"...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, August 18, 2009

My Thesis, Criticism, and Role of Social Life to a Fighter Pilot

I'm writing the first draft of my thesis and have tenatively entitled it, "The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Best of the Best: An Exploration of Air Force Culture" and hope to have a good draft by the end of the week.

I want to reiterate my gratitude to my critics. I have actually used some critiques already in the writing. I hope the criticisms continue and I'll be posting brief items here throughout the week asking for criticisms and different viewpoints.

For example, two major sources I am using to "let the culture speak for itself" include Jon's book, "Christian Fighter Pilot is Not an Oxymoron" and the "American Fighter Pilot" reality TV show that aired on network TV. The strengths of these sources, in my view, include:
  • They are recent looks at fighter pilot culture instead of based on Vietnam era personalities
  • They both come loaded with descriptions of fighter pilot culture from fighter pilots
  • In the case of the AFP reality TV show it was heavily supported by the Air Force and the F-15C community (at least within AETC) and is probably the best cultural representation of the community to the public despite its lack of success on the networks
So my question to my critics are: Are these good sources for the description of fighter pilot culture and are there any other modern sources that I should use in addition or instead? I want to be sure to use objective sources for my description of fighter pilot culture instead of putting my own bias into the analysis and I think both these sources are great for those purposes but I don't want to miss out on any modern sources that might tell a different story for a more complete picture.

Also for your consideration and discussion are these three quotes from the American Fighter Pilot reality TV show. What exactly is the role and proper place of the social life within the fighter pilot culture? Assuming a baseline Air Force officer that has already been theoretically vetted for ethical and basic social skills, what more is required to be integral in the fighter pilot community? Any sources that I can use to support your viewpoint are much appreciated.

"No matter how good these guys might be in the jet, if they can't fit in socially they can't be an American fighter pilot and in this course that means you won't graduate."

- Captain Robert "Shark" Garland, Chief F-15C Instructor Pilot and Weapons Officer

"It doesn't matter what you drive, it doesn't matter how you look the only thing that matters is being able to successfully execute in this weapons system and be an integral part of our community. That's what matters."

- Captain Robert "Shark" Garland, Chief F-15C Instructor Pilot and Weapons Officer

"If we don't respect a guy or don't like a guy so much, it makes it difficult for us to put that trust in him or to put our lives in his hands."

- Captain Robert "Shark" Garland, Chief F-15C Instructor Pilot and Weapons Officer


  1. Jon, I'm sure you will agree that your book is a great discussion of fighter pilot culture. I'm also pretty sure you will be sensitive to how I use it in my work. I will provide you a draft copy of my thesis for your comments and will publish a footnote with a comment should you disagree with my characterization of your book since you have in the past accused me of taking your work out of context.

  2. Whether your choice of sources is adequate is difficult to say without knowing more specifics about your thesis itself. That being said:

    I haven't read Christian Fighter Pilot is Not an Oxymoron, so I can't judge that either. Yes, not much help so far.

    As for AFP, some full disclosure up front. When the show originally aired, it was on the big screen in the O'Club when we were all there on a Friday night. Needless to say, we all pulled up a chair with some cocktails and popcorn and howled in derision. A few years later, I watched it on DVD during a TDY and had the same basic reaction - a mixture of schadenfreude for the Eagle community for looking bad and disappointment in the producers of the show for the amped-up tone and formulaic reality-show vibe. I think it was an interesting premise poorly executed.

    I don't necessarily think that AFP is the best source for "real fighter pilot culture" and if your going to limit your research to these two, you may end up with a very skewed sense of reality. To me, AFP wasn't a documentary, it was more like a reality show and that brings up a few points:

    1. Reality shows rarely end up about actual "reality". Small story lines are magnified and/or taken out of context in order to create conflict that generates buzz and attracts viewers. I think AFP was especially guilty of this and it was, to me, the most irritating aspect of the show. Who knows what was left on the cutting room floor. The producers always have an agenda and rarely does it involve truth.

    2. I don't remember much of the show, but you have to wonder if the presence of the camera affected those being filmed by it. Let me also say that none of what I'm saying should be taken as an excuse or free pass for the Eagle community for how they appear here. They made their bed and they can lie in it. My previous statement of " words have consequences..." comes to mind.

    As an example, take Capt Garland's first quote. At first read, my reaction was "what a toolbox." After looking at it again, the phrase "...can't be an American fighter pilot... jumped out and I thought "since when did Tyndall start training Canadians? Who the hell talks like that?". And the answer is obvious - when you're talking to the camera filming a show called American Fighter Pilot. Is this just posturing for the producers, giving them a nice sound bite? Does Shark really believe this? Who knows...which leads to me next point....

  3. If you want insight into fighter pilot culture, why don't you ask some fighter pilots? I think the best source for answers to the questions you ask in the last paragraph (what makes a good fighter pilot) are actual fighter pilots who either train them or receive the results of that training. Ask your question without bias, and you should probably get an honest answer. You will from me. You've alluded in other forums to knowing some Eagle guys that maybe aren't complete pricks - ask for an interview. Ask them if AFP is an accurate representation of their community. They may all say no, but it would be interesting to find out why.

    If you think that everyone is just going to give you answers that make them and their bros look good, then this just boils down to competing bias - your admitted versus their perceived and becomes pointless.

