We had just landed at Jacksonville Naval Airstation in an SH-2f Seasprite helicopter and were making a long taxi on the ground to reach a spot where we would take off again for Mayport only 15 miles to the northeast.

The Pink Plane on the Flight Line

JAX is one of the most impressive military bases in Florida and a huge naval air station with one of the largest concrete aprons I had ever seen. It looked big enough to park 300 planes on easily. JAX was also the headquarters of the Navy’s Atlantic Air Wing and the hub of aviation anti-submarine warfare on the East Coast, so there were at least six squadrons of P-3 Orions stationed there. The four-engined Orion was made by Lockheed and was a deadly sub hunter that could stay in the air for more than 10 hours.

The planes were a feature on that airfield that day. At least a dozen could be seen in a paint scheme of gleaming white on top; their bellies gray underneath. Except for one, which looked like it had been painted pink from behind the wings to the tail. As we taxied by it I keyed the intercom, “Why do you suppose they painted it pink like that?”

I was still pretty green as an SAR aircrewman and I’d just stuck my foot in my mouth. There was a long pause and then the HAC (Helicopter Aircraft Commander) in the right seat said, “Looks like somebody walked into a spinning prop. It makes a pink mist.”

Pink Mist and Other Occupational Hazards of Military Service
A P-3 Orion from VP-30, the War Eagles flies over Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Pink Mist Has More Than One Meaning in the Military

These days, the term “pink mist” is most commonly associated with a sniper kill shot to the head, but in aviation, it speaks to one of the occupational hazards of serving in the military. Hazards so intrinsic in the day-to-day life of our servicemembers that OSHA regulations don’t even apply to them — they are exempt.

So how dangerous is military service? It depends on how you look at the numbers and count things. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the risk of death to the average worker in the private sector is expressed as about 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers.

A Centers for Disease Control study of military fatalities looked at death from all causes, between the years of 1980 to 1993, while serving. It found over 27,000 deaths and came up with a peak occupational fatality rate of 117.2 per 100,000 in 1983, which declined to 73.4 in 1993.

Furthermore, according to research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics performed for the period 2003-2008, it seems that the most frequent cause of non-aviation deaths are suicides and accidents involving military vehicles, explosives, parachuting, explosions, and accidental injuries from various causes that are related to working with heavy machinery like tanks, ships, planes, artillery.

Aircraft Incidents Take a Heavy Toll on the Military

Ground crews sensibly treat a spun-up helicopter as cautiously as they would a tooth extraction on Godzilla. This SH-2 from HSL-34 on the battleship Iowa (BB-61) is going to be secured to the deck while it waits to medivac a badly burned sailor in 1986. (Photo by PH1 Jeff Hilton/U.S. Navy)

Nevertheless, the primary cause of death to the resident military in that period was, by far, aircraft incidents, which accounted for 59 percent of the total.

Further, in the period between 2013 and 2020, military aviation accidents killed 224 pilots and aircrew, resulting in 186 aircraft destroyed, and a cost of more than $11.6 billion. For comparison’s sake, a Gerald Ford-class aircraft carrier has an air group of 75 aircraft. It’s like losing all those pilots and planes on that carrier 2.5 times. And since aircrews make up a relatively small part of the number serving the occupational risk is very high among such a small group. Hard numbers are difficult to nail down, but it’s on the order of 120 per 100,000.

But the next time you see the term “pink mist,” you might recall it has a gruesome application to the hazards of military aviation as well.