Military Wants Pilots to be Aggressive and Disciplined

The U.S. military is confronting a problem as old as aviation: finding the fine line between bold and reckless.

Military wants pilots to be aggressive and disciplined (USA Today, p. 11)

Skimming low over hills in eastern Afghanistan, the 11 Marines packed into an Army Black Hawk helicopter asked for an exciting flight on an otherwise dull mission, demonstrating for visiting dignitaries how troops are sped into battle. “Fly hard,†the Marines said. The cockpit responded, “You asked for it.†Climbing and swooping, the Black Hawk pilot crested a 400-foot hill then deliberately nosed into a dive so steep and abrupt that everyone inside felt weightless. A wheel chock rose off the floor like a magician’s prop and flew forward into the cockpit, jamming the controls. In the horrific, tumbling crash that followed, crew chief Daniel Galvan, 30, died. Everyone else was injured. The $6 million helicopter was destroyed. The accident last summer was among the latest in a series of crashes in the military that were blamed on recklessness, not enemy gunfire or faulty equipment, the Associated Press found.

Top Gun-style flying, personified by Tom Cruise as a brash Navy pilot in the 1986 film, presents the Pentagon with a dilemma: How to breed aggressive aviators in high-performance jets and helicopters capable of extraordinary maneuvers without endangering crews, passengers and aircraft.

The pilot in Afghanistan, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Darrin Raymond Rogers, 37, of Mililani, Hawaii, pleaded guilty last week at his court-martial to charges of negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, property destruction and failure to obey orders. “I’m not a bad person,†Rogers told the judge. He acknowledged that he was “trying to impress the guys in the back.†Rogers was sentenced to 120 days without pay at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas. He also must retire from the Army but will retain his pension.

“There’s a difference between aggressiveness and recklessness,†said Richard Cody, a four-star general who holds the Army’s No. 2 job, vice chief of staff. “We want them to be aggressive but also disciplined, so they don’t get themselves in an envelope they can’t get out of.â€

Some pilots bristle over challenges to how they fly, a retired Marine Corps judge says. “Hot-dogging is not necessarily negligent,†said Patrick McLain of Dallas, who presided at courts-martial. “You need a person who’s bold and daring and courageous. It rubs against the grain to have this sort of nitpicking oversight.†A retired Marine fighter pilot, Kris Elliott of New Orleans, said, “Anybody who says they haven’t hot-dogged as a pilot probably isn’t being truthful.

Flying a military jet or helicopter is inherently dangerous, much less when engaging in air-to-air combat or nap of the earth flight to avoid radar detection. The type of person who is going to be any good at it is going to also be very difficult to rein in. Distinguishing “bold” from “reckless” is nigh unto impossible.

Unfortunately, trying to adjudicate it after the fact holds pilots to the “I know if when I see it” standard that Justice Potter Stewart infamously applied to obscenity, which is not only unfair but potentially dangerous.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    Who was responsible for making sure items like wheel chocks weren’t lying around loose in case there was a legitimate reason for Rogers to start jinking the stick around like a maniac? That crash would have happened if the helo had come under fire and he’d had to go evasive to avoid being shot down.

    Granted, the pilot is in effect the C.O. of an aircraft in flight and the buck stops with him, but the circumstances under which he began flying that way — assuming the excerpted description hasn’t left out something essential — don’t necessarily address the cause of the crash, in my opinion.

  2. DC Loser says:

    I think this isn’t a big deal. With the exception of the statistical average number of assholes you’re likely to have in any group, almost all military pilots I’ve come across in my life have been professionals who don’t take unnecessary risks with the equipment entrusted to them. They know the difference between operational necessity and hot dogging.

  3. Brian says:

    Ditto what DC said.

    Besides, Tom Cruise is a genius. I just can’t say that because then, people will see right through me. They’ll see that … secretly … I’m in love with him. (fade in: Take my breath away)

  4. Jeff says:

    “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold, pilots.”