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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

Type rated on A330, B747-400, B747, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


T.H.ursday's with Tom Hill 
Alias Sulu...

My aviation career has mostly been within a professional military environment that sometimes can be a bit off-tempo. What I mean is, sometimes we have grown men and women referring to each other with names our mothers may not approve. Bulldog, Shaft, Mac, Pee Wee, Slick, Trigger... the list is endless. Of course, I have my own callsign, Sulu. And, as with everyone else, there's a story. First, some background:

Not all communities use callsigns. In the USAF, callsigns are mostly isolated to the fighter communities. I have no idea where and when these traditions started, but when you are anointed with a name, there's a feeling you've finally been accepted into the community. You have made it through the wringer and you are now counted as a brother.

The story is: Sulu was not my first callsign. When I started as a military aviator I was simply Tom. Maybe someone used Tommy on occasion, but mostly I was simply Tom, just as my mother thought everyone called me. "Tom" lasted through my tour flying F-4's, mostly with Vietnam War veterans who had names like Pink, Red, Fuzzy, K12, Gnash, and so on. Me, I was simply "Tom".

That all changed when I began F-15 training. Naming folks is serious business in the F-15 community. Normally, there was a naming after everyone in the students' class solo'd the F-15. By then, all of us had had plenty of opportunity to highlight ourselves. Sometimes our buffoonery led directly to a name: Pins for forgetting to pull ejecting seat pins, Trigger for mashing on the trigger for no apparent reason, Flare for not flaring enough, or flaring too much on landing and hurting something on the jet. (Yes, that happened in my class). The opportunity for creative name association in this environment was endless. 

When I was named at my F-15 training, our class was all lined up in a row, shot glasses ready to toast. The squadron's Weapons Officer walked down the row, anointed us with our name--"You are now and ever more known as Flares," for example. Then, he proceeded to tell a tale, which justified the name but had little to do with truth. Entertainment was key. The newly named fellow took his glass, toasted the bar, then was named. Me, I was named Benny, as in Benny Hill of 1980's British comedy fame. You know - the guy who would madly pedal a children's tricycle, stop, then teeter over sideways like a falling tree. I don't recall the story justifying the name. It was just my name while learning to fly the F-15.

Fast forward six months to my first operational assignment at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. Arriving there was another opportunity for being named. You see, the F-15 community named all new arrivals in their squadron regardless of how long they had a name from before. Everyone went through the gauntlet on a Friday afternoon naming session. Most of the newly arrived old heads kept their names. With the new guys like me, anything was possible.

Of course, nothing happens without a story. The more epic the story the better. As a result, most folks in my new squadron were named after they went on their first squadron deployment. The pressure of deployments was always a ripe opportunity for good stories. In my case, that didn't matter. For me, it was all about how my call sign sounded.

There were lots of reasons why people got their names. We weren't always insensitive to one's desires, though saying out loud you liked a name tended to get the name erased from the candidate list. Sometimes names were rejected because they failed the mother test--i.e., would your mom be too embarrassed to hear you called by that name at a Christmas family gathering? We even considered what other aviators think. When flying air-to-air training missions, it was always better to have a wingman with a name striking fear in the heart of your adversaries--e.g., Pounder--versus something that invoked a laugh--e.g., Twinkie.

My naming was done in our squadron bar, aka, The Zipper. About the size of a big bedroom, it was quite a feat to pack the whole squadron in there. Imagine a place with sandbags on the wall, sand painted into the floor to improve traction for Friday night activities. A bar, a cooler, no chairs or stools--who's going to sit in a bar, after all? A parachute hanging in the corner. In another corner was a table with one chair on top for the namee.

When I was up there, the crowd was already quite raucous from earlier namings. Candidate names were requested by the squadron's Mayor--i.e., the social chairman. Names were shouted out. One of the Flight Commanders scribbled on a chalk board keeping record. It was loud - definitely not a library affair.

After the list was made, stories were enlisted to justify why the proposed name was appropriate for the namee. We always claimed stories were based on at least 10% truth, the objective being the story was more important than the truth. Most stories began with the same line, "There I was...," which obviously meant all to follow was true. After the stories were complete, voice-voting on each candidate name was made using a highly sensitive sound meter: a guy standing at the front using his arm like an analog instrument needle. Clearly, highly scientific. Imagine much cheering and yelling, then you'll get the idea. After clearing out the weakest names leaving the top four or five, re-votes were done. One by one, re-votes were doned until a winner was found. Then newly named pilot made a toast to the squadron. After which, much celebration ensues, as if all the previous yelling and carrying on before wasn't enough. 

When I was in the chair, Sulu wasn't even on the list. The last two names were Benny, from my previous naming at F-15 training, and Spock. Why Spock? I have no idea. Someone listed it, told a story that made no sense, and it stuck until the bitter end. The voting was tight, requiring one repeat, then another, and another. The sound meter kept showing the same crowd enthusiasm for both names. Stalemate! Then in the midst of all this yelling and carrying on, our Weapons Officer--the man who defined our tactics in the squadron--yells out, "If SPOCK is good, SULU is better!"

I've always been a Star Trek fan. I watched all the reruns, time and time again. I certainly knew all the characters and definitely knew George Takei's Sulu, the Japanese navigator on the Enterprise. When it was down to Spock and Benny, at the end I thought Spock would have been a great name. But, when Sulu was yelled out, I instantly thought it fit me better. After all, my mom was Japanese.

Of course, nothing was simple in these situations. Everyone was yelling and carrying on. Sulu was now on the board. A voice yelled out "Hey, does he like it?" thinking a rule might be broken by giving me a name I liked. I shock my head to head to indicate a firm "No." "He hates it! He hates Sulu!" someone else yelled.

Immediately, voting resumed. Benny and Spock were erased off the board in short order. I became Sulu. That was almost 25 years ago.

Sometime down the road, I'll write about callsigns and how real people only know of you by these cartoon names. Grown adults calling me Sulu. It makes no sense, whatsoever. But it's our community.


NOTE: The first two images were from taken in Adak Alaska. The last image was taken in Midway a couple of days/nights later.  They all were taken during Tom's second trip to Hawaii through Alaska. Which he says, "That's a story in itself." And I know I'm looking forward to hearing it. 


  1. A hilarious post, Tom and thanks. God help the Jet Jockey who does not drink - if there are any.

    1. Thanks for your comment Craig. Oh... yes, I'm not sure they would survive in that world, would they?


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