That time a group of officers got drunk and trashed Naval Aviation's culture forever
The word “tailhook” didn’t always have a place in American pop culture infamy. There was a time when it simply referred to the piece of hardware under a Navy airplane that allowed it to stop by catching a wire strung across the aircraft carrier’s flight deck. And there was also a time when the Tailhook Association was regarded as the most relevant and professional not-for-profit among all of those that cater to the military community. But that changed dramatically in the wake of the Tailhook Association’s convention in Las Vegas in 1991.
It’s no secret that military aviators are a type-A bunch, and in many ways Naval Aviators are the most spirited among them. And that spirit is what gave rise to the Tailhook Association in 1956 when a group of carrier-based flyers threw a keg into a bus and drove down to a beach in Baja where they told tall tales for a couple of days. From there the association grew its membership and got more official, building a headquarters in San Diego and publishing a popular quarterly magazine titled The Hook.
As the years went on the Tailhook Association became increasingly known for one thing over all others: the annual convention in Las Vegas, commonly referred to as “Hook,” as in “are you going to Hook this year?” The convention, which was held at the Las Vegas Hilton, was known for two things: it’s professional panels and the parties in the suites on the third floor.
Parties in the suites were hosted by various units like Top Gun and the Naval Air Training Command along with a rotating list of squadrons and competition was keen among them. Some featured drink specialties and signature food like “Cubi Dogs” and others went the risque route with leg shaving booths and even strippers. It was all viewed as innocent fun, the kind of offline frolicking that the members of the community had earned as a function of their achievements as skilled warfighters.
There’s a big difference between racy things that might happen between consenting adults and sexual battery, and in 1991 Hook crossed the line. The victory in Desert Storm combined with a record crowd caused an atmosphere on the third floor that was downright mean-spirited if not criminal.
Most of the reports of misdeeds centered around “The Gauntlet” on the third floor — the line of douchebags on either side of the hall who pawed passersby as they attempted to make their way between suites. According to reports after the fact the harassment ranged from catcalling to full-up inappropriate touching and tearing off of undergarments. By 3 am in the morning no female was safe going anywhere near the third floor.
After the convention was over reports started to trickle out regarding the conduct of the bad actors on the third floor of the Hilton. Two things came together to trigger an internal investigation: A female admiral’s aide named Paula Coughlin was put off by her boss’ insensitive response to her claim that she’d been a victim of sexual battery, and she went to internal Navy authorities with an official complaint. At the same time, the head of the Tailhook Association gathered the Navy’s active duty aviation leadership to conduct an “after action” session that allowed the media to get wind of the animal acts that had happened.
When it was all said and done, 83 women and seven men stated that they had been victims of sexual assault and harassment during Hook ’91. The ensuing investigation was overzealous and hamfisted and struck those on the inside as politically motivated, which caused squadrons to close ranks, which made the investigators and those above them resort to increasingly draconian measures.
Insiders labeled the effort a “witch hunt” as officials with a mandate to clean up the culture showed up to their spaces and told aviators to change their callsigns (no one was allowed to be called “Chunks” anymore, for instance; or if your last name was Dover your callsign couldn’t be “Ben”) and even a squadron was made to change its age-old and war-tested name from “The Pukin’ Dogs” to “The Dogs.” (It was later changed back after the political winds lightened a bit.)
Flag officers had their careers ended for simply being in the Hilton never mind anywhere near the third floor. COs were fired for having their charges present. The perpetrators were never really found and punished, but most evidence pointed to flight students who’d never made a carrier landing and Marine aviators from a squadron that didn’t officially exist anymore because the model they flew was decommissioned. (Neither of those groups were really tailhookers, either.)
Meanwhile progressive lawmakers and other influencers used the scandal to forward their agendas. Female integration of carrier-based commands, including pilots and NFOs, was mandated at a great cost of both funds and focus. Many conservatives and retired officers alleged that in ending the careers of over 300 officers, the Clinton administration had gone far beyond punishing wrongdoers and had used the scandal as a pretext for carrying out a purge of the officer corps.
Former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, speaking at the Naval Academy said, “When the Tailhook investigation began, and certain political elements used the incident to bring discredit on naval aviation as a whole, and then on the Navy writ large, one is entitled to ask… Who fought this? Who condemned it? When a whole generation of officers is asked to accept … the destruction of the careers of some of the finest aviators in the Navy based on hearsay, unsubstantiated allegations, in some cases after a full repudiation of anonymous charges that resemble the worst elements of McCarthyism … what admiral has had the courage to risk his own career by putting his stars on the table, and defending the integrity of the process and of its people?” (Wikipedia)
“The essence of that warrior culture has been severely diluted in this decade,” former Blue Angel’s commanding officer Bob Stumpf said, himself a victim of the scandal because he was there, not because he was guilty of any bad conduct. “Politically inspired social edicts enforced since Tailhook ’91 have rendered a ready room atmosphere so different now that it is nearly unrecognizable… Pilots are hampered in their ability to train as warriors by the policies of their senior leaders. They are faced with social experimentation and double standards in training. Experienced pilots are forced to qualify certain trainees who may or may not demonstrate established quality standards. This leads to distrust and resentment, two powerfully harmful factors in terms of unit morale, and thus military effectiveness.”
Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman (a winged Naval Aviator as well) felt that the scandal had removed the necessary swagger and confidence from the navy’s aviation culture and replaced it with a focus on social issues. But current Navy leaders will say that gender integration has been a success and that Naval Aviation has never been more effective, and they point to things like the Tailhook Scandal and credit them with accelerating the changes for the better.
However the changes netted out, these days you won’t find a fighter pilot with the callsign “Puke” anywhere, and that’s a shame.