Blues pilots named in probe still flying

Rob Johnson, Staff Writer

Three Blue Angels pilots who participated in the pornographic internal text messages and images probed by the Navy earlier this year are still on the team and flying at air shows.

Editor’s note: The Pensacola News Journal has chosen not to publish the images and messages described in this story at this time because of their graphic nature.

Three current Blue Angels pilots are among the commissioned officers who circulated pornographic messages and photographs among themselves and to other members of the elite flight team, according to copies of phone texts that were part of a recent Navy investigation.

Navy officials at the Pacific Fleet in Honolulu, which oversaw the lengthy probe that ended last May, said the current Blue Angels pilots received “non-punitive administrative” disciplinary measures, which typically include counseling, additional training and a “letter of caution.”

But none of the aviators, whose names weren’t included in the report about the investigation that the Navy made public in May, has undergone the more severe career-ending sanctions and public denouncement handed out to Capt. Greg McWherter, the previous Blues commander and lead pilot.

McWherter’s assignment with the Blues ended in November 2012. He had moved on to become second in command at the prestigious Coronado Naval Base in California when he was removed from that job last April during the investigation.

The names of the Blues pilots who worked for McWherter and were part of the “Group Me” intra-squadron internal communication system were disclosed in printed copies of the text messages. The News Journal received the copies, including images, in the mail from an anonymous source. A Navy spokesman at the Pacific Command in Honolulu confirmed that the texts were authentic part of the probe.

The Navy’s 63-page report on the investigation described the texts as “raunchy, homophobic and pornographic.” Most of the images are photos or illustrations of unidentified male genitalia.

Other current Blues pilots identified in the text messages as receiving, sending or forwarding the sexual material are: Marine Corps Capt. Brandon Cordill, Navy Lt. Cmdr. David Tickle and Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Hiltz.

The Navy also investigated a homophobic internal text purportedly sent by Navy Cmdr. Tom Frosch, McWherter’s successor and the current Blue Angles No. 1 pilot, also known as “Boss.” But according to Navy Capt. Darryn James, a spokesman for the Pacific Command, investigators became convinced that the text sent from Frosch’s mobile phone was “sent by someone else. It wasn’t a secure phone.”

Asked by the News Journal why McWherter was singled out among the Blues, the Navy released a statement from Vice Adm. David Buss, the commander of Naval Air Forces, based in San Diego

“The Navy firmly believes that those in positions of leadership set the tone for the organization, and the investigation clearly found that Capt. McWherter was primarily responsible for accepting and encouraging behavior that led to a toxic and hostile work environment,” the statement read.

Yet neither the investigative report nor the Buss response Friday asserted that McWherter started the misbehavior. James said he was uncertain if the investigation ever determined when such activities as the salacious text messages began. The investigation found other unacceptable practices by the Blues, including the proliferation of “explicit pornography” in the cockpits of the team’s F/A-18 Hornets.

In fact, the report noted that McWherter had a “successful and unmarred tour as the commanding officer of the Blue Angels from 2008-2010.” The Navy ordered McWherter to resume leadership of the squadron following a May 2011 “safety of flight” violation committed by then-lead pilot Cmdr. David Koss.

As for the other Blues pilots who participated in the improper texting, Buss’ statement on Friday asserted: “The comprehensive investigation considered all the evidence and ultimately concluded that several other Blue Angels team members held some responsibility for their inexcusable behavior. These team members were held accountable by the Navy through appropriate administrative action.”

A retired Navy attorney in the Pensacola area who has experience in military personal conduct cases said the Navy had little choice but to limit career-ending punishment to McWherter. The reason is that punishing the other pilots might have required at least a partial cancellation of the current air show season because replacing them with other qualified flight demonstration pilots on short notice would be almost impossible.

Yet the former Navy Judge Advocate General attorney, who is familiar with the Blues squadron and examined the text messages at the News Journal’s request, said, “In any command where I ever worked, I would have recommended that the commanding officer be relieved.” He added that if he had authority in a similar case, “I would have recommended that other commissioned officers who participated in such conduct receive adverse fitness reports” and subsequent discipline “that would probably have resulted in them getting out of the Navy.”

But the Navy’s investigative report said that Frosch, the Blues current commander, has taken measures that have raised behavior within the squadron to acceptable standards.

Calls to the Blues’ Pensacola public affairs office were not returned. The pilots were in Seattle during the weekend at the SeaFair Boeing Air Show.

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