Aircraft manufacturers and users have a penchant for picking names for their machines. Sometimes, a name is so good or so universally associated with a manufacturer that it gets recycled on a new design.
The Chance Vought company’s first Corsair was in 1926. It was an observation biplane, the O2U, supplanted by the O3U. Fewer than 300 were manufactured.
When Vought’s inverted gullwing F4U fighter promised to revolutionize naval fighter performance, it received the name Corsair in 1941. For many, this is the quintessential Corsair.
But not the last Corsair — the Ling-Temco-Vought company’s A-7 jet ground attack aircraft of the 1960s, carried the name Corsair II, evidently ignoring the biplane that came first.
Douglas built the C-54 Skymaster, a four-engine transport of World War II vintage that gained fame during the Berlin Airlift, and remained in service with firefighting air tanker operators into the early part of this century.
In 1961, Cessna called its fixed-gear twin engine Model 336 the Skymaster; an upgraded retractable gear variant, the 337, initially carried the moniker Super Skymaster, eventually taking just the Skymaster name.
Though the Douglas and Cessna aircraft had no relationship, they shared a grand name — who wouldn’t want to fly in a Skymaster?
A trend for alliterative aircraft naming made the fast Lockheed P-38 fighter a natural to be called the Lockheed Lightning. After all, Martin had the Marauder and Mariner, Consolidated owned the Catalina and Coronado, Brewster built the Buffalo and Bermuda, and Vultee made the Vengeance and Valiant.
Decades after the successful World War II P-38, the Lightning name was invoked anew for the F-35, as the Lightning II.
Republic built the P-47 Thunderbolt, perhaps a crafty way to complement the use of Lightning on another fighter of the era. The Thunderbolt earned a reputation for rugged ground attack capabilities in addition to its role as a fighter in the Second World War.
When Fairchild-Republic developed the successful A-10 ground attack jet in the 1970s that is still in service today, the logic of calling it the Thunderbolt II found favor. Even so, a pedigreed official name like Thunderbolt II has often been eclipsed in popular usage by unofficial nicknames for the pugnacious A-10: Warthog or just Hog, and sometimes even the colloquial Hawg.
Douglas made an ambitious Air Force transport, the C-74 Globemaster, which first flew in September 1945. With a wingspan greater than 173 feet, the C-74 could carry more than 100 troops and large vehicles on transatlantic and transpacific sorties.
It was a product of wartime Air Force strategy to increase the ability to take the war overseas in an order of magnitude far greater than had been contemplated in peacetime.
With peace coming the same month as the C-74’s first flight, the production run was cut to only 14 aircraft. The utility of the C-74 Globemaster, while better than that of other contemporary transports, was something that would be challenged by other designs.
Douglas took aspects of the C-74, like its wing and powerful R-4360 engines, and crafted a much larger double-deck fuselage for the transport, resulting in the C-124.
The C-124 carried the name Globemaster II, in possibly the most logical naming of a derivative aircraft from the same manufacturer. The C-124 opened up the world of Air Force airlift, making it truly a viable global operation into the 1960s, when faster jet airlifters like the C-141 and later C-5 took over.
When McDonnell-Douglas made the successful C-17 jet transport in the 1990s, sufficient care was given in its naming to correctly place it as the Globemaster III, following its two piston-engine ancestors.
The armed services have a decision-level stake in the naming of their aircraft. The McDonnell Company, builders of many naval fighters since the late 1940s, grew a family of warplanes named for apparitions like Banshee, Demon, Goblin, and Phantom.
The first Phantom was the FH-1 of 1945. When the advanced F4H-1 (later F-4) fighter was up for naming in 1959, McDonnell sent hundreds of ballots to navy and marine organizations soliciting a moniker for the jet. We may never know how many of the ballots were filled out in earnest, but some of the suggestions offered for the F4H-1 included Troll, Witch Doctor, Zombie, Massacre, Ogre, Bopper, and Dracula. But the numerical winner was Satan. The Navy and McDonnell wisely went with Phantom II instead.
North American’s ubiquitous World War II advanced trainer, the AT-6, gained the name Texan, where most were built and many were used. (Another trainer of the era, the Beech AT-11, carried the name of its state of origin as the Kansan.)
Later called simply T-6 in Air Force usage, the piston-engine Texan went on to become a popular icon of the civilian warbird and air show movements.
When the U.S. Air Force and Navy went looking for a new trainer to meet the needs of the 1990s and future generations of flight students, the original T-6 had been retired from military service. That nomenclature was available for re-use, and the gods of military aircraft naming decided the new trainer, a Beech/Raytheon modification of the Pilatus PC-9, would be the T-6 Texan II. Never mind that the original Texan was built by a different organization altogether.
And the U.S. Navy calls its T-44 trainer versions of the Beech Model 90 the Pegasus. Now the Air Force says the big new KC-46 tanker is the Pegasus.
If anything can be deduced from American military aircraft naming, it is that the process is regularly irregular.