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Marine Pilot Will Get 2nd Shot at Fighter Training After Racial Bias Investigation

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A Marine captain who was dropped from the F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet training pipeline in 2016 has been granted rare permission from the head of Marine Corps aviation to try again, following a report that revealed instructors and staff had acted unprofessionally and made racial jabs in a private chat group.

The pilot will report for training at Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 101 in Miramar, California, next month, said Capt. Christopher Harrison, a Marine Corps spokesman. Military.com has previously spoken with the pilot under condition of anonymity for fear of professional retribution; the publication will continue to honor that agreement.

“It is essential we ensure all Marines are afforded the same opportunity to achieve their full potential grounded solely upon individual merit and ability,” Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the Marines’ deputy commandant for aviation, said in a statement. “Based on the review of the case, I have decided to offer [the pilot] another try within the Marine Corps’ F/A-18 fleet replacement squadron at Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101 (VMFAT-101), which he has accepted.”

The pilot did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the news of his second chance.

After he was sent to a Field Flight Performance Board in 2016 and the determination was made to drop him from Hornet training at Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 out of Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, the Marine pilot appealed to Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic, in March 2017, alleging that, as an African-American, he had been treated differently from his white counterparts.

“There’s a dance, like we’re on ice,” the pilot told Military.com at the time. “When my peers would make mistakes and fly with people, they would get talked to about it. … I felt like their grades didn’t reflect that. Maybe they had better rapport with the instructors, more to talk about.”

While the pilot was awaiting the results of an equal opportunity (EO) investigation into his allegations, he transferred into a different Marine Corps aviation community. He currently flies C-130 Hercules transport planes for a West Coast-based squadron.

It wasn’t until late May that the Navy released a completed EO report, endorsed by Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller, commander of Naval Air Forces.

The report found that the Marine pilot and another black aviator, Navy Lt. Courtland Savage, were appropriately removed from training at VFA-106 at separate points due to problems with the syllabus and “headwork.” But private conversations in a WhatsApp group for flight instructors, and a survey of call signs given to black aviators, raised the specter of racial stigma in the unit.

In the chat group, titled “Pure Bloods,” one of the instructors used the eggplant emoji to refer to the Marine pilot. While typically used as a phallic symbol in text, “eggplant” can also be a disparaging term for a black person, the pilot alleged in his complaint.

“That dude was so bad. I can’t even comprehend how someone does not have the most basic level of self-awareness and realize he’s going to kill himself or someone else,” an instructor wrote of the Marine in the chat.

During training, the Marine had been responsible for one significant mishap, when he misunderstood an instructor’s order and ended up blowing the canopy off his F/A-18. For that, he said, he was pilloried in his unit, and the embarrassing incident was commemorated on class T-shirts with the slogan, “Once you pop, the fun don’t stop.”

While mockery for mistakes is typical in the aviation community, the pilot alleged he was held to a more stringent standard than peers who also made errors during training.

He also claimed that when his paperwork was sent to the Pentagon for review, his class rankings were arbitrarily altered, from 28 out of 100 on his second run through strike training to nearly dead-last, 99 out of 100.

The Marine also was given the name of a comical black movie character as a call sign.

A 17-page EO investigation found there was “an appearance of tainting” the Marine pilot’s Field Flight Performance Board due to grading and data inconsistencies, and that incorrect grade card data had been used at the board to indicate he was below average in certain areas, including headwork.

The “racially offensive symbols/comments” from white instructor pilots and “unprofessional and disparaging” comments made about the pilot by the senior member of his performance board also appeared to taint the process, the investigation found.

Recommendations included instituting a new call sign approval process across the Navy to ensure minority aviators are given appropriate representation; issuing a non-punitive letter of caution to the board member who disparaged the Marine pilot; and standardizing certain grading procedures and systems in training.

Harrison said the pilot will re-start the 13-month fleet replacement squadron syllabus for Cat. 1 student pilots at the beginning. He is entering training at VMFAT-101, rather than returning to VFA-106, because the Navy fleet replacement squadron is no longer training pilots to fly legacy F/A-18 C/D Hornets. The service transitioned its last legacy Hornet squadron to F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets in January. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps continues to fly classic Hornets as it eyes a longer-term transition to the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

Navy Lt. Steven Shaw, a white instructor pilot at VFA-106 who spoke to Military.com in defense of the Marine pilot in 2018, saying he believed bias had played a role in his separation from training, said this week that he was pleased to hear of the Marine Corps’ decision to give the pilot another chance.

“He is a dedicated Marine and a skilled aviator,” Shaw told Military.com in a statement. “I am happy to see he is finally getting justice and is back where he belongs. I have no doubt he will continue to serve with distinction and honor.”

— Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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