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Aircraft Names

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter covers examples of naming practices for aircraft types as well as for individual airframes, focusing on heavier-than-air aircraft, in other words machines intended to move through the air by generating aerodynamic or powered lift. The history of approaches to naming British military aircraft types is examined in particular detail, revealing efforts to name aircraft with more than just alphanumeric designations, while also exploring former umbrella nomenclature systems involving many manufacturers. US military aircraft Mission Design Series designation systems are explained briefly, as are systems of reporting names used during World War II and the Cold War. Civil aircraft naming practices are then illustrated with the example of the Boeing Company’s 700-series of airliners, before examining the intricacies of aircraft naming in international development projects. Finally, examples are given of names and nicknames for individual machines.

Keywords: aviation, aircraft, names, naming systems, designations, codenames, nicknames, commercial names, cross-cultural naming

42.1 Introduction

Humankind has developed a great variety of machines in its quest to venture skywards. The rapid development of controlled flight since the beginning of the twentieth century has seen technology progress from gliders to propeller-driven and later jet-powered fixed-wing aircraft, not to mention airships, rotary-wing aircraft, rockets, and hovercraft. This proliferation of different machines has, as a matter of course, led to the emergence of vast domains of specialist terminology, including the names of aircraft themselves.1

42.2 British Military Aircraft

The first official system for naming heavier-than-air military aircraft in British service was developed in 1911 by what was then called the Army Balloon Factory, later known as the Royal Aircraft Factory. The initial system described three main types of aircraft: the Blériot Type (with a propeller mounted forward of the engine), the Farman Type (with a propeller mounted aft of the engine), and the Santos-Dumont Type (with a smaller horizontal surface mounted forward of the main wing, in a so-called canard configuration) (Wansbrough-White 1995: 20). Aircraft produced by the Factory would be named with initials indicating their type followed by a number, for instance the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.1,2 with the abbreviation standing for ‘Santos Experimental 1’. Further (p. 606) abbreviations were later added, and some of the original abbreviations acquired new meanings, with the name of the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 referring to its role as ‘Scout Experimental’, although this type went well beyond the experimental stage, with over 5,000 built. These alphanumeric designations were used in common parlance by aircrews and groundcrews, as demonstrated in service song lyrics of World War I such as ‘The B.E.2C is my bus’ or ‘It was an old F.E.2B’ (cited in Ward-Jackson 1945: 10, 29), although the designations themselves were frequently shortened, as in ‘Keep the 2Cs turning’ (Ward-Jackson 1945: 12).

Although the Royal Aircraft Factory was an official establishment, it was only one of a number of design bureaux and manufacturers active at that time, most of which established their own naming practices. The company founded by Thomas Sopwith became known for the zoological names of its aircraft, such as the Sopwith Dolphin, the Sopwith Salamander, and the Sopwith Camel, the latter name stemming either from the hump on the fuselage forward of the cockpit or from the visual effect produced by the relative angles of the upper and lower wings (Wansbrough-White 1995: 97). The Camel’s name started as a nickname, and indeed aircraft are often better known by their unofficial names, which are bestowed on most aircraft by their aircrew, ground crew, or passengers. One exception seems to have been the aforementioned S.E.5, with the nickname Sepha apparently only used within the Royal Aircraft Factory itself, a most unusual situation for such a prolific aircraft (Wansbrough-White 1995: 81).

When a unified official naming system for service aircraft was introduced by the Ministry of Munitions in February 1918, it put forward classes of standardized ‘nicknames’ instead of designation numbers. The ‘class’ of name identified the purpose of the aircraft, so fighter aircraft would be given names of animals, plants, or minerals; bomber aircraft would be given geographical names; and heavy armoured machines would be given personal names from mythology. Subclasses of names would indicate the size of aircraft or whether it was land-based or sea-based. For example, three-seater sea-based fighters would be named after shellfish, single-seater land-based bombers would be named after inland Italian towns, and a hypothetical heavy armoured sea-based machine weighing between 10 and 20 tons would be named after a mythological Northern European female. Furthermore, the initial letters of the name would denote the manufacturer, so the ‘SN’ in Snipe identified it as a Sopwith-designed aircraft. Names to be chosen had to be both ‘suitable’ and ‘novel’. This system presented a number of problems in its detail, and it was modified one month later, removing categories such as flowers and rocks, as well as eliminating, for example, the need to distinguish between (p. 607) different types of fish depending on the size of aircraft when naming single-engined seaplanes or flying boats (Wansbrough-White 1995: 23–5).

