The F-35’s New, Much Better Nickname is “Panther”

Nobody likes the F-35’s real name. Nobody.

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U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee

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.”

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6th Weapons Squadron patch.
Via Flightline Insignia

According to The War Zone U.S. Air Force pilots at Nellis Air Force Base 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 of World War II, and the 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.

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English Electric Lightning fighter.
Getty ImagesBob Haswell

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 . 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 “,” which featured “Viper” space fighters. The name stuck, and today nobody calls the F-16 by its real name, the Fighting Falcon.

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The A-10 Warthog in action.
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brian J. Valencia

The A-10 is another plane that was struck by a bad case sequelitis. The tank-killing jet is technically named the Thunderbolt II, after the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter of World War II fame. The official name never took off however, and the A-10 is today known as the Warthog, a name the Air Force would have never, ever officially given the plane but which is so perfectly suited to the A-10 it’s hard to imagine anything else.

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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