'Springbok, Cleared for Landing': More on the Language of the Skies

By Deborah Fallows.
Real Time Flight Tracking via Flightradar24. Sunday 10:30 AM ET, Dec. 8, 2013

By Deborah Fallows.

[See update* below.] On our recent flight home in our small plane from Eastport ME, to Washington DC, we were listening, as we often do, to the air traffic controllers (ATC). They were talking back and forth with various aircraft in the usual manner:

       Pilot: New York Center. American 935. fifteen thousand feet.

And the air traffic controller’s response is: Acknowledgment. Altimeter reading (necessary gauge for determining altitude)

       ATC: American 935. New York Center. New York altimeter  30.14.

Then a little while later, we heard a callsign I had never heard before: Brickyard. It was an exchange something like this:

        Pilot: Washington Center. Brickyard 215. nine thousand.

        ATC: Brickyard 215. Washington Center. Washington altimeter  30.10.

I wondered about Brickyard, and learned that it belongs to Republic Airlines, a regional supplier that operates flights for major national brands. I know that airline as one that sometimes flies the daily nonstop as US Airways Express between Washington DC, where I live, and Sarasota FL, where my mom lives. Republic also operates service for a number of other airlines, like American Eagle and Frontier.

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But Brickyard? Well, according to Funtrivia.com, Republic is the regional airline out of Indianapolis, home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nicknamed The Brickyard.

A few weeks later, I read my husband, Jim’s, post about the enormous 747 “dreamlifter” cargo airplane that landed at the wrong -- and much too small -- airport in Kansas.  I heard on the recording between the ATC and the pilot that the big plane had the callsign Giant. Fitting, I thought, when I learned that Giant is the callsign for Atlas Air.

Many of the major airlines use callsigns of  their standard company names, like American, United, Lufthansa, Alitalia, and Delta. But then there are the other creative and curious ones, which we hear regularly along the east coast through New England and MidAtlantic states. Ones like Citrus, Cactus, and Waterski.

Cactus? US Airways merged with America West Airlines, and based out of Tempe AZ, home to so many saguaro cacti.

Citrus? AirTran Airways, headquartered now in Dallas, but at one time in Orlando.

Waterski? Trans States Airlines, another regional airline which operates for United Express and US Airways Express. It was originally Resort Air, which ferried vacationers (and presumably waterskiiers) to Lake of the Ozarks.

So that got me wondering about all the callsigns. Who are they? What are their etymologies? Do they fall into categories? I did some digging and here’s what I discovered:

First, this can get overwhelming very quickly! As I look right now, I see live tracking of every airplane in the air. Delta has 388 planes flying. United has 351. Southwest has 345, and American 205, and on down the list of hundreds of individual airlines. Their callsigns are right there, too. And if that isn’t enough for you, go here to see a complete list of airlines, beyond those that have planes in the air right now. I can’t even count the total.

As a way to get a handle on this, I decided to see if I could find any interesting categories or patterns among the callsigns. Here is a makeshift taxonomy:

Animal names: Of course, bird names are well represented, but there are lots of other land creatures as well.

Speedbird, British Airways

Eagle Flight, American Eagle

Flying Eagle, Eagle Air from Tanzania

White Eagle, White Eagle Aviation from Poland

Twin-Goose, Air-taxi from Europe

Kingfisher, Kingfisher Airlines from India

Rooster, Hahn Air from Germany (Hahn is German for rooster!)

Jetbird, Primera Air from Iceland

Bird Express, Aero Services Executive from France

Polish Bird, Air Poland

Bluebird, Virgin Samoa

Songbird, Sky King from the US

Nile Bird, Nile Air from Egypt

Nilecat, Delta Connection Kenya

Flying Dolphin, Dolphin Air from UAE

Deer Jet, Beijing Capital Airlines

Dragon, Tianjin Airlines from China

Longhorn, Express One International from the US (Texas, I suppose)

Springbok, South African Airways

Bambi, Allied Air Cargo from Nigeria (At least I like to think it references Bambi)

Simba, African International Airlines

Go Cat, Tiger Airways, Singapore

Polar Tiger, Polar Air Cargo, Long Beach

Sky Themes, with many evocative references to space flight and fantasy:

Flagship, Endeavor Air from Minneapolis

Blue Streak, PSA Airlines from Ohio

Star Check, Air Net from Ohio

Air Thunder, Thunder from Canada

Sky Challenge, Challenge Aero from Ukraine

White Star, Star Air from Denmark

Mercury, Shuttle America from Indiana

Archangelsk, Nordavia from Russia

Something about the Country of Origin:

Glacier, Central Mountain from Canada

Shamrock, Aer Lingus

Iceair, Icelandair

Bearskin, Bearskin Lake Air Service Ltd. from Canada

Sandbar, Mega Maldives

Gotham, Meridian Air Charter from Teterboro NJ

Vegas Heat, Corporate Flight International

Lucky Air, Lucky Air from China

Viking, Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia

Great Wall, Great Wall Airlines

Fuji Dream, Fuji Dream Airlines

Jade Cargo, Jade Cargo International from China

SpiceJet, SpiceJet from India

Salsa, SALSA D’Haiti

Delphi, Fly Hellas from Greece

And just for fun:

Lindbergh, GoJet from Missouri

Wild Onion, Chicago Air

Rex, Regional Express from Australia

Suckling, Scot Airways from the UK*

Yellow, DHL Aero Express from Panama

There are many, many more. But these alone are reason enough for passengers on commercial planes to request listening in on the chatter between the ATCs and the pilots.

To contact the author, write DebFallows @ gmail.

* UPDATE A reader fills in the background of the callsign Suckling:

ScotAir's mom-and-pop parent firm, before a lot of corporate chopping and changing, was a couple named Suckling. It's a common name in East Anglia. Sir John Suckling, poet and inventor of cribbage, came from those parts.

They ran off of a grass strip in Ipswich, to Edinburgh and Manchester. The in-flight meals were cooked in their kitchen and driven to the plane. A wonderful story, and a BBC documentary. But 9/11 and a bunch of mergers ended that. In Apri1 2013 the entity disappeared and its call sign went with it.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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