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OTTAWA — A police investigation into remarks made at a social gathering of fighter pilots in June has brought to light a well-known but little understood military tradition that certain concerns are another example of entrenched cultural issues in the Armed Forces. Canadian: the assignment of call signs.

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Earlier this week, the Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lt. Gen. Eric Kenny has announced he is delaying a ceremony to install a new commander at one of Canada’s two fighter bases, 3 Wing in Bagotville, Quebec.

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Kenny attributed the decision to an ongoing military police investigation into statements made during what he described as a ‘call sign review board’ held June 22 at the other CF base. -18 of Canada, 4 Wing in Cold Lake, Alberta.

Many people know the call signs from the hit “Top Gun” movies, in which Tom Cruise’s character is nicknamed “Maverick.” This call sign refers to the character’s refusal to follow orders and abide by army rules.

Canadian fighter pilots also use call signs. Anyone who has attended an air show in Canada and observed a Snowbird or CF-18 up close may have seen the pilot’s call sign written with his real name near the cockpit.

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Although call signs are not the exclusive domain of pilots, they are not widely used in other parts of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The Air Force says call signs help create a sense of team and identity among fighter pilots and break down barriers between different rank levels. They also benefit communications in the air.

The assignment of call signs “is intended to foster esprit de corps,” said RCAF spokesman Lt. Col. RCAF. Adam Thompson. “The call sign has a practical purpose and is used for brevity and quick identification while removing certain impediments to flight leadership that may arise based on rank or position.”

While call signs can crop up organically like any other nickname, call sign review boards like the one under investigation are a key way to assign them.

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Despite their official-sounding name, these gatherings are social events where pilots tell stories about each other.

“Call signs are typically assigned at a unit social gathering in a location such as a mess hall or unit social area,” Thomson said in an email.

“Often these stories tell of a particular member’s challenge, case, or success. These stories inspire an individual’s call sign. Possible call signs are suggested by peers and voted on by the group .

Former fighter pilots say such events often involve throwing drinks around while telling stories about new aviators — the funnier or more embarrassing, the better.

“And after one, two or three beers, if there was a funny or good story, the call sign would be adopted,” the former Air Force commander and lieutenant general told retired Yvan Blondin, whose call sign is Bad.

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Former Chief of the Defense Staff and retired General Tom Lawson, call sign Shadow, put it another way: “It’s a mini roast, that’s what it is. “

Such events usually take place at the end of important training courses or exercises with senior officers on hand, which Blondin says gives the process a “semi-formal touch.” As for other details, the two former pilots said they can often vary from unit to unit.

“When we talk about a process, there’s nothing formal, there’s nothing in the books, there’s nothing in our procedures, that says it’s the process as a requirement for call signs,” Blondin said. “It does not exist.”

The results of such gatherings are not always positive. While many call signs refer to training errors or personality quirks, Blondin gave an extreme example of a pilot years ago whose call sign involved a crude description of a sexual encounter.

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Thomson said the Air Force recently conducted a review of existing call signs to determine their suitability “while directing that future call signs be aligned with our commitment to be an inclusive organization.”

Yet it is unclear to what extent this review has affected the process of assigning call signs, including the conduct of review boards – which appears to be at the heart of the military police’s ongoing investigation into Cold Lake.

“There’s probably a lot less alcohol than in the 70s and 80s, which makes it easier for everyone to stay on this side of the line,” Lawson said. “But it looks like someone at one of these reviews was made uncomfortable by a comment, or a comment was made right across the line.”

Lori Buchart, co-chair of It’s Not Just 20K, a support and advocacy group created by victims of military sexual misconduct, said it’s important for the Canadian Armed Forces to have rituals and traditions to build a sense of identity and boost morale.

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“The important thing for the CAF and its members is to weed out those who cause harm or are questionable, and keep those who build morale in a healthy way,” she added.

Charlotte Duval-Lantoine of the Canadian Institute of Global Affairs, who recently published a book on military sexual misconduct, said the current situation should spark a discussion about how call signs are assigned to pilots of Canadian hunters – and how it can be improved.

“Call signs and how they are assigned can say a lot about the culture of a unit,” she said. “And like in any culture, that can go overboard and take the form of bullying and scolding, especially if the person receiving the call sign isn’t part of the group as well as others.”

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At the same time, Duval-Lantoine said the question highlights some of the difficulties the military faces in weeding out inappropriate behavior given the various traditions that exist between different units and positions within the Armed Forces.

While Lawson and Blondin hope call signs will remain a staple among Canadian fighter pilots, Blondin acknowledged that it might be necessary to impose some type of structure or control over review boards.

“I wouldn’t want to get rid of it,” he said. “But I think we need formalization. In the times we now live in, some things are definitely not acceptable as they are.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 3, 2022.

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