[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.
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
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
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.
* 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.