Of Hosenoses, Stoofs, and Lefthanded Spads
by Captain G. G. O'Rourke, U. S. Navy
First Appeared in USNI Proceedings, July 1968
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A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy with the Class of 1945, Captain O'Rourke served in the USS Hancock (CV-19) from 1944 to 1946, in VF-84 and VF-72 from 1947 to 1950, and in VC-4 from 1952 to 1955. He was assigned to NATC, Patuxent River from 1955 to 1957, to VF-101 from 1959 to 1962, and to command, successively VF-102 and VF-121. He served on the Staff, DCNO (Air) for two years before assuming command of the USS Wrangell (AE-12) until July 1968 when he became Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, COMSIXTHFLT.
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U. S. Naval Aviators are about the best men alive today. They are the cream of American manhood, many times screened for physical perfection, brain power, muscular co-ordination, common sense, split-second reactions, and cool-headed courage. They tend toward intense professionalism and formidable strength of character.
Throughout most of his waking hours, the individual aviator is the incarnation of the "manly man" Sir Winston Churchill so admired. Yet, sadly, there are times when the same aviator becomes the "boyly boy" Sir Winston so loathed.
This dark side of the aviator's character emerges most vividly when it comes to nicknaming the aircraft he flies. The butt of his cruelty is the harried, bespectacled, ground-bound, padded-shouldered, glad-handing public relations expert from the manufacturer's plant who originally named the plane.
Long before a naval aircraft's "popular name"—Phantom II, Tiger, Skyhawk, or Orion—splatters on the pages of the aviation press, a separate alfa-numeric designator— F4B, F-111A, A-4E or P-3B—has already been established by the military purchaser. The present alfa-numeric system is typically extravagant bureaucratese not worthy of explanation. Every few years, the system itself undergoes a wholesale change anyway. An F-4 of 1945 was a Grumman Wildcat. By 1955, an F-4 was a Douglas Skyray and by 1965, it was a McDonnell Phantom. Same alfa-numerics, yet three entirely different airplanes !
While the origin of these letter-number designators is at least bureaucratically logical, the choice of an airplane's "popular name" knows no rules whatsoever, save those of self-imposition through tradition. Grumman's fighters, for example are all Cats of one breed or another, from Wildcats through Bearcats to Cougars and Tigers. Perhaps not surprisingly, there has not yet been a Tom or an Alley.
Ling-Temco-Vought, a longtime supplier of carrier-based fighters, evokes a swashbuckling image with Corsairs, Pirates, Cutlasses and Crusaders. But no Filibusterer.
Douglas (now part of McDonnell-Douglas) has prefixed many of its birds' with Sky, to form, for example, Skyhawk; and even included such heaven-sent variations as Sky-warrior and Skyraider. But, thus far, no Sky-high.
McDonnell has a fondness for the eerie supernatural—Phantoms, Banshees, Voodoos, and Demons. But, thus far, no Vampires.
North American Aviation is a non-traditionalist holdout, however, with Texan trainers, Fury fighters, and Vigilante reconnaissance Jets.
The public baptismal ceremony of a new naval airplane represents the culminating act of a long and arduous production under fire by the P.R. man. He has seen it through in-plant name-the-plane contests, where washroom attendants, aerodynamicists, and executive vice presidents vie for the patronal prestige. The selected name then had to hurdle any and all moral and legal barriers. Had a rival firm already copyrighted that name? How about the auto industry? If so, would they release it? Once legally cleared, the naval seal of approval had to be sought with the greatest of tact. Personal whims and fancies of captains and admirals were carefully parried. "Sky Cavalier is certainly a grand idea for a name, Admiral Cloudbuster. You know, it was proposed in our plant contest, but it lost out in the finals". (Translation: Skycavalier got 3 votes out of 63,000).
Once the battle of the gold braid is won, an official letter from the Pentagon signals the launch phase of a nationwide publicity splurge by the proud parents. Record flights are flown; full page ads in aviation journals herald the name; test pilots are interviewed on TV; plastic models of the plane suddenly sprout on Pentagon desks and ready room trophy cabinets.
Outwardly, the name-the-plane evolution has ended. In truth, the real baptism is just beginning—on the apron of the test center hangars, in the ready rooms aboard carriers, and in the bachelor bars at naval air stations ashore. The fruit of the P.R.'s labor is now put to the final test by those hyper-critical ultimate judges—the pilots and flight officers who will actually fly the new bird. Will these courageous warriors really use the officially approved "popular name"? Will they ignore it in favor of conversational alfa-numerics? Or, worst of all, will they deliberately mock the P.R.'s dream child by crudely twisting what was meant to be a romantic appellation into a derisive pseudonym?
