The Air Force's Dud Airplane Names

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In my blog last week, I tossed some darts at the Air Force for its cheesy power play to grab a rare F-82 Twin Mustang that belongs to the CAF. After a week of reflecting on this, I now realize that not only was I absolutely right, I have now discovered the real reason the Air Force is doing this: utter lack of imagination.

This came to me in a blinding flash this morning when I was looking up the thrust-to-weight ratio of the F-16 and happened to notice what they're naming the F-16's replacement. The F-16 will be phased out in 2025, to be displaced by the F-35, the expensive fruit of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The Air Force's popular name for the F-35 will be Lightning II.

Untold billions this thing cost, and the best they can come up with is a re-heat of a World War II classic? Not that this is a first. The Air Force named the A-10 the Thunderbolt II, although no one calls it that. It's the Wart Hog. They named the C-17 the Globemaster III, a re-heat of a re-heat of another World War II classic.

They really oughta do a little better than this. Airplanes soar to the heavens and so should their names. Anything with a "II" appended to it smacks of people named Headley or Reginald, not steely-eyed fighter aces.

If you look at the naming balance sheet, the Navy has traditionally done better at manly names than the Air Force. In World War II, the two services ran about even: Hellcat, Wildcat, Tigercat, Corsair versus Mustang, Warhawk, Thunderbolt and Lightning. Lately, the Air Force names feel like they belong on a Starbucks menu.

Take the F-16. The official popular name is Fighting Falcon. But nobody would be caught dead calling it that. It's the Viper, which is what it looks like. On the Navy side, the F-18 is the Hornet and that's what naval aviators seem to call it. (But then they call the S-3 Viking the Hoover.) My theory is that the Navy brass knows that the LSOs on the fantail would laugh themselves silly and roll off the deck into the drink if they heard a pilot bank into the groove and say "Fighting Falcon, 3.5, ball." And you couldn't just leave off the word "fighting" either, because then you'd remind people of the Ford Falcon, when the level of testosterone you're really after is embodied in the Mustang.

Maybe I better shut up, though. That's one name the Air Force hasn't recycled. Yet.

Comments (18)

"when the level of testosterone you're really after is embodied in the Mustang."

Both of my brothers worked on the F-16 (and now work on the F-35). I remember hearing a story that one proposed name for the F-16 was Mustang II.

Might as well call it the Pinto.

Posted by: CHARLES MOORE | March 24, 2009 9:24 PM    Report this comment

It's been called the Lighning II since the original competition. But it's not really the F-35 either. It was the X-35, and should have been the F-26 or something similar. and some collection of idiots decided that all you needed to do was change the X to an F. (You left off the Navy's Phantom II, a rather successful example). The navy also doesn't name capital ships after States (consistently) either.
And besides, why not just call it the F35 Lightning. Since there is one or two flying P38's in existence, it's serioudly doubtful that the two would be confused with each other.

Posted by: Unknown | March 25, 2009 4:45 AM    Report this comment

I think the F-35 should be called "II Expensive" or should that be "Expensive II"?

Posted by: Edward Covill | March 25, 2009 7:41 AM    Report this comment

Although I agree with your comments Paul, I do not see any suggestions. I myself am at a loss as many of the names that evoke the fighting spirit have already been used. If you are not offering any solutions than you are just bitchin'.

Posted by: Ken Peach | March 25, 2009 4:02 PM    Report this comment

If you are not offering any solutions than you are just bitchin.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 26, 2009 6:17 AM    Report this comment

I thought the F-16's name was "Lawn Dart".

Posted by: William McAllister | March 26, 2009 6:58 AM    Report this comment

During my last year in the AF before I retired, an email came down asking for suggestions on what to name the F-35. I suggested, "Palladin." I can't remember whether the email was to all of ACC or AF wide, but they had many thousands of suggestions, I'm sure.

Posted by: Brett Justus | March 26, 2009 7:29 AM    Report this comment

Paul, as you started to point out, what the folks at the Pentagon name the plane is almost immaterial. The folks who take the F-35 to war will come up with their own appropriate name for the bird. You mentioned the Warthog; how about: Buff, Fred, B1rd, Brown & Green Trash Machine, Whisper Jet, to name just a few. Let's check back on this in about a year and see what the war fighters are calling it.
Regards, Bill

Posted by: Bill Castlen | March 26, 2009 8:26 AM    Report this comment

I agree with Bill. I flew the UH-1 in Vietnam. The Army has always tried to call it the Iroquois but to the troops and now the rest of the world, it is and will always be the HUEY. Bell Helicopter even cast the name on the right T/R pedal of later model Hueys.

