|On a bright Monday morning in June, in
Washington D.C., the following order was generated and sent out to all active duty
This order was
distributed through the Armed Services but ironically, the copy that was
sent to Colonel Hallowell James was misrouted to a Lt. James Hallowell
based in Anchorage and the original recipient never saw it for three days.
Three days later,
Colonel Hallowell James wandered through the cavernous hallways of the
Pentagon and settled into his basement office. As a communication
liaison and career officer, he usually had easy days in front of him. He
was in the Air Force for twenty years and was extremely comfortable with his
position. He grabbed the latest version of the Stars and Stripes,
scanning both the obituary and promotion lists to see friends and
acquaintances of the last few decades. He reviewed the lead story about
the Joint Attack (or Strike) Force (JAF) aircraft that was recently sold
to the Department of Defense by Lockheed Martin. The announced goal was
to use the latest technology in a common family of aircraft. This goal
was to meet the requirements of all service branches and
The idea had merit but when one dealt with warriors, things needed more
than a good idea, it needed internal juice.
The idea had merit but when one dealt with warriors, things needed more than a good idea, it needed internal juice.
Usually, all the
service branches would contract separately with individual companies to
develop their own pet weapons. The Marines loved the idea of a
supersonic short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft as a
replacement for the AV-8B Harrier. At about the same time, the Navy's
Advanced Attack/Fighter (A/F-X) was being studied to fill the void left
after the cancellation of the A-12 Avenger II carrier aircraft being
designed for the U.S. Navy. The US Air Force was also busy looking at
both long-range bombers and their own F-22 and F/A-18E/F fighter jet
programs but all of a sudden, a new message came out of the Pentagon.
When the smoke cleared, the tri-service family would entail a
"single basic airframe design" with three distinct variants.
The Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) for the U.S. Air Force, the
Short Take-Off/Vertical Landing (STOVL) for the U.S. Marine Corps and a
Carrier (CV) variant for the U.S. Navy to complement the F/A-18 E/F
roughly two hundred U.S. Army Aviators, long the three-legged dogs of
Senior leadership at the Pentagon suggested a Joint Attack (or Strike) Fighter (JAF) to replace the all the programs with a use of a common airframe suitable to the three services. It was believed that such an aircraft would herald significant manufacturing and operational cost savings. Much of the philosophy incorporated single-engine design and its unprecedented level of commonality. This idea made sense and Colonel Hallowell James, Top Gun desk jockey and the world's most mediocre fighter pilot, thought it was innovative enough to consider but a lifetime in the service pretty much beat all his common sense out of him when he was Lieutenant.
James career was richly adequate in aviation experience and formal
education. As a child, he had an above-average interest in flying which
eventually led this Oklahoman native into the Air Force Academy at
As a rule, Air
Force pilots are not the same breed of fighter pilots as seen in the
movies. Their role was to concentrate on all aircraft; on larger bombers
and transport planes, in addition to jet fighters. On the other hand,
Naval aviators were legendary for their swagger and testosterone
saturated adventures that all come with being a fighter pilot. Most of
the Naval and Marine Aviators used their assigned call signs, instead of
their real names, to refer to each other, especially on assignment or at
social situations. Hallowell thought it somewhat stupid that call signs
were used in lieu of formal names and ranks but since most Air Force
pilots didn’t use them outside the cockpit, he viewed it as an odd
little idiosyncrasy of most carrier-based fighter pilots.
He did his tours
of duty and for the last ten years, he had a sweet desk job in the
bowels of the Pentagon and made a point of staying current in several
aging planes, knowing full well that if and when the US went to war, it
wouldn't rely on the stick of a forty-four year old career soldier with
basic proficiency in clunky old trainer. His hours were blissfully
predicatable, the wife rarely barked at him for his schedule and things were
quietly winding down for him. Either way, the day looked clear when the telephone
rang and woke him from his distant preoccupation of the new Joint Strike Fighter.
"Yes, this is
James. May I help you?"
sir," said the voice, "I am Lt. Eric Pierce, calling you from
"Yes, sir. I
am Lt. Eric Pierce, a member of VF-143, the"
son," interrupted Colonel James, "the Pukin' Dogs." He
was careful to drop the "g" from the word "Pukin,"
as it was the only acceptable way to use the word.
The reason I am calling is to find out if I can keep my call sign."
"What is your
Naval Aviator and I added the ‘fish’ part myself."
