A Serious Look at the History of Inappropriate Contrails Made by Pilots

The original photo shared widely across social media. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist from Social Media Outlets)

The Social Media Sensation from Last Week’s Penis Drawn in the Sky Isn’t the First.

The opportunity for puns and social media memes from last week’s giant penis drawn in the sky by Navy pilots over Okanogan Highlands in Washington state was massive. But despite the jokes that spread like wildfire on social media and the opportunity for tongue-in-cheek headlines, the U.S. Navy isn’t laughing.

You likely already know from social media feeds that an EA-18G Growler from Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130) “The Zappers”, of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is responsible for the giant phallic contrail executed with remarkable accuracy, and no small measure of masculine embellishment. But the spread of the now famous photos across Facebook, Instagram and every other contributory media comes at a terrible time for the U.S. Navy and for the military in general.

An EA-18G Growler of Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130), “The Zappers” of NAS Whidbey Island who drew the inappropriate contrail. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Media reports indicate the pilots responsible have been grounded from flight operations pending the outcome of an official investigation.

Last week the U.S. Air Force celebrated its 70th birthday at the Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo at Nellis AFB in Nevada. The theme for the expo was “Breaking Barriers since 1947” and showcased the gender inclusive doctrine of the U.S. Air Force across all of its job fields. For the U.S. Navy to suffer this very public embarrassment is contradictory to the official message of inclusion and non-discrimination the other services, like the U.S. Air Force, have spent millions portraying to the public. In effect, one incident by one flight crew sent a sexist message that reached more people via social media than the massive, official public affairs efforts of the other services including the Air Force that espouse gender inclusion.

Social media spread thousands of memes about the incident to millions of viewers. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist from Social Media Outlets)

But this isn’t the first time inappropriate contrails have created an uproar. In November 2014, the Royal Air Force suffered a similar embarrassment when a photo was widely shared that showed phallic-shaped contrails in the sky over RAF Lossiemouth on the western edge of the town of Lossiemouth in Moray, north-east Scotland. The Lossiemouth incident was, in fact, a valid navigational track of a Tornado fighter flying a relatively standard traffic pattern. The incident was more hype than reality and ran in tabloid British newspapers, often known for their sensational content, especially on a slow news day. More recently, in July 2017, a RAF Typhoon aircraft from RAF Coningsby flew what on Flightradar24 seemed to be a phallic route.

The U.S. Navy suffered another, more tangible, embarrassment from sexist misconduct with their Blue Angels demo team in 2014.

The incidents resulted in an official report dated May 16, 2014. The official documents surrounding an investigation of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Team, The Blue Angels, stated that the “Commanding Officer witnessed, accepted and encouraged behavior that, while juvenile and sophomoric in the beginning, ultimately and in the aggregate, became destructive, toxic and hostile. The Blue Angels’ Ready Room environment under his command ran counter to established Navy standards and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and dramatically weakened good order and discipline in the squadron.”

Any mention of gender-based misconduct in the U.S. Navy ultimately raises conversation about the 1991 Tailhook Scandal.

The Tailhook Scandal resulted in an official investigation that cited over 80 cases of sexual misconduct by U.S. Navy officers and personnel. The scandal became so widespread throughout the Navy that reports indicate the careers of 14 admirals and “almost 300 naval aviators” were compromised by the incidents.

As with every story, however, there are several perspectives that influence the public perception of the Whidbey Island Penis-Pilots. The U.S. is experiencing a noteworthy increase in the number of sexual misconduct allegations in the media against politicians. They include the current U.S. President. A potential danger with the proliferation of both genuine and spurious claims of sexual misconduct is that people become desensitized to the reports. That creates a dangerous environment where serious, genuine misconduct may go undetected.

There is a further potential anomaly to the story of the inappropriate sky-writing pilots. As proved by the memes about the incidents posted on social media, few people have considered the admittedly remote possibility that one or both of the flight crew responsible for the November 16 skywriting incident last week may have been female. The two crew members involved in the incident have not been identified. While the statistical likelihood is that both members are male gender pilots based on what is likely the ratio of male to female aircrew members at Electronic Attack Squadron 130, there does remain the extremely remote possibility, based strictly on the fact that some female EA-18G pilots do exist in the Navy. At least one female EA-18G pilot was at Whidbey Island that we know of in 2013, albeit in another unit; VAQ-129 as opposed to VAQ-130, the unit attributed to the recent sky-penis.

When we tried to find current pilot rosters for Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130), the unit involved in the recent November 16, 2017 incident, we could not locate a current listing to see the number of female pilots in the unit. We were, however, easily able to find record of female EA-18G Growler pilots in the U.S. Navy. One media source, published in July 2013 by the Rapid City Journal and written by staff correspondent Molly Barari cited the career of a (then) Lt. j.g. who said she had not experienced any differential treatment because she’s a woman: “Male or female, you need to have a thick enough skin to accept a lot of criticism.”

Finally, while the official, and practical doctrine of all U.S. military services must be gender equality, this incident perpetuates the lore of the fighter pilot, male and female, as a rule-bending renegade who often flies and fights at the outer limits of acceptable norms. While there is an element of sensation in this image, there is also the history or impropriety and misconduct. To this day, the military services struggle to moderate the extremes of daring-do and wanton sexism unacceptable in any culture.

Update: the U.S. Navy has released the audio of the Navy pilots who drew the famous sky penis over Washington state. You can find it here below:

About Tom Demerly
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.