BOSTON — There was a time, Mike Rainey recalls, when Marine Corps fighter squadrons seemed as much like hard-drinking frat houses as professional military units.
"Very seldom did you see married guys," says Mr. Rainey, a retired F-18 pilot now selling antiques in Beaufort, S.C. "It was like a big fraternity."
When Rainey left the Marines five years ago, he noticed striking changes from his early days in the 1970s. The lieutenants and captains all seemed older. They studied a lot. Most had kids.
Today, the image of the quintessentially macho fighter jock, part Top Gun and part Great Santini, is fading from view. In Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps aviation units, the culture is shifting from drink hard and fly by the seat of your pants to study hard and train the way you will fight.
The evolution, which may belie Hollywood stereotypes, has several root causes, from unnecessarily high pilot losses in Vietnam to the professional all-volunteer military's reluctance to turn over $40-million aircraft to hotheads.
A Marine EA-6B Prowler's deadly encounter with a gondola in Italy may have evoked ghosts of military flying's ignoble past. (Italy debates US bases). But today's pilots are the best-trained and most proficient ever, experts say. Even more important, a culture that once catered to the loud and brash is redefining itself, though elements of the old still persist, as the "tailhook" scandal a few years ago showed.
One good measure of this, despite a few high-profile crashes, is last year's accident rate. Although the spectacular footage of an Air Force Stealth Fighter falling apart at an airshow stunned the public, the service had one of its safest years on record. Measured by the number of crashes and deaths per 100,000 flying hours, Air Force pilots were near historic lows.
Those who remember the buckaroo days of Vietnam and the "hollow" military of the late 1970s say it's no accident. In addition to a change in military pilot culture, training for each of the services is as challenging and realistic as it's ever been.
Chalk that up to Vietnam, when pilots like Chuck Horner were unprepared for the maneuverability of Russian-built MIGs, deadly surface-to-air missiles, and commanders who put pilots at risk with predictable attack routes.
At least, this was true during the the early days of the war, when US pilots had little experience flying in such an environment. In the end, the US had a better kill ratio against MIGs than Vietnamese pilots had against US aviators.
After the war, the Air Force, Navy, and Marines established rigorous schools that taught fighter pilots the essentials of air-to-air combat, the art of defeating deadly SAMs, and later gave them a generation of great airplanes like the F-16 Falcon and the A-10 Warthog.
In his epic book on the modern military, "Prodigal Soldiers," James Kitfield describes how Mr. Horner, who would lead the overwhelming air attack against Iraq in the Gulf War, marveled at the transformation of Air Force pilots in the 1980s.
"Sometimes Horner had to check a temptation to tell them to lighten up and have some fun, so earnest did this young generation of young pilots seem," Mr. Kitfield writes. "Horner knew that the old barnstorming ethos of the Air Force he had joined was quickly disappearing." To the casual observer expecting the raucous fliers of old, he adds, this "new generation of fighter pilots they were training came off as more soft-spoken and studious, almost like well-mannered accountants."
Benefits of better training
Such broad changes, some believe, have paid huge dividends in training and battlegrounds around the world. Others lament the loss of the rough-and-tumble fighter jock and the colorful characters that forever found their way into unit lore.
Rainey says one factor in his decision to retire was that "the fun had gone out of the business." He didn't regret most of the changes that came to Marine flying, but occasionally longed for the zany old days.
Phil Leventis, a South Carolina state senator and veteran of the Gulf War, thinks the change in pilot bearing and self-image is profound.
Mr. Leventis, who flew with an Air National Guard F-16 squadron during the war, believes most commanders today are obsessive about who they put in a cockpit and what they might do once they get there.
"It is a perpetual, eternal question that has to be addressed each and every day," he says. "We don't want people not willing to press the limits, but you have to be careful not to go past them. We ask it every single day."