The Christian Fighter Pilot’s Reputation

A fighter pilot’s reputation precedes him everywhere he goes in the military.  The Air Force fighter world is not large, and within each particular airframe the population is even smaller.  In the F-16 world, which is the largest of the fighter pilot communities, there are seven operational bases to which a pilot could be assigned as of 2005 (base closures are reducing that number).  Due to the constant turnover of pilots, by the time he is at his second operational assignment he will have met nearly half of the F-16 world.  By the end of his first operational year he will have a reputation built not only on his actions and attitude but also on the perceptions of others.  As people move out ahead of him, they will leave with their perception of him and will disperse to all the bases to which he could possibly be assigned.

When it comes time for him to change assignments, squadron commanders, flight commanders, and others from his first base will contact their friends and counterparts at his future base and will tell them what to expect.  Some of it is for professional reasons; gaining commanders often want to know what the previous commander thought of his career progression and what his future duties should be.  The rest of the crosstalk is for unofficial reasons—the old commander will tell the new one his overall perceptions.  When the pilot arrives at his new duty station, it is very likely that the majority of the squadron will already have a good idea of his reputation.  Even when I was in pilot training, I remember hearing my instructor pilots mention pilots who were inbound to join them as UPT instructors.  If one of them knew the inbound pilot, he’d tell the rest that he was a “good guy,” or “dirtbag,” or “a good stick.”  Sometimes a more colorful well-known detail from his flying history might also be told.   

Those reputations were sometimes based primarily on individual perceptions.  To help young wingmen avoid misperceptions on the way to their first assignment they are often taught about the basic expectations of a young pilot, knowledge that is sometimes called “Wingman 101.”  The primary expectations for young pilots are that they study and learn.  Prior to becoming flight leads and being assigned non-flying duties in the squadron, young wingmen have the most “free time” they ever will while on active duty.  That time is often spent in the vault, studying classified tactics and manuals to become more tactically proficient.  Wingmen should be anxious to learn and always striving to do the best that they can.  The perception of a wingman giving his full effort to everything he does and striving to be his best will put him foremost in the minds of the flight leads, IPs, and leadership in his squadron; when the time comes to select those next to be upgraded, such a wingman is more likely to be chosen than his peers.  The number one trait that other pilots look for in a young wingman (and even in other pilots) is a willingness to learn.  The perception often outweighs reality.  The very characteristics that make a person a successful fighter pilot—the Type A personality, confident demeanor, and assertive nature—can actually work against him as an upgrading student.  If a student pilot is unwilling to admit his mistakes, appears overly confident for his degree of knowledge and skill, or merely gives the impression that he isn’t open to the corrections of his instructors, he will be perceived as being unwilling to learn.  Once in that position, he marks himself as a “problem” pilot, and he opens himself to the attacks of those who want to knock the chip off his shoulder.  It is important, therefore, for a Christian fighter pilot to work to prevent the misperception that he is unwilling to learn.
Another source of a fighter pilot’s reputation is his performance on checkrides and in upgrade programs.  Extensive preparation equals success in checkrides and upgrades.  There are substantial regulations for basic flying that must be studied in depth and readied for immediate recall, such as when an evaluator asks questions during a checkride.  There are many more manuals on tactics, formations, and techniques that must be studied to prepare well for upgrades.  Critically analyzing every sortie and interrogating the experienced pilots as to the reason for their actions will yield a wealth of knowledge that a young pilot will be able to apply to future sorties.  Importantly, a pilot’s preparation, knowledge, and abilities directly reflect his efforts.  A pilot who eagerly asks questions will be perceived very differently from one who is stoically silent.  In the end, effective use of free time, a perceived willingness to learn, and success in checkrides and upgrades will give a pilot a good reputation as an aviator and will favorably dispose other pilots toward him.