A significant development in air power came with the establishment of the world’s first independent air arm on 1 April 1918, when the Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed by the amalgamation of the army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. With the birth of the new service, the Ministry of Munitions introduced another aircraft nomenclature system in July 1918 in the form of its Technical Department Instruction 538. This system provided the basic format for all future British military aircraft naming, decreeing that aircraft names would consist of two main elements, the first being a name chosen by the aircraft’s design firm ‘to indicate the origin of the design’ and the second being a ‘nickname’ (cited in Wansbrough-White 1995: 26). By making the constructor’s name itself an integral part of aircraft names, this system responded to criticism from the Society of British Aircraft Constructors that the origins of a design were not immediately apparent in names deriving from the February and March 1918 systems. The new system also updated the categories of nicknames to be given to aircraft, which included zoological names, geographical names, personal names from mythology, and attributes, all divided according to the size of aircraft and whether they were land-based or sea-based. Certain categories of name were explicitly excluded by this scheme owing to their use for naming aero-engines, including birds of prey, used at that time for engines designed by Rolls-Royce.

The naming categories based on zoology, geography, mythology, and attributes were discontinued in 1927, when the Air Ministry began naming aircraft with initial letters referring to roles (e.g. with ‘C’ allocated to troop carriers such as the Handley Page Clive). This mnemonic scheme represented a compromise between the British approach to naming aircraft and the American system of alphanumeric type designations, but it soon proved impractical.

New type-based categories were introduced in 1932 and slightly updated in 1939, in an effort to improve relations between officialdom and industry and to produce more appropriate names. For example, fighters were to be named with ‘general words indicating speed, activity or aggressiveness’, while trainers would be named after ‘words indicating tuition and places of education’ (cited in Wansbrough-White 1995: 135). This led to fighter names such as the Gloster Gladiator, Hawker Tempest, and Supermarine Spitfire, and trainers such as the de Havilland Dominie, Miles Magister, and Airspeed Oxford. Most bombers were to be named after inland towns in the British Empire or places with British historical associations, hence the Avro Lancaster, Handley Page Halifax, Short Stirling, and Fairey Battle, named after the town in East Sussex. Some names straddled several categories. The Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber was, for instance, possibly named after the Duke of Beaufort, but it may also have been named after the Beaufort Sea, thus satisfying the 1932 requirements for torpedo bombers to be named after oceans, seas, or estuaries.

During the Cold War, the same system largely continued but with a new category introduced in 1949 for helicopters. These were to be named after trees, but the Bristol Sycamore seems to be the only one named in such a fashion. Although there had been (p. 608) divergences from the official system before, the profile of exceptions grew from the 1950s onwards, notably with the so-called V-bombers. The established pattern for naming bombers was after inland towns in what had by then become the Commonwealth, and this continued in the immediate post-war period with the English Electric Canberra. Some felt that the new generation of strategic nuclear bombers called for more dynamic-sounding names, and the first of the three aircraft in this class was named the Vickers Valiant.3 It was eventually decided to name the three bombers as a family, so the other two became the Avro Vulcan and the Handley Page Victor, described from October 1952 as a ‘V’ class (Wynn 1994: 56). Apart from the alliterative attraction of the name of the Valiant, the letter ‘V’ was perhaps reminiscent of the ‘V for Victory’ slogan of the previous decade, while also evoking the swept wings of all three bombers, especially the delta wing of the Vulcan.

The apparent departure in more recent decades from the earlier nomenclature systems might be explained by the fact that newer types of aircraft tend to be introduced less frequently, have longer development periods, and remain in service for longer. Furthermore, while the marketing role of aircraft names has been recognized since before World War I, it is now a paramount concern for manufacturers. Many aircraft in recent British service have been international ventures or imported aircraft, some of which, such as the Lockheed Hercules, come with well-established names.

