Leadership: December 14, 2000

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Tailhook Tailspin; According to many naval aviators, the fallout from the 1991 Tailhook convention has wrecked naval aviation. What combat pilots had been doing for off-duty entertainment over many decades was suddenly discovered by a hyper-sensitive media and Congress. The subsequent investigation and legal proceedings took longer than the Nurnburg war crimes trials. While no one was executed for Tailhook, fifteen admirals and 145 aviators had their careers wrecked, many for nothing more than being there. The ten thousand naval aviators saw it as a witch hunt made worse by the refusal of their leaders to stand up to the lies and misrepresentation that permeated the proceedings. The politicians were quite angry that their extensive investigation had been unable to convict anyone of anything. The Senate also required that the personnel records of all aviators who attended the 1991 Tailhook convention to be marked as such. Those officers thereafter had trouble getting promoted. The navy was also ordered to get more women into cockpits. In 1994, a female aviator died while trying to land her F-14 on a carrier. The navy ruled it a case of engine failure. But her training records and details of the accident report were later leaked. They revealed that the female pilot should have washed out of flight school and never been qualified for carrier duty. But the navy ordered her passed, leaving it to the other aviators in her squadron to keep her out of trouble. That same a year, an admiral was punished for refusing to overrule flight instructors who had washed a female helicopter out of flight school. 

Morale took a big hit. The aftermath of Tailhook left most aviators feeling that their admirals were more interested in placating politicians than standing up for what was right. And if an admiral did speak out, he would be hounded out of the service by the politicians and the press. One senior admiral, Jeremy Boorda, committed suicide under the pressure.

On top of that, the carriers found themselves at sea more frequently during the 1990s than during the Cold War. Yet the navy was cut back from 15 carrier groups to twelve, while the workload increased. Becoming a naval aviator meant a service obligation of up to ten years. An atmosphere of "zero tolerance" and uncertainty about what was politically correct and what wasn't discouraged initiative, and just about everything else. A booming economy gave many overworked and demoralized naval aviators an attractive alternative, and many of them took it. 

By 2000, the navy was short some 2700 aviators. 

Not all the admirals were clueless careerists. They could see the problem coming. But the admirals also knew that if they didn't keep their heads down, the president or congress would hustle them into retirement. Few admirals are willing to sacrifice 20 to 30 years of service just to make a statement that may not even get a mention in the media. So the navy leadership has quietly tried to fix the problems. It hasn't been easy. 

The pilot shortage is most acute among the elite aviators who fly the F-18 and F-14 fighters. These are the aircraft that are the most difficult to handle, and the ones most likely to get you killed doing "night traps" (landing on the carrier in the dark). The fighter aviators take it as a given that each time their carrier goes off on a six month cruise, one of two of the F-14/F-18 aviators will not come back alive. Before the 1990s, a sufficient number of officers were willing to risk the time, efforts and chance of death to become fighter jocks. But no more. The poor leadership from above and the zero tolerance mentality all around them caused more and more aviators to go for helicopters or less dangerous aircraft. This option also provided more valuable training for those looking for jobs in commercial aviation. If you flew fighters, you had to unlearn a lot of stuff before you could get a job flying transports. 

Last year, of those who made it through flight school and scored high enough to qualify for jet fighter school, a third turned down the opportunity. More of a problem, especially on the political and media front, was the higher percentage of qualified woman trainees who turn down fighter training. Although only 3.2 percent of naval aviators are women, they are far more likely to avoid a career in fighters. While 68 percent of qualified male trainees go for it, only 40 percent of the women do. Actually, women have never been keen to get into jobs that involve the most dangerous fighting, but this has become a political issue that often overwhelms the more practical issues of getting anyone to do these jobs. 

But the empty cockpits have provided part of a solution. Aviators want to fly. Until recently, there were enough aviators available so that many of them could be assigned to unpopular non-flying jobs for a third to a half of the time. This is now much less common and the aviators love it. The navy has also eliminated many other unpopular administrative headaches for aviators. The long sea tours are still a problem that requires a political solution. The admirals also go out of their way to pledge support for their subordinates and no more "Tailhook witch hunts."

So far, these moves have not had much impact on getting people into the cockpits and keeping them there. There are a lot of things the admirals can order their aviators to do, but changing their minds isn't one of them. 


 


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