Journalists and scientists trapped in the Antarctic, icebreakers from four countries advancing and retreating, fetching cold-weather outerwear, live-tweeted helicopter rescues – now that’s the kind of Christmas news story everyone can get behind. Action, adventure, no politics (despite a bit of half-informed bleating about climate change in the Daily Mail) and a happy New Year ending.
There was just one thing missing. When the helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long made its entrance, in all its contra-rotating, stalkish, faintly insectoid glory, you knew it had to be Soviet in origin. Yet you’d search high and low in all the news reports – and still not find out its Nato reporting name.
If you grew up in the Cold War and had an aeroplane spotters’ manual, Nato reporting names were the strange poetry that infused your technological education and coloured every spy novel, skirmish report and east-versus-west thriller you nervously read. In the half-informed world of the arms race, they were the designations given by the western military to eastern bloc aircraft and missiles for easy reference in the field: words chosen (randomly? I’ve always wondered) and linked only by their initial letter: F-words for fighters, B-words for bombers, H-words for helicopters and so on.
Often they were the only thing that could be said for certain about a rumoured new type of Soviet warplane. Have a look at this page from my battered copy of the 1955 Observer Book of Aircraft:
A snatched, blurry photograph as though from a spy camera, uncertainty even about the type number or the extent of deployment – the only thing for sure is that it’s a “Badger”. In fact, this page is almost entirely wrong: the mysterious new bomber wasn’t even an Ilyushin, as it turned out, but a Tupolev – the long-serving Tu-16, still in service today with China. All the intelligence changed: only the reporting name stayed the same.
By the paranoid and glamorous standards of identification names, of course, “Badger” is a bit of a disappointment. There are much better ones: Faithless, Fencer, Foxbat, Fresco; Bear, Bison, Blackjack, Backfire; Halo, Havoc, Homer, Hound. Kamov helicopters seemed to fare particularly well in the draw for names: the Ka-25 Hormone, the Ka-26 Hoodlum, the Ka-50 Hokum.
How could any journalist leave them out of an aviation story? They’re instant colour; headline words on a plate. Reading a report on an arms deal, or a near-miss, without a Nato identification tag is like reading a court report about a mafia boss that doesn’t give his nickname. (Well, most of the time: perhaps there’s not quite so much glamour about the Kamov Ka-10 Hat, the Sukhoi Su-9 Fishpot or the Tupolev Tu-91 Boot).
There were many types and subtypes of Soviet aircraft and so many words were needed. Some of them are so recondite that you have to look them up – the Mil Mi-2 Hoplite*, the Yakovlev Yak-28 Brassard** – or are just plain odd (the Mig Ye-2 Faceplate).
And the rescue helicopter? In fact, you can just see the type number on the fuselage in some photographs, and some reports make the effort to identify it briefly. It’s a Ka-32, a derivation of the Ka-27, another Cold War-era Kamov with a splendid reporting name: Helix. What could be more apposite for a helicopter ascending on its contra-rotating blades? The Helix from the Snow Dragon, on its way to land on the Aurora Australis, with the Polar Star, at full steam, less than a week away in case of mishap. Philip Pullman and Arthur Ransome together couldn’t have picked names any better than that.
* (in ancient Greece) a heavily armed infantryman
** an identifying armband or badge