    Your asking the question "what is required to be integral in the fighter pilot community". I could come up with lots of things if you want, but my sources are going to be my last 10 years and 2300 hours, which I consider to be pretty accurate and indicative. If you are asking for other primary documents/sources such as books, articles, etc, I can't really think of any. Other than sparring with you here, I tend to leave all that stuff at work and do other things with my time. If you want my inputs, send me an email. Writing in this comment box is painful.

    Again, I post this without knowing anything about your thesis other than the title. If I've assumed facts not in evidence, let me know

    P.S. I actually think that Shark's second comment is pretty spot on (and yes, it doesn't quite mesh with his first lame one). Quote #3 has some merit as well.

  4. Neal, awesome comments. Thanks much.

    I think your two numbered points above nail the AFP source. The first being that it's a reality show with producers that have an agenda and dramatizing "reality" is key. Context is certainly an issue that I will highlight in my thesis as a primary limitation of this source. Perhaps with Sharks' first quote they cut it before he mentioned, "and by fitting in socially I mean he's ethical and follows rules" or something to that effect. Great point.

    On the flip side, it's unlikely that the show would have been aired at all had the Air Force called foul for gross misrepresentation of the words stated by the uniformed officers. This gets into your second point about words having consequences and the affect of the camera. I think they must have all known that wasn't the time to put their feet in their mouths and I'm sure the PR officer assigned to the project was involved heavily. I would think anyway.

    I'll need to do some more research on the Air Force official reaction to the showing, contract, PR process, etc to get a better idea I think.

    I think every quote used from AFP will have to be vetted for context and discussed in the thesis even after the healthy disclaimer about the limitations of the source.

    As to your question on why I don't just use fighter pilots to get at the culture...I am using fighter pilots. AFP consists of fighter pilots explaining their community and culture to the outside world and Jon is a fighter pilot from a different community. Certainly those two sources beg the question, what about guys flying the F-15E, A-10, F-117 etc. My picture will be limited and I'll have to ensure the reader understands that. No amount of research will ensure reality is captured. I also have a third source but I can't discuss it at this time.

    As far as surveying pilots...I'm trying to avoid that although this website is primarily here to encourage fighter pilot critics like yourself to point out weak areas of my argument and throw the BS flag. I directly use that info.

    As far as interviewing dudes...there is one F-15C guy I've met as a result of this website who has an outstanding perspective. He said, "Dude, I read that and thought that you hadn't said anything I didn't already know about the community...but it's my community and not yours" essentially. He felt like I was invading his home turf though he agreed with my comments. I'd like to interview him but then I'm selecting guys that I know agree with me, on one hand, or I'd fall victim to guys giving me the standard line for damage control. I'm not saying you're one of those guys. But I'd like to remove my personal interaction with the source material for some objectivity.

    I would love to discover a published book or documentary or reality TV show not older than 2000 by a fighter pilot that paints a different view of fighter pilot culture, however. I would certainly add that to my research and thesis but I'm coming up short right now.

    Again, great points that will find their way into my thesis.

  5. Seeking comments:

    American Fighter Pilot (AFP) was created in 2002 as a reality-TV series to be aired on network television. It received extensive support from the United States Air Force, AETC, and the 95th Fighter Squadron (95FS). It provides a unique look at the socialization process of F-15C pilots as its very operation “provides capable warriors for America's Air Dominance Force in the renown ‘world's greatest air superiority fighter,’ the F-15C Eagle. ” While the editorial at Amazon.com calls the series “a serious examination of Air Force culture, ” the series presents contextual challenges due to the fast paced and repetitive editing style. Additionally, it stands to reason the presence of a camera had an effect on the military personnel being filmed. For example, since the series was created for network television it may be possible profanity was limited in the footage. The Public Affairs (PA) process may have exacerbated this in an attempt to present a positive light to the general public. It may be assumed the pilots involved in the filming were cognizant of the public affairs importance of the series and may have behaved differently than normal in some measure. Additionally, it stands to reason that the portrayal of “reality” of the squadron culture may have been slanted toward the dramatic in an attempt to make the series more entertaining in an effort less an “examination of Air Force culture” and more a commercial endeavor. Despite these limitations, the source is arguably the most detailed modern public video portrayal of F-15C culture, if not fighter pilot culture, in existence today and serves as a valuable primary source despite the potential contextual challenges.

  6. Seeking comments:

    “Christian Fighter Pilot is not an Oxymoron” was written in 2007 by then Captain Jonathan C. Dowty, an active duty Air Force F-16 pilot with more than one operational tour in the F-16. In his book description Dowty writes that his book explains “the popular fighter pilot culture” and explains “fighter pilots are known for their bravery, cunning, and skill in combat” as well as “their expertise in worldly vices. ” Like the AFP series, the strength of the source is its explanation of modern fighter pilot culture by a modern fighter pilot. While the stated audience and message is religious in nature, Dowty seeks to provide an understanding of fighter pilot culture and provides a proud and yet critical look at his culture. The main strength of this source is its balanced description and candor as evidenced by the author’s willingness to point out his lack of contribution in combat as well as the shortcomings of his peers detailed along with his heartfelt pride in being a part of the fighter pilot culture.