The sad truth, gleamed from painstaking research of two decades of ready room parlance, is that only a few of the high-flown "popular names" have escaped deflating ignominy at the hands of the imaginative tailhookers who man the Navy's carriers.
Thousands of embryo naval aviators first learned how to get off the ground in bright yellow Stearman N2S biplanes and their predecessors, the N3Ns. The popular name of this ancient assemblage of fabric and bailing wire is all but forgotten, yet the mention of the words "Yellow Peril" always signals a wave of nostalgic sea stories. The Beech-craft Company built a few thousand twin engine SNB and JRB transport trainers during World War II. Over the ensuing years, as even helicopters bettered the cruising speed of these battered and blistered Beechcrafts, they became, affectionately, "Bug Smashers," in deference to their extensive use in supplying boring but mandatory flight hours for deskbound sailors in the Pentagon and elsewhere.
Douglas started building the C-47 transport more than 30 years ago. It developed into the most useful and enduring workhorse of all aviation history, yet only a P.R. man or a high school freshman would call the C-47 by its rightful name of Skytrain. Most often it is a "Gooney Bird," or "Dodo bird." Now in its third major war, it is "Puff The Magic Dragon" or "Dragonship," arising from its use as an airborne gunship over South Vietnam.
Vultee built a wartime basic trainer which they called the Vindicator. Pilots familiar with its rather shaky engine knew it only as the "Vultee Vibrator." Grumman and General Motors both built versions of a fine torpedo bomber during those days which sought to "avenge" Pearl Harbor and the loss of Torpedo Squadron Eight at the Battle of Midway, and so called the plane the Avenger. On carrier decks, fighter pilots eyed its fat profile, slow airspeed, and clumsy maneuverability and quickly dubbed it forevermore the "Turkey," even though torpedo bombers were really supposed to be called "Tor-peckers." Another great Grumman airplane was the immortal F6F Hellcat. Only John Wayne could call it the Hellcat without blushing. To the pilots, it was just the F-6.
Chance Vought (now Ling-Temco-Vought) has had very tough times with its swashbuckling choices. Its Corsair of South Pacific fame had a large engine, a very long nose, inverted gull wings, and cockpit which sat very far aft for a fighter. As a result, it was either the "Hosenose" or the "Hog" to the pilots, and often it became the "Bent Wing Widow-Maker" in happy hour songfests, in consideration of its early safety record. After the war, in the F5U, Chance Vought experimented briefly with a round wing design which immediately became the original "Flying Saucer." Then there was the F6U Pirate, which has a very limited active duty lifespan as a result of a marked tendency which better fitted its colloquial appellation of "Groundhog." Next came the F7U Cutlass, a twin jet with a very advanced tailless design and a tremendously high nose landing gear strut. The hoped-for-engine performance never materialized for this revolutionary bird, and, alas and alack, it went down in history as the "Gutless Cutlass," or, in kinder moments, as the "Praying Mantis." Undaunted by these landlubber taunts, Chance Vought produced their supersonic F8U about 1957 and named it the Crusader. Even though it has served most honorably for a decade, and is now gaining fame anew as a MIG-killer in Vietnam, it must be reported that the ready room short form of Crusader comes through as "Crud."
The newest product from LTVs Dallas plant is the very promising A-7 turbofan attack airplane which will see extensive use both in the Navy and Air Force. Texan ingenuity has finally run out. The A-7 is a very unimaginative Corsair II. This modern Corsair keeps its wings on one level and has a cockpit sitting fairly atop the nose air scoop, so it cannot possibly become either a "Bent Wing Widow-Maker II" or a "Hosenose II," but there is always the possibility of "Super-hog" or "Beetle."
Navy seaplanes, even from days prior to the origin of the renowned PBY Catalina patrol plane, have always been called simply P-Boats. Both subsequent seaplanes, the Martin PBM Mariner and P-5 Marlin were also P-Boats. The name still loiters around even their strictly land-based successors, the Lockheed P-2 Neptune and P-3 Orion.
All Navy blimps were "Poopybags."
