(CNN) — One of the nation’s most prestigious teams of flying acrobats dive-bombed into the depths of sexual harassment and stayed there for at least a year, a new Navy study says.
Under the command of Capt. Gregory McWherter, members of the Blue Angels openly passed around pornography and flew with it in their cockpits during airshows. They cursed gays and spread dirty talk about women.
Their chauvinistic behavior turned the squadron into a hostile workplace, a Navy investigation into the shenanigans said. And McWherter not only tolerated them; he set examples of bad behavior and animated those under his command.
McWherter was reprimanded after a disciplinary proceeding this week and relieved of his duties as an executive officer.
The 63-page document reads like a cross between the burlesque B movies “Hot Shot” and “Animal House,” as it describes how the squad’s Ready Room took on the atmosphere of a college fraternity.
The Blue Angels are the friendly face of the U.S. Navy and Marines and put on aerial stunt shows before live audiences across the country most every week.
The scandal has sullied their reputation and that of the military branches they represent, Navy investigators said.
Giant genital graffiti
At one point during McWherter’s stint, an oversized penis painted in the blue and gold colors of the Blue Angels adorned the roof of an airplane hangar. The image was so large that it could be seen by satellites and appeared on Google Maps images.
A member of the squadron painted over the graffiti, and the satellite map image has since disappeared.
McWherter has not always had a reputation for raunch.
He led the Blue Angels twice, and the first time around, he snuffed out such risque stunts as a matter of maintaining professional order, the investigation said.
He completed a “successful and unmarred tour as the Commanding Officer of the Blue Angels from 2008 to 2010,” the Navy said.
Once that tour was over, he handed over the reins, but his successor committed a safety violation in May 2011. The Angels had to cancel a show and go through a safety stand-down.
The commander stepped down, and McWherter returned.
He received a “hero’s welcome” and decided he’d do something to cheer the Angels up — throw out some protocol and crank up camaraderie.
McWherter was not the first to introduce lewd practices to the squadron, but he no longer clamped down as much and joined in on the fun.
Pornography had made its way into the squadron around the time the captain’s first command ended, the investigation said.
“Both male and female crew chiefs cut out and placed the pornography in the cockpits,” it said.
During the investigation, the practice was cited by some witnesses as “motivational.” It was seen as a way of building trust among team members.
Most of the pictures were depictions of naked women.
Crew members who objected could complain and opt out, but some felt under pressure not to do so, the review said.
Eventually, tensions over the pictures rose, and McWherter asked two female team members for their opinion, the investigation said. They told him they would feel more comfortable if the photos used were of women in bikinis and not nudes.
But eventually, he received an anonymous letter complaining about that practice, too, and he canned it — but reportedly not without complaining to team members about someone having sent the letter.
Online porn and scorn
But porn crept into more than just the cockpits and the Ready Room.
The group set up a site on the online service GroupMe for scheduling purposes, and profanity and porn dotted the posts.
McWherter saw them and joined in. “His initial post after joining the forum was “f— you,” the investigation said.
When pornographic images didn’t show up in the feed for a while, the captain called for members to post more of them. And he joined in raucous commenting on the lewd images.
A Facebook photo of a female enlisted member of the squadron in a bikini turned up in the Ready Room, and McWherter did not object to it.
Juvenile to hostile
When investigators showed officers who had served during the captain’s first stint as commanding officer examples of the homophobic humor on maps, raunchy jokes and pornography that became common during his second stint, they were shocked.
“These officers unanimously indicated that such material would not have been tolerated during their time under Captain McWherter at the Blue Angels,” the investigation said.
In November 2012, the captain’s command ended; he moved on, and his successor inherited a cleanup job. The Navy set up awareness training from various equal opportunity programs to rid the Blue Angels of the smut.
In 2014, a service member filed a complaint against McWherter for his lax handling of the harassing atmosphere during his command.
Navy investigators concluded that the former commander had allowed what may have seemed like juvenile behavior descend into a “toxic” atmosphere.