LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — Maybe the most familiar call signs known to the movie-going public are “Maverick,” “Iceman” and “Goose,” call signs for pilots in the movie “Top Gun.” And just like in the movies, fighter pilots in real life have call signs, too.
The origin of pilot call signs is mysterious, but how pilots get their call signs and their often-humbling nature is no mystery.
Some people say call signs began during World War I. Others say the custom began before that.
“There are a lot of myths out there,” said Maj. Sean Canfield, 62nd Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations. “The most common story I hear is during WWI pilots would arrive in their new squadron, bond with other pilots and they would go on a mission and never come back. You give them a call sign or a nickname and that’s how you know them.”
However it began, the nicknames pilots are given by their peers are proudly worn on their flight suits and stenciled on their aircraft.
Pilots usually get a call sign after finishing mission qualification training and after being on-station at their first duty assignment for three months.
“We give call signs to B-coursers, but they’re temporary,” Canfield said. “When they go to their combat unit, they get their permanent name.”
There are rules to receiving names. Some considerations: Has a pilot dropped bombs in war? Has he been in more than two commands?
Depending on the answers, a pilot may keep a call sign throughout a career.
“There are some bone-headed things you can do to be ‘hostilely’ renamed, but it is usually only temporary,” Canfield said.
If two pilots arrive at a new squadron with the same call sign, seniority usually takes precedence.
Squadron pilots gather together in a “naming ceremony” to bestow call signs, and pilots share tales about those being given monikers.
“Everyone tells stories about you, and they’re usually not flattering,” Canfield said. “Names get written down, we make fun of them and the pilot sits there and takes the beating. Then we go through a vote, and the top three are presented to the one being named to pick.”
Unbeknownst to the candidate, however, the name is usually already decided for them.
Canfield received his call sign, “LOBO,” shortly after he arrived at Aviano Air Base, Italy. The meaning of his call sign is two-fold and combines two interesting events in his life.
Canfield was walking his two German shepherds one day and decided to take them off the leash to play Frisbee. An Airman ran by and his dogs chased the Airman. News of this event spread across his squadron.
“This was my third day in the squadron, and I’m calling my commander from the police shack saying, ‘Hey, I’m in trouble here; my dogs attacked a guy.’ That led to rabid dogs, wolf dogs and it became part of my name.”
The other part of Canfield’s call sign came from his lack of experience shooting the F-16 gun at the time.
“When I went to shoot the gun on the range with my new squadron, I didn’t do very well,” he said.
These two events merged into Canfield’s new call sign.
“They made a play on my name,” Canfield said. “Lobo, which is Spanish for wolf, and LOBO, which means, ‘leery of bullets ordnance.’”
For pilots, being given a call sign is a memorable thing, according to Capt. Marcus Landrum, 62nd FS instructor pilot.
“It keeps them humble and builds camaraderie and kinship,” he said. “It means being part of a brotherhood. It means you are a mission-ready fighter pilot, and it defines you as that fighter pilot.”