McDonald Aircraft started as a post-World War II baby and burst directly into the jet set with its Phantom and Banshee carrier fighters. Those early Phantoms weren't around long enough to become familiar, but the many versions of the F2H Banshee were just "Banjos" to all of us who flew and loved these fine fighters. McDonnell's next effort was the big F-3 Demon which was serviceable, slow, and sucked up a lot of fuel. It soon became the "Sled" as a shortened version of "Lead Sled."
When McDonnell's Mach 2 F-4 Navy fighter first flew in 1958, the company clearly had a winner, but had run out of P.R. originality as well. The F-4 became only the Phantom II. This "Phabulous Phantom" is both the world's finest and ugliest combat airplane. It has a drooping tail, upswept wing tips, an oversize saggy-baggy nose radome, a goatee-like protrusion beneath the radome, and two very angry looking engine air intakes. Its engines produce a distinctively haunting jet whine which is particularly noticeable when taxiing up carrier decks. During night operations, flight deck crewmen used to call the F-4 the "Spook," but that name has since given way to Phantom, but without the II. This partial victory stands as a great mark of distinction (or perseverance) for McDonnell's P.R. talent.
A rare few other Navy birds have managed to regain their "popular names" in popular use. Grumman's Wildcat was mostly a Wildcat, although a General Motors version of the same design was invariably an FM-2. The F-9F Cougar, a swept-wing version of the Grumman fighter which served in Korea, has remained a Cougar all the way through F9F-6, F9F-7, F9F-8 and F9F-8T models, yet "Cougar Six" or "Cougar Eight" were often used in interim periods.
The "popular names" of many Navy airplanes have often been ignored in favor of the letter-number system then in use, or some form of colloquialism based upon the designator. Grumman's F8F Bearcat was generally an F-8, only rarely a "Jelly Bean" or a "Pogo Stick." This tiny plane was the ultimate in a propeller driven fighter circa 1948. The F-11 Tiger which is flown so magnificently by the Navy's crack Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Team has always been a plain F-11. Douglas' A-3 Skywarrior is most often an A-3. Its famous SBD Dauntless divebomber was simply the SBD during World War II: sometimes wryly referred to as "Speedy" Three, Four or Five depending on the modification. The SBD's successor in carrier bombing squadrons, the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver was far less fortunate. Pilots who had to master the weird complexities of this plane's control systems, and who suffered through agonizing takeoffs with its meager power-to-weight ratio changed SB2C to "Beast." Lockheed's early-warning radar version of the Constellation was designated as a WV, but was called either the phonetic "Willie Victor," or, more simply "Willie." Grumman's F7F Tigercat was always just F7F, probably out of sheer disgust. Can you imagine a manly young night fighter pilot saying, "I fly Tigercats?"
The Douglas Skyray was a small fighter with a great big jet engine, a healthy afterburner which would light off with a loud boom, and no tail at all. Its manta-ray wing design allowed it to be turned on a dime, and it had no peer in aerial drag racing. The designation was F4D, which very naturally became "Ford."
Grumman's antisubmarine Tracker has very conservative and proper performance, no great speed, and an original designator as S2F. Accordingly, it is the "Stoof." Several major modifications of the "Stoof" design were built and are still in very active use today. One is a small transport capable of landing and launching from a flight deck. It was originally named the TF Trader, but all carrier sailormen know it as the beloved COD, for Carrier Onboard Delivery (of mail from home). Another version of the "Stoof" is a wholly implausible airplane. It has a huge radar dish mounted in a massive, flat, round radome perched atop the fuselage. Officially it is a WF Tracer. Actually it is either a "Fud," "Willie Fud," or a "Stoof With A Roof." This plane is now being replaced in Fleet service with an only slightly less improbable airplane, the very complex E-2 Hawkeye, which has twin turboprops and really stellar performance. Is it a plane? Is it a Hawkeye? No, it's "Superfud!"
Back around 1948, Martin built a very powerful single-engine, single-place, prop attack airplane which was designated the AM and heralded in the press as the Martin Mauler. Because it could lug such a large and varied assortment of rockets, bombs, tanks and guns, pilots dubbed it the "Able Mabel." Martin's P.R. people tried to beat the pilots by joining them, and picked up the "Able Mabel" name in their publicity. The pilots, winning as usual, simply countered by switching their name to the "Corncob." This name came from Able Mabel's impressive radial engine, which had four rows of cylinders— seven cylinders staggered along each row, and two spark plugs in each cylinder—a total of 28 cylinders and 56 spark plugs for just one engine !
