In the Land of the Brown Bars

In early November 1971  I,  an older captain who had been non rated for nearly four years,  arrived at Mather Air Force Base, outside Sacramento, California, for undergraduate Navigator Training (UNT).    I settled in the BOQ (bachelor officer quarters) and the next day reported to the in-processing of students. Assigned to the 3538th Navigator Training Squadron, I headed there.

As I walked over to the squadron building I noticed a funny thing: the place was crawling with second lieutenants. I had never seen so many “Brown Bars,” AKA Butter Bars.   I had not attended OTS and at my previous base we had only 1 or 2 second lieutenants at any one time. There were tall ones, short ones, some with glasses, some without. Some had been in pilot training and washed out, still others had no prior experience, but all wanted to fly. One thing was clear they were everywhere.  

Mather at this time, like other flying training bases, was bursting at the seams. The Air Force felt increasing pressure to produce air crews for the needs of the Vietnam War. In my class, I would later learn, there were 10 captains, 5 first lieutenants, and 77 second lieutenants. The group was divided into four flights and the captains, the old men of the group, became flight commanders, a largely ceremonial post. But being a military organization, rank determined the pecking order – interestingly some of the captain students were senior to the captain INs. 

Pumping so many bodies into Mather at the same time created problems. There were three flying squadrons in UNT, each had about 100 students in training at any one time. Every two weeks or so a class graduated. Every two weeks a new class began. Concurrently about 100-200 students arrived. Some entered training immediately but some, like me missed the start of a class and were put into casual status until the next class began.

This meant being assigned to the 3538th squadron with nothing to do. Some might be in casual status temporarily for medical reasons, or they failed a portion of the training and washed back into another class. The only thing that could move this along were the regs (regulations) which governed the training.

In my case, the regs said I had to begin training before I turned 27 ½ years old. This was the cutoff to enter flying training. Initially, I was told that I probably would be in casual status for about a month – a classic case of military hurry up and wait – until I could be placed in a class. Then I pointed out that I would turn 27 ½ in about 2 weeks and suddenly a slot was found for me-another student was placed in casual status- and I was pushed to the top of the list. That meant I would graduate in the summer of 1972.   

I entered the UNT program on December 11, 1971, a week short of my 27 ½ birthday.   But first one more flight physical, my third that year.  I will always remember the advice one  Brown Bar gave me as we stood in line: “never tell the flight surgeon anything that might disqualify you.”  Words I remembered all my flying career.   Not necessarily lie, but don’t volunteer information.

T- 29 Flight line Mather AFB 1971

In 1982, I returned to Mather now a “Grizzled 38 year Old” Lt Colonel assigned to the 451st FTS.  I came there after flying the F-4 for six years, then a tour at the AF Academy.   It was in many ways still the Mather I remembered, awash in Second Lieutenants.   

One thing hadn’t changed.   With so many Brown Bars everywhere, there was a tendency on the part of many of the base support folks to be dismissive to them. I noticed this more the second time than when I was a captain there.   

It was brought home to me in a very funny way.   One day I had to go to the base hospital.  I looked very young and was wearing a flight suit.   I was standing behind the desk waiting for the airman to get off the phone, it became more and more clear it was a personal call.  She was clearly not moving quickly.  It struck me — she was giving me a Brown Bar treatment.  She apparently couldn’t see the two silver oak leaves on my shoulders. 

Finally she deigned to acknowledge my presence, I had been there for nearly seven minutes.  She stood up to see what I needed.   I had never seen the color drain from a person’s face before.  She literally went pale when she saw my Oak Leaves, and suddenly became very, very, very eager to help me.   

I didn’t  chew her out.  That was not my style.   I could see that she learned a valuable lesson:   

Not all “brown bars” are the same rank. 

About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, Mather AFB, Navigator, Navigator Training and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to In the Land of the Brown Bars

  1. sean mallory says:

    Loved the article, was one of the brown bars in 1985…class 85-21 then on to the BUFF.

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