USAF Aggressors 40th Reunion
At the invitation of Col (ret) Gail “Evil” Peck, I got a rare “outsider’s” opportunity to attend part of the USAF Aggressors’ 40th Reunion on June 1st 2012 at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The Friday event was held at the 64th Aggressor Squadron (64 AGRS) headquarters, and included a special squadron Roll Call later in the afternoon.
First on Friday’s schedule was a dedication from Col. Daniel “Red” Tippett, the 57th Adversary Tactics Group commander, followed by a four-ship formation fly-by composed of two F-16s from the 64th AGRS and two F-15s from the 65th AGRS. Afterwards, we were served a BBQ lunch of burgers and hot dogs; I ate my meal amongst fighter pilots of all descriptions. Some were retired and some were active duty Aggressor pilots.
Later, I was given a tour of the 64 AGRS “Campus”. I met the 64th CC , Lt Col. Scott “Kidd” Poteet and some of the gentlemen who put on this 40th reunion, including Project Officer Maj. Ryan “Cheech” Lucero, and his Assistant Project Officer, Maj. Scott “Cheetah” Petz. As I toured, I got to meet a great group of guys that I would never have met outside of the campus. Afterwards, I pulled up a chair in the Heritage Room and spent a few hours listening to stories from past aggressor pilots Dave McClusky and retired Lt General Danny James.
Dave told us a great story from back in the Viet Nam era about a mission he flew in the back seat of an F-4. The pilot flying in the front seat had just as much time in the aircraft as Dave. During the flight something happened in a vertical climb, and both engines flamed out. While going through the emergency restart procedure, the aircraft entered a flat spin, accompanied by pitching up and down. Fighting to regain control of the aircraft, the pilot in front tried to change the angle of attack of the aircraft to allow air to flow thru the engines so he could restart them. Dave, from the back seat, kept telling the pilot to pop the drag chute. Of course the guy up front didn’t want to. Again Dave told him to pop the chute. Everyone around me seemed to understand. No pilot wants to use his drag chute in flight, even to right an out of control aircraft. You see, the chute instantly shreds and you have to either jettison the chute or return to base trailing what’s left of it. Everyone knows you deployed the chute as an emergency measure, and wants to know why. Needless to say, the pilot finally popped the drag chute, which righted the aircraft and allowed them to restart the engines and return to base.
It was now time for Roll Call in the Squadron Heritage Room. It was around four o’clock and the room was soon filled with green flight suits and a few of us in civilian dress. Now, I have to tell you that I’m a newbie when it comes to pilot and squadron rules and traditions. Given the nature and danger of the fighter pilot profession, camaraderie between pilots is strong. Many traditions are a means of sharing in this camaraderie. The only rules that they told me going in was “No hats in the room” and “No cell phones”. Oh, and no cameras on the bar for me. When the first cell phone rang in the afternoon Roll Call, the punishment for the infraction was meted out in the form of a shot of liquor; the punishment stayed in force for all subsequent infractions too. You can see where that might go!!
Behind the Heritage Room’s bar were the Mayors: “Tazz” and “Ozie”. “Kidd” slipped in and took his position behind the bar as well. Ozie hushed the crowd and then began the roll call to see who was present, using their call signs. A pilot’s call sign is usually bestowed upon him/her by fellow aviators, and I’ve have been around Nellis for enough air shows and media days that I know a few pilots by their call signs. “Kuts”, “Ripper”, “Disco” and “Burt” were well known, but my favorite has to be a pilot that goes by the call sign “Huge”.
Another tradition that has found a place in virtually every military branch is that of the unit coin. Nearly every squadron has designed a coin that reflects its personality and history. In the strictest tradition, a fighter pilot earns the right to carry his unit coin when he becomes mission ready (MR), meaning he is a true “go to war” member of the squadron. In the fighter pilot ritual of using unusual words for normal things, to prevent issuing a challenge when talking about the coin they refer to it as a “round metal object,” or RMO. Anything that generates the “clink” of the RMO is considered a challenge, even accidentally dropping it. When challenged, all pilots are required to present their coins, ensuring that the correct face of the coin is up. If a pilot is found without his coin, he buys the next round for everyone present. If everyone presents their coin, then the challenger buys the round. I had my Red Flag Challenge coin in my pocket…just in case.
So the Roll Call progressed, and mayor “Ozie” had to stop on a few of the call signs and add his humor. Now remember these are both current and past pilots attending the reunion, so I’ll guess and say that “Ozie” had not heard of a few of them. Imagine his surprise when he came across “Sparkle” and then a few more imaginative monikers. The room came alive with laughter and some of the call sign history won’t be repeated here. It took us almost 20 minutes just to get down the list.
Aggressor pilots were and still are trained in groups identified by their calendar “class”. The Aggressor squadrons began in 1972. A member of each group to complete Aggressor training was asked to tell a story to the rest of the pilots in attendance. There were some great tales told too!!
We had made it up to the 1980’s, and I was standing alongside of “Shaggy”, listening to all these great flying stories. “LadyHawk” was facing away from me as she spoke, so it was kind of difficult for me to hear her words. But they must have been clear as a bell for everyone else. Towards the end of her speech she uttered the words “Deceased Insect” and as if a stun gun had gone off …the whole room of grown men all fell to the floor on their backs with their legs as high in the air as they could get them. The room went silent. And you guess it. I was the only one standing!!!! I had no idea what was going on. It was sheer disbelief!! I had no idea what had just happened. Some were laughing and “Shaggy” was looking at me. I looked for a space on the floor but the table behind me blocked any chance of me getting on down. After they stood back up, “Shaggy” taught me about the “Deceased Insect” tradition I had just witnessed. “Deceased insect” is the proper name for “dead bug.” At the phrase “dead bug,” everyone is supposed to fall on the ground and put their hands and feet in the air, imitating the look of a dead bug. The initiator remains standing to identify who the slowest person in the room was to assume the position. The last person down is expected to pay the price (whatever that might be). Luckily, I didn’t have to pay any penalty!
Something else was happening during the storytelling. Every time someone spoke up and made a toast….the room would reciprocate with something similar and then added their own toast. So, when a retired Aggressor finished his story and raised a glass, someone in the crowd would speak up with “When one Aggressor toasts…..we all toast!!”.
After the stories, the Doofer Book came out. The squadron “Doofer Book” is another fighter pilot ritual (which has spread to other services and career fields in one form or another). It is generally a running compilation of the missteps of the various members of the squadron that may be updated daily, or at weekly or monthly meetings. While entertaining as a day-to-day squadron chronicle, they are most interesting when kept during deployments—they serve as a unique collection of history (and often humor) for a unit.
There was also a scrap book of photos from the many picnics and Christmas parties they had over the years. Some photos were from the flight line, but most of the content was candid shots of people in everyday situations.
The last part of the afternoon was taken up with songs and toasts to departed friends and fallen aviators. There were many names mentioned during this time, including a few that I remember: Lt. Col. Thomas Bouley and Capt. Dirk Ziegler. Godspeed Gentlemen!!
So after about an hour and a half, the Roll Call ended. It had been my first one, and I was truly amazed. It was an exciting experience and feeling the camaraderie between the Aggressors will stay a life-long memory for me. I’m thankful to have attended it.
I’d like to give thanks to some new friends.
“CHEECH” , “CHEETA”, “SHAGGY”, “KIDD” and “EVIL”!