Why no female Blue Angels pilots?

In “boys club” atmosphere, pilots choose who joins; Navy now reviewing process
By Jeanette Steele

Even though Navy women have been flying fighter jets since 1994, no female has ever been chosen for the premiere job in naval aviation: Blue Angels performance pilot.

The issue was at the heart of an insider complaint that brought down a Coronado-based former Blue Angels leader last week over sexual harassment and may lead to reform in how the elite air-show unit chooses its members.

The scandal revealed a “boys club” atmosphere, where raunchy photos, sexual innuendo and even a huge penis painting were tolerated, and entry to the team is based in part on whether current members think you will fit in.

In fact, applying to the team is called “rushing,” like at college fraternities.

The sexual harassment that Navy investigators found raises the question of whether applicants who don’t subscribe to the boys-will-be-boys tone will succeed in the squadron.

The investigation, led by an admiral, ultimately determined there was “no substantial evidence” of gender discrimination in pilot choice.

Yet subjectivities in the selection process — such as the “rushing” — led the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s commander to write that “because quantitative pilot skill is not the exclusive basis for selecting Blue Angels pilots (disposition and personality ‘fit’ are also considered), the selection process is still vulnerable to gender discrimination.”

Capt. Greg McWherter, a two-time leader and No. 1 Blue Angels pilot, was reprimanded last week for allowing, and even contributing to, a toxic work environment on the team from 2011-12.


                        Capt. Greg McWherter, the commanding officer of the U.S Navy flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, and Lt. Jim Tomaszeski sign autographs after performing at the 2010 NAS Jax Air Show. The Blue Angels highlighted the show, which included more than 20 other acts with various military static displays. A record crowd of 277,000 people attended the annual two-day show.  (U.S. Navy photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Ron Trevino)                       

The Navy investigation was spurred by a complaint to the service’s inspector general in March. The complainant was a woman whose name has not been released, though her knowledge of the Blue Angels’ inner workings implies that she was on or close to the team.

She alleged not only gender discrimination in pilot choice but also widespread misbehavior. The latter claim was substantiated by the Navy and detailed in a report released last week.

Examples include explicit pornography and sexually suggestive images in airplane cockpits and in internal squadron electronic message traffic.

In the squadron’s winter home of El Centro, the image of male genitalia — painted in Blue Angels blue and gold on the roof of a team trailer — was so large that it was visible in Google Maps satellite imagery.

Other examples:

•Blue Angels videographers would take crowd footage at air shows that lingered on close-ups of women. When pilots reviewed the video together, McWherter included, they would hoot and comment on the women’s body parts.

•Event schedules and maps contained sexual innuendo and homophobic commentary that officers “sanitized” before distributing to enlisted members or the public.

•Photos of one officer’s girlfriends, sometimes nude, frequently would be passed around the group. McWherter would request that the photos keep coming, if they had stopped.

McWherter has repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation.

Some past team members, including at least two women, have publicly backed him in recent days. And comments on social media have questioned the complainant’s motive in coming forward nearly a year and a half after McWherter left the squadron.

A Facebook page called Support Boss Greg McWherter had more than 5,050 likes by Saturday afternoon.

On that page, a woman identifying herself as Alicia Parks, a former Blue Angels enlisted crew chief, wrote: “I can fully, (heartily) say that Boss McWherter is the best naval officer I have ever met. He modeled the very pride and professionalism that he expected from his fellow team members.”

But the issue of why women have never served as Blue Angels pilots has clearly been on the minds of team members in recent years.

When asked by a news reporter off-camera, one male Blue Angels officer allegedly laughed and commented that no females fly the team’s blue-and-gold F/A-18s because “women want to have babies,” according to the Navy investigation.

Meanwhile, the team doctor prepared a 2010 brief to respond to questions about whether women possess the required strength to fly F-18 jets during the 35- to 45-minute performances. His answer: They do. It requires only enough strength to keep constant tension on the stick with 40 pounds of resistance.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet commander has ordered a 90-day review of the process for choosing Blue Angels performers. The Navy’s Coronado-based “Air Boss,” Vice Adm. David Buss, is in charge of it.

“I am reviewing a number of processes, including the Blue Angels’ officer application and selection process, in light of the recent investigation,” Buss said last week in a statement to U-T San Diego. “We will continue to maintain the highest of standards to provide opportunity and professional development for all qualified Navy personnel.”

At present, hopeful candidates are encouraged to “rush” the team by attending two air shows and socializing with the current pilots.

Navy and Marine Corps aviators get their foot in the door with a resume that includes at least 1,250 flight hours and demonstrated ability to land on aircraft carriers.

In the end, though, it’s a vote of the current Blue Angels officers that determines who will join their ranks.

The admiral who investigated the discrimination complaint suggested that the squadron set up a more formal detailing scenario — the process by which Navy sailors and officers typically get their next assignments.

San Diego State business ethics lecturer Wendy Patrick said that allowing a group to choose its future members is not a good way to achieve diversity, or even decisions based totally on merit.

“Homogenous groups tend to remain homogenous. That’s what the research shows,” Patrick said. “We like people like ourselves. That’s a basic human proposition that cuts across the board.”

Several women have served on the team in support roles.

In 2010, Carlsbad native Lt. Cmdr. Amy Redditt Tomlinson, a naval flight officer, was the first woman to serve in one of the team’s coveted “numbered” slots. As Blue Angels No. 8, she served as events coordinator and did not perform.

Ramona native and Julian High School graduate Lt. j.g. Amber Lynn Daniel is currently on the team as public affairs officer.

Women also serve as enlisted crew members.

But it’s the performing members of the team — who fly the spectacular wing-to-wing passes and screaming diamond rolls — who get the majority of the limelight.

Behind the scenes, Navy officials point to what one called the tyranny of small numbers.

Less than one in 10 Navy pilots are women. And of all aviation sectors, the smallest percentage of women fly fighter jets.

Of the Navy’s 2,228 fighter pilots, 62 are women, or 2.8 percent.

The largest percentage is in helicopters, at 8.8 percent.

One potential reason for the disparity is that fighter-jet jobs are the most recent category to open to women. Then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin wrote the 1993 memo that rescinded the ban on women flying in combat.

Female officers got their first shot at the cockpit in 1973, when the first four Navy women reported to flight school. But for the next two decades, they would fly only in support roles.

The tyranny of small numbers has not had the same effect on the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds flying team, the sibling unit of the Blue Angels. In an Air Force with 13,805 pilots, women account for 771 of those slots, or just over 5 percent.

The first female jet pilot reported to the Thunderbirds unit in 2005. Since then, at least two other female fighter pilots have performed on that squadron.

One difference between the Air Force and Navy is the nature of sea duty – and that’s what the Blue Angels officer’s “want to have babies” comment was likely about.

Naval pilots are generally 22 years old when entering flight school from college. Two years later they graduate and head into their first squadron for a three-year stint, according to people familiar with the typical progression.

At that point, usually around age 27, they get their first shore-based tour. For women, that may be the best career window for getting pregnant. Following shore duty, a pilot usually faces two more tours with deployments at sea.

A slot on the Blue Angels as shore duty would mean constant travel to air shows around the country. And a pregnancy while on the team might ground a pilot for at least some of nine months.

Despite the sophomoric antics uncovered among the Blue Angels, investigators said in the new report that many of the team’s pilots said they welcomed the possibility of a woman joining them.

However, they said the first female would have to be the “right one,” according to the investigative report, because of the intense scrutiny she would get from the public.

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