Military Traditions in Civilian Aviation

United Airlines has reportedly settled a lawsuit with a female aircrew member who complained of repeatedly finding pornographic material on the flight deck of her aircraft.

Court documents show that Stout, a United 737 captain based out of Seattle, found pornographic photos of women on more than 20 flights in 2004 and 2005…The photos were mostly found in hidden spots, such as under a cap on [the] “stick shaker,” or taped to the lid of the unused ashtray.

The reason this is of even remote interest to military Christians (particularly aviators) is that the allegation appears to duplicate a long military tradition:

When a group of fighter aircraft is deployed (across the country, ocean, or even to the other side of the world), it requires a large amount of mission planning.  Routes have to be planned, fuels have to be calculated, diverts have to be forecast, and all of these efforts are turned into paper charts for the pilots to carry in the cockpit.

It is still largely true that junior Lieutenants are responsible for generating this large amount of paper mission materials.  They create the flight plans and maps, which are cut into knee-board sized pieces and inserted into plastic sleeves which are then held together with wire loops.  This creates a “flip-chart” with which a pilot can navigate, and is far more convenient than the large, unwieldy maps (often several feet square) that would otherwise be required in the cramped cockpit.

It used to be a tradition that the Lieutenants were expected to place “morale pictures,” culled from adult magazines, among the flip charts.  The other pilots often wouldn’t see the maps (and thus the pictures) until they were airborne and using them for navigation.  (In that respect, the pictures served two purposes: to “entertain,” and to goad the other pilots who chaffed off the work of mission planning onto the Lieutenants.)  Westbound fighter pilots would flip the page from the chart of Kansas and find themselves looking not at Colorado, but at a centerfold.  Even decades ago, some people were “sensitive” to this “game,” which meant that the Lieutenants had to create both “politically correct” mission materials and those that the rest of the squadron would “enjoy”–and then make sure the two sets didn’t get confused.

While aversion to scandal has caused the “tradition” to be discouraged, it may still occur in some places.  While it is entirely possible that the United incident was merely the result of poor judgment, it is also possible that somewhere along the line a former military pilot (a common career history in commercial aviation), remembering how he used to find such material squirreled away in the cockpit, chose to revive the “tradition” in his civilian career field.  Note, for example, that the article says the inappropriate pictures were in “hidden” spots–unused panels and infrequently accessed areas.  The implication is that it might have been an “inside joke” among some aircrew, and many may have even been unaware.

Hiding pornographic pictures in a cockpit, and flaunting official policy with clever “games”, might be called foolish and adolescent.  It would also be consistent with some attitudes that remain in the military fighter pilot community even today.  Much has changed over the past few decades, but many vestiges of the fraternity of fighter pilots remain, just as such environments continue for those in other military specialties.  Regardless of perceptions of modern political correctness–which admittedly also runs strong in many military circles–this environment still exists across the career fields in the military, and it is, on occasion, a characteristic of the environment into which the military Christian enters.