Pilot Identification

Q: Listening to air-ground communications over the entertainment system, I heard some airlines using code names to identify themselves. One I kept hearing was “Cactus.” Is this standard or was somebody being cute?

While private aircraft use their registration numbers for radio identification, commercial flights communicate with a call sign, i.e. airline name and flight number. Clearing a plane for takeoff the control tower would address, “Continental 424” or “Air France 012.” In lieu of the conventional call sign, various airlines have adopted more idiosyncratic monikers, and America West’s “Cactus” is a prime specimen. Aer Lingus uses the classic “Shamrock,” while at China Airlines it’s “Dynasty.” Others aren’t so self-explanatory. People presume British Airways’ “Speedbird,” is a reference to Concorde, but actually it’s the nickname of an old corporate logo — a small delta-winged colophon, dating back to BA’s predecessors. A “Springbok” is an antelope, and also the handle of South African Airways.

Pan Am’s “Clipper” was arguably the most famous example. Brought back to life by the recast Pan Am now operating out of New Hampshire, its use is not, you might say, politically recognized by some, and rings with a certain tone of non-legitimacy. Others from the past are New York Air’s “Apple,” Air Florida’s “Palm,” and ValuJet’s unfortunate election of “Critter.” Winning plaque in the call sign hall of shame, however, goes to my own former employer, Northeast Express Regional Airlines, who in a fit of terrible judgment chose the first letters of its names to create the hideous acronym “NERA,” pronounced, I think, “near-ah.” Utterance of this awful word brought grimaces to the faces of pilots and controllers alike, and was changed after a few weeks, possibly by order of the FAA.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.