This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Chris Kibble, former F-16 pilot (11 years):
Bottom line up front (or BLUF): U.S. Air Force fighter call signs are given at naming ceremonies or "namings." They are usually based on how badly you've screwed something up, a play on your name, your personality, or just the whims of the drunken mob of pilots. Usually once a pilot flies with a call sign in combat, they get to keep it for their career. But pilots may face a "hostile renaming" under certain circumstances.
Ah, naming ceremonies. Among the best of times for fighter pilots. These parties are the highlight of the squadron social calendar. Everyone attends. Many get drunk. A few throw up. All have a good time.
These traditions change slightly over time. Each squadron's ceremony is unique. And different communities (A-10, F-15, etc.) handle them in different ways. But here's the PC version of some traditions followed by most Air Force F-16 squadrons. I just saw Ryan Young posted a great description of A-10 namings as well.
The plot begins with the squadron social chairman announcing the need for a naming ceremony. it usually happens after the squadron has accumulated six to nine FNGs (F'ing New Guys/Girls) who need call signs. FNGs are the traditional call sign of all new arrivals to the squadron, even those who have been previously been given call signs. Your past call sign means nothing to your new squadron-mates. You will go through the ceremony with all the new arrivals. Woe be it to the insolent fighter pilot who shows up at the new squadron introducing himself with his previous call sign. That's a good way to mark yourself for special attention. Your bribe will need to be extra special.
Bribes, you say?
Yes bribes. Bribing by the FNGs is encouraged in preparation for the naming ceremony. The bribe is to the naming committee, or the people with the final say for your call sign. The naming committee is comprised of either a select few elders in the squadron or the rest of the squadron pilots. Bribes are an art, not a science. They should be respectful but not audacious. Generous but not out of hand. You're trying to get right up to the line of kissing the committee's butt without crossing over. Alcohol is always welcome, as is food. Bribes have changed over the years as squadrons have evolved. Items that were apparently mandatory for past generations would get you kicked out of the Air Force today. But the spirit remains the same. That said…
Your bribe is worthless and weak.
You didn't guarantee anything with your bribe. Except maybe that you won't end up with the call sign "Flounder."
The ceremony itself.
The ceremony is semi-secret to keep it interesting for the FNGs. So I will just say this: It's among the best camaraderie the unit has. It's a time to unwind, not worry about the drudgery often involved in daily squadron life and partake in fighter traditions. Examples of other events for the more involved squadron ceremonies include:
- Traipsing through Vegas as a pack of roving Elvises (Elvii?)
- Wandering through quaint German towns dressed in deranged fairy-tale costumes
- Eating things previously thought inedible
- Singing traditional fighter pilot songs not suitable for retransmission here
- Mocking the other squadron on base
- Generally acting like a moron amongst your friends for an hour or three
The call signs.
When all is said an done, the naming committee will render its verdict. Call signs generally follow a few rules as many have noted:
- It cannot be "too cool" like "Dagger" or "Iceman"
- It cannot be "too good" for the subject in question (based solely on the judgment of your drunken friends)
- It cannot be something you asked for. You don't ask for a specific call sign. Your squadron mates give it to you. Serious rookie mistake.
- It must pass the bar test. You should be able to explain your call sign at the Nellis bar and not have potential dates, random civilians, or other fighter pilots run away in embarrassment for you
- For first-time namees, your call sign usually revolves around something stupid (or fantastic) you did during your initial few months in the squadron, or a play off your name
- If you flew with a call sign in combat, you will generally be given preference for keeping your previous call sign. So long as a) you didn't do something horrendously stupid lately, b) you bribed adequately, and c) you are not in Korea, where many rules of physics are routinely broken
- If you succeed in pissing off most of your fellow pilots, you may be selected for hostile renaming. All bets are off. Your best hope is excessive groveling at the feet of the committee, followed by promises of a large/expensive bribe, and a change in behavior. Then, adopt a stoic silence and await your fate.
SHAG: Social Hand Grenade
Boomer: accidentally broke sound barrier over a small town
Shooter: got to shoot a missile in combat right before his initial naming
SHOCK: Scarlet-Haired Ovulating Commie Killer (one of our female pilots)
Lucky: survived a near-supersonic ejection
Hoss: just a big ole' hoss
Dobber: the simplest tool in the F-16 (name of a switch in the cockpit)
SMAT: Small Man Always Talking
ZEUS: Zero Effort Unless Supervised
Many old school call signs are fairly un-PC and can't be published here. One of the classics has been celebrated in song by Dos Gringos and is used throughout the known fighter universe. Note: definitely NSFW. Google "watch?v=Hjso35OpXNk"
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