Fighter Pilot Naming Ceremonies and Traditions

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 54
Occupation: Aerospace Engineer/Retired USAF Fighter Pilot
Residence: Lancaster, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: May 2, 2021
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context:

The informant, GW, is my father. He was a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force during the late 1980s/early 1990s and participated in operation Desert Storm. I have heard him tell many stories from his time in the Air Force throughout my childhood, so I asked him to tell me some of his traditions to collect for my project. This was an informal interview in our household. The interviewer is indicated as SW in the text.

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Main Text:

GW: “Another tradition in fighter squadrons, it’s been globalized to most of the squadrons in the air force now I guess, but um I think it really started as a fighter pilot tradition. I think, I don’t know. I don’t know what the original etymology of the naming services, naming ceremonies was but um, when you show up at a new squadron, and each squadron had their own traditions. I was in the 335th Chiefs, was our squadron. And when you show up in the Chiefs, um all of the initiated, all of the guys that have been in the squadron and have been to, we’d have Chiefs parties about once a month. Um, the um, ya know obviously in the military there’s rank structure and whoever had the highest rank is the person in charge. Except for at Chiefs parties, where the longest tenured person in the squadron, so the guy who had been in the squadron the longest, was the Old Great Chief. And he was in charge of the Chiefs parties. And it didn’t matter what rank he was.”

SW: “Yeah, cause you could very obviously have someone who’s been in the squadron longer who is not the highest rank.”

GW: “Yeah, usually a captain was the Old Great Chief. And obviously the squadron was run by a lieutenant colonel, which is two ranks above a captain. So if the squadron commander was gonna come to the Chiefs party, which all Chiefs parties were totally optional you were just a complete wuss if you didn’t show up. Um, he, ya know, squadron commander didn’t have to come, we had squadron commanders that opted not to come, right? But if they came, for tonight you are the commander, ya know? The, uh the Chiefs parties, the Old Great Chief presided, and he had the council, which was the next four longest reigning members of the squadron, who were on the council. Um, the Old Great Chief was responsible ultimately for selecting the name of any new members of the tribe. He would take suggestions from the tribe, who would shout it all out, and then council would retreat into the teepee and meet about deciding what the name of this new chief was going to be and then they’d come out and announce it.”

SW: “Is there an actual teepee?”

GW: “Yeah, of course.”

SW: “I did not know this.”

GW: “Yeah, we had a teepee, and the Old Great Chiefs chair was a big chair that sat up about this high (indicating about three feet) because one of the rules is that no one can be higher than the Old Great Chief. So no one in the tribe can be higher than the Old Great Chief, so if the Old Great Chief drops something and bends down to pick it up, everybody else has to get down on the ground, right?”

SW: “What if you’re just tall?”

