The Depot

Fighter Pilot Helmets: Why Are They Yellow?

The U.S. Navy, for as long as they’ve had aviation, has been lenient on what aircrews put on their flight helmets. In particular, the fighter pilot helmet is a source of pride and most in the naval aviator community can determine the unit a pilot is with just by looking at their fighter pilot helmet.

The Navy learned long ago that allowing fighter pilot helmet customization was a huge morale boost. Fighter pilot helmet customization allowed pilots to creatively express themselves which led to greater esprit de corps. The U.S. Air Force, however, took a little longer to figure that out.

For decades there were only two Air Force units authorized to decorate the fighter pilot helmet on their head; the Thunderbirds (the Air Force’s aerial demonstration team) and aggressor pilot units.

To the uninitiated civilian masses, the issue might seem unimportant, but the U.S. military is a team of teams and as we know from the team-centric culture, organizational identity is important to individuals. Organizational brands help shape unit culture so it should come as no surprise that fighter pilot helmet customization could have such a positive impact on morale.

A couple of years ago, the Air Force, facing a serious pilot shortage, opted to lift restrictions on fighter pilot helmet adornment in one of many moves made to incentivize pilots to stay in the ranks. Pilots had been complaining for years about the restrictions placed on Air Force flying units. It seems that the pilots finally got the issue the attention it deserved.

Pilots in fighter jet with canopy open.

Fighter pilot helmet customization thus took off, pun intended, in the Air Force around 2020 and pilots and the units they belong started going out of their way to ensure their pilots express themselves individually while paying homage to the greater culture they belong to.

There is one unit with a striking fighter pilot helmet that stands out amongst other Air Force units. It is almost like someone took a giant yellow highlighter and marked every fighter pilot helmet in the squadron as if to tell people, don’t forget this, no different than when someone marks up a book and highlights an important passage.

336th Fighter Squadron shoulder Patch Rocketeers

The yellow-helmeted pilots belong to the fabled 336th Fighter Squadron also known as “The Rocketeers.” They are a part of the 4th Operations Group at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. They are hard to miss in a yellow fighter pilot helmet and yellow tail trim on their F-15E Strike Eagles. Their sister units in the 4th Fighter Wing have their own colors of red, blue and green. The wing is comprised of two operational fighter units, including the 336th and two fighter training squadrons.

The history of the Rocketeers dates back to World War II and the unit has served in every major American conflict since with their distinctive yellow tail trim and now, yellow fighter pilot helmet.

But why yellow? To understand the present, we have to revisit the past.

First off, aircraft markings were increasingly used in World War II not for style or flair, but as a tool to enable fast-moving fighters to identify each other in the often cloudy, gray skies of Europe. The colors on the friendly aircraft helped pilots engaged in dogfights to identify friend or foe. It sounds primitive, but it worked.

Three F-14 fighter jets flying in formation.

Using bright colors on aircraft is credited to two pilots of the Fourth Fighter Group during World War II who had their maintenance crews paint red-and-white checkerboard patterns on the cowlings of both of their P-51 Mustangs. Those distinct markings have bled onto the pilot uniform through patches, scarves, t-shirts and of course the fighter pilot helmet. They are also still found on the aircraft themselves, although given modern dogfighting and technological advances, aircraft markings have no significant tactical use and mostly pay homage to a unit’s history and lineage, especially when that unit destroyed more than 1,000 German aircraft in World War II, more than any other fighter group.

During the Korean War, the 336th squadron transitioned to F-86 Sabre fighter jets and their aircraft were known to the enemy to be fast as rockets. The fighter group finished the war with more than 500 aircraft kills, more than 50 percent of the aircraft killed by the U.S. Air Force in the Korean War. Not long after, yellow took hold of the squadron as did the nickname, Rocketeers.

Yellow, despite gaining a foot hold in the squadron over the past decades, did not make its way onto the fighter pilot helmet of the 336th F-15 drivers until not long ago. Today, pilots in the 336th wear yellow helmets ordinarily with their call signs stenciled on them (usually a sticker). The fighter pilot helmet is usually wrapped in some type of vinyl decal.

Yellow fighter pilot helmets.

Pilots who are new to the squadron and have not yet received their callsign receive a yellow helmet that might have an image of a gear on it. This cog, as it is known, serves to remind the newbies that they are a part of a big machine, they are a cog in a system that serves a larger mission. As mentioned earlier, it is a reminder that the squadron is a part of a wing, a part of a group, a part of the Air Force and a part of the U.S. military, a team of teams.

The U.S. Air Force has roughly 5,300 aircraft in its inventory as of 2021. Of that, there are roughly 55 fighter squadrons each with their own history and lineage. Meaning, unit colors are a large part of the unit’s culture and organizational identity because there are so many moving parts in an organization as large as the Air Force.

It is a good thing that the Air Force finally recognized the value of allowing individuals to share a little of their personality. It was a smart move to allow pilots to adorn their fighter pilot helmet. It not only expresses the pilots individuality, but also salutes members of the unit—past, present and future—by illustrating that the unit is proud of its heritage and that the people in the squadron are a part of a much bigger thing than themselves. They are individuals, yes, but also cogs.  