James paused and throught "Why was some kid calling me from Kimpo and asking me if he
could keep his stupid call sign?" However, twenty years in the service
taught him something about rushing into logic traps, so he paused again.
send me a written request. I don't think I have a problem with it."
The kid hooted and
promised him a written request as soon as possible but his complete
rapture of happiness took Hallowell by surprise. Why did he call him?
There were no other clues and he was looking forward to Pierce's written
request to provide him some clues but he knew the Pentagon was an odd
place so there was no sense in solving this mystery all at once.
When he returned
from lunch, there was over a dozen messages waiting for him from another
the world from scared fighter pilots needing to talk to him. He knew
there must have been some directive from someplace so he spent the rest
of the day, searching the Pentagon database for his name and department.
Finally, he read the entire flash note and decided to make a copy of
this. It was an internal masterpiece of uneven detail and mind-numbing
military verbiage. Somehow, for some reason, he was arbiter of all call
signs and he still had no idea who gave him this new opportunity nor the
adventures that lay ahead.
He contacted the
associate point of contact and asked for some detail and he next day,
waiting for him on his desk was a four-inch developmental plan,
reflecting the new JSF-related responsibilities for the renaming of all
US Aviator call signs. He had developed an ability to read military
plans and after a full day, seemed to see how he fit into the big
picture: the aviators were coming together and someone had to sort out
the call sign morass. He was an aviator, albeit old and barely adequate,
and he wasn't viewed as a hard ass or someone looking out for his
service branch. Finally, he directly reported to the Assistant Chairman
of the Joint Strike Force and Member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This
gig was a media target and a hot potato, so the whole thing was dropped
unceremoniously on his desk.
"When I first
came into the fighter community, I received the call sign,
Beanhead," he reminisced with the Assigned Point of Contact (APOC).
"Because of the similarity of my head to a pinto bean, it
name," said the APOC. "Your squadron probably had a Blackjack,
Viper, Snowman and "
Beanhead," said Hallowell. "I think we had two snowmen because Smokey
and the Bandit was the big movie at the time. We had to emphasize
different syllables with Snow-man and Snow-man."
your last squadron?"
Colonel James said, "VF-101 Grim Reapers. It had a nice
The second most
embarrassing feature of air squadrons, next to Tailhook-related stories,
is the names of the fighter squadrons, or VF's which stood for
"Squadron Designator." ("VF"). The Navy uses a
rather dull alphanumeric naming system for its aircraft squadrons. The
first letter represents the aircraft type: V for fixed-wing and H for
helicopters. The next few letters represent the mission of the squadron:
'F' for fighter; 'A' for attack; 'FA' for strike fighter; 'AW' for
airborne early warning; 'AQ' for electronic warfare; and 'S' for
antisubmarine. An 'M' denotes a Marine squadron attached to the air wing
and as a result of this naming convention, squadrons took it upon
themselves to add some pizzazz by adding a name after some generic
sounding VF number designation. The VF's names range from
battle-oriented names (Grim Reapers, Fighting Renegades, and Proud
Warriors) to uniquely labeled (Pukin' Dogs, Fighting Omars, Flying
two years with the Fighting Renegades but never broke or bruised a rule
dutifully complied with every regulation in the military. The irony of a
shoulder patch declaring an airborne desire to buck all known rules was
not lost of him especially during his tour of duty, he served as
assistant operations, administrative and maintenance officer. During the
last six months with the Renegades, he gamely participated in Operation Desert
Shield, deployed aboard both the USS Enterprise and USS Theodore
Roosevelt but never fired a shot or was even fired upon (even out of his
alleged enemy's boredom). He had his call sign, Beanhead, stenciled to
his plane but never really understood why he was Beanhead and why the
pilot with a head exactly proportionate to a large turnip had the call
sign of Firecat. He would have loved a name like that but he was saddled
with Beanhead for the rest of his flying days. When he finally moved to
VF-101, his name had preceded him. When he reported for duty, he walked
by a line of fighters and saw his name and call sign prominently
displayed on the side of his ride and realized it was too late to
request or concoct a new call sign. It was yet again, Beanhead.
The flying, freaking Beanhead of the 101st.
The flying, freaking Beanhead of the 101st.
