What started as a pilot's argument for why he and other pilots should be allowed to wear flight suits whenever they like blew up in his face. Now his commander has barred flight suits for anyone not on flight status at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.
The letter, by Capt. Lawrence P. Wilson and published in Air Force Times on June 4, outlined the pilot's belief that pilots have earned the right to wear their flight suits.
"The requirements to get a pilot training slot are extremely competitive and meant to separate individuals so that only the most qualified get the opportunity to train," Wilson wrote. "A flight suit signifies that individual just as the different insignias of rank. It commands respect."
The letter prompted Col. Albert M. Elton II, commander of the 27th Special Operations Wing, to issue a memo June 4 directing base personnel to wear flight suits only on days when they are scheduled for flight duties.
"For the purpose of this policy, flight duties include preparation, preflight, in-flight, post-flight and other flight related duties associated with both manned aircraft and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operations," wrote Elton, a pilot himself with 4,200 flying hours.
"After I read the letter, I decided to clarify the purpose of the uniform and the definition of flight-related duties," Elton said in a telephone interview June 8.
Elton called the letter divisive and unprofessional and said it "distracts us from our mission."
The memo, Elton said, is not intended as retribution for the statements Wilson made in his letter. Nor did Wilson face any disciplinary actions for writing it.
The commander said he did have a conversation with Wilson. "I told him I thought the letter was inappropriate," Elton said.
Wilson declined to comment, but submitted a follow-up letter.
His first letter has generated several responses from Air Force Times readers, who said it was arrogant.
"There are two types of career fields — operations and support," Wilson wrote. "If you're not aircrew, then you are support. That does not diminish your value as a person, but it clearly defines your place in the military hierarchy. If individuals have a problem with hierarchy, they have no business being in the military."
Starts with Space Command
The brouhaha began in April when Air Force Space Command decreed that airmen not assigned to flying operations could not wear flight suits or leather jackets after Oct 1. The change affects about 800 airmen in space systems operations and just more than 1,000 in space and missile operations.
The move was meant to save Space Command about $670,000 per year and bridge the gap between the "haves and have-nots" among airmen who wear the flight suits and jackets and those who don't, commander Gen. William Shelton said in a statement.
The announcement prompted a flurry of back-and-forth about whether the flight suit is merely a status symbol.
"If someone acts like they're better than you because they are wearing a flight suit, then they need to be put in their place," one person wrote.
Air Force instruction broadly defines flight duty uniforms and desert flight uniforms as "functional clothing" for airmen who perform flying, parachutist space and missile crew duties. Those duties include flight preparation, in-flight, post-flight and anything else associated with "aircraft operations."
The flight suits are worn by pilots — whether they are flying or assigned to staff jobs — as well as flight crews and operators of unmanned aircraft, a point of contention among airmen who must wear the less comfortable airman battle uniform or traditional blues to work.
Aside from Space Command — and now Cannon Air Force Base — airmen at other commands who are authorized to wear the flight suits can continue to wear them; it is at the discretion of each command to make such a change.
Responding to the message
In his letter, Wilson argued that aircrew members don't think they are better than everyone else, but they have higher standards and face greater responsibilities than other airmen. The flight suit represents a pilot's "level of commitment to the Air Force."
Furthermore, the Air Force's primary mission is to fly, so if it can't do that, it has failed, Wilson wrote.
"If you want a flight suit, go earn it — the path is clear cut," Wilson wrote. "Just remember this — the flight suit that you shun today will be the chief of staff that commands you tomorrow."
And while it is true that all 19 Air Force chiefs of staff have been pilots, the reminder didn't sit well with some readers.
"I flew for 20 years; I had great commanders; I had bad commanders; I met good pilots, bad pilots, but that was the most egotistical, asinine — either said or written — statement I've heard from an officer," said Steve Helms. "Sometimes you get a little bit of that ego with a very young lieutenant, but generally their instructor peers, the young captains, they generally beat that out of them fairly quickly."
