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Call signs: What's in a name?

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Andrew Moua
  • 2nd Bomb Wing Public Affairs
Air Force aviators throughout America's history are known for their valor, courage and flying skill, and most have one more thing in common: a call sign.

From the earliest days of aviation, aviators have come up with nicknames based on their flying style and by the 1930's it was a regular occurrence for all aviators to have a call sign.

"Call signs originated from the need to ease communication between pilots and ground crew," said Dennis Pinner, 2nd Bomb Wing historian. "The popularity of call signs grew during World War II and served to confuse the enemy. It was much easier to communicate with each other through their use instead of a flyer's actual name."

Aviators are not the only ones who receive nicknames. Throughout the rest of the armed forces, units throughout all services have adopted their own names stemming from where they were formed, terms the enemy has called them and the job that they have; names such as "Big Red One" for the U.S. Army's First Infantry Division who are named for their distinctive shoulder insignia, "Devil Dogs" or "Teufel Hunden" in reference to the Marine Corps during the Battle of Belleau Wood against forces of the German Empire during World War I, and "Sea Bees" named for the U.S. Navy's Naval Mobile Construction Battalions.

Aircrew call signs are often based on their appearance, actions, name and even innocent sounding ones may have embarrassing stories behind them.

"My call sign is Beaver, and like most call signs have a story behind them," said Capt. Tom Owens, 96th BS weapons officer. "Both my parents were in the Air Force, to keep the story short, it involves me being dropped off to work by my mother and my squadron commander seeing it. So my call sign came from the TV show 'Leave it to Beaver',"

"It took me about a year before I received my call sign," said Owens. "Before you receive your call sign, you must prove yourself to the squadron by presenting during briefings, run errands for the squadron and most importantly; learning about the history of the 96th, but it's all for a purpose and proves to us that we can rely on you during a combat situation. Call signs serve as terms of endearment and in a sense a rite of passage, although not everyone chooses to have a call sign, but having one brings you in closer to our family of aircrew."

As well as serving as a bonding tool and a way of being accepted into the aviation community, call signs also serve tactical roles during actual combat missions.

"Call signs symbolize the fact that everyone has each other's backs during combat but also serve other purposes," said Capt. Christopher Cox, 96th BS scheduling flight commander. "It's easier to call someone by their call sign in case they have a long name and also for operations security reasons; we can't actually call someone by their real name over the radio during a mission. It can also confuse the enemy as to who is talking to whom for example; Doom-91 needs to talk to Doom-92, Doom-92 can pick up the radio and without the enemy having a clear idea of what is going on."

A tradition known as roll call, which dates back to WWI, is where every call sign is read off the list to see who made it back from battle to celebrate a victory and remember those who've fallen in the line of duty; it is still a tradition carried on today.

"We hold roll call here on Fridays," said Capt. Michael Devita, 96th BS instructor pilot. "It's where we connect with our past, remember past deeds, learn about our history, and what it took to get to where we are today."

The age-old tradition of aviator call signs serves to solidify the bonds between aircrew. They are more than clever nicknames; through this practice, aircrew boost morale and improve unit cohesion, even across career fields and services.

"Bomber and fighter crews never really mixed well throughout history," said Cox. "By naming each other, we improve our bonds and our ability to work together when it comes to real combat situations."