Searching for Call Signs

Since our website has been online, we have been blessed with many inputs by eyewitnesses or participants to make our database more complete and more accurate. Those inputs are invaluable, and we encourage contacting us with more information.

Among those that have written to us with requests are some that participated in Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts, either as a weapons platform to suppress fire (SARCAP/RESCAP) or as a rescue helicopter. In almost all of those instances, the SAR participants had only a radio call sign with which to contact the survivors on the ground. Those participants may not have known what type of aircraft went down or even what service it was from, let alone what squadron or home base (ship) it came from. With so little information, it was impossible for them to search our database to find the answers to questions that have plagued them for many decades.

Accordingly, Chris went back through all the records and retrieved as many call signs as he could find. We added those to the database. Because of the complexity of adding another field to the database at this late date just for those call signs and re-engineering the search algorithms and search forms, as well as the format of the retrieved information, that was determined not to be the best solution.

What we decided to do was to add those call signs to the Narratives of the loss events. Most often, they are added inside parentheses, such as (call sign Misty River 2).

The Narratives can be searched using the methods outlined in our Hints on How to Search, but some additional explanations about call signs are necessary, as outlined below:

  • The call signs we’ve included came from the official record. The official record might well break a one-word call sign into two words (or vice versa). For example, Riverboat might be recorded sometimes as River Boat. Of course, we all know that Furbritches is one word, but the analysts in Washington just wouldn’t understand. Just a few other examples from the dozens of compound words that might be broken into two words: Ringneck, Playboy, Moonglow, Shotgun, Wildcat, Ramrod, Redbird, Polkadot, Dogwood, Gunfighter, Sleeptime, etc. As you can see, a search for the compound word, when the data has been input as two words, will not recover what is being sought (Sleep Time, Polka Dot, etc.).
  • The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force had entirely different conventions to determine call signs, and those conventions within the service or at a particular home base or under a specific wing commander changed over time.
  • The Air Force used a variety of constructs at various times from various bases. Starting in 1965, the Thailand-based squadrons were allocated call signs relating to a specific subject. They then appended the position within the flight, most often, arriving at the call sign of Shark 4, meaning the fourth aircraft in Shark flight. But none of that is universal.
    • Korat’s call signs were tree names, such as Oak, Peach, Sycamore, etc.
    • Takhli used car names, such as Olds, Chevrolet, Ford, Kaiser, Buick, etc.
    • Ubon and Udorn both used animal names, such as Bass, Shark, Perch, etc., or Bear, Eagle, Buzzard, Cheetah, etc.
    • This continued until June 1966 after which the call signs became much more varied with no discernible pattern, although some of the car names were occasionally used in 1967.
    • From late 1966, A-1 Skyraiders started using Sandy as a call sign when on a SAR mission.
    • From early 1966, the AC-47 Gunship squadrons used Spooky as their call sign.
    • A-26’s used the call sign Nimrod
    • By early 1966, at least, the B-57 squadrons were using the call signs Red Bird and Yellow Bird
    • 23 TASS was using the call sign Nail by January 1967, and 20 TASS was using the call sign Covey by February 1967
    • FAC’s (at times) used a personal number along with a unit name, such as Covey 31 or Nail 4. Anytime that guy was airborne, he used the same call sign. But that wasn’t universal, either.
  • In the Marine Corps, all aircraft from all the squadrons in the Air Wing flying from that base had the same call sign, determined by the Wing Commander at the time. An “event number” from the daily flight schedule for that base determined the number, such as Hellborne 52, meaning the second aircraft in the flight for the fifth event of the day.
    • From at least 1966, call signs were allocated by the MAG to their squadrons.
    • MAG-11 at Da Nang - Condole (1966), then Low Gap (1967), then Ringneck (1968 to 1969)
    • MAG-12 at Chu Lai - Oxwood (1966-1967), then Hellborne (1968-1972)
    • MAG-13 at Chu Lai - Love Bug (1968-1972)
    • VMCJ-1 of MAG-11 used the call sign Pigment from 1968
    • H&MS-11 of MAG-11 used the call sign Playboy (1969-70)
    • VMFA-333 used Shamrock while on board the USS America in 1972
    • VMA-533 of MAG-15 at Nam Phong used the call sign Tiny in 1972
  • The Navy was most consistent in that each squadron used its own call sign, approved at high levels and not subject to change without a lot of paperwork. They kept that squadron call sign even if they moved to another air wing on a different ship or even transitioned to another type of aircraft. They appended the side number of the aircraft to arrive at a number, such as Black Lion 105, for all Air Traffic Control communications. Even then, if they were on a tactical frequency, they might revert to Black Lion 2 or Black 2, as the second aircraft in the flight. It was a lot easier for a FAC, for example, to keep track of Black 1 through 4 than Black Lion 105, 112, 107, and 114 while working over a target.
  • Of course, in many cases there is no official record of a number, either side number or position in the flight, so all we have is Sidewinder Flight.
  • When a multi-place aircraft was lost, the convention across all services was the pilot became “Alpha,” and the WSO/RIO/GIB became “Bravo.” So, the aircrew from the lost aircraft once on the ground might check in with SAR forces as Black Lion 4 Alpha or Black Lion 104 Alpha.

