The fighter squadron bar is a place of fun and jest, of solace and reflection, and also a place to soothe the daily reminders of how real the job can be.
Fighter pilots are born in the fighter squadron bar. Emerging into the world of tactical aviation, in the bar is where the combat fighter pilot truly becomes part of the squadron. When they are named during some ceremonial undertaking in front of all of their peers, a fighter pilot is brought into existence.
But the fighter squadron bar has lots of other uses, including a rich history of the unit and all the recorded and unwritten traditions of the squadron. It’s the essence, the spirit, and soul of the unit and the heart of the squadron.
Most fighter squadron bars have a name. Roscoe’s, Quent’s, or The Roost…to name a few I spent many hours in. The dark walls are typically covered in historical plaques and pictures, and you can tell that this room in the squadron is well used.
There is always a wooden stand-up bar like in a formal establishment, and some fridges and such, as well as the always-required popcorn maker. The gooier and nastier it was (typically with burnt jalapeño juice) the better! Most pilots in the unit also had personalized mugs that hung on a special rack on one of the walls. “Mermaid” handles on the mugs used to be popular until the USAF became overly politically correct in recent years.
There are hard-and-fast rules in the bar, and usually they were displayed prominently somewhere in the dark room. The last rule was always “anyone caught reading the rules will buy a round of cheer.” Always a funny way to catch a new guy or FNG (F**king New Guy/Gal) and get them to buy a few beers. Aside from The Rules, there were usually… no rules. Vulgarity, loud music and noises were all accepted in the bar, as well as a host of other games and objects, tables, and history. At the fighter bar, almost anything goes, within normal social edicts of course.
The fighter squadron bar is a place of fun and jest, of solace and reflection, and also a place to soothe the daily reminders of how real the job can be. Most squadron bars had a wall of old grungy name tags. When a brother left the squadron for another assignment, he or she would put his name tag on the wall during some farewell ceremony. It was fun to look back at all the former squadron-mates and see who you knew, who was a big shot now, or likewise. Some of the name tags were also turned upside down. Lost brothers. They had left the squadron and this world via other means.
Entering the bar was like entering the swinging doors of an old western saloon. You’d better be ready for what’s on the other side, and be ready to play. Just as you would have had your six-shooters ready in the old west, entry into the fighter bar requires you to be on your toes as well.
One of the most favorite pastimes in the bar was social story telling. Story telling in a bar full of fighter pilots is an art form in itself. One was not permitted tell a story slowly, or take a great deal of time in telling the story, or risk being booed and told to sit down. And the story must be funny! Violation of any of these unwritten rules usually ended up in the speaker receiving some kind of penalty, and laughs and jeers.
All stories are subject to the Ten Percent Rule.
The Ten Percent Rule basically says that as long as 10% of the story being told is correct, or true, then the story is valid. This makes for quite a few humorous embellishments of course.
Like that time over Kuwait when Ali called a training threat missile launch at Fester, and Fester thought it was real…and jettisoned all stores and started screaming on the radio. Or when Snap got sick off raw oysters in Spain once. By the time the story ended, he was throwing up on everyone and being rushed to the Spanish ICU. Or that time I had trouble getting gas on the boom of the tanker. Magoo told a good story and his recollection of those events had me practically ramming the tanker and purposely scaring the pilots, pulling up alongside and flipping them the bird. Really funny stuff.
And you’d better have thick skin and be ready to respond with a good retort or maybe a counter-story about your accuser. All for fun.
We also sing songs in the bar. Fighter pilot songs. Some are fun, others are squadron favorites, and most are lewd to a degree. The female fighter jocks sing them too, right along with everyone. So don’t go thinking we were a bunch of rowdy fraternity boys. We are all in this family together, where real people fought, got shot at, and sometimes died. At the end of the day, the jets out on the ramp don’t care if the person at the controls is a man or woman, they’ll hurt you just the same. A lot of the songs came straight from the Vietnam era fighter pilots, but some were new too. They are all sung with reverence.
