Okay, humor me a moment: I’m going to write two words and I want you describe the first image that comes to mind. Ready?
…Actually wait, before you describe the image, let me guess: you pictured a Ray-Ban-wearing white male with an appetite for danger and an enormous ego, am I right? Mocks rules and authority? Has a cool nickname? Yeah, I know the one. Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ from the 1986 hit film Top Gun is this genre’s poster child.
But if Hollywood is responsible for forming your image of military aviators then we need to talk, because from as early as The Great Santini to a more recent SNL skit, Tinseltown and the Big Apple have long taken significant liberties when depicting these hard-working professionals.
To be fair, some portrayals are not far off, but based on personal experiences over a quarter-century as a U.S. Navy F/A-18 pilot and now hosting the Fighter Pilot Podcast, I find most Hollywood fighter pilot stereotypes are just plain wrong.
So, let’s take a look at the top ten myths about fighter pilots (a term I’ll use to generalize all military aviators), along with a few anecdotes for why I take this position. Naturally there are always exceptions to the rule, which I strive to acknowledge.
Myth #10: Fighter Pilots are Devil-May-Care Risk Takers
Many worthwhile pursuits involve an element of danger: skiing, tightrope walking, and driving a car, just to name a few. Flying is no exception. The consequences of a mistake in aviation are immediate, sensational, and fiery, as even a cursory YouTube search reveals.
But routinely working in such a hazardous profession does not mean fighter pilots go around taking unnecessary risks simply for the thrill of it. What fighter pilots enjoy is having fun, and if they die or are badly maimed, they can’t have fun anymore. So risk is managed. And by analyzing the likelihood of a bad event happening—and the severity of the outcome if it does—fighter pilots then take calculated risks (which can still be thrilling).
I served with squadron mates who enjoyed sky diving, rock climbing, and other “extreme” activities. Heck, for many years I rode my 1,000cc motorcycle at non-competitive track events, routinely exceeding speeds of 150 mph. But parachutes are double checked, belays posted, and protective equipment worn on closed road courses. Managing risks ensures living to fly—and have fun—another day.
Myth #9: All Fighter Pilots have Cool Callsigns
Viper, Iceman, Wildcard, Sidewinder… you get the point. But wait a minute: Washout? Dead Meat? Clown Penis?! When serious, Hollywood readily bestows its characters with badass callsigns, which is simply aviator-speak for nicknames (learn more about callsigns on episode 2 and a previous musing on the subject).
For the most part, real world callsigns are anything but flattering. In fact, callsigns are often demeaning, crude, or downright offensive (recent military directives have striven to stamp this out, however). We had a hulking 240-pound former college football lineman in my air wing named ‘Buttercup.’ Other squadron friends went by ‘Sloppy,’ ‘Tiny,’ and ‘Doof.’ Sheesh, I’m named after a fruity gelatin, for crying out loud.
But exceptions abound both in Hollywood and real life. Tom Skerritt’s character ‘Viper’ was inspired by the Navy’s technical advisor to the film, Pete Pettigrew, who was our guest on episode 21. Another example is the Marine Aviator who went by the awesomest callsign ever: ‘Assassin.’ On episode 2, I wrongly guessed LtGen Fred McCorkle assumed this handle upon attaining flag rank when he in fact earned it by using a pistol to dispatch two enemy combatants rushing the helicopter he had just landed to fetch troops in Vietnam.
Regardless, callsigns like ‘Viper’ and ‘Assassin’ are the exception.
Myth #8: Fighter Pilots are Rampant Rule Breakers
Fighter pilots are depicted in movies willfully breaking the hard deck, buzzing the tower, and routinely committing other offenses as if part of the job. This is pure nonsense.
‘Headwork’ is a term used to describe a pilot’s ability to maintain situational awareness while properly performing required tasks. In real life, poor headwork—such as flouting the rules—is a sure ticket to having your wings clipped, which means the fun stops. No fighter pilot wants that (see #10).
Myth #7: Fighter Pilots are Exclusively White Males
Hollywood has cast Robert Duvall, Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Owen Wilson, even Harry Connick Jr. and Will Ferrell as intrepid fighter pilots, so it’s no surprise white males are the predominant stereotype. Truthfully, this jives with my experiences, but then, the prohibition on women in combat roles was only lifted in the early 90’s just as I was beginning my career. The number of female fighter pilots has steadily risen since and I served with many very capable female pilots, increasingly so towards the end of my career in 2017.
It is statistically true that most U.S. fighter pilots have been Euro-American to date, and I have no desire to make this a referendum on racial equality or opportunity in America. But the good news is this too is changing. Notable fighter pilots of color existed from as early as the Tuskegee Airmen and Jesse Brown, to the current U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff—the service’s highest-ranking officer, and their numbers are growing. Thankfully, Hollywood has taken note with nods to Will Smith, Jaime Foxx, Clarence Gilyard (the questionably-named, ‘Sundown’ character in Top Gun) and Lou Gossett Jr., although the latter almost doesn’t count because Iron Eagle was so… well, awful (but I still loved it).