As a practical matter, remembering the call sign of other aircraft, or even your own, in dire circumstances was difficult. To a great extent, talking to each other within a flight, particularly to call a “Break” turn or pointing out a SAM or MiG, was done using the first thing that came to mind, and that was often the nickname of the pilot in the other aircraft. Those nicknames were used on training flights and became ingrained in the lexicon. The ones that were most useful were those that sounded clear and unique on a garbled radio frequency when time was of the essence. The words that cut through the noise better have long vowels, often two or three syllables, and hard consonants, such as “Micro” (Dave Lovelady’s call sign). Eventually, those nicknames, which were used on the radio out of necessity in combat became popular because of the movie “Top Gun” in 1986 (Maverick, Iceman, Goose). From that time forward, everyone in aviation had to have a personal call sign, even if they were never in flight conditions for which the need had developed and evolved. Originally, fighter pilots used them most because the teamwork required in a dogfight necessitated an ongoing conversation. Nowadays, aircraft types that never even fly in formation with another aircraft have pilots with personal call signs. Those nicknames that became call signs are "personal" call signs as opposed to official call signs. There are no "personal" call signs in our database.

As one can readily see, call signs can be problematic; however, searching for them is not particularly difficult. First, go to our Search Forms, and scroll down the page until you see Narrative Search. You will be helped considerably if you read the introduction to that search form about operators that can be used, along with the explanation in more detail of Boolean searches on our Hints on How to Search page. All the rules and conventions associated with searching the Narratives apply to call signs, as well as any other text, but a few additional considerations should be applied, such as the following:

  • We mentioned that some official records list compound words as two separate words. For example, if you search for Yellow Bird and the call sign has been entered into the Narrative as Yellowbird, you may not find everything you’re looking for. The proper syntax could be “yellow bird” (with the quotation marks), which will search for those two words, in that sequence, with one space between them.
  • In the above example, one could also search for [yellow*] (without the brackets), which would retrieve all Narratives with the word yellow or a longer word beginning with yellow, such as yellowbird.
  • When dealing with leading words that may be commonly used in contexts other than call signs, such as the word “black,” the use of the words “call sign” could be added. For example, the syntax “call sign black” (including the quotation marks) would retrieve all Narratives that had those three words in that sequence, such as (call sign Black Lion 112) as well as (call sign Black Ace 175) or (call sign Black Pony), but it would not retrieve a reference to Black River or Black Friday or a person named Black. Unfortunately, that search would not find a reference to a call sign beginning with the word “black” unless “call sign” precedes it. Almost all of the references to call signs in our Narratives do include the words “call sign” but not every single one of them.

As with any issues dealing with our website and database, if you cannot figure out how to retrieve what you want, just ask us through our Contact Us form

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