Rank defines where airmen stand in the military hierarchy, said Helms, a retired chief master sergeant with 4,500 flight hours. Airmen's actions define their commitment to the Air Force and command respect.
Helms also took issue with the idea that the Air Force's primary mission is to fly. The service's primary mission is to fulfill the civilian leadership's national objectives, and that includes the nuclear deterrence and space-based surveillance missions, which are not performed by pilots, he said.
When asked what he would like to say to Wilson if he could talk to him, Helms demurred, "Some of the things I would want to say probably shouldn't be said to an officer from an enlisted."
However, Helms said he is confident he knows what his former commanders would say: "Check your ego at the door."
After Wilson's letter was published, Lt. Col. Timothy Cox at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., sent a 12-point rebuttal to Air Force Times.
Cox took aim at the suggestion that the flight suit signifies an airman's level of commitment to the Air Force.
"By that standard, how many times does a guy have to get shot at to deserve a flight suit?" Cox wrote. "How many burning buildings do firefighters have to enter to deserve a flight suit? How many night and weekend hours do the comm. troops have to put in to deserve a flight suit? A flight suit is NOT a symbol of commitment. It is a duty uniform."
Moreover, space and missile troops were forced to switch from their blue coverall uniforms to the flight suit as part of an earlier cost-savings effort, he wrote. A lot of them were unhappy about that.
Cox said he was prompted to write because he was worried that some young airman would think pilots agree with Wilson's "misguided view of the world" that being a rated officer makes you superior to others.
"General Shelton, the commander of Air Force Space Command, isn't going to be saluting the young captain because he's wearing pilot wings — it doesn't work that way," he said in an interview.
Cox has heard talk that flight-rated officers are above other airmen before.
"Who hasn't heard that," he wrote in an email. "It is impossible to drink beer with a pilot and not hear such things ... but so what. I have no issue with anyone taking a lot of pride in how they do their job and thinking that they are special and maybe a little better than everyone else. The guys in my unit do ... and they should. It is good esprit de corps.
"But Capt Wilson's rant took it to a level which was both obviously quite serious and troublingly wrongheaded ... and he did it in a very public forum. We all recognize that becoming a pilot in the USAF is difficult and a laudable achievement. Still, [pararescuemen] have a longer and more selective program than pilots. So should some PJ light off a rant on how great he is to the detriment of everyone else?"
Cox said he agrees that pilots are entitled to flight suits, but he stressed that mutual respect is required for any organization to be effective.
"What is offensive is the notion that they are entitled to always dominate these positions simply by virtue of their AFSC, as opposed to their actual performance or abilities," he wrote. "Also his flagrant disregard for the Air Force senior leaders who are not aircrew demonstrates his lack of knowledge about the Air Force outside of his myopic perspective."
Senior Master Sgt. James Gorman of Santa Fe, N.M., wrote in to say that being a flight-rated officer does not automatically make an airman an effective leader.
"As a former crew chief for 18 years, I worked with many pilots," Gorman wrote. "Their flight suits did not make them a leader — in fact, some had no leadership capability at all."
Meanwhile, Gorman is serving with a nonrated colonel who is the best leader and mentor he says ever worked with.
"My uniform represents the United States Air Force and an investment by hard-working taxpaying citizens, not my ego," he wrote. "Integrity first; service before self; excellence in all we do."
This is not the first time the Air Force has limited the wear of flight suits.
Cliff Wagner is a retired chief master sergeant who joined the Air Force in 1962. During his tenure, shopping or going to clubs off base while wearing flight suits was heavily frowned upon.
"I know there's an awful lot of people, even back in the times when I was still in a flying assignment, that the flight suit was, it was — well, it attracted the women to some degree," he said. "Flying guys, a lot of times, liked to sit in the club in their flight suit and that was almost a chick magnet, I guess."
Staff writer Kristin Davis contributed to this story.