The military has a long tradition of giving its aircraft a series of three names: a designator, an official nickname, and the unofficial nickname. The designator, or in military parlance the Mission Design Series, is the alphanumeric that reveals an aircraft's mission, design number and series, and, in some cases, its status. For example, the B-1B should be the second version of the military's first bomber design, according to current conventions. But obviously it's not the first U.S. bomber, having been preceded by a host of previous bombers such as the B-17, B-29, and the B-52. The discrepancy is due to changes over the years in protocols for determining designators. But some of the other current mission identifiers include "F" for fighter, "A" for attack, and "T" for trainer.
The source of official nicknames, such as the Spirit (the B-2), Hornet (the F/A-18), and Intruder (the A-6), has also changed over the years. At one time, manufacturers called the shots. They often had a theme in mind. Boeing, for example, built the Flying Fortress (B-17), Superfortress (B-29), and the Stratofortress (B-52). And Grumman turned out a long line of fighting felines: the Wildcat (F4F-3), Hellcat (F6F), Tigercat (F7F), Bearcat (F9F), and the Tomcat (F-14)
Today, suggestions are made by a variety of folks, including manufacturers and the branch of the Armed Services that will use the plane. These are passed onto an Air Force office that approves aircraft names for all the Armed Services. It ensures there are no legal obstacles (and probably keeps political correctness in mind) before making the final decision. Unfortunately, results from this committee-based method are sometimes rather bland. The Lancer (B-1), Spirit (B-2), and Raptor (F-22), for example, are less-than-inspiring names. And in at least one case, the FB-111, the process never could agree on a name.
A more colorful — and honest — collection of aircraft appellations are the unofficial nicknames. These are given to practically every plane by pilots, flight crews, and maintenance teams. They often have morbid overtones. The B-26 Marauder, for example, earned the nickname Widowmaker after several fatal crashes early in its career. Then there's the A-3 Skywarrior, the largest and heaviest plane built for carrier operations. Though lovingly nicknamed Whale, it was also called "All three dead" for the fact that none of the three-member flight crew had ejection seats.
Planes also earned unofficial names for the noise they make, such as the E-2C Hummer and S-3 Hoover, or for their size. The B-52, for instance, is referred to as a BUFF, an acronym for big, ugly fat fellow or, perhaps, big, ugly flying (and a noun we can't print).
Some nicknames are just funny. The KC135 Stratotanker, an airborne refueler, is called the Strato-bladder, the A-10 Thunderbolt II is called the Warthog, and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth plane has earned the name Roach because it only comes out at night. Then there are those cryptic names that probably have an interesting story behind them. The C-5 Galaxy from Lockheed, for instance, is also called the Linda Lovelace.
While writing the article on the Joint Strike Fighter, I wondered what the final aircraft would be officially named. With different versions being planned for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, the JSF might wind up with three names.
The JSF will probably be designated the F35, a follow-on from its original designation as an experimental plane, the X-35. It could also carry a few other designations such as F/A-35 or other variations. But I have no clue what name (or names) the plane will carry. The Air Force has been in a bird mode for the last couple of decades with the Falcon, Eagle, and most recently, the Raptor, but the Marines and Navy haven't really named enough planes recently to establish any pattern.
If you have any suggestions for what the JSF should be called or a series of three names for the JSF family, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll forward them to Lockheed and the Air Force.