Above Reproach

Having a reputation isn’t inherently a bad thing, and having a name and character known beyond immediate surroundings isn’t unusual in the world or in history.  The Old Testament frequently recounts the reputations of the individual tribes of Israel, whether for their combat skills, their spiritual qualities, or even their physical characteristics.  (Apparently a large percentage of the tribe of Benjamin was left-handed (Judges 3:15, 20:16).)  The reputation of David’s “Mighty Men” is seconded only by that of David himself (2 Samuel 23:8).  What is unique for a Christian fighter pilot’s reputation is that it reflects on God, similar to the way that the reputation of the nation of Israel was often linked to the reputation of God Himself (for example, Isaiah 48:9-11, Ezekiel 20:9, 36:20-23, 32, 36)).  Given that gravity, for what should a Christian fighter pilot want to be known?  A Christian can’t control every perception that others decide to think about him, but he can control the actions and attitudes that will shape their perceptions.  The character he displays in his fighter pilot life—including integrity, work ethic, devotion to the supremacy of God, and attitude—will form the basis of the reputation that will precede him throughout his career. 

Reputations are fragile and transient things.  Those of many men and women are made and broken over the choice of a particular word, a seemingly insignificant decision, or even complete misunderstandings.  In some cases a single mistake may damage a reputation to the point that the error overwhelms any good that has been accomplished.  This is particularly evident in government, when a quick verbal faux pas can instantly end what may have been a promising a political career.  Even the Air Force has occasionally been accused of being a “one mistake” service when it has discharged those that committed one grievous error without giving them a “second chance.”  Likewise, a Christian’s spiritual “career” can potentially be torpedoed by a minor flaw.  In recent history this has been personified by the TV evangelist; some have built virtual kingdoms on their multimedia ministry only to watch it collapse as they are found to have had affairs, visited prostitutes, or misused the money for which they so eloquently asked.  In some cases their actions weren’t even illegal, but because they were supposed moral icons, their flaws made them spiritual laughingstocks to the rest of the world.  While Christians are often understanding of the sins in each other—acknowledging that they are “not perfect, just forgiven”—non-Christians see the incongruity of the actions and speech and label it hypocrisy.  After such a fall, a Christian has little credibility with his non-Christian audience.  A Christian reputation can be irreparably damaged by a single lapse in judgment or moral failure—or even the mere perception thereof. 

For that reason a reputation also bears a unique importance for the Christian fighter pilot.  A Christian fighter pilot’s reputation can impact the cause of Christ, just as a famous singer or popular televangelist can hurt or help their faith by their actions.  For better or worse a Christian fighter pilot may come to represent his faith to the pilots around him.  While a mistake by another may be laughed at and then forgotten, any errors on the part of the Christian fighter pilot will draw a unique criticism:  “That’s what he gets for being different than us.”  To the worldly fighter pilot, a pilot who separates himself from certain aspects of the group and fails does so because of his distance from the group.  Since they blame his failure on his separation from the group, and this separation is based on his faith, a Christian fighter pilot who fails may have his shortcomings attributed not just to himself but also to his faith.  The dejection that any pilot would feel in the face of failure is felt many times over as the Christian realizes that the cause of Christ has suffered in his fellow pilots’ eyes.  By the same token, a Christian fighter pilot who impresses his evaluators on checkrides, advances skillfully through upgrades, has well thought out tactical knowledge, and has excellent flying skills will astound his non-Christian compatriots.  They will not understand how a pilot can possess those skills without being party to their secular trysts.  It is here that the window is opened and a Christian pilot can say that it is “not by my doing…”

A Christian fighter pilot must strive to live his life above reproach.  He must hold himself to the highest standards so that there is not even a hint of wrongdoing.  In modern times this requires a great degree of personal accountability in a world that is largely governed by situation ethics.  While those around him may bend their moral relativism to fit their personal circumstances, a Christian must live to the standard of moral courage that Christ intended.  There is right, and there is wrong—no Christian would dispute that.  Still, like every other human being, Christian fighter pilots face temptations.  A modern example is the widespread popularity of digital media, particularly music and movies.  The temptation to copy or download “free” music is one that even Christians face.  I witnessed another dramatic example during my tour in Korea.  During my tour I saw illegal copies of everything from name brand purses to Rolex watches.  The movie Star Wars III was available on DVD on the street outside Osan Air Base less than 24 hours after it hit theaters in the states.  Many military members—including some Christians—seemed to have no problem purchasing a $5 DVD even though it was obviously pirated; many rationalized it by citing the sacrifice they were making by being in Korea and noting they wouldn’t be able to see the movie legally for months.  Whether it is music, software, or videos, honoring a creator’s copyright is a clear-cut legal and moral decision.  If there is a thought that it might be a gray area, all it takes is one non-Christian asking “if you’re so religious, why do you do this?” to pull a Christian back into the proper black and white scale.  A Christian fighter pilot must follow the rules and obey the regulations to the letter; he must not even permit the perception that he is stretching the spirit of the law (Ephesians 5:4).  A Christian’s credible witness could be destroyed by even the mere perception of malfeasance or vice without there actually being any fault in him. 