42.3 US Military Aircraft

In the United States, the alphanumeric designations of military aircraft types are frequently used alone. These codes are known as Mission Design Series designators and include information on an aircraft’s basic mission by use of a letter code, so the [Northrop Grumman] B-2 is a bomber, while the [Boeing] P-8 is a maritime patrol aircraft. Most US military aircraft also have ‘popular names’, for example the B-2 Spirit and the P-8 Poseidon. The Mission Design Series codes are the official designations, but the Pentagon has an approval process for popular names, with current guidelines stating that a suitable name is short and ‘characterizes the mission and operational capabilities of the vehicle’ (US Air Force 2005: 6). Not all aircraft have officially recognized popular names, for instance the Lockheed SR-71, a retired reconnaissance aircraft which only had unofficial nicknames, such as the Blackbird.

While in development, the General Dynamics F-16 had been unofficially known for some time as the Falcon, which led to the official selection of the popular name Fighting Falcon. The addition of the word ‘Fighting’ was necessitated by the existence of Falcon as (p. 609) a copyrighted name for a range of aircraft produced by the French company Dassault-Breguet (Flight International 1980). Indeed, the current Pentagon approval process includes a trademark search by the Air Force Legal Services Agency (Judge Advocate General Patent Division) (US Air Force 2005: 4).

42.4 Reporting Names

During World War II, Allied forces in the Pacific theatre developed codenames in order to facilitate communications when reporting on Japanese aircraft, the official names of which might either follow naming patterns based on the Japanese Imperial calendar or might be unknown to the Allies. The codenames used were short, easily remembered words, including tree names for trainers (e.g. Oak or Willow), female first names beginning with ‘T’ for transports (Tabby) and male first names for fighters (Clint or Frank). Among these names were a number of in-jokes planted by intelligence staff (Horton 1994: 153).

In 1954, the Air Standards Coordinating Committee (a joint initiative of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the USA) revived the use of reporting names to refer to Soviet, Chinese, and, later, Russian equipment. These codenames are widely used by NATO members and their allies. The initial letter indicates the type of aircraft: ‘B’ for bombers (e.g. Badger, Blowlamp, or Bull), ‘C’ for transports (Camber, Coaler, or Coot), ‘F’ for fighters (Fishbed, Foxbat, or Fritz), ‘H’ for helicopters (Helix, Hind, or Hippo) and ‘M’ for miscellaneous (Mainstay, Midas, or Mote). The names chosen are all recognizably English, but there is a considerable mixture of common and less common words. Many of the names have a vaguely insulting or absurd tone (Careless, Flatpack, Hoodlum, Mug), while some are perhaps more complimentary and are even adopted by the aircraft’s users themselves. For example, the Mikoyan MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ was indeed a key part of the Warsaw Pact’s air defence, and the Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear’ is still seen as a symbol of Russian power when on long-range patrols.

42.5 Civil Aircraft

There is some overlap between civil and military naming when an aircraft is used in both domains, but the choice of name for civil aircraft is usually the prerogative of the manufacturer alone. As many civil aircraft perform broadly similar transportation functions, and certain manufacturers specialize in particular sizes or configurations, civil aircraft are often popularly identified by the brand name of their manufacturer alone, for example ‘an Airbus’, ‘a Boeing’, or ‘a Cessna’.

The Boeing Company’s successful series of commercial airliners are well known by their numerical codes. The company allocated its ‘700-series’ of model numbers to its (p. 610) jet transport ventures, but it was not convinced that ‘Model 700’ sounded ambitious enough for its first jet airliner, so it resolved to name it the Boeing 707 instead (Lombardi 2004). The Boeing 707 did originally have a name as well as a number, the Jet Stratoliner, but it was the model number that caught on (Horton 1994: 73). A pattern was thereby established, and there followed the Boeing 727, 737, 747 (most widely known by its Jumbo Jet nickname), 757, 767, and 777.4 For the company’s latest addition to the series, it took the rare step of adding an official name to the model number, to be chosen by a global public vote from the shortlist of Dreamliner, eLiner, Global Cruiser, and Stratoclimber. The eventual name selected was the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, although Global Cruiser won the most votes within the USA (Tinseth 2011).

