One Fighter Pilot’s Naming

One of the first and more dramatic examples of the fighter pilot culture that a new pilot will face is that of the traditional Naming.  Done professionally and respectfully, a traditional “rite of passage” Naming could be considered a source of comradery and esprit d’corps.  Unfortunately, the Namings in which I have participated have been more akin to fraternity initiations than events that call on the history and pride of a unit, the Air Force, or the country. 

My Naming at my training base began with mandatory drinking (they respected my desire not to drink, but those who did were frequently ordered to imbibe), moved into the singing of fighter pilot songs, and finally ended in a scripted “knighting” ceremony (because the squadron was the Emerald Knights) at which we were given our names.  By the time we were done, several of the new pilots were vomiting and falling over themselves.  One pilot ended up standing on the bar in his underwear.  Another—the ranking officer in our class—had inebriated courage and wrestled one of the instructor pilots until he took a face plant and broke a tooth.  As the sole sober member of our class I had the pleasure of driving him to the emergency room, but he refused to go in for fear that he’d get in trouble for hurting himself while drunk.  Fortunately (for me), his wife (not fortunate for her) met us there and took care of him. 

I’d long been told I was more mature than my peers, but among adult military officers I had only recently thought it might still apply.  I once thought to myself that if I really wanted to participate in such events, I’d resign from the military, go back to college, and join a fraternity.  Even if I could accept the immaturity, it was tedious and conscience-strickening to be the only sober person around.  When groups of drunken pilots start tossing tables out of windows, the only ones concerned about safety and the police are the owners and the sober ones in the room.  Also, once committed to a group of drunken pilots, it’s difficult to leave them; if a sober person leaves and something happens, the next day someone will question why he left a group of his inebriated friends to fend for themselves.  The repercussions can actually be one step more serious.  I know a sober fighter pilot who received disciplinary paperwork for failing to prevent his drunken friends from causing damage during a night of partying.  The fact that the drunkards are grown adults responsible for their own actions won’t prevent a sober officer from bearing some responsibility for them. 

While I did not have any positive feelings about my previous Naming experience, I thought I would see if the one held at my first operational assignment was any different.  The more experienced pilots had convinced me that the Naming was a tradition that would foster a mutual respect among those with whom I would go into combat.  Even so, I made known my desire not to participate in some questionably moral aspects of the event.  While officially no one would talk about what occurred during the Naming (to maintain its mystique), I found out that at some point the new guys were required to sing the “unit song,” which was rife with foul language and sexuality.  When I mentioned that I would not sing it, the Ancient pilot (the pilot who had been in the squadron the longest and ran the Naming) was livid.  When he realized that I wasn’t going to change my mind, he “allowed” me to participate and substituted “Happy Birthday” instead. 

The Naming began with an immense amount of drinking and a round of golf.  To make up for the lack of inebriation in those who did not drink, teetotalers were required to drink disgusting concoctions of various drinks or imbibe immense amounts of highly caffeinated beverages.  After each hole of golf we were required to yell a phrase that was related to the score.  The phrases for most scores are unacceptable for repetition, and I refused to say them at the time as well.  After the golf game we moved through an obstacle course that was part of the base.  There were various trivia questions to be answered along the way, and various drinking penalties associated both with the obstacles and the trivia.  The final portion of the ceremony involved eating a concoction of various foods that under normal circumstances would be unpalatable, but when mixed together was revolting.

Finally, the new guys were corralled off by themselves and then called one by one to kneel before the Ancient pilot, who asked a list of scripted questions:  why are you here, why do you want to be one of us, what were you before you were a part of this squadron, and things of that nature.  We were challenged to present our coin, which we had to do in the correct “manly fashion.”  The next step was to drink from the “chalice,” which was yet another excuse to consume immense amounts of alcohol.  The new guy was ordered to sing the squadron song, and finally, the new pilot had to “consume the ovum,” or eat a whole, raw egg.  I have no idea what the source of that tradition is.  What I do know is that at a previous Naming a pilot had contracted salmonella; as a protective measure, at future namings the flight doctor gave the new guys an antibiotic at the beginning of the Naming.  After that last step, we were told our new “name,” everyone cheered and shook our hand.  If at any point we answered a question to the dissatisfaction of the crowd, we could be sent back to the group of new guys only to have to repeat the same events again.  While waiting, the group of new guys was egged on to sing fighter pilot songs.

The Naming was so demeaning, degrading, and immature that I swore I would never go through another.  While “new guys” were always coming into the squadron, I avoided their Namings.  On one occasion I met the group at the end of their Naming ceremony; I wanted to check on the status of a fellow Christian (also a non-drinker) who had been in that group.  The pressure to attend an initial Naming was intense, and I did not actively discourage him from attending (though he told me he considered it), as even I had attended my initial Naming.  To skip one’s initial naming was unheard of.

At my next assignment, the “fighter pilot mentality” was significantly more pronounced.  I was torn on how much to participate in the raucous revelry at the squadron.  It wasn’t good to totally separate myself from the other pilots: those among whom I worked were the same with whom I would fly into combat.  On one hand, I feared I might alienate those to whom I might witness because I didn’t want to participate in foolishness; on the other, I might estrange younger Christians looking for a mentor in the struggle against the evils of the fighter pilot life.

The fighter squadron put on one of its Namings just a week after I arrived.  I was unsure if I should attend; I didn’t really know what the content of the Naming would be, but experience told me it would involve alcohol, profanity, and movies and songs that were hardly edifying.  The pressure to attend was significant, particularly since it would be my first squadron Naming—my attendance was essentially required.  When pilots move from one squadron to another, they have to go through the new squadron’s Naming to be a Named part of the new unit.  Virtually every day I was asked if I was attending and was forced to justify my vague replies.  Ultimately I skipped the Naming.  I avoided subsequent ones as well, and I became the oldest (and only) unnamed pilot.  I knew that many disliked my avoidance of the Namings.  Since I sidestepped the Naming, though, my perspective broadened from my previous experience, where I had attended the Naming and not discouraged others from attending.  I had now done “the unprecedented” by not becoming a Named fighter pilot, and felt added assurance to support those who were struggling with the peer pressure to participate in those kinds of events; I could speak experientially about Namings but could also discourage Christians from participating if it was appropriate.

Not all units have Namings as “bad” as the ones I went through.  Some may be “immature” but not necessarily immoral.  Some are actually fun.  Still, they are generally dramatic compilations of fighter pilot vices.