The acknowledged hands-down winner of the plane-naming booby prize just has to be Douglas. Their AD Skyraider, probably the most versatile and durable fighting airplane of aviation's history, was, is, and always will be the "Spad" to the legions of pilots who have flown and are flying this fantastic prop-recip veteran of 20 years of very active duty in war and peace. There are a dozen or more versions of the Spad. With a radar bulb under a wing, it is a "Night Spad." A side-by-side cockpit arrangement makes it a "Multi-Spad." With a large early warning radar dome molded into its belly, giving it a distinctly pregnant profile, it is a "Guppy Spad." A variation designed exclusively for airborne electronic warfare through decoys, deception and jamming is a "Spook Spad," or a "Left-Handed Spad," or, worst of all, a "Queer Spad." An experimental prototype turboprop Spad died a-borning when catastrophic propeller gear box failures gave rise to its name of "Exploding Cigar." Douglas huge A-3 Skywarrior carrier-based bomber-tanker is either a plain A-3 or a more descriptive "Tin Cloud" or "Whale." The A-4 Skyhawk is a useful, highly efficient, ruggedly dependable attack airplane which has flown the lion's share of the Navy's bombing strikes into North Vietnam. The most amazing characteristic of the A-4 is its diminutive size. It is so small that it doesn't have to fold its wings, as do all other carrier airplanes. Douglas called the A-4 the Skyhawk, which really isn't a bad name at all. The aviation press, enamored of its size, performance, and designer, labeled it "Heineman's Hot Rod." Flight deck crews like the way it can be moved around a flight deck and fitted into spare corners for repairs, and call it a "Kiddiecar." Air Wing pilots who must master the complexities of Phantoms and Vigilantes scoff at the Skyhawk's simplicity and ridicule it as a "Tinkertoy," but to the A-4 pilots who really love the little bird, it is forevermore the "Scooter."
The worst misnomer of Douglas' failure-studded plane-naming history is the F3D Sky-knight. This cigar-fat, straight high-wing, twin-engine, two-place, jet night-fighter had a brief period of glory in the Korean war. The many Marine, and few Navy pilots who flew the F3D at that time wouldn't be caught dead in the F3D in daylight, because the Communist MIGs could climb faster than the lumbering F3D could dive! When the sun went down, the tables were turned by the F3Ds excellent radar, its long range and endurance, and its flying stability in instrument conditions. As a
result, it was the queen of the night life around the Yalu River in 1952 and 1953. In those days, it was called either the "Great Blue (or Black) Whale," varying with its Navy or Marine exterior paint job. At an impromptu air show over K-6 airfield in Korea in late 1953, a flyover of assorted F3Ds was billed as the "Black and Blue Angels." By 1955 or so, the sleeker F2H Banjo added a good radar and stole all the night thunder from the F3D. This relegated the Whales to a long series of secondary missions as early missile platforms, trainers for pilots and radar operators, test vehicles for new radars, and as an electronic warfare aircraft in the Marine Corps. The Whale was over-used, over-aged, and overawed by every other jet set speedster in the sky. The Serutan fad was very popular about that time, and the Skynight became, and still is, the "Drut."
Then, too, there was that great double disaster of misnomenclature, the Fairchild R4Q. Flying Boxcar, but we had better not go into that. . . .
In recent years, there have been a few doubts cast upon the continuance of inventive imagination by Navy pilots. The doubters claim that modern tailhookers havesuccumbed to the P.R. onslaught, and cite as proof the mere rumor that Navy A-6 Intruder aircrews actually call their planes "Intruders." There is also talk that RA-5C pilots speak of their Vigilantes as "Vigilantes," and it is common knowledge that Phantom crews are very boastful of their "Phabulous Phantom's performance in Vietnam combat.
To these doubting Thomases, I would only state that just a few weeks ago, I heard a "Crud" driver telling the "Tin Cloud" to relay a request through "Superfud" to, the carrier for a "Left-Handed Spad" to help the "Scooters" search out a target.
And, for any who may experience a pang of regret at the passing of a wonderful era of creative nomenclature, take heart. For, even as P.R. brainstorming sessions were striving mightily to conceive an appropriately glorious name for the then-emerging F-111B, any pilot could tell you that, whatever else the future might hold for it, the Navy version of the one time TFX was surely destined to be irreverently dubbed—the Edsel.