The official language of the US military is English. But, to civilians, the military can seem to speak a completely foreign language. I’m not just talking about acronyms either. Words like woobie or gedunk will get you weird looks outside of the military (or even their specific service). This unique naming convention especially applies to aircraft as well. The DoD might have a cool name for a fighter plane when they buy it, but whatever the pilots and ground crews call it sticks. While some of these nicknames might be familiar to civilians with a moderate interest in modern military aviation, a few are more obscure and more exclusive to service circles.
1. A-10 Thunderbolt II (Warthog)
Thanks to the A-10’s widespread internet fame, this one is pretty universally known. Although officially named as a successor to the WWII fighter plane that excelled in the close air support role, the Thunderbolt II is most often referred to as the Warthog or just Hog. The nickname is derived from the animalistic roaring whine that the Hog’s iconic GAU-8 Avenger 30mm cannon makes when it fires, as well as its ugly appearance and preference for flying low to the dirt and mud where the action is. The cannon also protrudes prominently below the nose of the aircraft. This lends nicely to one of the A-10’s nose art designs resembling a Warthog’s face, complete with tusks.
2. F-16 Fighting Falcon (Viper)
The F-16 gained cultural notoriety after it was featured in the 1986 classic Iron Eagle. Although it wasn’t nearly as successful as Top Gun, which came out later that same year, Iron Eagle introduced many civilians to the agile and adaptable Fighting Falcon. Of course, the pilots refer to it as the Viper. The nickname comes from the aircraft’s sharp appearance which resembles both a viper snake and the Colonial Viper Mk 2 Starfighter from Battlestar Galactica. Moreover, the Japanese version of the F-16 also carries the Viper nickname. Derived from the F-16, the Mitsubishi F-2 is nicknamed the Viper Zero in reference to the F-16 Viper and the WWII-era Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
3. F-35 Lightning II (Panther)
Like the A-10, the F-35 is a junior named after a WWII fighter plane. Similarly, Lightning II just doesn’t role off the tongue. In fact, most people refer to the aircraft as the F-35 or JSF, referring to the Joint Strike Fighter program that the F-35 came from. Rather than use any of these names, Air Force pilots christened the F-35 with the official unofficial nickname of Panther. The nickname spread throughout the Air Force and to the service’s elite Weapons School. Students in the 6th Weapons Squadron now wear patches featuring the F-35 and the words “Panther Tamer.” The Panther moniker has also spread to the Navy and Marine Corps, whose pilots also fly the F-35; appropriate given that the Navy and Marines previously flew the F9F Panther jet fighter during the Korean War.
4. C-17 Globemaster III (Moose)
The C-17 is the workhorse of Air Mobility Command. Living up to its official name, the Globemaster III is capable of transporting troops, equipment, and even an M1 Abrams tank around the world. The C-17 gained immense notoriety after an Air Force crew flew over 800 refugees, well in excess of the official passenger capacity of 134 paratroopers, out of Afghanistan. Its nickname, Moose, would seemingly be in reference to the C-17’s size and strength. In fact, the nickname has nothing to do with the C-17’s appearance or performance. During ground refueling, the C-17 vents excess pressure in the system through relief vents. The resulting sound is similar to that of a moose call. But not just any moose call; the call of a female moose in heat. In nature, the wailing bawl is answered by a male’s heavy grunt in anticipation of mating. On the flightline, the sound is likely met with snickering from airmen in the know.
5. F/A-18 Super Hornet (Rhino)
The F/A-18’s history is interesting because the alphanumeric designation applies to two different aircraft. The original F/A-18 Hornet encompasses A, B, C, and D models. Serving as a baseline, the Hornet has since been developed into the Super Hornet with E and F models, and even the EA-18G Growler. The Super Hornet is more advanced and noticeably larger than its predecessor which results in a more pronounced nose. Given this feature, pilots took to calling the Super Hornet the Rhino, drawing parallels to the animal’s iconic horn. This served to distinguish between legacy and Super Hornets. It is also an homage to the F-4 Phantom II which was also nicknamed Rhino for the same reason.