Naming Airplanes After Birds… And Vice-Versa


The real harrier

The real harrier

Actually, there aren’t as many airplanes named after birds as you’d think, given that airplanes were inspired by birds in the first place. The first one I remember is the “Taube” (German for dove) in WWI. The other airplanes were named either for their designers or with words that described them or their manufacturers.

Between the wars (sad how we mark the passage of time), for some reason people seemed to name airplanes with no thought for the noble birds that inspired them, using the builder’s name, stars, constellations, numbers, letters, or a combination thereof. Perhaps it was a macho thing, and the names of birds didn’t seem to engender the mental image of derring-do that the aviators of the day wanted to portray. The only notable exception was the Ford Trimotor, nicknamed the “Tin Goose.”

In WWII, again the Germans seemed to lead the way with the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, a large transport aircraft, plus the first jet fighter to see operational service, the Messerschmitt Me 262 “Sturmvogel” or Stormbird. Most other entries into the aircraft field during the war again preferred names with more macho connotations like “Devastator” and “Thunderbolt,” etc., with the only exceptions coming from the British who shunned the use of numbers (except the series “mark” numbers) for names, a few of which were actually birds. The Blackburn Skua and Roc were both British fighter-bombers of the Royal Navy, as was the Fairey Fulmar. The only American airplanes of WWII that had avian names were the Hawk series by Curtiss (P-36, P-40, and model 75) and the Grumman amphibians, the Duck, Wigeon, Goose, Mallard, and Albatross. GM built an airplane they called the P-75 Eagle, but only 6 prototypes were completed. Of course, we cannot leave out the largest airplane of its day (or any day, for that matter), the Hughes H-4 Hercules, which was named derisively named the Spruce Goose, or one of the most successful designs of all time, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, aka the Gooney Bird.

Today, a few airplanes are named after birds, both in the military ranks and in the world of civilian aviation. Cessna has one of the most successful and ubiquitous private airplanes ever built, the 172 Skyhawk, plus the twin-engined 421 Golden Eagle. The first operational stealth fighter was the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, and the first operational VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) military jets were called Kestrel by the British and later renamed Harrier by the US Marines. Presently, the Marines operate the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey as well as the Harrier jet. It would appear that special abilities, i.e., vertical flight and hovering, seem to remind people that birds could do this before we were able to duplicate this talent! The current US Air Force and Air National Guard inventory contain the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and the General Dynamics F-16 Falcon.

And lest we forget, the fastest and certainly one of the most advanced airplanes ever built by man, the SR-71, was named after a lowly barnyard pest, the Blackbird! (I know I’ve left out a few, like the Globe Swift – one of which I once owned – but most of the omissions were obscure models or one-of-a-kind airplanes, much like hybrid birds that weren’t successful and never passed on their genes!)


5 Responses to Naming Airplanes After Birds… And Vice-Versa

  1. Terry Smith says:

    The Hawker Kestrel and Hawker Harrier are two different planes both developed and named by the British not the USMC.

    • tstevens says:

      You are 100% correct. I knew that and that’s why I said the Kestrel and the Harrier were “operated” by the American forces, not developed by them. It’s true they are different aircraft, but they were both the outgrowth of the same development by Hawker Siddeley which first produced the Kestrel in the 1950s and quickly evolved into the Harrier series in the 60s.

      • Ichabod says:

        Actually, your article says “… were called Kestrel by the British and later renamed Harrier by the US Marines” which suggests that these are the same aircraft.

        • tstevens says:

          Well, they were not exactly the same aircraft, but similar. Both had the same basic configuration and were jet powered, vectored thrust, v/stol airplanes. Just as in WWII when our Navy and Marines flew the Grumman F4 “Wildcat”, the British flew a version of the F4 which they called the “Marlet” which was basically the same airframe but differing models.

  2. L Fox says:

    Blackbirds are not lowly barn yard pests! They are a wonderful, social and beneficial bird. A fitting name for the SR-71!

Leave a Reply to Terry Smith Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>