Milking the Good Deal 

In the Air Force, obeying the letter of the law is often the easy part; it’s during the “good deals” that it’s tempting to stretch the spirit of it.  There is nothing wrong with claiming “good deals” that have been legitimately earned—the potential wrong comes in “milking” them beyond their intent.  As an example, when military members enter a combat area their pay for that calendar month is tax-free (up to a set limit).  There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of that rule and not paying taxes when deployed to a combat area, but I personally believe that the ethical limits are stretched (or exceeded) by those who go out of their way to obtain that deal.  Most fighter units and many heavy units are deployed into combat areas and are thus entitled to that benefit.  Some transport units, though, make runs from outside the combat area to deliver men and equipment rather than actually being deployed into the area.  Some stories have been told of such units intentionally scheduling sorties so that they arrive in a combat area on the last day of the month and depart on the first, thus securing two tax-free months for themselves for the price of a single, overnight out-and-back sortie.  If such a sortie was necessary, then there is no dispute; but if the motivation behind the sortie was simply to garner tax-free money, then I believe it is ethically questionable.  The same is true when such units cram their aircraft with unnecessary crew members to give them access to the good deal.  I have also heard of commanders looking out for their enlisted troops by allowing them to re-enlist while in a combat area—meaning their re-enlistment bonus would be tax free.  That’s often a substantial sum for personnel who generally have very small paychecks.  Again, if the enlisted person is there to do a deployed job, then there can be no argument.  But if the enlisted member spends only a few hours in the combat area—just long enough to get sworn in on the tarmac, accept the bonus, and get back on the plane—then I believe the ethical boundaries are stretched.  Unfortunately, officers who would never think of committing an illegal act think nothing about stretching ethical boundaries, whether it’s staying in an expensive hotel (reimbursed by the military) when a cheaper one is available, requesting reimbursement for taxis that took them to unofficial locations, or collecting free airline ticket vouchers by giving up their seat while they’re on official travel.  The conduct of officers in these situations may not necessarily violate any regulations, but they verge on the unethical. 

Situation Ethics

Though a Christian fighter pilot will strive to live his life above reproach, his compatriots may live by a completely different standard.  A Christian who has not succumbed to modernism still believes in moral absolutes, while his peers often live in the new age of situation ethics.  Situation ethics are prevalent in modern society and thus in the military as well; an example is the popular practice of “pencil whipping.”  Pencil whipping describes the common practice of accomplishing paperwork for the sole purpose of filling in the blanks; the entries may not accurately reflect reality, often because the paper itself may not even be read.  One example might be completing a checklist for a vehicle inspection; a person with situation ethics may decide that it’s not that important for them to actually get out and inspect the vehicle.  They may place a check-mark in all the boxes without actually performing any of the required inspections.  Another common example of relativistic ethics is known as “back-dating.”  This occurs when a regulatory deadline passes unnoticed, and the paperwork is changed retroactively to make it appear as though the deadline wasn’t missed.  Due to the constant changeover of military members in every job, it is possible that deadlines required by regulation may honestly be missed until an astute troop (often enlisted) arrives and points out the error to everyone else.  Often, however, rather than publicize and correct the omission, forms may magically appear with the “correct” dates on them, even if those dates are in the past. 

When it comes to situation ethics, the question for the Christian fighter pilot is how strictly he should hold his peers to his personal moral standard.  While he should live his life as righteously as he knows how, a Christian fighter pilot is not the military’s moral monitor.  He can express displeasure with someone if they pencil whip, back-date, or otherwise act with questionable ethics, but if he falls on his sword for every occasion, he’ll quickly wear himself out with all the falling down and getting up.  If a person with situation ethics sees something as “not that bad,” a Christian will be hard-pressed to convince them to do it a more difficult way just because he thinks it’s more ethical.  In short, a Christian fighter pilot should choose his battles.  Also, when he does choose to elevate an issue, it’s generally more beneficial to frame it in terms of safety and legality, to which even an unchurched person can relate.  Ultimately, he should strive to ensure that his reputation is one of someone who doesn’t need to compromise his ethics to accomplish his job well.


