When all green fighter jet pilots are in school, they're generally given a generic call sign that can't be repeated in a family newspaper, but Cmdr. David Faehnle was given a different handle by a training officer known as "Glaze"-- BUG, an acronym for "Buddy Under Glaze."
"Every day he asked me what kind of bug I was for that day, and I started running out of bugs to name," Faehnle said Thursday at Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West. "Finally one day I just yelled out, 'I'm supafly!' It just stuck and I've been 'Supafly' ever since."
Generally fighter pilots' buddies or supervisors assign call signs; pilots don't typically get to pick their own. It's a long-standing tradition in combat aviation that the more a pilot hates his call sign, the more his buddies make it stick.
"I never did anything stupid in training that changed that, so I've always been 'Supafly,'" he said.
Faehnle is the new commanding officer of Composite Fighter Squadron 111 (VFC-111), also known as the Sun Downers. They're Key West's only home squadron and they area adversarial, meaning they play the bad guys to the trainees who fly the familiar F/A-18 Super Hornets or its variants.
Faehnle's crew fly the much older F-5N Tiger II, which the new commander called a "pilot's airplane." Newer fighter jets have computerized controls or fly-by-wire interfaces.
"Our F5s still have hydraulic actuators that the pilot has to move, and there's very little electronics in the cockpit, so it's great flying the F5 and getting that feeling that you're really attached to the airplane," Faehnle said from his office overlooking the tarmac.
Faehnle took command of the squadron from outgoing commander Joe "Monty" McMonigle -- who is heading to Naples, Italy -- on Saturday, but Faehnle isn't a newbie to the team. He had served as executive officer under McMonigle since January 2012.
The Texan, husband and father is also known in naval pilot circles for flying the F-14 Tomcat -- the jet made famous by Tom Cruise in the movie "Top Gun" -- at its last memorial flight celebrating the end of the plane's service.
The Tomcat was phased out in 2006 in favor of the newer and more reliable F-18 Hornet.
Faehnle laughed when asked about how important it was to be asked to fly in such a memorial.
"Actually, I got in the cockpit and the plan was for me to take off after the admiral said a few words, fly off and land somewhere else," Faehnle said, explaining the flight was supposed to be symbolic of the jet fading into the sunset.
"Well, I get in the cockpit and had a problem with a generator and couldn't take off," he said. "So I had to get out and we used a backup plane that took off. So it wasn't really me that flew the plane in the ceremony, and if you ask another Tomcat pilot, I don't think anyone would be surprised we had to use another aircraft."
Faehnle flew combat missions over Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch in 2000, which followed the 1991 Gulf War, until the 2003 invasion, an operation in which Faehnle took part from 2005 to 2006.
He flew the trusty old F-14 Tomcat during both combat cruises.
"Much of the time in 2005 and 2006, we were flying ahead of convoys looking for guys digging holes by the side of the road who could be planting IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and that kind of thing," he recalled.
On other missions they would fly over the ground to boost the morale of American fighters, to let them know they had air support at any time.
"And we would do the same thing over other guys to remind the other side we still owned the sky," Faehnle said.
The new Sun Downer commander also served in the Pacific Ocean, where he trained alongside partner nations.
It's a long throw from the young Texas kid who wanted to be an astronaut, but the husband and father of one said he's still having a blast.
"How often do you get a chance to live in Key West?" Faehnle said. "We're looking forward to getting out there and fishing and exploring the beach and doing all those things. VFC-111 is a great assignment and we're going to enjoy it."