Call signs are
similar to professional sports teams' numbers in squadrons that forbid
redundant call signs. If you are currently using a number (or call sign)
that a new player (aviator) used to have at his previous team
(squadron), you are under no obligation to surrender it. The new player
(aviator) is well within his rights to offer to buy or barter the number
(call sign) but the legacy player (pilot) is perfectly within his rights
to decline. This same issue is exacerbated can happen when two pilots
converge with the same call sign and there is no standing order about
call sign ownership. This happened once during the heights of Top Gun
when the over a third of the entire Air Force squadron in Grand Forks
insisted on changing or keeping their call sign as Maverick. Not only
did it cause mass confusion; the sheer volume of Mavericks kept the
controversy going for several months. Since it wasn't just an issue
between two aviators, no one was going to be the first one to surrender
it, as it would look like a sign of weakness, collectively or
individually. In fact, as time went on, the growing number of North
Dakota Mavericks caused the original order placing James in charge of
It was also widely
known with the aviator community that formal call sign aren't usually
cool names like the aforementioned "Maverick" or his
protagonist competitor "Ice Man" in the movie Top Gun.
They're often derogatory and cruel approximations of physical
limitations or sexual inadequacies. Hallowell had another friend that
served with in the Army Air Corps who also had an unusually shaped head
and everyone called him "Bullet Head." No one could ever
accuse the Army of being overly cerebral or subtle with the name but the
name could have sufficed as "Bullet." But it was evidentially
deemed necessary in some squad room that it needed to be more cruelly
specific. And for everyone lucky to have the call sign of
"Jester" or "Viper," there were a dozen poor
schmucks with names such as Flatow ["Face like a Turd Only
Worse"], Short Round, Smofib, Poindexter, Mongo, Lardo, or my
personal favorite, Crapcake.
As most people
realize, the cute as a species, do not age well and eventually, as
aviators age, their call signs gather verbal dust in conversations just
as old high school nicknames would fade. It really isn't cool to refer
to grown adult as Crapcake and once a wife enters the picture, she will
usually either hate the name because it attracts women or she will hate
the name because her husband is constantly referred to as
"Cheeseface" or "Tuna." However, call signs are a
real issue with aviators and it was evidentially time to jump in the
fray to sort them out.
The news of this
new initiative seeped out to the media and Hallowell successfully
downplayed the initiative to the press. The multi-Maverick squadron
issue was luckily not brought up and he wasn't going to cite that
example of military insanity at its worst. He emphasized the importance
the bright new future as the different branches began to work together
and the opportunity to compliment the JSF initiative. Down deep, he knew
there was no way in Hell that the branches would cooperate but he felt
he could at least have some fun getting them to at least comply with
this order in the most liberal manner possible.
The first step was
to inventory what was currently in use and begin to determine some level
of review and priority. Not all pilots would be affected and there was
no need to make this any more complicated than it already was currently.
So, under the pen of the Joint Strike Force, he ordered the following
information from all active base commands: name and rank of all fighter
pilots assigned to a specific aircraft, the type of aircraft, the tenure
as a fighter pilot, the tenure as any type of pilot (if applicable),
their VF name and their current call sign.
The directive also
stated that all other pilots, especially reservists, would not have a
call sign but rather be referenced by the tail mark of their aircraft.
Hallowell thought if you weren't good enough to have your own ride, you
would be SOL and the days of air crews constantly stenciling and
re-stenciling of names and
call signs on shared aircraft would be over. That would be an easy part
to draw the first line and he knew the ground crews around the world
were celebrating that rule change due to its ever-changing and thankless
nature. He also reasoned that if you weren't a current fighter pilot and
there was no chance of you ever flying in combat again, it was time to
grow up and abandon your call sign. The little fantasy of having the
call sign of "Moo Cow" or "Spigot" while flying fuel
tankers or keeping the occupational handle of "Choo Choo" or
"Caboose" while flying supply transports were coming to an
end. And if you hadn't flown since the Starfighter, stop kidding
yourself and dump the cutesy handle.
The other issue
that this directive resolved was that it kept all the Helicopter Pilots
out of the call sign business. The collective opinion of fighter pilots
concerning helicopter pilots is that they are one league below the
non-fighter pilots and two steps below them, the professional. All the Helicopter
pilots had inferiority complexes and a day didn't go by when someone
would make a disparaging remark about their inadequacy. He and the APOC
always swapping stories about Helicopter pilots and of course, they were
usually the butt of whatever joke was within proximity.
only one thing more frightening than a Helicopter pilot that didn't want
to be there," said Hallowell.
that?" asked the APOC.
wanted to be there."