The U.S. Military's Code of Conduct

Anyone who has ever served in the U.S. military no doubt has learned the U.S. military’s Code of Conduct. In basic training, warrant or commissioned officer training, everyone is required to learn about, and in some cases, memorize, the military Code of Conduct.

In short, the U.S. military Code of Conduct is comprised of six articles that set behavioral obligations for U.S. military service members who are in combat or held in captivity as prisoners of war. The Code came to be because of the personal narratives of some American POWs from the Korean War who were fortunate enough to have survived their time as POWs. They shared their POW experiences upon their return to the United States and they provided crucial lessons learned.

It was not uncommon for prisoners to be tortured, starved and denied healthcare in order for the enemy to acquire public statements from the POWs in support of communism and against the U.S. government. Enemy captors also worked hard to collect intelligence from the POWs. The captors worked doggedly to ensure they broke morale, disrupted the strength of the chain of command and they waged psychological warfare on the minds of captives. The propaganda the enemy created eventually trickled back and began to impact public support of the war on the home front. Some POWs had turned on each other, betrayed each other and the country in order to survive.

In all, 7,245 Americans were captured during the Korean War and roughly 39 percent died in captivity according to U.S. government sources. Some academic institutions place that number closer to 43 percent and many say that the Korean War POW experience was far worse than any other American war.

Americans captured in the Korean war being marched with guard at the side

Once the Korean War ended, almost two dozen Americans chose to remain in China and they declined repatriation. According to the Defense Department, 192 former POWs were charged and tried for serious offenses that equated to treason, desertion and aiding the enemy. The issue commanded public attention as many Americans felt that their service personnel had been brainwashed. The U.S. military then did what it ordinarily does, it conducted an after-action review and tried to glean any lessons it could learn from the POW experience.

In 1954, the roots of the military Code of Conduct began to form when the Department of Defense ordered a study to examine the Korean War POW experience. Franklin Brooke Nihart, a U.S. Marine Corps colonel and Navy Cross recipient from the Korean War, was tasked to create a credo that military personnel could follow if they were held captive. He drafted the original military Code of Conduct on a yellow legal pad written in longhand.

Franklin Brooke Nihart, a U.S. Marine Corps colonel and Navy Cross recipient

In 1955, the Defense Advisory Committee on Prisoners of War published its findings in a 92-page report and the U.S. military Code of Conduct was first established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on August 17, 1955 with the signing of Executive Order 10631. The order stipulates that “All members of the Armed Forces of the United States are expected to measure up to the standards embodied in this Code of Conduct while in combat or in captivity.”

The military Code of Conduct was reaffirmed in July 1964 in DoD Directive No. 1300.7. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter amended Article V of the Code and in March 1988, President Ronald Reagan amended Articles I, II and VI of the Code.

There are six articles in the U.S. military Code of Conduct.

Article I: “I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.”

Article one makes it very clear that American warriors are expected to remember that they are American warriors and that they are charged with safeguarding the nation and the values that it represents. It also states clearly that the American service member is expected to give his or her life in defense of the nation.

Article II: “I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.”

Surrender is not an option. If that phrase is familiar, it is because it has been a part of the U.S. military Code of Conduct for decades. It is a part of the military’s fabric. Voluntary surrender is prohibited according to the military’s Code of Conduct. If captured and no longer able to fight, an American warrior is expected to the escape and evade.

Commanders and military leaders cannot surrender their units when the unit still has the ability to fight; this applies even if the unit is surrounded, cut off or isolated, according to the military Code of Conduct.

Article III: “If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.”

The bottom line in this article is that captivity is not an excuse to aid the enemy. Members of the U.S. armed forces are expected to resist the enemy. In other words, they cannot offer military secrets or information that will aid the enemy especially in exchange for something that gives the POW a favorable posture with the captors. In addition, U.S. military personnel must frequently try to escape or help others escape from captivity.

Article IV: “If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.”

American POWs, according to the military Code of Conduct, cannot provide information to their captors that harms their fellow American or allied service personnel. Helping the enemy harm American service personnel or U.S. allies, in any way, is forbidden.

Senior captured military personnel will assume command of all prisoners. With leadership comes the responsibility for caring for all of the prisoners. The senior in charge must ensure that all prisoners are being cared for properly and that they are being treated according to Geneva Codes. Subordinates will model their behavior as if they are a part of an ordinary military unit and they will follow the chain of command in the prisoner ranks.

Article V: “When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, social security number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.”

This article is likely one of the toughest ones to follow as a POW especially when a POW is tortured or mistreated. It is easy to armchair and judge those who have given statements against the United States possibly in exchange for medical care, food or a cessation in torture, but the grueling reality is something known only to those who have been POWs. The military Code of Conduct requires that only brief biographical information be offered by prisoners to their captors. Nothing else is required.

