Fighter Pilot Traditions
Given the nature and danger of the fighter pilot profession, comradery is strong. Fighter pilot traditions are a means of sharing in that comradery. Given the relative youth of the pilot profession—the Wrights first flew in 1903—the traditions of the Air Force are almost farcical compared to those of the centuries-old Army, Marines, and Navy. While some fighter pilot traditions pass on the history of flying and fighting, many are rooted more in fraternity than reality and simply revel in the exclusivity of the fighter pilot culture. Some fighter pilot traditions are so outrageous and immature that they have taken on the air of reindeer games—they are nothing more than something “special” that one has to be a fighter pilot to understand.
Fighter pilots are exposed to traditions from the beginning. At the end of pilot training we paraded across the stage in our service dress uniforms and received our wings. The tradition of the wings that a pilot pinned on at his graduation was that he never wore them again; to do so would be bad luck. Instead, the wings were to be broken in half; many pilots had their wings cut in half and framed one part with a certificate listing the date and the text of the tradition. The second piece of the wings was given to a “significant other.” The two pieces were not supposed to be joined again until the pilot’s funeral. Another “tradition” that had somehow surfaced was that of “blood wings.” I had first heard the term as a cadet. When freshman cadets completed “Recognition”—the rite of passage trial that enabled them to be full-fledged cadets—they earned their “Prop and Wings,” a pin that was modeled after the early Army Air Corps flying badge that was worn by upperclass cadets. The wings were pinned on by an upperclassman; in the case of “blood wings,” the upper class cadet would pin the wings to the cadet’s shirt without the protective backing and drive them into his chest with his fist, usually drawing blood…hence the name. Officially, this cadet “tradition” was forbidden, though I know some who participated in it. At the end of pilot training the tradition was essentially the same, and it was probably the source of the cadet one. I know a few who actually wanted to participate in that tradition. In my pilot training class it was neither encouraged nor prohibited.
Fighter Pilot Welcome
Once in an operational fighter squadron one of the first “traditions” to which new fighter pilots are exposed is the squadron welcome. At the first official meeting of all the unit pilots, the “new guys” receive a ritual greeting that was also shown in the movie Flight of the Intruder. In the movie, much as in most fighter squadrons, the new pilots were called to the front of the room and told to “tell us about yourselves.” As soon as they opened their mouths, they were cut off by the expected outburst from the crowd of pilots: “Sit down, (expletive)!”, which is followed by jovial murmurings of “It never gets old,” and “They never learn….”
Some traditions are just lighthearted attempts at doing something different or unique. In “Mustache March” normally clean shaven pilots grow mustaches—but only for the month. A corollary applies to deployments—fighter pilots traditionally grow mustaches while deployed and some also shave their heads. While I was deployed to Qatar the latter was more for hygienic reasons than fashion. Due to the limited number of barbers for the huge number of deployed servicemen, soldiers took to cutting each other’s hair. No skill was required to close-cut a head of hair. While I passed on the head shave (the desert sun would burn me red in a very short time if I did), I did grow a mustache, more for the novelty than anything else. Along the same lines, fighter pilots often participate in the calendar traditions of “flat-top February” and “side-burn September.” These pseudo-traditions are followed in varying degrees in different fighter squadrons. It’s more an opportunity to see what everybody looks like in a mustache or with a different hairstyle than anything else. The beginning of March, though, when flat-tops are growing out and mustaches are growing in, does tend to be a time when fighter pilots look a little odd.
Alcohol and the Bar
Alcohol is, in many respects, a virtual fighter pilot tradition in its own right. Stereotypically, fighter pilots are known as much for their drunkenness as they are for their skill in the air. Flight debriefs are often conducted with beer in hand. “Buying a round” or a “case” is a typical punishment for rule infractions. (It is worth noting that many units will enforce the spirit of the tradition on non-drinkers by asking them to provide equivalent quantities of soda.) If a pilot “breaks” an aircraft through his own buffoonery and causes the maintenance personnel more work, he is traditionally obligated to provide them with beer (if they are of age, which is often not the case). In fighter pilot events as official as major exercises, when a fighter pilot shoots a simulated missile at a friendly aircraft or drops a simulated bomb on a friendly ground position, he is required to buy a keg as punishment for the fratricide or “frat.” (This is in addition to the humiliation of the debrief, as fighter pilots consider frat the gravest of sins.)