In spite of the earlier British penchant for naming aircraft, some British-produced airliners have only alphanumeric model numbers, such as the Vickers VC10, with the initials standing for Vickers Commercial. The lack of any further name may have been an attempt to choose a more neutral designation better suited to international exports than nationalistic names such as the Bristol Britannia, but Sir George Edwards, the then chief designer at Vickers, also claimed the company had simply grown ‘tired’ of choosing names (Wansbrough-White 1995: 82).5

42.6 International Projects

International aircraft projects present interesting problems in terms of naming. The meaning of an aircraft name does not have to be immediately obvious, but it is advantageous if it is at least easily pronounceable in the languages of relevant partners. It can also be a challenge to find an internationally suitable name that does not cause embarrassment or harm cultural sensitivities. Furthermore, the political complications of such projects mean that some motivations for name choices are occasionally made public.

One of the most high-profile international projects in civil aviation was the co-operation on supersonic passenger transport that resulted in the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde. The name was said to have been coined by the child of a British Aircraft Corporation official (Costello and Hughes 1976: 57) and was intended to be indicative of the good British–French industrial and political relations that enabled the project to go ahead. Although the official name featured the French spelling from the outset, the British government discouraged the use of the ‘e’ for a period in the 1960s following an (p. 611) unrelated disagreement between British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and French President Charles de Gaulle. Apparently unaware of the reasons behind this, British Minister of Technology Tony Benn reinstated the ‘e’ during a visit to Toulouse in 1967, proclaiming: ‘That is “e” for excellence; “E” for England and “e” for “entente cordiale” ’ (Benn 1996: 175). Upon receiving a letter from a man who pointed out that some components were made in Scotland too, Benn (1996: 175) replied that it was ‘also “E” for “Écosse” ’.

In 1976, the air forces of Germany, Italy, and the UK chose Panavia Tornado as the name for the combat aircraft developed by the tri-national Panavia consortium (Flight International 1976). The meteorological phenomenon the aircraft was named after is known by the same word in English, German, and Italian, albeit with slightly different pronunciations.

In later years, multinational consortia themselves would be more closely involved in naming international military aircraft. In 1998, the Eurofighter consortium from Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK were due to name their jointly produced combat aircraft, which had until then been known as the Eurofighter 2000 or EF2000. This project name was appropriate for the geographical base of the partner companies and governments and for the timing of the project, with the prototypes taking to the air in the 1990s, but perhaps a need for a more evocative name was felt. Furthermore, the formal delivery and entry into service of the aircraft would come after the beginning of the third millennium. The potential export market for an aircraft design is often an important consideration in choosing a name, and the name Eurofighter only served to stress the aircraft’s genesis as a design for European military operators, possibly discouraging customers outside of Europe. The frontrunner among suggested names was Eurofighter Typhoon, which suggested a clear association with the earlier Tornado project. A naming announcement was expected in March 1998 pending checks on the linguistic appropriateness of the name for the global market (Jeziorski 1998: 35). This announcement was not forthcoming, however, and the naming ceremony was postponed until September of that year, reportedly due to objections from German partners over the name’s previous use with the Hawker Typhoon, a British fighter-bomber of World War II.6

Any objections were downplayed by the consortium’s managing director, Brian Phillipson, who pointed to the history of the Messerschmitt Bf 108, a German recreational aircraft nicknamed Taifun. Significantly, though, Phillipson stressed that ‘you can say Typhoon in all four [Eurofighter partner] countries’ languages and you can say it in Japanese and it is not rude’ (cited in Ripley 1998). While the name may be well suited as a brand for the Asian export market, its spelling is clearly English, not the German taifun, Italian tifone, or Spanish tifón.