GW: “What if the Old Great Chief is not? Because AB was not! Now, at the front, when we’d had the Chiefs parties, this was out in the woods too, this was not anywhere near anywhere. We’d go out to the old great stomping grounds of the many Chiefs that had gone before us, the Old Great Chief would come out in feathered headdress, and the whole nine yards, right? Come out of the teepee, we’d, everybody would get there we’d socialize for a little bit, we’d talk about it, you know? Let the sun go down, um we’d have a big bonfire ready to go, right? And then, the teepee would be there and in front of the teepee was the Old Great Chief’s chair and then the council had two members on either side of the Old Great Chief, they would retreat to the teepee and get into their war paint and big headdress and everything and then they’d come out and beat the drum and, cause part of the, part of the council is you had, I don’t even remember what all of the uh, the uh roles on the council were, but the lowest ranking member on the council was the guy that beat the drum. So he was the drum bitch, so ‘Beat the drum, bitch!’, ya know? Boom boom boom boom boom boom boom. So, they would go into the teepee and get all their war paint on and everything. In front of where the council sat, there was the groveling pit, ok? So that would be a place where we dug up all of the, um stuff there, stirred up the dirt and then uh, hosed it all down. So it was a, it was a mud pit, right? In between the groveling pit and the um, uh council was a giant bowl of what we called wisdom, right? So the first thing that council did was come out, right? And because the unnamed Chiefs were not wise and not initiated they needed to grovel for wisdom at the feet of the council, right? You see how that works? Ok so, the unititated were boys, right? They were not fit to be chiefs yet. So all of the boys would be led in and would grovel at the feet of the council and lay in the mud and, uh, every time they did something or said something stupid, which was very often, they were sent to the grov – to the wisdom bowl, to gain more wisdom, right? Then, behind the grovel pit, would be all the rest of the chiefs, sitting in their chairs and, ya know, having a beverage and hanging out and having a good time. Well, as the council came out, the Old Great Chief would start off by, um, applying his war paint, and taking his wisdom from the Chiefs that had gone before. Which meant he had to kneel down to the bowl, to get his paint and to get his wisdom, right? So everybody else had to ‘oh my goodness’ get down this low so that nobody was higher than the Old Great Chief. And he would always look around, to see if anybody was higher, and then call them down to get more wisdom, right? So the boys are laying in the grovel pit, the Old Great Chief introduces the council, and then the Old Great Chief would introduce every member of the tribe. And then each member of the tribe as they’re called, would let out their war cry and then go get some wisdom. Well the unfortunate part is the only way to get to the wisdom was, the boys were between the tribe and the wisdom. So you usually had to step on, over, through, somersault on, whatever, the boys, to get to the wisdom. And once you got to the wisdom, you would take your wisdom, and the Old Great Chief would give you your war paint, and you’d get your feather for the night, and then you would go back and sit in your chair. Again, you had to trip over the boys on the way out. Make sure they felt loved. Which was great, until Chief Blundering Bison was called up, um because he was not a small man. He was a large mammal. And all the, when I was a boy, grovelling in the pit, and they called Chief Blundering Bison, who liked to do somersaults all the way down the grovel pit, um, the boy next to me was, his call sign was Necklace, his Chiefs name was uh, Chief Dripping Loincloth. Um, but, when he was a boy, he was a football player in college. I was about 140 pound soaking wet. So, when Chief Blundering Bison was called Necklace just put his arm around me and I’m like ‘Ok good. I’ll just hide here.’ We had, we told high ranking old guys not to show up to Chiefs parties unless they really meant it. We did break the ribs of a colonel one time when he was a boy, because we treated him – if you’re gonna show up you’re a boy, you get in the pit. We had to send him to the hospital. We tied uh, one of the boys was so unruly at one Chiefs party um, Russ Russon, Steve Russon. So his call sign was Russ. So every fighter squadron has call signs, right? And your call signs tend to kinda stick with you after a little bit. But you still get a chiefs name, even when you have a call sign. Anything else you wanna hear? Because I could probably go on forever.”

SW: “Who decided all of this, where did it come from? Does anybody know where it came from?” 

GW: “Where did Chiefs parties come from?”

SW: “Yeah.”

GW: “Um, so each squadron in the Air Force kind had its tradition for…”

SW: “I mean it seems like it’s a giant hazing ritual.”

GW: “Um… yeah I mean so in my F-15 training unit, which was the deadly jesters, that was done in the squadron bar, we didn’t go out in the woods for that, and it wasn’t quite as elaborate. But, ya know, the deal there is that in order to get your name you had to drink some swill and then eat a raw egg shell and all, and then you would get your name, ya know?”

SW: “Significantly less elaborate.”

GW: “Yeah, it was less elaborate, it was a lot noisier, ya know, but they were naming every class of F-15 guys that came through, right? Cause we’d never been named, right?”

SW: “And that’s probably more people to…”

GW: “Yeah, and it was, ya know we had 15 in my class, so, ya know, it would be, ya know you’d get there and hang out, you’d be part of the squadron for two or three or four weeks, by that time they’ve kind of gotten to know you. Because naming is all about um, giving you… like, like some of my friends like to say, ya know, um, your parents give you the name that’s on your birth certificate but your buddies give you your real name, the one that you earn, right? So you earn it by doing something of distinction, it could be either something really spectacular or really sepctaculalrly stupid. And, and usually it has a double entendre to it in some way, right? Sometimes it’s sexual innuendo, sometimes it’s a play or a pun, sometimes it’s the opposite of what you are, like one of my friends Fast A., Fast Frank, was not fast, ya know? So… ya know. So, how does it come about? It comes about because part of your job is to go to really strange places, live there by yourself, with 20-300 of your favorite male friends, and let other people shoot at you on occasion. So, you kinda tend to come up with things that are silly. Now, in 1992, I guess, which was the 50th anniversary of the formation of the 335th Chiefs, back before the Air Force existed when it was the Army Air Corps, and in 1942, the 335th was actually part of the RAF as the American volunteer forces in Britain before -”

SW: “So you were in like one of the oldest squadrons.”

