Oscar. Emily. Buck. Flora. While these may sound like your long-lost cousins from Peoria, they are actually some of the code names given to Japanese and Warsaw Pact aircraft by the US and NATO beginning in WWII. But where do these and other names come from?
During WWII, Allied pilots fighting against the Japanese were faced with the problem of quickly identifying and reporting Japanese aircraft. The Japanese military used a bewildering system of nomenclature that gave a type number based on the Japanese Imperial calendar and a description of the aircraft’s role, in addition to the manufacturer’s designation. For example, the Navy Type 96 Carrier Fighter (Mitsubishi A5M) received its type number because it entered service in Imperial year 2596, which equated to the Gregorian year of 1936. And aircraft that entered service the same year shared the same type number. For example, there were no less than 15 Type 97 aircraft. Compounding the confusion was the fact that the Japanese didn’t give their aircraft nicknames like Mustang or Liberator. So the Allies decided to give the Japanese aircraft names of their own making.
To provide pilots and gunners with a quick method of identifying and reporting Japanese aircraft, US Army intelligence officer Cpt. Frank McCoy, along with Sgt. Francis Williams and Cpl Joseph Grattan, devised a system that assigned easy-to-remember, sometimes comical male first names to fighters, such as Rufe, Jack and Oscar, and female first names to all other aircraft, such as Betty for the twin-engine bomber and Val for the carrier-based dive bomber. One version of the Mitsubishi A6M Type 0 fighter (officially known as the Zeke, but commonly called the Zero), was named Hap in honor of General Henry “Hap” Arnold, but Arnold objected to the name and it was changed to Hamp. Not only could pilots quickly identify and report an aircraft, other pilots immediately knew if it were a fighter or a bomber.
Following the war, the countries of the NATO Alliance were faced with the same problem of quickly identifying and reporting Soviet, Eastern Bloc, and Chinese aircraft. Like the Japanese, the Russians generally did not give their aircraft nicknames like Phantom or Superfortress. So NATO devised reporting names similar to those used by the Allies in WWII, but with a more rigorous system, one which is still in use today. One-syllable English words (usually first names) are given to fixed-wing propeller aircraft (Frank), while two-syllable names denote jet aircraft (Fishbed). And the first letter of the name is determined by the type of aircraft the name belongs to.
- F – Fighters and ground attack aircraft (Fitter, Flogger, Fulcrum)
- B – Bombers (Backfire, Badger, Bear)
- C – Commercial aircraft, airliners, cargo aircraft (Cub, Charger, Candid)
- H – Helicopters (Helix, Hind, Hormone)
- M – Miscellaneous, such as trainers, reconnaissance, seaplanes, tankers, etc. (Madcap, Mermaid, Maxdome)
Words beginning with the letters A, K, G and S also are used to identify missiles, depending on their type: A for air-to-air (Archer); K for air-to-surface (Kitchen); G for surface-to-air (Guideline); S for surface-to-surface (Scud). And it’s not just aircraft and missiles. NATO also assigns names to submarines and other equipment such as radar systems.
So, even if you don’t know the specific manufacturer’s designation for a Russian or Chinese aircraft, you can at least identify its mission based on its NATO reporting name. And for NATO pilots, it’s not necessary to say “MiG-31” or keep track of its 12 variants. Pilots can just say “Foxhound” and it will denote any MiG-31. And other pilots will know they have a jet fighter to contend with.
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