Posted on May 28, 2019

Navy to Change Pilot Call Sign Protocol After Minority Aviators Report Bias

Hope Hodge Seck,, May 21, 2019

The head of naval aviation has directed the creation of a new process for approving and reviewing pilots’ call signs after two African-American aviators at an F/A-18 Hornet training squadron in Virginia filed complaints alleging racial bias in the unit, from which they said they were unfairly dismissed.

In a formal endorsement letter signed May 13, Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller, commander of Naval Air Forces, said he found the two aviators, a Navy lieutenant and a Marine Corps captain, were correctly removed from Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 out of Naval Air Station Oceana due to “substandard performance,” despite errors and inconsistencies discovered in the grading and ranking process.

However, Miller said he did find inappropriate conduct by instructor pilots who did not treat the pilots-in-training “with appropriate dignity and respect,” using discriminatory call signs and having inappropriate and unprofessional discussions about them on social media.

He directed the Chief of Naval Air Training to have all training command and fleet replacement squadrons in the Navy formalize a call sign assignment and review process within 90 days, including appropriate peer board representation for minority and female aviators. And he recommended that multiple officers, including a Navy captain, receive rebukes, counseling or administrative punishment for their role in events substantiated by the investigation.

Miller also ordered that VFA-106 receive training on appropriate use of social media and that the unit bring in a “diversity and inclusion expert” to train the squadron on unconscious bias and stereotype threat. Similar training, he wrote, will also be added to the curriculum for prospective commanding and executive officer courses and commander training symposia.


‘Pure Bloods’ and Call Signs first wrote in April 2018 about the two aviators and their dismissal from VFA-106. The Navy pilot, Lt. Courtland Savage, would ultimately leave the service in 2017 and start a new job flying for a civilian airline; the Marine Corps pilot, who asked not to be identified as he remains on active duty, continues to serve as a pilot in a C-130 squadron, having been removed from fighter training in 2016.

While at VFA-106, Savage said he was given the call sign “Radio,” a reference to a movie about a mentally challenged black man. Other black students, he said, got call signs including “8 Ball” and “Kazaam,” the latter a reference to a character played by Shaquille O’Neal.

{snip} Another pilot, a lieutenant commander, said he also received the call sign “Radio” at his first squadron in the fleet, but later had it changed to “MC,” short for “MC Hammer,” in reference to a childhood nickname. A commander said his call sign was “Snoop,” in reference to “poor rapping abilities.” And a third pilot, a lieutenant, said his call sign was “Ruby Rhod,” a reference to a Chris Tucker character from the movie “The Fifth Element.” {snip}

The two pilots also submitted logs from a WhatsApp chat group called “Pure Bloods,” in which instructor pilots disparaged them and their performance. In the chat, one of the instructors used the eggplant emoji to refer to the Marine pilot. It was a visual representation of a racial slur, the pilot alleged.


The Marine pilot had also been singled out in the squadron when a significant mishap for which he was responsible — mistaking an instructor’s order and blowing the canopy off an F/A-18 — was depicted on a class T-shirt with the slogan, “Once you pop, the fun don’t stop.”


A Marine major who was a member of the group and interviewed by investigators was unapologetic.

“That’s the price to pay in this community. You do stupid s–t, you get made fun of. Or you kill self/others,” he said, according to the investigation. “His attrition was his small price to pay. Frankly, we did his ass (and the community’s) a favor. But his bulls–t makes me professionally embarrassed.”

Subjective Evaluations

At the heart of Savage and the Marine pilot’s complaints, though, were allegations that they were assessed unfairly compared to their fellow student pilots, and that grade sheets were actually altered after the fact to make their performance appear worse than it was. Both pilots acknowledge they had struggles {snip} but they said their white peers were given more margin and more chances.


He was also disadvantaged by subjective rankings and the decision to route his FFPB for endorsement through two non-aviation commands.

Savage was also found to have been put at a disadvantage by a subjective ranking system, and his Field Naval Aviator Evaluation Board, or FNAEB, the Navy equivalent of an FFPB, had the appearance of being tainted though subjective rankings and the offensive symbols and comments revealed in the “Pure Bloods” group chat.


Another Chance?

The investigation recommended that new boards be convened for the two pilots, using only rankings derived from the official aviator reporting system and using standardized grade sheets and endorsement routing.


Multiple naval officers face administrative action in the wake of the investigation. The major from the “Pure Bloods” group who disparaged the Marine pilot was recommended for a non-punitive letter of caution, a finding endorsed by Miller. A Navy lieutenant commander and lieutenant from the group were recommended to receive formal counseling “regarding the appropriate use of text messages/emojis in a professional environment.”

Miller further recommended administrative action regarding a Marine lieutenant colonel and administrative counseling for a Navy captain, both of whose names are redacted in the investigation.

While the Marine pilot declined to comment on the results of the probe, Savage said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed in the Navy’s handling” of the complaint and reviewing all options for how to move forward.

“While the Command Investigation has been completed, I have not yet been provided a final determination. What should have been a 90-day process has gone on for longer than 500 days and remains ongoing,” he said. “Additionally, I have serious concerns about the content of the investigation report and the manner in which the investigation was conducted. I find it troubling that the only conclusions from this review is that call signs need to be changed. There are larger challenges facing minorities and women in Naval Aviation than just being given demeaning and inappropriate call signs.”


[Editor’s Note: According to, the three rules of callsigns are: (1) If you don’t already have one, you will be assigned one by your “buddies”; (2) You probably won’t like it; and (3) If you complain and moan too much about (1) and (2), you’ll get a new nickname you’ll like even less!]