Regardless of intent and effort, imperfect people will make mistakes.  When a Christian does stumble, the best that can be done is stand up and accept responsibility.  The only thing worse than violating an ethical or legal standard is to then rationalize it, cover it up, pass the blame, or claim some level of ignorance.  A multitude of famous personalities from Hollywood to Washington have proven that errors are forgiven (and forgotten) far more quickly than the failure to take responsibility.  Fighter pilots by nature don’t like to be wrong, and their first response is generally to become defensive and deny a wrong was committed.  A Christian fighter pilot must be willing to admit his mistakes and accept the penalty to reclaim his Christian witness.  By forthrightly accepting responsibility a Christian actually strengthens his credibility even in the face of a misstep. 

Besides the ethical and legal standards, a Christian fighter pilot must also live his life spiritually above reproach.  A Christian fighter pilot must avoid what is perhaps the most damaging perception of a Christian:  the perception that he is a hypocrite.  A Christian garners this perception when his vocalized beliefs are inconsistent with his actions.  If a Christian “preaches” one thing and lives another he will create a hypocritical reputation and destroy the credibility of his witness.  If he “fills squares” by attending church but his life is not a reflection of Christ, then he is simply another “Sunday Christian” that makes himself feel better at the beginning of the week for the things he does during it.  Someone claiming to know God but acting in a hypocritical fashion is not a new concept.  Jeremiah listed it as one of the traits of the wicked in Israel when he told God that “You are always on their lips but far from their hearts” (Jeremiah 12:2).  In modern times, hypocrisy is often cited as the reason non-Christians will not accept Christ.  If a Christian fighter pilot fulfills the hypocritical stereotype then any glory he may think he brings to God is more than offset by the damage he inflicts.  To avoid the perception of hypocrisy, a Christian fighter pilot must live what he preaches in every detail, spiritually above reproach.  While they may not know the intimate details of his religious life, those around a Christian pilot must never have reason to question the integrity of his spiritual life. 

With so much riding on his reputation a Christian fighter pilot may feel that he needs to excel above his peers for the sake of Christ; that doesn’t mean it will be easy for him to do so.  While God will certainly be a Christian’s help in difficult times, simply being a Christian doesn’t mean God will smooth every bump in the road or guarantee success, even if (from our point of view) it would be good for Him.  The most obvious example of this truth was the nation of Israel as it departed Egypt and headed for the Promised Land.  More than anyone in history, the nation of Israel needed to excel to prove to the world that God was indeed sovereign.  As the people sinned and rebelled, God repeatedly told Moses to stand out of the way while He wiped them out—even though they were His chosen people, they were failing in their struggles.  Moses argued that if God destroyed His own people He would compromise His name with the heathen nations who had watched their victorious departure from Egypt (Exodus 32:11).  David would later use much the same argument when he prayed for success for the sake of God’s Name (2 Samuel 7:25, 26).

These men—Moses and David—are perhaps God’s most successful warriors and leaders; if anyone in history needed to excel so that God would be glorified it was certainly them—yet they, too, struggled.  If their success had come too easily then it would have been tempting for them to take credit for their own achievements, just as it would be for the Christian today.  The story of Hezekiah, recorded in 2 Kings 18-20 and 2 Chronicles 29-32, is another example of a Godly man who still experienced hardship.  He was one of the few kings listed as “good” in Judah’s history, though he was surrounded by evil.  Even though Hezekiah had so faithfully followed God’s commands throughout his reign, God still allowed a pagan nation to attack him (32:1).  Rather than wallowing in self-pity, though, he took confidence in God, and eventually God’s own army would fight the battle for the Israelites (32:7-8, 21).  In verse 23, the Bible says that as a result of Israel’s victory in battle, “from then on” Hezekiah was highly regarded by all the nations.  Christian fighter pilots desperately want—need—to excel and succeed so that they can glorify God with their victory.  Still, they find themselves struggling as Moses, David, and Hezekiah did.  Christians should not lose heart, though, because just as with those men, God uses their weakness to make His strength most apparent.

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