DVIDS Image ID 956853 Pickle switch button Flight Control Stick F-15 Eagle fighter jet CREDIT US Department of Defense
A pickle switch on the flight control stick of an F-15 Eagle fighter jet (Picture: US Department of Defense).
Weapons and Kit

How US fighter pilots' bomb-release pickle switch got its name and what it has to do with clowns

DVIDS Image ID 956853 Pickle switch button Flight Control Stick F-15 Eagle fighter jet CREDIT US Department of Defense
A pickle switch on the flight control stick of an F-15 Eagle fighter jet (Picture: US Department of Defense).

The pickle button's origin story might not be DC or Marvel worthy but there are theories it may have started in the circus ring.

Others believe the term is connected to the bumpy feeling of the pickled vegetable. 

Also known as a pickle switch, the odd term is slang for the little red button US Air Force pilots press on control sticks to drop bombs on targets. 

But why is a small button, which may look innocuous to the untrained eye, referred to by US pilots as the pickle switch and where did the term come from? 

Those with Royal Navy backgrounds might be thinking of raucous evenings spent celebrating Pickle Night – a Naval tradition that sees Warrant Officers and Senior Rates mark the arrival of the news of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar via HMS Pickle.  

However, the pickle button's origin story is more likely connected to the sight, sound and smell of a circus than the Royal Navy. 

DVIDS Image ID 7488941 F-16 Fighting Falcon flight control stick CREDIT US Air Force
A pickle button on a F-16 Fighting Falcon flight control stick (Picture: US Air Force).

In a Life magazine article titled Precision Bombing: Sample mission shows details that make it work, published on 30 August 1943, it is reported that "demonstrations by US airmen make precision bombing look easy". 

It mentions the highly classified Norden M-9 bombsight which gave the US Air Force bombing accuracy that was unmatched by any other nation during the Second World War, claiming it can accurately drop a bomb from "20,000 feet into a pickle barrel". 

But why refer to a pickle barrel specifically? 

One of the theories is that this is referring to a quote from another Life magazine article in 1943. 

Image ID C14D7T Norden Bombsight B17 WW2 Vintage Bomber Republic Field Long Island New York USA CREDIT Albert Knapp / Alamy Stock Photo
Norden Bombsight in a WWII vintage bomber (Picture: Albert Knapp / Alamy Stock Photo).

The Norden M-9 bombsight was originally developed by Carl Norden for the US Navy in 1932 but was eventually taken by the Army Air Corps. 

In April 1943, the company that made them hired Madison Square Garden in New York City for one night to entertain its staff and their families – 15,000 people in total. 

American travelling circus company Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, known for putting on the greatest show on earth, had quite the performance planned, as the article explains.

It said: "The circus did its part by rigging up a 'bombsight' of its own which enabled a clown to drop a wooden bomb into a pickle barrel. 

"A pickle popped out. 

"Such deadly accuracy has made the Norden bombsight the most closely guarded secret in the Allied arsenal." 

The phrase eventually inspired an amusing looking trophy. 

Lieutenant General Ira Clarence Eaker, Commanding General, 8th Air Force, from 1942 to 1944, was awarded a 'bomb in a pickle barrel' trophy once he had retired to recognise his role in the strategic bombing campaigns of the Second World War. 

Bomb in a pickle barrel trophy Lt Gen Ira C Eaker Image ID 170405-F-IO108-010 CREDIT Ken LaRock
The 'bomb in a pickle barrel' trophy given to Lt Gen Ira C Eaker (Picture: Ken LaRock).

Away from the lighter side of the phrase, an example of the word pickle being used in a military context can be found in the January 1945 edition of 'Popular Science' magazine. 

The article, written by Lt Ted Steele of USNR, details the chaos surrounding US Navy pilot Commander Norman Miller while tasked with bombing a Japanese destroyer. 

It said: "The glare of the guns and the glare of the bursts blinded him a little, ruining his night vision and he lowered his head, watching his altimeter (200ft) and his airspeed meter (200mph). 

"At the last second, he looked out again at the destroyer, now clearly silhouetted by his own gunfire. 

"Holding the bomb release button – the pickle – in his right hand, he waited to squeeze it until his improvised bomb site told him he couldn't miss." 

And, of course, no origin story would be complete without a quick search of online message boards to source alternative meanings. 

In a response to the question "Military slang "pickle"…where did it come from?' by guest Davey10244 on the Straight Dope Message Board, user rburner wrote the following in September 2020, explaining that pickle in military slang can mean a variety of things. 

They said: "In the 'Nam war, our squadron used it to mean drop ALL ordnance at the same time… either for max effect on a target, or prior to emergency/crash landing to avoid self devastation upon the crash. i.e. you would 'pickle your load' prior to landing." 

Cyber warfare keyboard
A person types on a keyboard (Picture: Crown Copyright).

Whereas Straight Dope Message Board user Ranger_Jeff places the origin of the term pickle switch somewhere completely different altogether. 

The control stick found in an F-15 cockpit has seven different switches including ones such as the multi-functional castle switch, trim button, gun trigger and not forgetting, of course, the pickle switch. 

Ranger_Jeff says it's the feel of the plethora of buttons and switches in the pilots' hands that created the nickname. 

They said: "With all these mostly push button switches added to the control handles, at some time, a pilot commented that with all the bumps, the handle felt like a pickle. And 'pickle' caught on." 

DVIDS Image ID 7199533 Pickles in jars RAQQA GOVERNORATE, SYRIA CREDIT Near East Foundation
Bottled pickles in Syria (Picture: Near East Foundation).

Whatever the origin of the term, pickle has seeped deeply into US Air Force slang, reportedly appearing in the 1956 USAF Dictionary from Air University Press, with "picklebarrel bombing" meaning precision bombing. 

On the other hand, the Avro Lancaster and Manchester Bomber Archive website, lancaster-archive.com, doesn't relate pickle to accuracy at all. 

Its RAF slang and abbreviations list describes "pickled as a newt" as being "tiddly or slight drunk". 

Certainly, something any military pilot would avoid being if they wanted to accurately bomb a target. 

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