GW: “Yeah. And when they, in 1992 the Air Force did a um, heritage study, of all of the squadrons in the United States Air Force, to see which ones had the most heritage and the best traditions, and the 335th Chiefs were the number one most historic squadron in the United States Air Force.”

SW: “Which is why you have such elaborate rituals for naming people. That involve a lot of… stomping on initiates.”

GW: “There’s also roof stomping, that’s completely different.”


GW: “So this is absolutely initiation and acceptance, building of esprit de corps. It is a common bond, it is, I mean, people walk in, and part of the fun is ‘what’s your Chiefs name?’ ‘Oh… Chief Dripping Loincloth…’ ‘Oh really, where’d you get that?’”

SW: “Yeah you’ve lucked out with names that aren’t really particularly bad. Doc doesn’t really have any story behind it.”

GW: “Well, the story behind that is that the guy, the OpsO, was, his call sign was Doc. And he liked me, and I was excelling, I mean this was in the F-15 class. I’d already graduated number one out of nav school. I’d graduated as the air-to-air and overall top gun out of F-15 school. So, and then my last name being Watson, he just called me Doctor Watson, so, ya know. As in Sherlock Holmes and.”

SW: “Yeah, no, I get that one all the time too. In fact [significant other] calls me Watson now too because of Sherlock.”

GW: “Yeah. So that’s where that one came from.”

SW: “And crooked beak is just a, you have a big nose.”

GW: “Yup. I mean, there were, so I think what was on the table was Crooked Beak and Texas Turtle.”

SW: “Why Texas Turtle?”

GW: “Because apparently they thought I was slow or lazy or something, ya know? Because mostly I’d be like ‘Eh, we don’t need to work that hard.’”

SW: “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

GW: “They didn’t really have much more than that on me. Cause mostly, I was the instigator, not the guy that was gonna get caught. Most of the time.”

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Analysis:

The tradition of naming ceremonies in the Air Force, as well as the names themselves, provide an in-depth look at many values and beliefs shared by members of the Air Force, and especially fighter pilot squadrons. The first, most obvious reason for their existence is to form a camaraderie within the squadron. By having elaborate initiation rituals that only insiders would know, and bestowing unique nicknames that can only be used by the initiated, the group forms a bond of exclusivity. 

This initiation ceremony also both honors and removes the liminal status of new members of the squadron. The “boys,” as they were called in GW’s squadron, can not be considered full members of the group until they have undergone this ritual. When squadrons are sent into combat, it is vital that all members can trust and rely on each other in all circumstances – their lives depend on it. The naming ceremony provides a way to quickly build this trust when you may not actually know someone very well before you are sent into battle with them.

The fact that naming ceremonies are presided over by the member that has been at the squadron the longest, rather than the person with the highest rank who is normally in charge, speaks to both their status as unofficial culture and the fact that they are rooted in the traditions of a specific squadron, not the Air Force as a whole. There appears to be an element of wanting to subvert authority and the usual power structures of day-to-day life, and have the common man take control of everyone for a night. GW’s repeated mention of the “Old Great Chief” and the fact that they made sure the squadron commander knew they were not in charge at the party highlights this fact. Not only is one of their own taking control from the normal authority, they are taking control of what is considered the most sacred practice within the squadron. In doing so, they are showing that as far as the men are concerned, they are really in charge of the important parts of the squadron, even if the commander is technically in charge.

The usage of traditionally Native American elements, while ostensibly an homage to the squadron’s name, the Chiefs, may also serve as a patriotic reminder that this is part of the United States Air Force, and their traditions are uniquely American. At the same time, they borrow from the most wild or “savage” interpretation of Native American culture. This might serve as a way to blow off steam and indulge the wild aspects of their nature that are otherwise strictly confined by Air Force regulations. It might also serve to reinforce their own self-image as warriors and great heroes before they are sent into battle. 

The names that are chosen themselves seem to be a way of recognizing and normalizing something that a member may not like about themselves or may have done wrong at some point. The names serve to poke fun at someone or act as a reminder of something stupid they did, but at the same time this practice actually normalizes that undiserable trait and makes it known that it is not something people are actually judging them for. By turning undesirable traits into a joke or badge of honor, it makes them less likely to be used to actually inflict harm.