Fighter Pilot Traditions: Roll Call

“HACK!!!” The esteemed Mayor cries out, as the door to the squadron bar slams shut with explosive force. The bar, known during the day as the “squadron heritage room”, erupts with applause, yelling, and laughter.  It is the end of another work week in the fighter squadron and there are stories to be told, jokes to be made, and songs to be sung as we revel in one of the oldest fighter pilot traditions: Roll Call.  I’ll give you a brief glimpse into this time-honored tradition, its history and importance in the fighter squadron, and how it’s changing with time.

Trust and camaraderie are essential components in any combat unit.  A good leader knows how important it is that the warriors in his or her unit are not only willing to go to war together, but to die for each other if necessary.  Roll Call is a tradition meant to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood (yes, that includes our female fighter pilot sisters!) in a fighter squadron and create an atmosphere that breeds trust and friendship amongst the pilots.  Such traditions are essential to the morale and well being of a combat fighter squadron.

The tradition of Roll Call is one of the oldest in the Air Force and springs from the early days of combat aviation.  Before fighter pilots flew with radios, they had to rely on keeping visual contact with their flight mates and maximizing the use of visual signals.  If you lost visual contact with your flight mates, the rejoin would be based on a little planning and a lot of luck.  If a flight member was shot down, it wasn’t immediately known.  Commanders would call their pilots together at the end of a day of combat and take roll.  Those not attending Roll Call were then considered missing or killed in combat.

I imagine Roll Call was not an easy time for the pilots (aka “the bros”) in attendance.  They had to accept the losses of their brethren, then turn around and fly back into combat the next day.  But, they managed to deal with the deaths of their friends and brothers in the same way any responsible adult would: by drinking heavily.  As the means to determine combat losses became more effective, Roll Call became less about accountability and more about camaraderie – the drinking never changed.

Over time, fighter squadrons began to put their own personal twists on Roll Call.  Some of the tweaks and changes took root and today’s fighter pilot Roll Call is a conglomeration of decades of fighter pilot tradition and shenanigans.  The one thing that has not changed is the intent of fostering brotherhood.

In the 8th Fighter Squadron the Mayor is called “The Coat” based on the yellow suit coat pictured here. The picture shows the legacy of 8 FS “Coats”, guys who were the Mayor as long ago as the Vietnam War! Yes…I was the “Coat” when this picture was taken!

Today’s fighter pilot Roll Call follows a loose outline.  It is led by the squadron “Mayor” – the pilot essentially in charge of squadron morale.  The role of the Mayor is to guide the rowdy, and often inebriated, mass of fighter pilots through an agenda of calling roll, telling jokes and stories, and singing songs.  The Mayor can be appointed in a number of different ways, but a younger fighter pilot (i.e. a young captain) usually fills the role.  The Mayor is typically someone who has established him or herself in the squadron both tactically and socially.  In most squadrons, an election is held after one or more people have been nominated for the position.

The agenda of Roll Call is relatively uniform throughout the tactical community, but each squadron puts its own personal spin on the ritual.  Roll Call begins promptly on a time that coincides with the squadron’s designation (i.e. the 27th Fighter Squadron would begin Roll Call at 16:27) when the Mayor calls “HACK!”  Anyone that passes through the door even a fraction of a second late must pay the price outlined by the rules of the bar – typically a shot of Jeremiah Weed, the fighter pilot whiskey (more on that in another article).

Guests are welcomed and must come bearing gifts – the bar doesn’t just stock itself you know!  Gifts to the bar are also collected for things like “firsts” (first time sitting SOF, first time tying your boots while singing the Air Force song and sobbing like a baby, etc.), “upgrades” (MQT complete!), “over speeds and over-g’s” (breaking the jets so other guys can’t fly them), or to clear any grievance that may have arisen during the week.

Speaking of grievances, the bros are allowed to call each other out for offenses that may have taken place during the week in the section of Roll Call known as “instant justice”.  Once you’ve taken your shot for your “IJ”, it is forgiven and forgotten.

In the more solemn part of Roll Call we remember our fallen bros and drink a toast to them.  Before the mood gets too somber, the Mayor will open up the “stories” section of Roll Call.

Stories are the crux of Roll Call – they are what we all look forward to telling and hearing.  We make fun of each other for stupid things that were done or said during the week (“My wingman went tumbleweed!” “Bandit e-braked the rental car on the strip in Las Vegas and scared an old lady so bad she went to the hospital with a heart attack”).  When the story telling is through, each story is summarized and put before the bros for a vote.  Usually the person about whom the winning story was told will get an award – something comparable to a “jackass award”.  (In the 7th Fighter Squadron we called it the Boomerang Award…if you did something stupid it would come back to haunt you!)  The only rule when telling a story in the bar is that it must contain at least 10% truth, other than that anything goes!

Once the applause-o-meter (typically acted out by a lieutenant) has determined a story winner, Roll Call is closed out with the singing of songs.  Some fighter pilot songs are about combat and flying and are deeply rooted in tradition.  Others have origins outside the service and have nothing to do with flying, and everything to do with booze and women.  Some squadrons have a songbook from which the younger bros may learn the songs and pass on the traditions.

Fighter pilot songs are just one tradition that has recently come under fire by military leadership for being politically incorrect and offensive.  In fact, the whole tradition of Roll Call is being threatened as we speak.  As the cultural climate of the Air Force is changing (this is a “kinder, gentler” Air Force after all!), so are the traditions of fighter pilots.  There have been several allegations against fighter squadron commanders for not maintaining a professional atmosphere by allowing rowdy, offensive Roll Calls.  In response, some commanders have cancelled Roll Calls altogether.

The “Eight Balls”, the 8 FS band from days gone by, performs at the Black Sheep reunion. They are singing about “faster airplanes, and younger women”.

Fighter pilots will continue to honor this tradition in some way, shape, or form.  Like Col John Boyd said, we have to observe, orient, decide, and act when faced with a threat.  With the change in cultural climate, we must adapt and find a way to keep this timeless tradition alive.  The squadrons I have been in seem to have adjusted wisely.  An “audience appropriate” Roll Call is carried out based on those in attendance.  When it’s just the bros, it’s as rowdy and awesome as always.  When outsiders are in attendance, it’s toned down as a defensive measure.

Whether it’s a push-it-up Roll Call lasting well into the night, or just a quick, harmless get together, one thing is certain: fighter pilot traditions are sacred and the squadron is a better, more effective combat unit for having them!

 Article by “Shotz”

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