"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Is the Fighter Pilot Culture Evil?

At least one fighter pilot thinks so.

I recently finished the book entitled "Christian Fighter Pilot is not an oxymoron" by Jonathan C. Dowty who apparently wrote the book as a captain. He is a fighter pilot and by all accounts is still one.

While I wouldn't call fighter pilot culture "evil" and, while I wholeheartedly reject Dowty's assertion that it may be acceptable to break Air Force rules and regulations to follow God's will, I must compliment Dowty on his integrity. It is evident throughout his book (which was published in 2007) and in his discussion of his combat contributions, his squadron's contributions, and in his broader discussion of fighter pilot culture. Due to his outstanding integrity, and despite my very real disagreements with what I feel is a dangerous mindset concerning the role of religious beliefs in the military, I recommend his book be read by Air Force officers. It can be found on Amazon.Com and can be ordered through Barnes and Noble.

In his book he states:

“The stereotypical fighter pilot is the break-all-the-rules maverick who pushes the boundaries, goes it alone, and uses his ‘I know better than they do’ attitude to win the war (and the girl). Reality is a slightly different story… For better or worse, fighter pilots faced pressure from their peers to act a certain way. The result is that a fighter pilot isn’t the stereotypical individualist or nonconformist—rules, regulations, and ridicule cause him to act in a manner that is consistent with the rest of the group. Whether it is ‘safety in numbers’ or ‘mob mentality’ (either of which could accurately convey a fighter pilot perspective), fighter pilots tend to act like a herd. When one fighter pilot is different, he sticks out from the pack, and the pressure to conform is immense” (Dowty, 2007, 50).

He also provides a great discussion of the links between fighter pilot culture and college fraternity culture, discusses how his squadron doctored award packages to wrongly merit medals, how pencil whipping forms is common, and how writing OPRs routinely takes a person's accomplishments in reality and turns them into either the "fantastic" or "fantasy." He points out many examples of perception at the expense of reality.

“Fighter pilots by nature don’t like to be wrong, and their first response is generally to become defensive and deny an offense was committed” (Dowty, 2007, 97).

While he also discusses the great things associated with being a fighter pilot, he demonstrates real courage and honesty in his insightful analysis and is not afraid to provide his honest assessment of a culture in need of reform. He provides a rare and extremely honest perspective and despite my disagreements I very much respect his integrity.

Source Cited:

Dowty, Jonathan "Christian Fighter Pilot" is not an oxymoron, 2007.


  1. Inflated awards packages and OPRs, pencil whipping, perception vs reality...are these problems specific to the fighter community? While they certainly do exist there, I pretty sure that fighter pilots don't own exclusive rights to these flaws.

  2. I think you’re right. My experiences match yours. I hope I can find some good discussions to better bracket the scope of this discussion. I'm certainly not of the mindset that these flaws are limited to the fighter culture. I'm sure they're not limited to the Air Force within the DoD and corporate America has certainly shown they are not limited to the defense establishment. My research will try to connect all these dots in some useful way.

    At this point I tend to agree with others that our military culture is being influenced, for good or ill, by larger society. Certainly it’s always been that way but the level of degree may be important. One recent example is the Kelly Flinn issue. I think Gen Fogleman's (an F-15C pilot) actions and retirement may indicate some of this influence. It seems from what little I've read that he was actively engaged in trying to hold up military standards (arguably higher military standards) by ensuring Flinn was punished fairly as a military officer against broader cultural and political pressures. Flinn was an officer that committed adultery and disobeyed an order. Pressure came from some in congress, civilian executive leadership, and the media who apparently thought the military’s punishment was unfair or unjustified or outdated. At least one in the senate called the military standards, or their enforcement, "ridiculous" according to a Newsweek article (Vistica, 1997). The CSAF’s attempts to preserve military accountability (whether you agree with the rules or not) against larger social and political pressures begs the question, “how much have these cultural trends affected the military?” Or so it seems to me from the brief research I’ve done so far.

    Sources Cited:

    Vistica, Gregory L and Thomas, Evan Sex and lies. (Air Force Lieutenant Kelly Flinn's adultery scandal; includes related article on other 1990s military scandals), Newsweek, 02 June 1997.

  3. My dad was a combat pilot, so I grew up almost exclusively around pilots and their families. (He would want me to add that he finished top of his class in advances fighter training, but along with that entire class was sent to bombers for the new nuclear program.) When I enlisted in the navy to get away from my controlling father, I ended up working closely with combat pilots. What I am trying to figure out is if I am attracted to narcissists because combat pilots typically possess that character trait? One guy I liked-definitely a narcissist-turned out to be the son of a Marine combat pilot. It seems the apple doesn't fall far from the tree! Just wondering...