The Wise Report: Aviation Patches – A psychoanalysis

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Fighter pilots are essentially the same as peacocks. They strut around, making loud noises, always trying to attract the attention of sexual partners and, notably, the one with the most decorative appearance ends up mating the most, or so I’m told. Whether or not they are useful as house guards remains to be seen.

Such decorations take many forms. The pair of aviators is, of course, essential, as is the overly-large watch – far too big for practical time-telling but a clear sartorial choice designed to demonstrate his or her ‘pilotness’. But largely the fighter pilot’s presentation is uniform by necessity, the role demanding a specific get-up with very little room for individual flair, short of maybe a rolled sleeve or slightly zipped-down neck here or there.

So how does a pilot make them self stand out from the others? The clearest way an individual can distinguish them self is through the use of the patch. Aviation patches are ubiquitous. At their base level they are meant to do no more than mark out the wearer as belonging to a particular squadron, wing or service. These tend to be quite plain in appearance, utilitarian and functional and do little to serve the pilot’s ego. The aviator’s id craves individualism, breaking the mould inflicted on them, so the patches turn more illustrative.

They seek designs for a look that marks them out as “special” in an attempt to gain more favour and attention than their peers. These encompass a range of themes: sometimes defiant, sometimes expressing pride or achievement, sometimes comical, occasionally even veering toward the nihilistic.


These whimsical patches are a clear expression of the sublimation defence mechanism. No fighter pilot wants to go with the flow – the machismo and libido demands they are the top of the hill, unique in their field, and this is naturally at odds with the uniformity and structure that a military life places on them. Non-standard patches provide a useful outlet for this conflict. The choice of subject and style is a clear subconscious signal of the state of the ego-superego conflict within the individual at any given time.

Take the demonstrations of success. It can be hours logged, operations taken part in, anniversaries met, particular qualifications obtained. Obviously none of these are required for the successful completion of their role, so we must ask ​why​ they are worn. Narcissism is a well-known trait in the fighter pilot, perhaps even a necessity (hence Top Gun’s volleyball scenes), so clearly the external display inherent in these patches is a demand for the attention and approval of others, suggesting a significant degree of insecurity – triggered, perhaps, by fierce competition in the arena?


How about the comical patches then? Often derogatory of their work and even themselves, this humour can only be defined as a deflection from internal pain. It’s a sad fact that most pilots – military ones especially – spend almost all of their time on the ground. On a conscious level they would tell you that this is an unnatural state of affairs and that they belong in the sky – but subconsciously they know, of course, that they will always be limited in their dream to take flight. A lackadaisical projection is the obvious result, producing some often truly awful jokey patches.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect to aviation patches, though, is the Collector. Hunting down rare examples, hoovering them up at airshows, sometimes going as far as to even wear​ them, those guys are impossible to explain. Something about phalluses and their mothers, most likely.

— Sam Wise 


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