Cactus, Speedbird, and Other Great Call Signs

America West had one of the best, but lost it in the politics of mergers.

America West, like its famous call sign, has ridden into the sunset. (Saguaro Pictures/Wikipedia)
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Whenever pilots talk on the radio, they have to identify themselves with a call sign. For most of us private fliers, it’s something like “Mooney Five-Four-Three-Alpha,” or whatever the airplane manufacturer is, followed by the tail number.

Less than a year ago, US Airways faded into history when it dropped the last vestige of its identity following a merger with American Airlines. It had been subsumed into American in 2013, after having been absorbed in 2005 by another rival, America West, which set the exception to the rule by keeping the US Airways name for the merged entity. That’s what they painted on the outside of the airplanes, but in the cockpit, the call sign pilots used for the combined lines was “Cactus,” which had been the call sign for America West. A cactus figured in some of its graphics, and besides, it is still, to me, one of the coolest call signs out there. A lot of old America West employees didn’t want to see it go, and right up until the final flight in October 2015, it was Cactus. Now it’s just “American.”

US Airways had started as All American Aviation, and changed its name to Allegheny Airlines in 1953. It scooped up Lake Central Airlines and later Mohawk Airlines by 1972, becoming a major carrier. The whole thing became USAir in 1979, when deregulation was in full flower. Pacific Southwest Airlines, with its smiling 727s, orange and pink color schemes and mini-skirted flight attendants, merged with it in 1986, followed in the next year by Piedmont Airlines, which functioned at the opposite end of the corporate-culture spectrum. USAir became US Airways and took on a more pin-striped look in 1997, just before it began to hit hard times.

Even though America West was the smaller airline by most measures, it was able to acquire the extensive routes and massive fleet of US Airways, whereas previous efforts by the latter to merge with Delta and United had been derailed. Normally, keeping the call sign was the only way to figure out who had acquired whom. America West started out using its name as its call sign, but radio communication in aviation is notoriously difficult to manage when the frequencies get busy, and what with Southwest and Northwest and all the other -wests out there, there was too much confusion. So America West held an in-house contest to come up with a call sign, and according to a 2015 story in the Arizona Republic, Cactus beat out Roadrunner, Firebird and Phoenix. Apparently Cactus was already in use, and it took Arizona Senator John McCain to wrest it free of its owner. The newspaper said McCain declined to be interviewed on the matter. Maybe he didn’t want people to know he’d thrown his weight around for a word.

There are other cool call signs: British Airways uses “Speedbird,” based on a logo it once used, and you have to imagine that word spoken with an English accent to fully appreciate its coolness. You can find a list (of course) of the 10 coolest call signs here, but to me there’s no question which one belongs at the top of the list.

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About George C. Larson

George C. Larson served as editor of Air & Space from 1985 to 2005. He is currently an inactive pilot, but holds a commercial pilot's license, with instrument and multi-engine ratings. He is between airplanes at this time, but has owned or operated a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger and a Mooney 201. He has been writing about aviation since 1972, when he joined the staff of Flying Magazine.

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