Dice games, darts, foosball and other “bar-like” games are also en-vogue, and depending on the squadron you might also have a Crud table. Crud was invented by the fighter pilot. It’s played on a Snooker table, which is a very large billiard table. There is a target ball, a referee, and teams take turns making fast shots at the target ball. Oh, and it is a full contact game too. Crud has been fading from fighter bars recently, but it is still a practiced tradition.
A typical Friday in the bar would have all members gathering after debriefing and wrapping up squadron operations for the week. Eating and drinking are usually the centerpieces, and the bar is well stocked on both fronts. A ceremonial flow of events usually unfolds with a “roll call” at the beginning to determine if all assigned members are present. Members un-accounted for are fined in some fashion unless their Flight Commander can confirm they “called in” with a legit excuse.
After roll call, typically there would be formal Airing of Grievances, and eventually stories. Airing of Grievances is a fantastic and semi-formal way to “call someone out” and let them know that they wronged you in some fashion, but doing so usually ended up in both accuser and the accused shaking hands and taking a swig of some beverage. The accused would typically not be allowed a retort. They were supposed to take the accusation for what it was, drink, and shake on it….move on.
If only we could handle other worldly problems in said fashion!
Somewhere along the way we’d also recognize significant accomplishments and upgrades that members would achieve. Becoming a new flight lead, or instructor pilot warrants recognition and a toast. Upgrading squadron-mates are expected to have some kind of donation too. Usually in the form of drink, cigars, or food. (How do you think the bar stays so well stocked?)
We typically wrap up the formal portion of the evening after an hour or so and folks are permitted to head home, or stay for as long as they want and socialize.
If you are a Lieutenant, or a FNG, you’d be expected to pull bar cleanup duty the next day. It’s a right of passage.
Possibly the biggest event in the squadron bar was the “Nameage.” Details are, ahem… Classified, however every squadron has its own traditions. But once a new guy/gal was combat ready and had passed their CMR (Combat Mission Ready) checkride, he/she can be named in a formal ceremony.
It’s worthy of note, that in the modern USAF, no fighter pilot gets to pick his/her cool combat callsign. It just doesn’t happen. They are named by peers, and it usually had to do with some dumb move the new trainee made during training. For over-speeding a jet you might get “Speedy.” For catching something on fire or scraping the speed brakes on the runway (a common Viper issue, the speed brakes that is) you might get “Torch” or “Twitch” respectively. There was once a guy I knew named “Wiz,” “Pigpen,” and another named “Chunks.” Take a guess on how they got those names!
If you’d like to ever know how a fighter pilot got his or her callsign, it’s considered rude to just ask. Buy him or her a beer and then ask. Revealing the true source of the fighter-given name typically only comes with a traditional beverage in hand. Remember, earning a fighter pilot callsign takes years of training, then more training at the first combat unit. It’s a big day, and typically, once named, you keep that name for a career. Naming a fellow fighter pilot is not taken lightly.
Additionally, an older fighter pilot who was new to the unit would also get named. However, if they had ever dropped ordnance “in anger,” meaning over hostile skies in some combat zone…he or she was typically allowed to keep a previous callsign. The naming ceremony for them was typically them telling the combat war story when they employed in combat, and what happened. It was always cool to hear these different stories, some quite old, but relevant and real all the same.
The squadron bar was the social centerpiece of the unit. But moreover it was where fighter pilots were born and honed. It was where old and crusty jocks molded the irregular clay of the new pilot, and where those new pilots became trusted members of the unit. It is where we are all born into the unique fraternity of the modern fighter pilot, and where we all celebrate life and of course…fast jets and the art of flying them.
Top Photo: Airmen assigned to the 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron assemble in their heritage room on Jan. 15, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. The heritage room, also known as Hoover Lounge, is named after 55th Wing Hall of Famer Robb Lee Hoover. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)