It prompted viral guffaws from some and online outrage from others.
But the inside story of how an EA-18G Growler jet crew drew a penis across the clear blue skies of Washington state in 2017 has never been told.
It was the work of two junior officers with the “Zappers” of Electronic Attack Squadron 130, who had sky time to kill and noticed that the white contrails their jet produced were particularly robust that afternoon.
But they never counted on those contrails lingering long enough for folks on the ground to see their phallic rendering, according to a copy of the military’s sky penis investigation obtained exclusively by Navy Times.
KREM 2, a local TV station, broke the news after a woman snapped pics of the sky drawings on Nov. 16, 2017, near a training area for the squadron, which is based in western Washington at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
“A mother who lives in Okanogan who took pictures of the drawings reached out to KREM 2 to complain about the images, saying she was upset she might have to explain to her young children what the drawings were,” the station reported.
The story of the sky penis took wing from there, spreading umbrage and juvenile glee to all corners of the internet.
It also prompted nervous commanders to file urgent communiques to Navy leadership back in Washington, D.C., letting them know that this was about to turn into a thing.
Within hours of the phallic rendering, the squadron sent an alert to higher ups in an “official information dispatch” that reached the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
“Aircrew maneuvered an EA-18G aircraft in a pattern that resulted in contrails depicting an obscene symbol when viewed from the ground,” it warned. “Media attention is expected.”
Flying as “Zapper 21,” the lieutenants responsible for the drawing took off from Whidbey with another jet at about noon that day, according to the investigation.
The squadron’s commanding officer would later praise the pilot as a shy introvert and “a ‘whiz kid’ who managed our training and readiness with higher efficiency and effectiveness than anyone else I have seen in a squadron,” according to the investigation.
His cockpit partner that day, an electronic warfare officer, or EWO, was “my best junior officer,” the CO noted.
What discipline the Zapper 21 duo faced remains unknown.
Citing privacy regulations, officials declined to provide such records, and all names are redacted in the report copy provided to Navy Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The day’s flight was to be a standard 90 minutes of training over the skies of north-central Washington.
Their partner jet soon flew to another section of their training area, and the lieutenants got an idea.
The EWO broached it first, according to the investigation.
“My initial reaction was no, bad,” the pilot wrote in a statement after the incident. “But for some reason still unknown to me, I eventually decided to do it.”
Their sky penis plan of attack was captured on their cockpit video recording system, a transcript of which is included in the investigation.
“Draw a giant penis,” the EWO said. “That would be awesome.”
“What did you do on your flight?” the pilot joked. “Oh, we turned dinosaurs into sky penises.”
“You should totally try to draw a penis,” the EWO advised.
“I could definitely draw one, that would be easy,” the pilot boasted. “I could basically draw a figure eight and turn around and come back. I’m gonna go down, grab some speed and hopefully get out of the contrail layer so they’re not connected to each other.”
They theorized on the second-order effects of their nascent sky drawing.
“Dude, that would be so funny,” the pilot said. “Airliner’s coming back on their way into Seattle, just this big (expletive)ing, giant penis. We could almost draw a vein in the middle of it too.”
Soon, the EWO reported they were definitely “marking.”
They had found the sweet altitude, and the contrail sky penis was being born in their wake.
“Balls are going to be a little lopsided,” the pilot advised.
“Balls are complete,” he reported moments later. “I just gotta navigate a little bit over here for the shaft.”
“Which way is the shaft going?” the EWO asked.
“The shaft will go to the left,” the pilot answered.
“It’s gonna be a wide shaft,” the EWO noted.
“I don’t wanna make it just like 3 balls,” the pilot said.
“Let’s do it,” the EWO said. “Oh, the head of that penis is going to be thick.”
“Some like Chinese weather satellite right now that’s like, ‘what the (expletive)?’” the pilot surmised.
The jet streaked across the sky, and the duo’s magnum opus continued to take shape, showcasing the pilot’s prowess in the process.