The Geneva Convention prohibits the physical and mental abuse of prisoners to gain information, but in the Korean War, Vietnam War and even as recent as Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, statements were made by American and allied personnel under duress. While the military Code of Conduct prohibits this, instances of the violations are examined on a case-by-case basis when the POWs return to determine if any national damage was done by the POW’s actions. The psychological and survival instincts of the captive is taken into consideration now that there is a better understanding of the mental condition of POWs and the impact of the torture that they endure. However, the expectation remains; say nothing other than what is required by the Geneva Convention and if something is stated to the enemy it should be factually incorrect and misleading so it does not help the enemy in any way.

Two soldiers in front of a cargo jet

Article VI: “I will never forget that I am an American, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.”

This article reminds military service members that they are responsible for their actions. At some point, if they survive, their captivity will end and the POWs will be held accountable for any adverse actions they committed while in captivity. They are still governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and by the military Code of Conduct and the expectation is that they behave with honor, integrity and character befitting a U.S. military member.

The Accidental Aviator

US Army Major Robert F. Morris as an enlisted sailor

Aircraft contrails in the sky are usually indicators of where an aircraft has come from and where it is heading. If the life of retired U.S. Army Maj. Robert F. Morris had vapor lines, they would represent a lifetime of aviation achievement both in and out of uniform. 

Morris is a flight instrument and flight safety instructor. His career in aviation spans more than 50 years if you include his volunteer service and the accomplishments are dizzying; thousands of flight hours logged, multiple FAA ratings achieved, several dozen airframes flown, wings earned from the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army, service in two wars, a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and 13 Air Medals, including one with a “V” device for valor during his tour in Vietnam as a Chinook pilot.

And it all happened by accident.

Morris’s military odyssey began when he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve at 17.  In 1952, he was ordered to LSM 547, a ship headed to Korea. After several port stops, they picked up an Army unit and headed to the war.

“We arrived in Inchon harbor and the artillery was firing just over the north hills.  It was the first time I had heard shots fired in anger,” Morris recalled. “The battleship Missouri and the cruiser USS St. Paul were firing over us at the beach,” he said. 

After Korea, Morris attended college. He majored in education and had hopes to teach and be a counselor, but life encouraged him to change his heading.

“My roommate in college was going to Dallas to take a test to become a naval pilot,” Morris said smiling. His roommate needed a ride, so Morris drove him. As his friend took the exam, Morris read magazines in another room. 

US Army Major Robert F. Morris as a commissioned officer in the navy

“I was asked by an enlisted man if I wanted to take the test and told him I did not as I just got out of the Navy and hand no intention of going back in,” Morris said. “An hour later he asked again and I was bored and said ‘OK’ just for something to do.”

Morris finished the test before his roommate who had started much earlier. He also got a better score. Months later Morris got a letter from the U.S. Navy ordering him to flight training.

Morris thought to himself, “Why not?” and thus began a decade’s long accidental career in aviation that led Morris through the U.S. Marine Corps as a fighter pilot, a U.S. Army chief warrant officer flying CH-47 Chinooks, and as a civilian pilot.

US Army Major Robert F. Morris as a commissioned officer in the Army

“Going to helicopter school was like buying a one-way ticket to Vietnam and you had to work 365 days to get a ticket back home,” Morris said. “Moving 10,300-pound loads hanging off the bottom of the aircraft all day and landing to the top of hills is a challenge, but you get good at it with practice, like anything else that you do.”

Morris said he and his crew were called to move “all kinds of stuff” in Vietnam.  One day they were tasked with recovering an airplane that was shot down. They connected to the aircraft and began to lift it out when the Viet Cong attacked them.

“When we got there all the people on the ground were laying down and had their weapons pointing the same direction,” Morris said. “At about 200 feet above the ground, two guys stepped out of a cement building and started shooting up at us with automatic weapons. I was flying and … my gunners were firing back and the load was trying to fly into us … the rounds were coming up through the floor all around....”

One round came through the floor and hit Morris’s left leg and knocked his foot off the rudder peddle. He told his co-pilot he was hit and the co-pilot took control of the aircraft.  

“My leg started to feel less painful and I did not want to look at it so I ran my hand down the back of my leg to feel how big a hole I had in it. There was no hole,” Morris said. “After we landed we looked in the chin bubble of the aircraft and found the round. It looked like a 50 cent piece and was very sharp all the way around it.”

On another mission, Morris was flying in support of U.S. Marines and he was notified that some Marines needed to be ferried to a fire base. After picking up the Marines, he was airborne when he was told that there were battle-wounded Marines that needed medical evacuation at a hilltop fire base with no clear place to land.

US Army Major Robert F. Morris as a highly decorated US Army Officer

“When we got there the ammunition dump was blowing up and the ridge line it was located on did not have a safe place to let them off,” Morris said.  With no safe place to land the large, heavy lift aircraft, Morris performed a heroic and skillful maneuver. “Make a long story short, I backed the aircraft up to the edge of the cliff and the flight engineer talked me down and we brought the six wounded aboard,” Morris said.

These days the 83-year-old Morris might not be carving through the skies, but he hasn’t slowed down. He is an aviation advocate who helps marshal future pilots into the clouds with his knowledge. He volunteers at a military museum, teaches part-time in a federal STEM program and serves as an assistant aerospace education officer with the Civil Air Patrol in Austin, Texas.

Luckily, Morris was an accidental aviator waiting to happen.