Posted by: Edward Covill | March 26, 2009 8:49 AM    Report this comment

How about the Bullfrog? It leaps from pad to pad and has that swelling under its throat...

Posted by: Andy Manning | March 26, 2009 9:06 AM    Report this comment

I know that this is thread-creep, BUT:

Who the hell (heck) cares what they call it? Whatever the brass determines for the official name of an aircraft evidently doesn't prevent the rank & file from calling it what they want. Why does this rise to the level of a blog topic?

There are really much more serious things to talk about in aviation. You want to "bitch"? How about some heat about the fact that only 7200 or so pilots and other aviation types commented on the recent TSA LASP NPRM? Numerically, that is only about 1% of the pilots in the USA. That means that 99% couldn't land their Barco Loungers for long enough to protect the future of GA. Maybe some of them figured that the AOPA/EAA/NBAA/etc alphabet groups would go to bat for them, but the only thing that matters is sheer numbers, and loud voices.

This NPRM will rise once again likethe Phoenix. We need 600,000 responses on paper by snail mail. That way it will take the TSA at least a decade to ctalog all of the concerns as they are required to do.

DHS/TSA/CBP and their ilk are the greatest single treat to our aviation way of life. We need some AGI-style rage out there.

Posted by: David MacRae | March 26, 2009 9:09 AM    Report this comment

Back to the Navy, don't forget "Corsair II". That recycle shoulda been saved for something like the F-14, instead of the... Tomcat. Maybe they couldn't wait to use it after somebody thought of it.

Posted by: Mike Holshouser | March 26, 2009 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Yeah, the LSOs would be laughing alright. Laughing because some Air Force jockey would be trying to land on an aircraft carrier using an airplane with no tailhook (and a pilot with no carrier qual).

As anyone reading this knows, the Fighting Falcon, Viper or whatever you want to call it is strictly Air Force equipment. I read the column twice looking for a punch line but couldn't find one. Please tell me you know the difference between Air Force and Navy aircraft.

Posted by: David Thompson | March 26, 2009 1:24 PM    Report this comment

There are really much more serious things to talk about in aviation.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 26, 2009 1:24 PM    Report this comment

The single worst official name was the Aardvark. aka F-111.
Here in Oz it was, as usual, renamed. To become the glorious "Pig". Something about its ability to get down and dirty with its terrain following radar autopilot.

Posted by: Grant Roberts | March 26, 2009 8:36 PM    Report this comment

A bit of naming trivia.

1. F-14 would never be called "Corsair II", even if another aircraft wasn't named that. Vought aircraft had pirate-type names, and Grummans were all predatory cats.

2. No Republic/Fairchild/GD aircraft was referred to by its "official" name. The P-47 was the Jug, not the Thunderbolt. The F-84 was not the Thunderstreak, but the "Lead Sled". The F-105 was not the Thunderchief, but the "Thud" (as in, "What sound does an F-105 make when it crashes? Thud!", screamed in a drunken haze in a South Vietnamese bar frequented by F-4 pilots). The F-111 was nicknamed the Aardvark only unofficially, and the official name was only added near the end of its service life.

3. The Fighting Falcon is the USAF Adademy's mascot (with the "fighting" adjective included), so that's why it was included. Maybe not aesthetic, but there's a reason for it.

Posted by: Mike Zippy | March 26, 2009 8:49 PM    Report this comment

I would like to offer my suggestion for what the F-22 (if they don't cancel it!) should be called.

I like the name HIAWATHA.

As a railroad as well as an aviation buff, I am well aware that the name Hiawatha was used by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad for their most famous passenger train. So the USAF might have to ask that railroad's permission to use said name. But don't you love the sound of it?

If the F-22 is cancelled, maybe it should then be called the Arrow - after a highly capable (for its time) interceptor aircraft that Canada cancelled, destroying their aerospace industry in the process.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | March 27, 2009 12:39 PM    Report this comment

Another "travesty" of reusage and rehash of famous aircraft nicknames has even occurred in the mostly forgotten ranks of the primary to advanced trainer aircraft. A recent example would be the Raytheon JPATS T-6A turbine powered replacement (based on a Pilatus PC-9) for the T-34C Mentor (or was it TORmentor?). The Air Force has once again shown its lack of imagination, dubbing it the Texan II, originally the laminar-flow winged North American AT-6 "Texan" Advanced Trainer of World War II fame (and replicating Japanese "Mitsubishi Zero-Sen fighters for movies and Commemorative [aka Confederate] Air Force). Wonder if the Navy will name theirs the SNJ Harvard II?

Posted by: Jim Exum | March 28, 2009 11:43 AM    Report this comment

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