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Comrades in arms often give cute nicknames to the horrific machines they use to wage war. During World War II, American fighter pilots referred to certain airplane and aircraft models as “Doodlebug,” “Flying Bathtub,” “Gipsy Rose Lee,” and other mood-lightening sobriquets. As 21st-century Russia continues aggression against its sovereign neighbor, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s military utilizes several military vehicle options, including a strike fighter ironically nicknamed “Hellduck.” Where did the nickname come from?

A brief history of the Sukhoi Su-34 Hellduck

The first warplane designed and constructed by the JSC Sukhoi Company was the Su-2. In production from 1937 to 1942, the craft was typically used for reconnaissance missions and light bombing tasks. Four years after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, the renamed United Aircraft Corporation debuted a beefed-up bomber called the Su-32. After a series of trials and upgrades, the bomber was re-christened the Su-34. By 2015, the Russian Air Force boasted 76 of the attack aircraft with the oddball appellation, Hellduck.

In November 2022, the Russian government revealed that despite “unprecedented pressure from the West,” Putin’s plan to scale up production of “highly efficient aviation equipment,” including a modernized version of the Su-34, was moving forward. Noting compliance with the state order, United Aircraft Corporation general director Yury Slyusar said the company had already delivered a number of the warplanes to the Russian Ministry of Defense, and more were currently in production.

Explaining that the Russian government started ordering and receiving twin-engine Su-34 Hellduck fighter bombers several years before the Ukraine invasion, Eurasian Times said the nose section of the advanced war machine was significantly altered to enclose a multi-mode, terrain-following phased radar equipment system. The Su-34’s reshaped nose offers avoidance capability superior to its predecessor, the Su-27 Flanker. It’s also the reason for the Hellduck’s unusual nickname.

Not only does the most forward portion of the Su-34 fuselage enclose an advanced Sh141 radar system, but the comparatively large nose also happens to resemble the bill of a platypus, says Airforce Technology. It’s safe to assume that most Russian fighter pilots have not encountered a platypus in the wild, but they probably know what a duck looks like. This explains why the Su-34 warplane has two nicknames: Hellduck and/or Platypus.

The U.S. Air Force refers to the Su-34 by a third name: Fullback

A Sukhoi Su-34 jet fighter-bomber, often nicknamed the 'Hellduck,' during a demonstration flight
A Sukhoi Su-34 jet fighter-bomber | Images Group via Getty Images

According to Military Today, the Fullback, aka Hellduck, retains the basic design features of the Su-27 and the maneuverability of the Su-30 while adding a side-by-side glass cockpit and multi-color display panels.

The Hellduck carries a range of deadly ordnance, including air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, anti-radiation missiles, guided bombs, and free-fall bombs.

Airforce Technology says that in addition to bigger internal fuel tanks, the armored cockpit of the Su-34 boasts a pair of ejection seats provided by Moscow-based Zvezda Research and Production Enterprise Joint Stock Company. Such safety devices may be helpful if Russia manages to shoot down another of its own warplanes, as MSN reported in July 2022.

War machines and ordinary vehicles named for animals

Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s list of animal-inspired aircraft nicknames includes:

  • Aardvark –General Dynamics F-111
  • Big Bird –McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle
  • Bumble Bee –McDonnell XF-85 Goblin
  • Catfish –Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk
  • Frog –Martin P5M Mariner
  • Iron Butterfly –Republic F-105 Thunderchief

As for the automotive side, the Ford Mustang and VW Beetle are named for familiar creatures, as are Buick Skylark and Ford Pinto. Zero to 60 Times‘ list of non-martial vehicles with animal appellations runs the gamut from the Plymouth Barracuda to the Shelby Cobra to the Buick Wildcat. 

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