A different Tailhook 8 years after scandal

Organizers took steps to tone down event after sexual misconduct reports


SPARKS, Nev. -- At 12: 30 Sunday morning, in the hotel that is playing host to this year's Tailhook convention, the hallways were stone silent. A handful of pilots drank beer in a suite with the door open; two women passed by, without incident. As 1 a.m. neared, one of the men peeled off to bunk down for the night.

This is what the Tailhook Convention looks like eight years after a sexual misconduct scandal that came to symbolize what critics said was an official tolerance for swaggering libido in the armed forces.

The days seem long ago indeed when an elite young naval officer could streak down a hallway or form a gantlet with buddies to grope women and strip off their clothes. The gathering is now a sleepy mix of reunions, symposiums, golf, cocktail hours and banquets, attended by an overwhelmingly older male crowd -- all that remains after the Navy cut its ties to the event, making it harder for active-duty officers to attend.

"This is a lot more subdued," said Cmdr. Chuck Wright of Lemoore Naval Air Station near Fresno, Calif., socializing at a mixer on Friday night.

At the 1991 convention, 83 women, some in the Navy, reported being assaulted or harassed. About 50 Navy and Marine Corps pilots were fined or disciplined. The scandal also led to the resignation of the secretary of the Navy, H. Lawrence Garrett III, and early retirement of the Navy's top admiral, Frank Kelso II.

Measures taken to tone down the the convention have worked, said Wright, who also attended in 1991. "You lose a little bit of the rowdiness," he said, "but you also lose the opportunity to make a fool of yourself."

Tailhook leaders are still seeking to put the scandal behind them and reassert the convention's original purpose: providing an informal forum for the exchange of tales and techniques between fledgling aviators and veteran pilots.

And for the first time since the Navy cut ties with the Tailhook Association, a booster group with about 10,500 members that sponsors the convention, a delegation of military leaders attended this weekend at the behest of Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.

Speaking at the group's general membership meeting on Friday afternoon, Matt Purdy, a lieutenant stationed at Miramar Air Force Base in San Diego, portrayed the 1991 episode as an isolated incident.

The group has taken several steps to reduce the boozy atmosphere, particularly by moving the convention from Las Vegas.

The hospitality suites that served as the epicenter of the misconduct in 1991 are no longer rented in clusters. And the group has sought to make the convention more amenable to members' spouses.

The few female aviators who attended the convention did not express any concern over the environment and said they welcomed the opportunity for "hangar flying," or exchanging tales and tips with veteran pilots.

"I can take care of myself," said Pamela Salisbury, a civilian member from Santa Fe, N.M., who runs the Saber Tooth Snapping Turtles, a group that encourages children to become interested in flying.

"As a woman, I feel safer here than anywhere else," said her friend, Tammy Green, also a pilot.

Pub Date: 8/23/99

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