Since alcohol is nearly an integral part of a fighter pilot’s life, it is logical that fighter squadrons typically have their own squadron bar, which has its own traditional rules. (The rules are sometimes also applied to the bar at the Officers’ Club.) The rules of the bar are generally posted on a wooden or engraved plaque in grandiose language. Infractions are self-policed; if someone observes a rule being broken, they “ring the bell,” which is generally hanging near the bar, and point out the infraction. Most penalties associated with rule violations require purchasing a round for the room or, in some cases, a hefty monetary fine. The penalty is levied on the one who rang the bell if he was mistaken about the violation. Examples of rule violations include wearing a hat into the bar, placing your hat on the bar, receiving a phone call from your wife while at the bar (amended to “spouse,” in most places), drinking with your right hand, or pointing at another pilot with anything other than your elbow. Often there are additional local rules, such as not saying a number associated with a rival unit. Finally, a common rule is that you can’t read the rules, though sometimes a waiver is granted for the initial visit. There are often off-the-wall bar traditions; one unit was famous for burning a piano every year.
Drinking Games and Doofer Books
Another fighter pilot “tradition” that is little more than a drinking game is that of “Deceased Insect.” Deceased insect is the proper name for “dead bug.” At the phrase “dead bug,” everyone is supposed to fall on the ground and put their hands and feet in the air, imitating the look of a dead bug. The initiator remains standing to catch the slowest person to assume the position. That person is then liable for whatever the bad deal is for the moment, whether drinking from a grog bowl or buying the next round. The squadron “Doofer Book” is another fighter pilot ritual (which has spread to other services and career fields in one form or another). It is generally a running compilation of the missteps of the various members of the squadron that may be updated daily, or at weekly or monthly pilot events. While entertaining as a day-to-day squadron chronicle, they are most interesting when kept during deployments—they serve as a unique collection of history (and often humor) for a unit. Generally, the entries have to be signed, but other than that, there are no rules, either about content or language—the only criterion is that the story must be at least 10% true. Doofer books have fallen out of favor because they have been made public and have had their seedier details published in the national news; several ranking officers have lost their jobs over the books’ illicit content. Versions that are predominantly politically correct still exist, and “true” doofer books—complete with racier entries—nevertheless continue to survive.
Hail and Farewells and the Kissing Lieutenant
“Hail and Farewells” are social gatherings that are not specific to fighter pilots. Due to the transient nature of military living, new people are frequently arriving and old friends are leaving. Hails and Farewells give the squadron the opportunity to welcome new people and say goodbye to ones that are departing. The Kissing Lieutenant, though, is a unique fighter pilot tradition. Wives of new pilots are greeted with a flower and a kiss by the youngest unmarried lieutenant fighter pilot. The “aggressiveness” of the kiss varies widely on the permissiveness of the squadron. Some husbands have encouraged it, while others have stood between the lieutenants and their wives and taken the flower for them.
Another tradition that has found a place in virtually every military branch is that of the unit coin. Nearly every military unit has designed a coin that reflects its personality and history. In the strictest tradition, a fighter pilot earns the right to carry his unit coin when he becomes mission ready (MR), meaning he is a true “go to war” member of the squadron. The internet is rife with stories that credit every branch of the military with creating the tradition of the coin. The Army and Special Forces claim to have initiated the coin tradition in Vietnam or the Philippines, and another tradition credits the Army Air Force. In the AAF version, a rich young pilot in World War I purchased medallions for each member of his squadron. A member of their squadron was shot down over enemy territory, and his captors took all his belongings except the coin he carried around his neck. He made an escape and was able to rejoin friendly forces by using the coin to prove he was an Allied soldier. The tradition then became to ensure that all pilots carried their coin at all times which was ensured by issuing a challenge. A challenge occurs when a pilot says the word “coin” or when a pilot presents his coin, generally by slamming it on a wooden bar or table or by clinking it against metal or glass. In the fighter pilot ritual of using unusual words for normal things, to prevent issuing a challenge when talking about the coin they refer to it as a “round metal object,” or RMO. Anything that generates the “clink” of the RMO is considered a challenge, even accidentally dropping it. When challenged, all pilots are required to present their coins, ensuring that the correct face of the coin is up. If a pilot is found without his coin, he buys the next round for everyone present. If everyone presents their coin, then the challenger buys the round.
Fighter Pilot Songs
Fighter pilot songs probably do have enough history to be justifiably called a tradition. The concept of such songs is not new—think of them as combinations of Irish bar tunes and military anthems. The danger of combat and thrill of aviation led many to pen songs about flying, patriotism, missed loves, and the more humorous topics of broken equipment, bad food, clueless superiors, the faults of the enemy, and the virtues of the allies. Fighter pilot songs aren’t just tales of those who have gone before, though. As the air wars became more brutal and the conflicts less popular, the songs began to reflect the cynicism and sarcasm of the times, and they did so using the basest of terms. The vast majority of fighter pilot songs glorify sex, death, prostitution, and adultery, are laced with profanity, and blatantly chorus on virtually every natural and unnatural sexual organ and function. (Incidentally, most fighter pilot songs begin with the phrase, “How does every good fighter pilot song start? Dada-da-dada-da, tits!”) True, some songs deal with the talents of flying and fighting and occasionally reference Air Force history, and some songs are actually decent—unfortunately, those are not the popular ones. Sometimes even the seemingly innocent songs are phrased as allegories referring to the above list of vices.
