>On Callsigns

>Hollywood lied to me.

As I was growing up, I would watch the movie Top Gun, believing it was an accurate depiction of the everyday lives of military aviators. Upon arrival at Fort Rucker, I fully expected to buzz the tower in my TH-67 (don’t even ask to do this over the radio) and sport a really cool one-piece flight suit (all Army aviators wear two-piece uniforms, much like the infantry). But most important of all, I looked forward to getting an awesome callsign.

Then I realized that the Army really doesn’t participate in the same traditions as our Navy, Marine, and Air Force brethren. Army aviators don’t get “callsigns”, aside from the ones assigned from the Air Tasking Order. Such callsigns typically include a code word denoting the aircraft unit, followed by a number, such as “Reach 364“. Which, no offense to my favorite blogger, but that’s just not as cool as “Wolfman”, “Hollywood”, “Cougar”, and the like.

Since the Army doesn’t give its pilots cool nicknames, a budding young aviator might be tempted to pick a callsign for one’s self. Most of the time, Army aviators stop short of actually doing so. I mean, picking your own awesome callsign would be the height of douchebaggery.

Yet, that never stopped some people from actually trying.

When I first arrived at flight school, I was assigned to a class of some fifteen young lieutenants. We took turns standing up and introducing ourselves. One aspiring aviator stood apart from the rest.

Standing some 5-foot-3-inches tall, one lieutenant took in the faces of all around him. Drawing on his Top Gun inspiration, he knew, deep inside his soul, that he was the best. The alpha male–the alpha male of Daleville, Alabama (quite a feat). Rising to his full Napoleon-sized height, he introduced himself, with a Spanish accent thicker than engine oil.

“My name is Lieutenant [Redacted], from [unit]”.

He paused, taking a deep breath, and surveying the room. He whispered, “But you can call me…”

Suddenly, he spread his arms dramatically, proclaiming:


Several lieutenants looked on–not in awe, but in shock.


“Everyone who knows me at home calls me ‘the Phantom'”, said the Phantom. Drawing closer to us, he whispered, “My friends, you can do the same”.


After a little research, we discovered that his unit really did call him “The Phantom”. Seems every time work needed to be done, he had a nasty habit of just disappearing. Thus, he was a virtual “phantom”. Wonders never cease.

Navy, Marines, Air Force: how exactly does this tradition work? I’m kind of intrigued…

Wow, looking back on the movie, it really was kind of…uh…you know….

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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