Black U.S. military aviators are more likely to be found flying the service’s “heavies” — transports, tankers and other combat support aircraft — than fighter jets, military data show.

Some black pilots and former pilots said this phenomenon indicates a subtle effort on the part of the so-called “fighter mafia” to keep minorities out.

“The fighter mafia is the ultimate white boys club — [blacks] keep out,” one retired black Air Force pilot, who asked not to be named, told Stripes in a telephone interview. “The attitude is, ‘OK, we’ll let you fly, but combat is for the big boys. You don’t qualify.’”

But other black pilots and pilot instructors said they have seen no indication that the services are blocking blacks from the fighter cadre; moreover, that military pilots in general are leaning toward transports for the less-intense lifestyle and easier transition to commercial airline careers.

Air Force-wide, the smallest representation of black pilots is in the fighter community, where just 1.3 percent of pilots are black. This is true even though fighter pilots are by far the single-largest flying community in the service, accounting for 28 percent, or 3,505 pilots, out of a total of 12,714 pilots at the end of 2002.

But 1.7 percent of all Air Force transport pilots are black, as are 2.9 percent of all tanker pilots. And the percentage of black pilots climbs to a high of 3.5 percent in surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. The total number of such pilots, 721, accounts for just 5.7 percent of all Air Force fliers.

In the Navy, out of the 185 black pilots in the fleet, 36 fly tactical jets: F/A-18 Hornets, F-14 Tomcats, EA-6B Prowlers and S-3B Vikings, according to Navy spokesman Lt. Jon Spiers.

Another 42 blacks are in flight training, and their aircraft are not yet determined, Spiers said. The other 107 black Navy pilots fly nontactical aircraft, such as the C-2A Greyhound and other logistics aircraft, E-2C Hawkeye early warning and control aircraft, EP-3A ARIES II signals intelligence reconnaissance aircraft, and trainers.

“Recon birds,” tankers and transports all perform essential missions. But such aircraft are low on military aviation’s informal prestige totem pole, while fighter jets are widely recognized as the big dogs.

Touted in movies such as “Top Gun,” celebrated in novels, video games and song, fighter pilots “are about the most self-confident, arrogant, capable people you will ever meet,” according to Daryl Jones, an Air Force Reserve officer who flew F-16s for the Air Force and F-4s.

Trailing in prestige are tankers and transports, which are often referred to by fighter pilots as “flying gas stations” and “trash haulers” — terms that have prompted more than one fistfight at officers’ clubs around the world.

Fighters vs. heavies

The split between the fighter pilots and other military aviators occurs during military flight training.

All student pilots spend the first part of their class learning the basics of flight. The students take the same classes and learn to fly the same basic aircraft, such as the T-37.

After about six months, students are “tracked” into one of two paths: fighters and bombers; or tankers and transports, also called “heavies.”

Students choose a path at the end of the first half of the training by submitting a “dream sheet” of the aircraft they want to fly during their career. Slots are awarded on the basis of class standing.

The number of available positions available in each track depends on how many pilots the services need in certain categories at the time.

1st Lt. Glenn Gonzales, a fighter-bomber instructor with the 87th Flying Training Squadron (the fighter-bomber track) at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, noted that the Air Force needs more heavy pilots overall.

As a result, in today’s fighter-bomber track, “we take about one-third the [basic] students who go through,” Gonzales said.

Although a few student pilots enter training hoping to fly heavies, most pilot trainees come to school hoping to grasp the brass ring: fighters, said Maj. Tony Whiteside, an instructor pilot in the transport-tanker track at the Air Force’s 47th Flying Training Wing, in a telephone interview.

“Most people want to fly jets, because mostly that’s what they’ve seen on TV,” Whiteside said.

In Gonzales’ current fighter-bomber class of about 70 students, two are black, which Gonzales said is about average.

Whiteside’s track, which is heavies, has more students overall, around 120 currently.

Of those, “six or seven” students are black, he said.

Asked whether he has noticed that more black pilots fly “heavies” than fighters, Whiteside said, “Sure, I’ve noticed it since I first came here” two and a half years ago.

While he said he could not say precisely why that is the case, Whiteside said it isn’t racism.

“It’s not like they’re training to segregate African Americans; from what I’ve seen, I think it’s just the roll of the dice.”

Gonzales said the choice between fighters and heavies “comes down to Type A and Type B personalities. Some people just don’t have a passion to fly 500 knots 500 feet off the ground,” he said.

The decision to “go heavy” is made “case by case,” agreed 1st Lt. Richard Jones, who is a fellow T-38 instructor with Gonzales at Laughlin.

“In some classes you see the majority wanting fighters,” said Jones, who is also black. “But then there are some classes where the top-notch guys want to fly heavies because of how they perceive the fighter life: go-go get it, long hours, long briefs and debriefs.”

Whiteside said he never had any interest in being a fighter pilot.

“I did not want to ‘yank and bank’ all my life,” he said. “Flying a fighter would be a cool thing to do; I would like to do it once or twice. But I enjoyed the tanker situation. Everybody has [his] own personal agenda.”

Increasingly, many military student pilots are choosing the “heavies” right from the start, because the bigger aircraft are a more direct route to a post-military career at commercial airlines, Air Force Reserves Brig. Gen. Leon Johnson said in a Feb. 11 interview in the Pentagon.

“If you’re going to fly fighters and then go to the airlines, it will take a lot longer to build up enough hours” in the cockpit to qualify for a commercial pilot’s license, noted Johnson, who flies the A-10 “Warthog” close-air support craft. “That’s an issue for a lot of folks.”

In the end, the dearth of black pilots makes drawing conclusions regarding even smaller subsets an exercise in futility, Johnson said.

“I think the numbers are too small to draw any conclusions,” Johnson said. “If you had 10 percent [of the pilot corps being black], you might see a trend.”

But with just 236 black pilots in the Air Force overall, “it’s really hard to draw logical conclusions” about different races flying different types of aircraft, Johnson said.

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