This was not the first time that this project’s name had caused controversy. When the forerunner project was renamed from Future European Fighter Aircraft to European Fighter Aircraft, this was said to be due to the acronym FEFA having ‘unfortunately rude (p. 612) connotations in Italian’ (Flight International 1984). Maybe this alluded to a homophone of this English acronym, the Italian noun fifa, ‘fright’ or ‘jitters’.

Perhaps due to the name Typhoon highlighting the fact that the partner nations were former adversaries, it was originally stated that this name was only for export marketing purposes. As the name’s use spread, though, it was officially adopted as the in-service name in all partner nations in 2002, according to British sources (House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts 2011: Ev 38). Nevertheless, the German Air Force most frequently uses the name Eurofighter alone.

The US-led multi-national Joint Strike Fighter project has led to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The name of this aircraft was intended to be commemorative, as suggested by the Roman numerals, but it recognizes the international nature of the project by referring to two different historic aircraft: the US Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the British English Electric Lightning (Lockheed Martin 2006). A US Air Force press release fails to mention the British precedent for the name but expands on the name’s metaphorical implications: ‘Like lightning, the F-35 Lightning II will strike with destructive force. The stealth characteristics of the jet will allow the F-35 to strike the enemy with accuracy and unpredictability; when the enemy finally hears the thunder, the F-35 is long gone’ (US Air Force 2006).

42.7 Individual Aircraft

Individual aircraft are designated by civil registrations or military serial numbers. While aviation has drawn much of its terminology from the maritime world, and some ways of naming aircraft would appear to be inspired by maritime practices, the use of registrations points to one key difference: individual maritime vessels are almost always named but not always registered, while aircraft are almost always registered but not always named (Embleton and Lapierre 1997: 232). In some cases, though, registrations are also used as names. Civil aircraft worldwide use a prefix denoting the country in which they are registered (e.g. ‘G’ for the UK) followed by a combination of letters and/or numbers. The seven aircraft of British Airways’ Concorde fleet had registrations ranging from G-BOAA to G-BOAG, and staff knew them colloquially by the last two letters (e.g. Alpha Alpha). The flagship of the fleet was Alpha Charlie, as the acronym ‘BOAC’ belonged to the predecessor company that ordered the aircraft, the British Overseas Airways Corporation. Another example of an aircraft with a bespoke registration is the last airworthy Avro Vulcan, which bears the civil registration G-VLCN. It has been given the nickname The Spirit of Great Britain by its civilian operators, but it is better known by its old military serial, XH558.

The unofficial naming of individual military aircraft was widespread in the US Army Air Force of World War II, and names were often emblazoned on the aircraft themselves together with ‘nose art’, which might feature heraldry or, more commonly, cartoon characters and pin-ups. One of the best known examples of a nicknamed individual aircraft (p. 613) is Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and that was named after the pilot’s mother (Wood 1992: 42). The nicknaming practice was emulated by British and Commonwealth aircrews, especially in Bomber Command, with names often derived from the large squadron code letters painted on the rear fuselage. For example, Avro Lancaster RF141, bearing the squadron code ‘JO-U’, was given the name Uncle Joe Again (Wood 1992: 20). Names and nose art were apparently more common among Canadian than British crews. One of the longest names given to an individual aircraft in World War II might be Chinawattakamapoosekinapee, a Supermarine Spitfire of 421 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force, which also bore nose art in the form of the profile of a Native Canadian in headdress, the logo of the Squadron’s sponsor, the McColl-Frontenac Oil Company. The name was the invention of pilots Mac Gordon and Bill Marshall and is said to have been coined over some beers (Fochuk 1999: 48). It has been suggested that such names enabled crews to identify more closely with their aircraft and to bond together more cohesively as a crew (Klare 1991: 14). In many cases, however, aircraft were pooled, so crews could be unaware of the background to names (Fochuk 1999: xi).

Aircraft Names

Figure 42.1 Two black-painted Dassault DA-20 Jet Falcon aircraft are operated by 717 Squadron of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, covering electronic warfare and VIP transport roles. Appropriately, the pair have been named Hugin and Munin after the two ravens of Norse mythology (Old Norse Huginn and Muninn, ‘thought’ and ‘memory’ or ‘mind’) that flew across the world, bringing information back to the god Odin.