“To get out of this, I’m gonna go like down and to the right,” the pilot said. “And we’ll come back up over the top and try to take a look at it.”
“I have a feeling the balls will have dissipated by then,” his partner answered.
“It’s possible,” the pilot said.
They flew away to a distance where they could take in their work.
They cracked up in the cockpit as their sky penis came into full view, snapping pics they would later delete once they realized their command would likely go apoplectic.
“Oh yes, that was (expletive)ing amazing,” the pilot said. “This is so obvious.”
“That’s a (expletive),” the EWO said. “Dude, I’m amazed that this stayed.”
“Mishap pilot alpha said, ‘Dude, I’m gonna draw a (expletive),’” the EWO said. “EWO alpha said, ‘Yup, that’s a great idea.’”
They waited to see if their partner jet would notice their work.
“Your artwork is amazing,” the lieutenant commander EWO in the other jet radioed to them.
“Glad you guys noticed,” the pilot replied.
Their triumph was fleeting.
“Soon after, I realized the extent of our actions,” the pilot wrote. “That the contrails were remaining longer than predicted.”
Evasive maneuvers became necessary.
“I remarked that we needed to take steps to try to obfuscate it,” he wrote. “I flew one pass over it essentially trying to scribble it out with my contrails. That pass was ineffective.”
With fuel running low, the jet returned to Whidbey Island.
Back on the ground, the deputy commodore of Electronic Attack Wing Pacific soon contacted the squadron, looking for the executive officer, or XO.
The XO confirmed that there had been squadron jets in the area of the sky penis that afternoon, according to the investigation.
“(The deputy commodore) emailed pictures of the phallic-shaped object that were taken from the ground” to the XO.
When the XO asked the lieutenants if anything unusual had happened during their flight that day, the two immediately fessed up and apologized, according to the report.
“(One lieutenant) stated that he deleted the sky drawing photographs from his phone out of shame and as an attempt at damage control to prevent further accidental spread of the photographs,” the investigator wrote.
“They both apologized and were at once remorseful,” the XO wrote in a summary.
Soon, the squadron’s commanding officer arrived.
The XO showed his boss the sky penis pics and explained what happened.
“He was immediately furious,” the XO wrote. “He asked both (lieutenants) if they had any idea what the ramifications of their actions were going to be.”
Neither lieutenants had any previous disciplinary problems, and the high jinks were conducted after the training was completed, according to the report.
While Navy officials said at the time of the incident that the two would go before a disciplinary board, the investigating officer recommended they receive “non-punitive letters of instruction.”
“While the sky writing conducted by (the lieutenants) was crude, immature, and unprofessional, it was not premeditated or planned and not in keeping with their character demonstrated prior to the incident,” the investigator wrote.
“Even so, it has caused the United States Navy severe embarrassment in the public arena and jeopardizes the strategic narrative that underpins the justification of the flight hour program.”
Growler training flights and their noise are a recurring complaint among some residents in areas of Washington state.
“Additionally, the absence of relevant, effective, professional training highlighted by the sophomoric sky drawing indicates a potential waste and misuse of government resources,” the investigator wrote.
The XO defended the wayward lieutenants, calling them both “fine officers and capable aviators.”
“They 100 percent need to be held accountable, but if they are allowed to continue in naval aviation this is not a mistake they will repeat,” he wrote. “Minus the current circumstances, they have never given me a reason to doubt their trustworthiness or their resolve to be officers in the Navy.”
The investigator interviewed squadron members of all ranks to see if the sky penis reflected larger problems at the command.
Personnel across the board reported no concerns, according to the report.
A 2017 command climate survey had placed the squadron above or within Navy averages for nearly all measurable areas, the investigator wrote.
“The investigation revealed no indications of poor command climate and no evidence or allegations (of) overt sexism or misogyny,” the report states.
When it came to the sky penis, one squadron officer statement in the investigation appears to sum up the sentiment of the command regarding the historic act:
“This was a really bad decision by some really good guys in a really good squadron.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.