CNN is not publishing the name of the pilot due to the nature of the allegations.
The complaint alleges two superiors addressed him with “sarcastic remarks” before forcing the pilot to inflate and wear an inflatable maritime overflight outfit, raise his arms and stand as a “human clock.” According to the complaint, several instructors then put a helmet bag over his head and drove him away for about 30 minutes. The pilot was then grabbed and tied up on his wrists, ankles and knees with adhesive tape before being “violently placed” in the back of a pick-up truck, the complaint alleges. After another 10 minutes of driving on “damaged roads,” the car stopped and personnel unknown by the pilot attached him to a pole with straps, according to the complaint.
After hearing the sound of fighter jet engines, the complaint alleges the pilot realized he had been taken to a live-fire target range, north of the base. While attached to the pole and hooded, the complaint says he heard what sounded like fighter jets opening fire and dropping shells around him for 20 minutes, with munitions landing at an estimated distance of 500 meters (about 1,640 feet). The complaint read that some “simulated shots” were also fired directly towards the victim. After 20 minutes, personnel unknown to the pilot detached him from the pole and told him to join the vehicle by jumping on his feet as his legs were taped, the complaint read.
Video and pictures of a man appearing hooded and motionless have been shared with CNN and handed over to prosecutors as part of the complaint. The pilot’s lawyer said those were posted on a WhatsApp group his client did not belong to but shared with him by members of this group. A spokesman for the French Air and Space Force, Col. Stéphane Spet, told CNN the images were authentic, but said they gave the wrong impression the aircraft were directing fire at the pilot who was tied to the target, adding that the closest any munition round came to him was about one kilometer (0.62 miles).
According to Berna, it took time for the plaintiff to go public with his complaint as “he was in a state of bewilderment” for several months after the incident. “He was aware of what happened but the practice is so much institutionalized that despite the trauma he’d still normalize it,” he said.
The pilot is “still in shock” about what happened but “feels like he accomplished his duty” after he filed the complaint, his lawyer added. Berna said his client “never felt any support from the military,” and claimed to have “flagged the incident several times” internally. He is now also “worried of a reaction from the institution.” Spet said the air force command was only informed of “a potential hazing case” in January 2021, prompting an internal inquiry.
“It has been discovered that during a planned training mission on the Solenzara firing range, officers carried out a staged scene to give the impression to a young pilot that a plane was firing near him. These facts are unacceptable and totally in opposition with the values of respect and integrity that are advocated in the Air and Space Force,” Spet said. “The Air and Space Force condemns any activity that could damage the integrity, physical as well as psychological, of its personnel and the image of the institution,” his statement read.
He also said that “firm sanctions were therefore pronounced, including restriction to barracks, a serious sanction in an officer’s and pilot’s career.” Spet did not say how many people had received this punishment, or for how long. Under French law, restriction to barracks means the sanctioned soldier continues to work normally, but is not entitled to any leave or outings. “Very few officers have received such sanctions in the past, it will leave a stain on their career,” Spet said.
The pilot’s lawyer raised questions about the sanctions, claiming he had never been informed of them and was “willing to know more details” about them. “It shows how untouchable pilots are in the Air Force,” Berna said. “Any non-pilot doing the same would have faced severe sanctions,” he added. “They show the total impunity that exists in the Air Force,” he concluded.
The lawyer added that because of their extensive training, it’s possible the military would be more reluctant to fire a pilot. According to a 2018 report from French National Assembly’s Defense Committee, the training of a fighter pilot costs at least 400,000 euros (486,000 dollars) to the French state and only about 30 of them graduate each year.
According to Berna, who says he has already handled cases of harassment in the military, “practices of humiliating and even violent hazing” are common in the French Air Force. “But in this case, the use of military equipment, aircraft, also costs a fortune,” he added.
Spet said hazing was a serious offense and not something common within the Air Force. “What happened that day is not part of our training and the sole decision of a group of soldiers who were punished for their actions,” he added.
Berna told CNN his client was “no longer hoping for anything” in his military career, but “awaits for justice to recognize him as a victim.” “He hopes that the institution will put these institutionalized hazing practices to an end, for future recruits,” Berna concluded.