If you ever listen to air traffic control, you’ll hear pilots of both commercial and cargo aircraft identify themselves by a combination of their call sign and flight number. In fact these days there’s more than one type of call sign, which we discussed in-depth in this article from 2018. Here, I’d like to focus on the original radio call signs used by airlines, as this is where sparks of creativity tend to spring forth.

You might hear a handful of straightforward and obvious call signs at any given time: “American 37 heavy.”  “Air Canada 112.” And so on. The name of the airline and its call sign is the same. But then comes a surprise: “Brickyard 3630.” That’s Republic Airlines, by the way. In their case, the call sign refers to the airline’s historical base at Indianapolis, where the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway is known as the Brickyard (because back in the day the race track was paved with bricks. See? Some of these call signs reach deep into history.)

Middle East Airlines call sign Cedar Jet

Middle East Airlines call sign Cedar Jet

Middle East Airlines, aka MEA, carries the call sign Cedar Jet.

With that in mind I thought I’d put together a list of some of the better airline call signs out there. The airlines run the range from some of the biggest in the world to the very obscure. Some of the more unusual call signs make sense right off the bat, while others will leave you scratching your head. Next time you’re idly listening to air traffic control (we all do that for fun, right?) keep an ear out for these.

The big ones

Speedbird – British Airways. Any list of call signs needs to begin with Speedbird, which is probably the most famous ‘special’ call sign in the world. The name comes from an old logo of a bird, but whatever its origins, it is clearly the perfect call sign to evoke the speed and grace of an airliner cruising through the sky.

Springbok – South African Airways. The springbok decorated South African Airways planes since before it was even called that, back in its early days in the 1930s, and its first services to Europe in the 1940s were dubbed the “Springbok service.” Though the emblem has since disappeared, the call sign lives on.

South African Airways Springbok

South African Airways Springbok

A South African Airways A350. The springbok has long since disappeared from its livery.

Dynasty – China Airlines. The state-owned airline of Taiwan, China Airlines has long used the Dynasty call sign – which sounds oddly grandiose every time it comes over the radio, but at least it’s unique. Dynasty is also the name of its frequent flyer program and its lounges.

Shamrock – Aer Lingus. Another self-explanatory call sign that is no less evocative for its obviousness. The shamrock is the definitive symbol of Ireland as far as the outside world is concerned, and the green planes at Aer Lingus carry it perfectly.

Cedar Jet – Middle East Airlines. The cedar tree is a central symbol of Lebanon and even appears on its flag. The result for the Lebanese carrier is a refreshing call sign unlike any other.

Lesser-known examples

Air Guyane Express – Green Bird. Based in French Guiana, this airline has a green bird for a logo, so the call sign is obvious. Except that its planes now carry a livery with flowers. It’s nevertheless a nice way to refer to an airliner in flight.

Air Guyane Express green bird French Guiana ATR

Air Guyane Express green bird French Guiana ATR

An Air Guyane Express ATR. Planes used to feature two green birds on the tail.

Allied Air Cargo – Bambi. Why this Nigerian cargo airline has the call sign Bambi is a mystery, for now. Any readers have an inkling?

Air Cargo Carriers – Night Cargo. This call sign manages to be both descriptive and also seriously evocative. Cargo planes being loaded up under palm trees and rocketing off into the night to fly goods to exotic islands? It has a good ring. The airline has a hub at San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU).

Hahn Air – Rooster. The use of rooster is another mystery. Either way it’s very memorable. Hahn is a small German outfit running charters as well as a handful of scheduled flights. Pre-pandemic the airline used to run a Dusseldorf to Luxembourg scheduled flight on a Citation business jet – a rare chance to fly a private jet for relatively cheap.

Pegasus – Sun Turk. In a way this call sign makes plenty of sense. This is a Turkish airline and it flies to a number of sunny destinations via Istanbul. It’s also very weird.

Scoot – Scooter. This is another call sign that maybe makes some sense – take the name of the airline and make it roll off the tongue a little better. Never mind that a scooter is just about the antithesis of an airliner that flies through the sky. It wouldn’t have been my first choice.

Kalitta Air – Connie. It might sound odd at first, but not when you know that cargo operator Kalitta’s call sign comes from its founder Connie Kalitta, a former drag racer and a very interesting person in general.

Have we missed your favorite unusual call sign? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

Gabriel Leigh grew up on long-haul flights and has been fascinated by airplanes since he can remember. Now based in Sweden, he writes about transport, travel and more for publications like The New York Times, Monocle and Forbes.

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