It was common knowledge that pound for pound, there was not a bigger goofball in the flying ranks than a chopper pilot. Usually completely jazzed from adrenaline buzzes that grew by flying ten feet above tree level, there was absolutely nothing a chopper pilot wouldn't try at least once. Their occupational equivalents included hockey goalies, emergency room doctors, rock drummers, stuntmen and other misfits that literally live life on the sharpest and nastiest edge possible.
directive caused little anguish so he felt he was off to a good start.
Over the next month, every active squadron dutifully sent in their
roster of aviators. This list was classified as Top Secret due to the
fascinating fact that for the first time, ever, a comprehensive list of
their general readiness history and US aviators was being accumulated in
one spot. The roster list counted five thousand and nine aviators that
were dedicated combat aviators that were assigned their own planes. The
list was nicely balanced with Navy and Air Force pilots making up
approximately eighty percent of the group with Marine and Army with
fifteen and five percent, respectively.
Hallowell began to
sort through the list, making notes on the names and requesting in
certain situations, explanations of fascinating acronyms and researching
some call signs that appeared to make no sense whatsoever. He would
contact the base commander who was charged with removing any of the
local obstacles and would have the right leverage to expedite his
To seek some
wisdom, he looked at current best practices and determined that only the
clown community and the actor's unions could teach him a thing or two
about an enlightened process. The sports teams had the number issue but
the concerned wasn't to deal with compensation of redundant numbers, the
issue was to manage and maintain some exclusivity with single call
signs. Through some formal and informal channels, he contacted the head
of the national clown union, Jerome McGovern, who enlightened Hallowell
about working in the clown business. Under the big top, there is
hierarchy established and clown names (and personas) were guarded and
fiercely protected by an ironically non-humorous code of honor. Clowns
took special care to find an identity to develop and their style became
internally copyrighted with the clown community. If you worked for one
of the big shows, you complied with the rules and any one that decided
to steal or plagiarize another clown's shtick would be dealt by their
"Let me tell
you something," said Jerome "Binky" McGovern as he waved
an oversized pair of sunglasses around and around, "You don't want
three dozen clowns mussing you up. You walk into Clown Alley and they
smell disrespect, watch out."
course," said Hallowell; "I wouldn't want that."
Hallowell wrote on his pad of paper in large block letters, "NO MAD
He took copious
notes with his visit and saw many parallels between the two issues and
the need for these fighter jocks to police themselves. If he could
instill a sense of ownership in a name, the community of fighter pilots
might be the best way to maintain compliance. His telephone interview
with the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) was less fruitful; their only
mechanism was to deny a SAG card to anyone who wished to work under a
name that was already taken. However, iterations of the name such as
"Bobby Johnson" or "Rob Johnson" instead of
"Bob Johnson" were tolerated but that inexactitude wasn't good
enough especially when the call sign had to been easily distinguished
from another. He needed to take the central command component of SAG and
marry it with clown underground policing plus fold in a creative naming
convention to eliminate as much confusion as possible. He reluctantly
decided that the next step was upon him: he had to write a formal
Department of Defense Regulation (DoDR) to synchronize up with the
original flash message. It was a tedious adventure to write a formal
DoDR but nothing would work right without it. He decided to start right
after lunch and when he was finished, he went home for the night.
He continued to
ponder the issue of portable name ownership. By only having a single
call sign, the chance of two aviators competing for the same one was all
but eliminated. But could an aviator sell or lay claim to a retired call
sign? As he followed the logic paths of ownership within other world,
the major sports worlds of football, baseball and basketball has always
been unique in the management and resolution of player's numbers.
Whoever was currently on a team had primary rights to their number. Even
if a bone fide superstar joined a team, he would have to barter his
preferred number from the current holder of it. The current holder was
not under any obligation to surrender it and there was no retribution if
the deal couldn't be made. He made some additional notes about the
bartering, the ownership rights and a few other wrinkles that continued
to loom in his thought process but didn’t want to get into the seedy
side of call sign acquisition.
The next day he
sent the message out to
the entire world to galvanize his vision. He had to begin
reviewing the call signs and sort them out. Of the five thousand and
nine names, there were clumps of wildly popular names including over two
hundred Mavericks and 100 Vipers. The names read like a bad movie
ranging from the pedestrian to the peculiar. He knew many of them were
acronyms for filthy phrases (he finally figured out "MONFAF, ”although
it took two weeks),
but inside jokes were not his issue, stupid and overused calls signs
were. He sorted the names in several ways and began to award the unique
and original ones. Their names would become operational immediately and
any call signs that potentially call a problem would be addressed in a
squadron wide switchover. Several call signs were awarded early to
aviators that had documented and measurable tenure of the name while
others were given just because he thought the addition of the name would
be amusing. After this work, Hallowell was exhausted and decided to take
the rest of the day off.