The historied songs have been made famous in today’s fighter pilot community by Dick Jonas, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and former F-4 pilot who runs his own record label to produce albums of the songs. While most CDs that included those vulgarities would require a parental advisory label even in today’s culture, Dick Jonas puts a simple caution on the back of his distributions: the lyrics on the CD use what he calls “the warrior’s vernacular” and might be offensive. Today, most of the songs sung in fighter pilot bars are still from the era of Vietnam. A couple of fighter pilots set out to correct that oversight and formed a duet called Dos Gringos. The two pilots have produced CDs of “modern” fighter pilot songs with the assistance of Mr. Jonas. These songs don’t stray far from the convention of the older songs.
Friday Nights at the Squadron Bar
Another fighter pilot tradition is the Friday night event, which goes by various names depending on the squadron. In the 308th at Luke, the squadron emblem was the Emerald Knight, so Friday afternoons were called the “Crusades.” At Spangdahlem, they were called “Hawk Buds,” and an Aviano squadron called theirs “the Merge.” The general theme was the same; it was a time to hang around the bar and tell funny stories about what other pilots had messed up during the week. There were generally rules of order about who could tell stories and how they were to be introduced. (The Knights started each story with a toast, while at Spangdahlem pilots opened with the melodramatic phrase “So there I was…”) Fighter pilot songs were often sung and several serious as well as ludicrous toasts were made. At the end of the event a poll was taken through some form of vocal feedback to determine the best story. The pilot that inspired that story (the one who had committed the act that others had mocked) then “won.” At Luke he was passed a plastic sword; at Spangdahlem, it was a hat-sized baby bottle top that looked like a nipple. In both cases, the “winner” was responsible for being the master of ceremonies for the next Friday’s event.
Fridays are also the source of other “little” fighter pilot traditions. Many fighter pilot units wear t-shirts under their flight suit that are the color of their unit on Fridays, though major Air Force commands have varied in recent years about whether such uniform choices are “regulation.” There are often “Friday nametags,” which contain not the pilot’s name but only his given callsign. Friday nametags generate another tradition, which is “First Name Friday,” a day in which you are not allowed to call a pilot by his callsign but only by his real first name. It is not unusual for a group of pilots to have no idea what each others’ first names are; with fines of $1 per violation, such events are often used as “fundraisers” for squadron social events.
Probably the most well-known fighter pilot tradition is assigning a fighter pilot a “handle” or “callsign.” Virtually all aviators (and many who want to be) have tactical nicknames, similar to “Maverick” and “Goose” of Top Gun fame (though Type A fighter pilots will point out that Goose was not a pilot but actually a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), the Navy equivalent of a Weapons System Officer (WSO)). Pilots new to a unit who have not yet been “named” in the squadron are referred to as FNGs, where NG is “new guy” and the F is a profanity. In a “ceremony” that is called a “Naming,” new pilots are given their name (thus, named) by the older pilots of the squadron. The new guys are expected to bring a “bribe” to persuade the older pilots to give a quality name rather than an acronym of the worst construction. These bribes range from games and equipment for the squadron to alcohol and pornography.
The basis of the new pilot’s name could be a stand-out event in the pilot’s flying experience, a play on his real name, a reference to a person to which the pilot bears a physical resemblance, or the name could be formed from an acronym that refers to nearly anything. Examples that I have heard are “Deuce,” for a pilot who had ejected twice in his short career (few pilots even do that once), “Reverend,” for a pilot whose name was the same as the cult leader who murdered his followers with poisoned Kool-Aid, and “Duke,” for a pilot who walked like John Wayne. Examples of acronym names were STOGI, for a pilot who “Stole the OG’s Indian” (it would take a long time to explain), and STUFR, for “Stop Talking U Retard,” with the F added for profane emphasis. The result of the Naming could be random; any new guy could be named anything, with one caveat: if a pilot had “dropped in anger” (that is, been in combat) with a given name, then he could keep that name at his option. Even that pilot still had to go through the Naming. Namings themselves varied in style and content from one unit to another; some units are “famous” for their Namings, while others keep their ceremonies a virtual secret. Most include alcohol, games, unit history, and aspects of an “initiation.”