Myth #6: Fighter Pilots are Intolerant of Authority
Fighter pilot archetypes are unfailingly portrayed as anti-authority. Even Poe Dameron, the brash X-Wing pilot of the later Star Wars episodes, publicly berates Admiral Holdo for her perceived incompetence. And this after being recently demoted for insubordination.
I have certainly witnessed my share of incredulity at seemingly asinine leadership (and, ok, I may have even harbored some), but the chasm is wide between grumbling over perceived poor leadership and getting in a superior’s face about it. Over my career, I observed (and participated in) plenty of the former but I never witnessed the latter.
Myth #5: Fighter Pilots Only Have Daughters
Hollywood has not particularly caught wind of this one but as a younger man I remember hearing that when fighter pilots—who were predominantly male at that time—had children, they only had daughters. The less-than-scientific assessment was that sitting so near transmitting radars and constantly pulling high G forces somehow segregated the swimmers. More nuanced studies showed it could be stress-induced.
Evidence exists to support this theory but I did not find it to be the case in my circles. Sure, some of my flying friends have only daughters, but others have both sons and daughters, and I have only sons. Three of them. Ironically, this fact provided endless ribbing by my peers who asserted I must have not been a “real” fighter pilot. Oy vey.
Myth #4: Fighter Pilots are Specimens of Perfect Health
Movies don’t generally bore audiences by depicting the obstacles young people encounter pursuing a career flying fighters, but in real life it is generally assumed that an applicant can have nothing medically amiss: vision has to be perfect and there must be no physical or medical defects of any kind, anywhere. In the Navy, we call being grounded for an obscure condition discovered by the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute as the dreaded “NAMI whammy.”
Due to the physiological hazards of military flying—and the fact that services usually have more applicants than available slots—thinning the pool medically is routine. These days, however, eyesight can be surgery-corrected to 20/20 and certain disqualifying conditions have always been waiverable on a case-by-case basis. As a young NROTC midshipman, I was devastated to learn that a minor ear surgery at age 12 would not only disqualify me from flight duty but naval service entirely. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed when the attending physician, a former Air Force surgeon, wrote an endorsement to NAMI on my behalf.
Curiously, the further fighter pilots advance in their careers the more willing military medicine seems to be when contemplating continued flight duty with certain conditions as if seeking the maximum return on investment. Certainly, “nothing’s wrong” remains a common pilot refrain to avoid the NAMI whammy, but I have friends who returned to flying fast jets following significant and undisguisable medical trauma including brain injuries, broken limbs, even open-heart surgery.
Myth #3: Being a Fighter Pilot is Easy
The act of flying is often simplified as, “pull back and the trees get smaller, push forward and the trees get bigger.” Seems straightforward, sure, but when you include aerodynamics, meteorology, navigation, fuel planning, and emergency procedures—to name a few of the many aviation considerations—flying becomes far more complicated.
Now to flying add fighting. To succeed in air warfare means understanding the weapons, combat systems, and tactics for your side, and then the weapons, combat systems, and tactics for the other side. All the other sides. Then there are survival methods, rules of engagement, theater-specific procedures, and more. I’ve often said being a fighter pilot is every bit as “professional” as being a doctor, attorney, or other esteemed profession. I stand by that assertion (although a podcast listener who was an attorney once retorted I regarded his vocation too highly).
Myth #2: Fighter Pilots are Self-Centered
One of the great perks of hosting the Fighter Pilot Podcast is celebrating real world heroes who are not all about themselves—as the stereotype would have you believe. Our A-10 Thunderbolt II guest said in his unit it was all about the “18-year-old on the ground with a rifle,” and he’s not alone—many past guests have identified someone other than themselves as the primary benefactors of their flying duties. Sadly, this seems to be lost on our Hollywood friends who are more interested in a compelling story than depicting reality.
Myth #1: Fighter Pilots are Cocky Assholes
Being self-absorbed is one thing but Hollywood usually takes it a step further by portraying fighter pilots as arrogant pricks so full of themselves it’s cringeworthy (I’m thinking Maverick and Iceman’s O’Club or locker room face offs here).
Ok, imagine a self-assuredness spectrum from one to ten where one is extremely timid and ten is supremely confident. Anything higher than ten we’ll deem “cocky.” Now, who do you think is the more dangerous fighter pilot, the one or the 11? Sure, cocky pilots are annoying, but it’s the ones (really the fives and below) who are the most dangerous because if they don’t believe in themselves they will fail to earn the trust of their fellow aviators, and that’s a dangerous proposition in this business. Every pilot requires some confidence, just not too much. Most real-world fighter pilots are sixes to nines, a few are tens, and once in a great while you come across an 11, but not nearly as often as Hollywood would have you think.
So, there you have it, ten fighter pilot stereotypes and why they are wrong. And that’s just the beginning—we didn’t even touch on mirrored glasses, big wristwatches, and fast cars. But, hey, I get it, no one wants to watch a movie about a boring fighter pilot who seems like your unassuming neighbor—you know, the one who drives a modest car, flies a flag outside the home, and prioritizes time for family. If exaggeration is required to make the story more compelling, well, I suppose that’s just the world we live in.