Posted on Sat, May. 10, 2003

For fighter pilots, nothing flies like funny call signs
Staff Writer

Fighter pilots might have some of the most glamorous jobs in the military, but you wouldn't know it from their nicknames.

Boo-Boo. Chugger. D-Dawg. Hogg. Grumpy. Shag.

The nicknames are aviators' call signs and part of a long-standing military tradition.

"It's a leftover from the old days, and we still do it for fun," said Col. Dave "Tater" Peeler, commander of Marine Air Group 31 at Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station.

The call signs seldom are testosterone-loaded monikers like "Maverick" and "Iceman," which Hollywood bequeathed to the lead characters in "Top Gun."

Instead, call signs are intended to give fellow pilots a laugh at the recipient's expense and build camaraderie within a squadron.

"We still say 'major' and 'captain' but only for business," Peeler said.

Call signs can have something to do with a pilot's physical traits, surname, mannerisms or personality. They can be inspired by something the pilot has done -- especially if he or she messed up. Political correctness is not a consideration.

The selection of a nickname begins when a list of names is compiled by members of a pilot's squadron, said Col. Tim "Demo" Rush, who got his call sign as an Air Force flight instructor.

The names are debated and then there's a vote. Tradition also requires a pilot not complain about his or her call sign.

"If you object, you may get one that you really don't like," Peeler said.

Call signs also can change as aviators progress in their careers.

When he was training to fly, Peeler's call sign was "Hawk," which he liked.

"But when I got to my first Marine unit they redubbed me and I knew enough not to fight it," Peeler said.

Some call signs play off a pilot's name.

For example, the call sign of Col. Bill Rew, former commander of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base, is "Kanga." The combination resulted in "Kanga" Rew.

Lt. Col. Jon Norman, commander of the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, goes by "Stormin'." So it's "Stormin'" Norman.

Another Shaw pilot, Lt. Col. Scott Manning, is "Zing." Manning got the nickname when making the transition from flying the subsonic A-10 "Warthog" attack aircraft to the faster and more electronically sophisticated F-16CJ.

"There are a few more things to look at in the F-16 cockpit," Manning said. "They called me 'Zing' because I was kind of all over the place initially."

Sometimes a call sign doesn't have to be a name or word. Maj. Mike Lay, a member of the 78th Fighter Squadron at Shaw, goes by the call sign of "BIA" as in "Born In America."

A Knoxville, Tenn., native, Lay said he was christened "BIA" because he likes to talk about home and family.

Maj. Scott "Cleetus" Bridgers of the 157th Fighter Squadron at McEntire Air National Guard Station likes to have fun with his call sign.

In flight school, aviators ribbed Bridgers about his thick Southern drawl. So they named him "Cletus" after one of the bumpkin characters on the "Dukes of Hazzard" TV show.

Bridgers, though, took the joke further. He added an "e" and when he writes his call sign, he turns the "e's" around because "I'm a backward country boy."

When asked to explain his call sign, Marine Capt. Clint "Boo-Boo" Weber, who files an F/A-18 with Squadron 332, shook his head.

"I'm not sure why but they said I looked like Yogi Bear's sidekick," said Weber, who has heavy, dark brown eyebrows.

On occasion, a pilot earns a call sign for something that has nothing to do with his flying, said Rush, who's operations group commander of the S.C. Air National Guard's 169th Fighter Wing.

For example, Rush told the story of a pilot nicknamed "Zipper."

Zipper got into a argument with his girlfriend at a bar, Rush said. As she attempted to leave in her car, "Zipper" stood in her path.

Somewhat intoxicated, the pilot lost his balance and fell onto the woman's car. As he slid off the car, the zipper of the pilot's flight suit gouged the hood's finish.

"Not only did he lose the girl, but it cost him $1,500 to fix her car," Rush said.