Blue Angels report calls out fighter pilot culture
By Meghann Myers
When news broke that Capt. Gregory McWherter’s high-flying career had essentially ended, support came flooding in from thousands of sailors and civilians who said he’d put the Blue Angels flight team back together after a spate of safety issues.
While his support remains strong in some quarters, the release of the Navy’s investigation into the Blue Angels under McWherter paints a picture of aviation culture lapsing into demeaning behavior from a bygone era, where porn, lewd comments and raunchy pranks are condoned — even celebrated — as “boys being boys.”
Those days are gone. In the wake of the report, many sympathetic to McWherter after his April 18 firing from his post-Blue Angels job as executive officer at Naval Base Coronado, California, were shocked that a commanding officer reportedly allowed his team to act with abandon, saying this behavior has been off limits for a long time, according to interviews with former squadron commanders.
“As a former Blue Angel, as a former admiral in the Navy, I still am having trouble getting my mind wrapped around how quickly this came about in the squadron,” retired Rear Adm. David Anderson told Navy Times in a June 11 phone interview.
Anderson and other experts believe the unique give-and-take of the Blue Angels — where a CO is both the final authority and a wingman whose flying is critiqued by junior officers — may have fostered the “toxic” culture under McWherter, whose eagerness to repair his team after returning in 2011 for his second command stint created new problems.
“And also, how it got into this mentality of a juvenile one-upmanship, to see who can shock the most,” added Anderson, the current president of the Blue Angels Association. “That’s not the Navy I know. That’s not the Navy I served in. That’s not the Blue Angels I know.”
Aviation leaders are reviewing the Blue Angel’s command structure, in light of the report that found blatant disregard for regulations.
“The totally inappropriate command environment fostered by Capt. McWherter was so unacceptable that it should have been clear to each member of the team that standards of personal dignity and respect were violated,” Vice Adm. David Buss, the head of Naval Air Forces, said in a June 3 statement.
Inside the Blues
The Blue Angels are a far cry from a typical squadron: It’s a more democratic atmosphere, lacks an executive officer and boasts a selection process more akin to joining SEAL Team 6 than your average ready room, Anderson said.
“One of the hardest jobs is to go in as a commanding officer of the Blue Angels and really understand, this is a weird group,” said Anderson, a retired F/A-18 pilot who flew with the Blue Angels in the 1980s. “They vote on members to come in. How am I supposed to come in as the commanding officer, and have some junior officer at the table critique my flying? It’s a very unusual relationship.”
On the other hand, Anderson said, it’s up to an experienced CO to know when to treat his junior officers as equally capable pilots and when to be their boss.
“He has to learn very quickly when he is one of the pilots sitting around the table talking about safety of flight, and when he is the commanding officer of the squadron,” he said. “That includes command climate, morale of the troops, meeting basic standards.”
Anderson said he has spoken with senior Navy leadership as they look at steps to tweak the Blue Angels structure to prevent future command climate issues.
But making the team more like the rest of the fleet isn’t the answer, he said.
“If we were to select officers for the team the way the Navy selects officers for a squadron, it would be very detrimental,” he said.
For instance, if the squadron were to get an XO, a position typically responsible for ensuring regulations are followed and standards met, he argued the selection process should be similar to the way the team already chooses pilots, through a campaigning process and a vote by existing members.
The 1991 Tailhook scandal was a tipping point in naval aviation, where headlines of sexual harassment and lewd behavior rocked the Navy for months and forced reforms. The Navy had to take a hard look at itself in the fallout.
But in today’s climate, a retired three-star flight officer said, COs must know better — or face the consequences.
“I think commanding officers and leaders — not only COs in the Navy, but leaders in general — have to be attuned to the times,” said retired Vice Adm. Lou Crenshaw, who commanded an attack squadron, an air wing and the John F. Kennedy Carrier Strike Group during his three decades of service.
Another former squadron commander, Capt. Mark Light, said he couldn’t believe anyone would tolerate this misbehavior.
“In today’s environment, you can’t survive that way. Ten years ago, that was probably commonplace, I guess,” said Light, a former C-2A Greyhound pilot who has studied toxic leadership closely as a faculty member at the Army War College. “It hasn’t been like that in any of the ready rooms I’ve been in for a really long time.”
Others disagree, arguing that lewd behavior, name-calling and bullying are still present in some squadrons. One of them is Lt. Steve Crowston, who as an ensign in 2009 faced his squadron’s harassment culture head-on when it came time to get his call sign.
Members of Strike Fighter Squadron 136, an F/A-18 Hornet unit based at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, offered up ideas like “Gay Boy” and “Fagmeister.” They settled on “Romo’s Bitch,” razzing Crowston for his loyalty to the Dallas Cowboys and their quarterback, Tony Romo.
Crowston, now the education officer on the San Diego-based aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, filed a complaint for workplace sexual harassment with his inspector general, but they found his claims to be unsubstantiated.
He took the case up to the Pentagon’s IG office, where it took a year and a half to be vindicated.
“No new evidence was introduced. How does this happen?” Crowston told Navy Times via email June 10. “I think the court of public opinion knows exactly why Navy pilots escaped substantiated charges at that time. The aviation community is thick as thieves.”
Despite that, Crowston said a stigma has followed him since — through Naval Special Warfare Group 2, Naval Ocean Processing Facility Dam Neck, Virginia, and now the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson.
“While being attached to these commands, I have publicly been called ‘Fag Boy’ in a department head meeting,” said Crowston, who added that he won’t let it drive him out of the Navy.
“I decided to stay Navy in an attempt to be a positive influence and voice for other LGBT service members who for whatever reason are not able to stand up for themselves,” he said.
Losing their ‘swagger’
Just months after McWherter took command of the Blue Angels for the second time, former Navy Secretary John Lehman wrote a piece for Proceedings magazine on the 100th anniversary of U.S. naval aviation, arguing that political correctness had doused the profession’s spirit.
“Those attributes of naval aviators — willingness to take intelligent calculated risk, self-confidence, even a certain swagger — that are invaluable in wartime are the very ones that make them particularly vulnerable in today’s zero-tolerance Navy,” he wrote.
There are those, however, who believe pilots can be just as fearsome in a PC climate.
Light said, today’s pilots are better fliers than ever, even if they can’t have pinups in their cockpits.
“Our aviation community is vastly more professional, vastly better prepared for every possible issue than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” he said. “I don’t see that you need to disrespect people to be a good fighter pilot, or any other kind of pilot.”
Experts say the case boils down to standards. The Navy has clear guidelines, McWherter violated them, and he paid with his career.
“He regrets it now,” said Anderson, who said he’s had multiple conversations with McWherter in recent months. “And I don’t think he regrets it only because of his career, but because of his personal reputation. And that’s not Greg McWherter.”
On top of that, Anderson said, every officer in that ready room is responsible for letting the behavior continue.
He said professional training taught those officers what was appropriate, and that it was their duty to try to fix it.
“This is not ‘boys will be boys.’ This is Navy standards,” he said. “If this was a college campus, if this was a small company that did not have to answer to the American taxpayer, they may get away with it. … But in this day and age, I just don’t see this as a tool that’s acceptable under any circumstances.”