The DoD regulation
was posted and Hallowell's life was busy but it didn't get any more
complicated. With the regulation in place, all questions were
automatically routed to the regulation and a vast majority of the
questions and the noise stopped. The regulations were a self-contained
authority of answers and the military ran on them exclusively. If your
specific issue was not addressed directly, your interpretation of that
issue was found within the existing information. In other words, there
was no more information forthcoming so you had better find your answer
within the existing rules. That approach to internal processes wasn't
without its flaws, but a lot of time was saved.
concentrating on a few special issues that were not normally thought of
by the authorities. Using what he learned from the clowns; he wanted to
show respect for fallen heroes. He determined that any aviator that died
doing his or her job would have their call sign retired. A lot like
sports, he wanted to retire call signs as a small tribute to aviators
who had given their lives for their country. He decided that upon the
tragedy of an aviator death, he would retain sole authority to determine
the appropriateness of retiring or releasing the call sign to the
aviator community. And to stem the tide of new generations of
Mavericks, he mandated that all new aviators would
be issued their call signs upon completion of their fighter school.
And to stem the tide of new generations of
Mavericks, he mandated that all new aviators would
be issued their call signs upon completion of their fighter school.
In addition to
retiring numbers, he realized that he needed some creative naming
convention to satisfy the approximately four thousand aviators that were
losing their call sign due to over-exposure, troubling references or any
name that fell outside of Hallowell's framework of names. He determined
he would shelve a retired aviator's name for five years until it was
able to be released for general usage. Out of common courtesy, once
someone leaves the cockpit, he didn't want the cannibals to strip
everything off the old coot. However, that put the pressure on him to
develop a large inventory of names to pick and four thousand one would
take some time.
started as organically as possible by visiting the animal kingdom. There
was a neutral hierarchy of names combined with a strange set of
equalities between all the mammals and vertebrates. He needed many names
that could work together (or not in conflict), offended or confused no
one and still provide him with a humorous past time. To test his new
ideas, he started with the group that caused a majority of the mess: the
14th Tactical Air Group, based out of
to grab the next plane to Grand Forks
and distribute the
call signs individually. This was a stubborn crowd due to their distance
to the Pentagon but he was taking no chances with compliance. He still
had some juice and combining that with the growing legend associated
with his final and absolute authority in resolving call signs, he felt
moderately safe with his visit. There were thirty-six aviators and only
eighteen were going to feel his creative wrath. He had the Base
Commander assemble the eighteen aviators in a nearby hangar and when he
walked in there, the eighteen snapped to attention.
gentleman,” said Colonel James without looking up, "and take a
Almost at the same
time, the aviators sat down in an almost coordinated manner. Colonel
James, Communications Adjutant to JSF Strike Force Command, Pentagon,
looked around the group and saw mainly twenty-five year old pilots with
little fear or facial hair.
"How many of
you are Mavericks?" asked Hallowell.
"How many of
you are willing to lose your ride over a stupid call sign?
No hand moved from
said Hallowell. "Effectively immediately, there are no Mavericks in
There were none
and Hallowell continued.
Humper, Fartboy, Monfaf and Boner?"
stood up and looked straight ahead.
"Do you like
sir!" came the response.
lose the goofball call signs?"
came the response again.
said Colonel Hallowell James, Communications Adjutant to JSF Strike
Force Command, Pentagon, "Here are your new names, pick one and sit
He walked over to
a nearby bulletin board, tacked it to the cork and went back to the
podium. The group strained to see the new names but wanted to maintain
some level of aviator coolness. The names ranged from Vervet to Capchin;
from Rondele to Mandrill. They had no meaning but could be pronounced
with a minimum of practice and as such, fit the bill.
He said, "I don't care how you assign them, via lottery or by rank, but these will be the ones you choose from going forward. The ones that aren't used are going back into my bag and will be distributed at the next air base. Any questions?"
There were none but a former Zoology student smiled as Col. Hallowell James, Communications Adjutant to JSF Strike Force Command, Pentagon, headed for the door. On the way back to Washington, Hallowell began to sketch out a variety of mammals and their corresponding taxonomy of family and species names. It was going to be a long summer but at least he was out of the office.
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