Naval aviators always have been afforded benefits unavailable to other naval officers. I cannot count how many times hearing an instructor remarks "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'." This applied from dogfighting the U.S. Air Force to neglecting to follow flight rules by the letter of the law. Legendary rule-breakers attained exalted status. It was understood that if you got caught, you would face the consequences, but only the grossest offense would rate disciplinary action for an aviator with a good reputation.
I love the scene in The Bridges of Toko-Ri , when "Beer Barrel," the ship's LSO, can hardly heft his booze-laden golf bag back on board after a port visit in Tokyo. Most people probably assumed that it was typical Hollywood embellishment. In fact, drinking among aviators on board ship was common until the ugliness of the 1991 Tailhook convention. Not only was it ignored, but it practically was condoned. Rules such as not wearing flight suits on and off the bases and 12-hours bottle to brief (bottle-to-throttle in those days) were dismissed openly as intrusions into the lives of the nation's finest.
Do I believe the return of the rule bending, hard-drinking fighter pilot will save Naval Aviation? No! Because of the ugliness of Tailhook 91, Naval Aviation is leading the charge for the military—and the country—as the shining example of a race- and gender-blind work environment where performance is truly what counts. Certainly, accountability, enforcement of uniform and safety standards, operational risk management, and flight discipline are all good goals. But our zero-defects environment is—well—just not fun. We have operationally risk-managed ourselves into safer, less-exciting, and less-challenging operations.
Up until a few years ago, aircraft routinely carried live weapons on training missions. We were trusted to handle them responsibly. Occasionally, an aviator unintentionally employed one. The rest of us would use those incidents as reminders to double- and triple-check our switch settings before squeezing the trigger. On a surface ship, an officer has to work through many steps and generally get concurrence of the tactical action officer and the captain to launch a weapon. An F-14 pilot just needs to move two switches and squeeze the trigger. It was flattering and just cool to fly with live missiles. Impromptu low-level flying, ship fly-bys, and unbriefed air-combat training were all commonplace in the past. Sure they were dangerous, but they sure were fun. They could turn ordinary flights into something magical.
Today, all but the most minor mishaps means being sent automatically to a Fleet Naval Aviator Evaluation Board. The board evaluates your motivation and competence to continue flying. You are grounded—at least until the matter is adjudicated by the first flag officer in the chain, usually after two to three months. Mishap circumstances and the pilot's reputation have no bearing on whether the board will be convened or not. Horror stories abound about aviators fighting for months to regain their right to fly, with flag officers Monday-morning-quarterbacking every cockpit decision, many of which were made with aircrew and aircraft in extremis. I used to know that if I made a mistake, my CO would talk to the CAG, evaluate my judgment, and then decide upon a course of action. That option doesn't exist anymore.
Accountability is essential when dealing with $40 million aircraft and where people's lives are at stake—but it is impossible to train fearless killers, people who will put bombs on target despite incoming fire, in a zero-defect environment. There has to be a balance.
Many new aviators look around their squadrons and think, "All I do is fight to reach 20 flight hours a month and send countless required reports up the chain of command. No one seems to trust me to do anything alone, and I know if I have a mishap, they will crucify me. I am spending plenty of time away from home and know I have at least two sea duty rotations to complete because I incurred a nine-year obligation to get my wings. Why should I do this for a 40% retirement in 20 years?"
The fraternity is closed, and the fun has been reined in by the very men who taught us about it.
Commander Sos is the operations officer of VF-154.