thirty-six thousand stack sixteen thousand.” I was almost smiling as I called my first Red Flag kills.  It was shortly after that I heard my flight mates calling their initial shots.  “Weird,” I thought to myself again.

After our raging air battle I got back on the ground and went to review my tapes and validate my shots.  It was then that I noticed the range at which I took my shots.  Why didn’t I notice it airborne?  I had shot long…VERY long, and the drag maneuver the bandits executed defeated all the shots on which I had called the kill.  I was feeling a little sheepish.  My first shots at Red Flag all defeated because I didn’t have the S.A. I thought I had.  To make matters worse, I had to stand up in the air-to-air shot evaluation in front of a hundred other pilots and explain why I had called an invalid kill on the radio resulting in four of the bandits kill removing.  Such a heinous crime would cost me $5 per bandit paid to Red Air in accordance with fighter pilot tradition.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end with the $5 penalty.  Fast-forward six months to my naming ceremony.

A fighter pilot naming ceremony is one of the holiest of fighter pilot traditions.  Stories are told, beverages are imbibed, and jokes are made all in an effort to pronounce the young pilot a part of the “brotherhood” and give him (or her) a name by which they will be known in the fighter community and throughout their military career.

I got named “Shotz”.

No one knows exactly where the concept of the call sign first sprung up.  According to U.S. Air Force Historian Yvonne Kincaid, the call sign likely originated during the early part of World War II.

“The first call signs were likely used by ground controllers to communicate with pilots, as pilot-to-pilot radio wasn’t efficient at that time.  It was faster and easier to call a pilot by his nickname, and it would have confused the enemy in case they were listening,” Kincaid said.

Since those early days, call signs have become a sacred tradition in the military flying community.  You don’t come up with your own call sign – you must receive it from other pilots who already have call signs of their own.  The ceremony is considered a right of passage and may get (will definitely get) pretty rowdy.  Names are given based on a heinous act (such as the one I committed to get the name “Shotz”), can be associated with a physical characteristic of the “namee”, or can be based on a natural play off the person’s name.

Here are some of the better call sign stories I’ve heard:

BUZZ – “My call sign is Buzz… I flew as a Navy contract pilot flying Beech 1900D’s to San Andros Island in the Bahamas. We flew Navy brass, Navy personnel and Navy contractors to and from the submarine base at Fresh Creek in San Andros. On my very first flight as captain of the airplane, we were on final approach and very low to the ground, when a flock of buzzards flew up in front of our plane. There was not enough time to make any evasive maneuvers, nor would it have been safe to do so. So we pressed on. All the birds missed us except the very last one, which hit the left wing just outside the left nacelle. Luckily, the fuel tanks were not ruptured, but $150,000 worth of damage was incurred. One of my passengers who was taking pictures of the approach, even snapped a picture just as the bird hit. Upon landing and taxiing to the gate, my ground crew assessed the damage and administered my new name…Captain Buzz!”

SPLASH – This tactical madman was on a banzai intercept in the simulator while his flight lead had just exited and was running cold.  The soon-to-be-named fighter pilot told his flight lead “Splash Two” at the location of his flight lead’s shots – indicating it was safe for him to turn around and continue on flow.  As soon as his flight turned around, he took a heater to the face and died.  In other words, “Splash Two” was really “Splash One” as the other bandit had lived.

TULSA – Total Utter Lack of Situational Awareness

CLOTHESOFF – Last name “Oliver”

ELMER – The “mishap” pilot was golfing with the bros when one of his drives hit a rabbit nearly taking its cranium clean off.  He assessed a clean kill on the rabbit and the bros determined he was a regular Elmer Fudd.

Do you have a cool call sign story?  Let us know with a comment or an email to  We’ll make sure it gets the proper recognition!