The F-35’s New, Much Better Nickname is “Panther”. The F-35’s New, Much Better Nickname is “Panther”
Some of the best defense news in weeks—or maybe even months—is that U.S. Air Force pilots have nicknamed the F-35A fighter the “Panther.” This follows a long history of American warplanes receiving nicknames that become much more popular than their official names, and is a nice switchup from the plane’s poorly received official name “Lightning II.”
According to The War Zone U.S. Air Force pilots at Nellis Air Force Base refer to the F-35A as the “Panther.” The article features a patch from the service’s 6th Weapons Squadron with the words “Panther Tamer”, referring to the F-35A. Of course, everyone knows the official name of the F-35A is the Lightning II, but at Nellis it’s “Panther.”
One of the most understated problems with the F-35—a plane with many problems—is the name. The F-35 was named after not one but two planes: the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter of World War II, and the English Electric Lightning jet fighter of the Cold War. Like the F-35, the fork-tailed P-38 was also built by Lockheed Martin, and the United Kingdom would be one of the largest overseas customer of the Joint Strike Fighter.
The resulting name, “Lightning Two” is a nice gesture to history, but it’s also deeply unpopular. Nobody other than the Pentagon uses it. Reporters writing about the F-35 often go entire articles without using the name, preferring F-35 or the older "Joint Strike Fighter." Many people with a casual interest in the F-35 may not even be aware of the official name.
Why is it unpopular? For one, the name is too long. The best warplane names are short and sweet: Sabre and Viper are examples. A nice cadence can make a longer name, like Tornado or Phantom, roll more easily off the tongue. A long but mighty name like Strike Eagle can force acceptance from sheer coolness. Lightning Two has none of these qualities.
Another reason Lightning Two is so disliked is because it is a sequel name. People dislike sequels, which are often uninspiring messes piggybacking off the popularity of the original. Many outside observers would have said the same thing about the F-35 in the late 2000s, and some would still say so now. Original names fare much better: the F-22 Raptor is the first jet bearing the name Raptor and, for the sake of originality, hopefully the last for a very long time. Fortunately, the pilots who fly any given planes ultimately get the final say. In the late 1970s, Air Force pilots flying the first F-16s became enamored of the show “Battlestar Galactica,” which featured “Viper” space fighters. The name stuck, and today nobody calls the F-16 by its real name, the Fighting Falcon.
The emergence of the name Panther comes along just as the F-35 program is clearing the worst of its hurdles. The trillion-dollar plane is years late to enter service, costs much more than original projections, and has had a raft of technical problems. Still, the jet is undeniably making slow but steady progress. What’s in a name? In the case of the F-35 Panther, maybe the airplane’s second, better act.
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