A Marine pilot and weapon systems officer involved in a phallic flight pattern in October 2018 over the Salton Sea in California said they didn’t know their flight path could be traced by civilian aircraft spotters.
The penis shaped flight path of the T-34C, crewed with two experienced Marines out of the West coast 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing with the call sign SHUTR-91, was tracked and posted to Twitter by @AircraftSpots.
According to the investigation obtained by Marine Corps Times via a Freedom of Information Act request, both of the Marines said they were unaware that the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast transponder, or ADS-B, aboard the T-34C could be tracked by civilians.
The ADS-B transponder sends GPS satellite information to air traffic controllers and other aircraft to track location. According to the Federal Aviation Administration website, the system improves safety. By Jan. 1, 2020, aircraft will need to be installed with the transponder.
The investigation said the Marine aviator holds certifications as an instructor pilot and as a Marine Division Tactics Course graduate and as an F/A-18 division lead. The weapon systems officer holds also certifications as an instructor and division lead and gradated from the Marine Division Tactics Course and Weapons and Tactics Instructor course.
Only recently has Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101, or VMFAT-101, been introduced to the ADS-B transponder, the investigation said, and that before the incident the unit lacked formal training about the system.
Their aircraft was the first T-34C at VMFAT 101 to get the transponder.
The investigation into the sky penis pattern recommended that an investigation be launched into the security risks of civilians being able to track military aircraft with the ADS-B transponder before the 2020 mandatory compliance.
After receiving text messages following the posting of the aircraft’s flight path to social media, the pilot contacted the unit’s executive officer, and the chain of command was made aware of the incident, according to the investigation.
The pilot told investigators that he “elected to conduct a holding pattern in a phallic shape,” but had no intention of posting it publicly online. He said that he only planned to show a few friends because he thought it was comical.
Both Marines also told investigators that the aircraft didn’t create any visible contrails that could be seen by people on the ground.
The pilot told investigators that he came up with the penis shape route “in real time” after they had finished a separate training mission over Brawley, California, and then informed his WSO.
“I told him [WSO] what I was going to do, but it was my idea and there really wasn’t any discussion about why or how to do it," the pilot told investigators.
“The pilot mentioned he was going to fly a pattern in the shape of a phallic figure,” the WSO told investigators. “I did not think anything of it and went along with the plan.”
The pilot of the T-34C expressed remorse for his actions and was concerned the penis flight pattern stunt would create a negative perception about the use of the T-34C, which some have argued is already a waste of government spending.
Marine pilots use the T-34C to boost flight hours during periods when F/A-18s are not always available due to low readiness or maintenance.
According to documents obtained by Marine Corps Times, the T-34C saves VMFAT-101 about $3.7 million in F/A-18 substitutions.
The investigation recommended that the two Marines received nonpunitive letters of caution and be required to attend training on the transponder and the incident.
The pilots were also ordered to train the squadron on aviation professionalism and proper use of government assets and train all aircrew joining the squadron after Nov. 16, 2018.
The investigation found the pilots “demonstrated a severe lapse in judgement, but not a severe lapse in aeronautical judgement."
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.