Sobered Tailhook, shorn of Navy support, to meet


SAN DIEGO -- Shunned by the Navy and abandoned by most of its active-duty members and corporate sponsors, the Tailhook Association will gather here this weekend for its first convention since a four-day bacchanal in 1991 transformed a little-known band of aviators into a notorious organization whose name is synonymous with sexual misconduct.

Gone from this year's convention, organizers say, will be the hospitality suites, where scores of women were assaulted, where fliers exposed their testicles, drank from a dispenser shaped like a rhinoceros penis and wore "Women Are Property" T-shirts.

Gone, too, Pentagon officials say, will be free transportation on military aircraft and time off to attend the convention, panel discussions led by generals and admirals, and banquets addressed by the secretary of the Navy, all of which were staples of Tailhook gatherings in past years.

And instead of thousands of brash young "Top Gun" types, this year's convention is expected to be attended by just a few hundred nostalgic retirees. But their thin ranks will be swelled by dozens of journalists who had never even heard of the Tailhook Association two years ago, and by public relations consultants hired to remind everyone that this is an educational symposium, not a social event.

The Navy has not forbidden active-duty aviators from attending, provided that they pay their own way, use liberty or leave time and do not wear their uniforms. A Pentagon official, who agreed to speak only if he were not identified, said that he expected some fliers to show up here, despite the official opprobrium, because of the "enduring ability of some middle-level aviation officers to have the thickest skulls in the world."

But the president of the Tailhook Association, W. D. "Bill" Knutson, a retired captain, said he expected few, if any, active-duty fliers and certainly no flag officers. He said that their absence was a shame and would "curtail the interchange of information" that is the mission of the 37-year-old association of aviators, contractors and civilians with an interest in carrier aviation.

"I don't think the Navy is trying to extinguish us, but I do regret the limits they put on their people," Mr. Knutson said yesterday at the Town and Country Hotel here, which invited the convention after its longtime home, the Hilton in Las Vegas, announced that the aviators would no longer be welcome.

Mr. Knutson took over as the group's president after the Navy withdrew its support two years ago and prohibited active-duty officers from holding such posts.

After the events at the Las Vegas convention came to light, largely as a result of complaints by an admiral's aide who was among those assaulted, the association issued an apology to "the women involved, the Navy and the nation." It also promised to correct the errors that contributed to the aviators' behavior, which was documented in a Pentagon report made public in April. The report led to dozens of disciplinary actions against Navy officers and in the past week even threatened the career of the top admiral, Frank B. Kelso.

Mr. Knutson was asked this week what corrective action had been taken to prevent a repeat of the scandal. He cited the reduced size of the current meeting -- about 4,000 people attended in 1991 -- and the move from Las Vegas to this Navy mecca. He added that there was no need to tell conventioneers how to behave because "everyone is painfully aware of what a few people did that caused a lot of embarrassment."

In addition to losing help from the Navy, the association has also lost most of its 50 or so corporate sponsors.

Before a change in Pentagon regulations, the contractors sponsored the hospitality suites at the Tailhook convention that were the scene, in 1991, of "streaking," "mooning," "butt-biting" and similar activities.

The report characterized the suites at Tailhook conventions over the years as "a type of free-fire zone" where aviators could behave "indiscriminately and without fear of censure or retribution in matters of sexual conduct and drunkenness." The report noted that this "can-you-top-this atmosphere seemed to increase with each succeeding convention."

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