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Air Force office puts all military aircraft names through the wringer

Naming all military aircraft is an Air Force responsibility, but a new office is in charge

Jul. 13, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The KC-46 Pegasus is the most recently named Air Force aircraft. (Air Force)
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An F-22 Raptor. (Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal / Air Force)

Name that plane

If you have an idea for what a new aircraft should be named, here’s the process, according to Air Force Instruction 16-401:
■ The aircraft has to be in production or have “immediate prospects of entering the DoD active inventory.”
■ The proposed name should be no more than two words, and should characterize “the mission and operational capabilities of the vehicle” and “aid communications and media references.” The name can’t sound similar to another name in use and must not “reflect negatively upon the DoD.”
■ The name needs manufacturer’s permission, and manufacturer-assigned names can be requested after permission is granted and the trademark has been reviewed.
■ As many as three names, in order of preference, can be submitted on a form letter after researching trademarks and names already in use. Form letters are found in the AFI.
■ After receiving the letter, the Air Force’s naming office will acknowledge the request within five working days, as “accepted” or “rejected.” If accepted, the name will be processed within 90 calendar days,with the final approval coming from the Air Force secretary.

There’s the beloved Thunderbolt. The stealthy Raptor. And now: the Pegasus.

These names for the A-10, F-22 and new KC-46 tanker — just like all other U.S. military aircraft names — were put through the wringer at an Air Force office established to make sure new planes get names that reflect their missions.

The office has for years resided with Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, but moved to the Pentagon this spring. The reason is simple: The longtime AFMC official in charge is retiring, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Erika Yepsen said.

Now the job will be an additional duty for officers in the program innovation division at Air Force headquarters, under revised Air Force Instruction 16-401. Those officials mainly handle budget programming and other duties, such as maintaining the service’s databases on aircraft and flight hours, Yepsen said.

The office holds the power to chart a name — down to each letter. Take, for example, the Army’s request in 2010 to name its unmanned MQ-1C, a derivative of the Air Force’s Predator, “Grey Eagle.” The Army wanted to name the aircraft after Native American warrior Grey Eagle, a Sioux chief, to follow the service’s tradition of naming aircraft after Indian warriors. But that didn’t fly with the Air Force’s Aircraft Naming Office, which approved the name “Gray Eagle” with the American spelling of “gray.” Since then, the spelling has been inconsistent on Defense Department and Army publications.

Under the updated instruction, which was released in May alongside similar policies for the Army and Navy, proposed names are handled by the A8PE office before final approval by the Air Force secretary. For the past 20 years, a Defense Department directive has given the Air Force final say on the names of military aircraft.

There are no aircraft immediately in need of names, but several programs over the next few years will need monikers, such as the next-generation combat search and rescue helicopter, the new training aircraft to replace the T-38 Talon and the long-range strike bomber.

Pegasus, for the KC-46A tanker, is the most recently approved name. The new tanker is just entering production, with its test variant flying.

“It’s a proud name,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said Feb. 20 when the service unveiled the moniker. “I had a chance to see the first on the assembly line a few weeks back. It will be flying in June. It’s a real thing now.”

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