A nickname for each aircraft

SM79 4

Warthog, Hellcat, “Gobbo maledetto” (Damned Hunchback), “Mamma aiuto” (Help me, Mother) are only some of the strange nicknames given to military aircraft.  

Not everyone knows that aircraft, especially in the military sector, are often given pet names. Some of the names are tied to the manufacturers’ traditions. For example, Grumman usually gives feline names to its aircraft. An example was the F6F Hellcat which means literally “infernal cat,” but it is also slang for an ill-tempered woman or harridan. McDonnell chooses names from occult myth such as F2H Banshee, F3H Demon, F4 Phantom.

The actual shape of the aircraft is often the source of the nickname. The Junkers J1, for example, was called “Tin Donkey” because its graceless shape was only saved by its innovative metallic structure. The FIAT G91 was a shapely aircraft, and the Germans called it “Gina” because it reminded them of Gina Lollobrigida. The Fairchild A10 was an American anti-tank aircraft named “Warthog.” The shape of the back of the Savoia Marchetti SM79's cockpit meant that it was called “Damned Hunchback” by its crews – a nickname was also inspired by the courage of its pilots.

The SM79 was not the only Savoia Marchetti to be given a special name. A second version of the same plane, used for the Istres-Damascus-Paris race, was nicknamed “Sorci Verdi” (Green Mice). Three Italian aeroplanes won the race and the nickname came from the emblem on the fuselage, which then became synonymous with “showing unimaginable things.” The Savoia Marchetti SM82 is known as “Marsupiale” (Marsupial) thanks to its loading capacity.

The nicknames also represented certain features, feared or admired by the opposition. The First World War German monoplane fighter to be equipped with a synchronised machine gun was the Fokker Eindecker. It was nicknamed the “Fokker Scourge” by the British due to its technical superiority. On the other hand, the Boeing P-26, the first American monoplane fighter was called “Peashooter” because of its weak firepower and that its gun blast tubes looked like a peashooter.

Strategic bombers used during the Second World War such as the American Boeing B17, are well known in the collective imagination. This is because they were dubbed “flying fortresses” by a journalist Richard Williams when he saw the first one. It turned out to be a lucky name, and following the tradition, the subsequent B29 was nicknamed “Superfortress”.

Some aeroplanes are given sarcastic nicknames. The reconnaissance and rescue Cant Z.501 seaplane earned its nickname “Mamma aiuto” (Help me, Mother) because it was slow and easy to shoot down. Then there was the Convair B-36 which had the ironic nickname "Peacemaker" – it was a Cold War long-range nuclear bomber.

Speaking of nuclear bombers, the Boeing B29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima was “baptised” by the pilot Paul Tibbets with his mother’s name, Enola Gay. It is still on show at the Smithsonian Museum in New York.