Photograph: Guy Puzey, September 2011.

Official names were sometimes given to individual aircraft (see Fig. 42.1 for a modern example), often in recognition of sponsorship from savings drives such as the 1943 ‘Wings for Victory’ campaign, with ‘presentation aircraft’ named in honour of towns or companies that had donated large sums towards production. One unusual (p. 614) case was that of 427 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force, which was sponsored by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film company and named each of its Handley Page Halifax aircraft after MGM stars (Armstrong 1999: 48–9). Official names might also be given to individual aircraft that represented production milestones, such as Hawker Hurricane PZ865, named The Last of the Many as the last of the 14,533 aircraft of the type to be produced.

The title of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 account of his solo transatlantic flight, We—Pilot and Plane, is a particularly succinct expression of the significant bond between Lindbergh and his mount, The Spirit of St. Louis. Names beginning with ‘The Spirit of’ remain popular for individual aircraft in both military and civilian service. For instance, nineteen of the twenty-one Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber aircraft have been named after the ‘spirit of’ various US states (e.g. Spirit of Alaska or Spirit of Ohio), with the remaining two named Spirit of America and Spirit of Kitty Hawk. These names are officially recognized and many were bestowed at naming ceremonies in the relevant states. Other examples can be found among the ATR 42 aircraft once operated by Ryanair, three of which were given ‘spirit of’ names, such as The Spirit of Waterford. The British airline easyJet currently operates an Airbus A319 named Spirit of easyJet, which also carries displayed on the fuselage the names of employees who have won the company’s ‘Spirit Award’.

Other airlines often name their aircraft in thematic groups. British Airways used to name much of its Boeing 737 fleet after British rivers (e.g. River Glass), 747s after British cities (City of Cardiff/Dinas Caerdydd), 757s after British castles (Glamis Castle), 767s after European cities (City of Milan), and 777s after aviation pioneers (Sir Frank Whittle). These names were once painted on the fuselage, although they have disappeared with rebranding in the last decade.


(1) This chapter is concerned with the names of manned objects intended to fly solely through our planet’s atmosphere, but humankind has of course ventured further with other flying machines. For a discussion of the names of early rockets, ballistic missiles, and satellites, see Pearce (1962).

(2) For the purposes of this chapter, italics will be used for aircraft names. Aircraft will normally be named in full upon their first mention: in formal technical contexts, aircraft are usually referred to by their full name including the name of the manufacturer as well as the name of the type, which may include an alphanumeric type designation, e.g. the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Sub-type variants may feature an updated mark number or modified designation (Lockheed C-130H Hercules), a modified name, often descriptive of an update or new function (Lockheed C-130J Super Hercules), or a completely new type name (Lockheed EC-130H Compass Call). Some may be known by different names or designations depending on the user, for instance the Lockheed C-130J Super Hercules is named the Lockheed Hercules C.5 when in British service. In normal speech, aircraft are often referred to by their type name only (Hercules).

(3) Although the July 1918 system discontinued the practice established earlier that year of allocating initial letters to constructors, numerous future aircraft names would feature alliteration between constructors’ names and type names, as illustrated by the Vickers Valiant and many others such as the Bristol Blenheim, Hawker Hurricane, and Blackburn Buccaneer.

(4) The 717 code was originally given as the internal model number of the military refuelling aircraft now officially known as the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, but, as that earlier use was not widely known, the name Boeing 717 was later used to rebrand the McDonnell Douglas MD-95 after the two companies merged in 1997.

(5) In 1962, when the type was entering service with the RAF, new names were suggested, but the existing name remained (Wansbrough-White 1995: 46). One of the proposed type names from 1962, Voyager, has recently resurfaced as the chosen name for the VC10’s replacement as the RAF’s main tanker and transport aircraft, the Airbus Voyager.

(6) The name Tornado had also been used for several earlier aircraft, including a British fighter design of World War II, but the Hawker Typhoon was better known.