Source: Dr. Lehman was the 65th Secretary of the Navy and a member of the 9/11
Published in 2011 but worth the read if you have an interest in Naval Aviation or Military Aviation. Feel free to leave your thoughts!
Is Naval Aviation Culture Dead?
By John Lehman
The swaggering-flyer mystique forged over the past century has been stymied
in recent years by political correctness.
We celebrate the 100th anniversary of U.S. naval aviation this year, but the
culture that has become legend was born in controversy, with battleship
admirals and Marine generals seeing little use for airplanes. Even after
naval aviators proved their worth in World War I, naval aviation faced
constant conflict within the Navy and Marine Corps, from the War Department,
and from skeptics in Congress. Throughout the interwar period, its culture
was forged largely unnoted by the public.
It first burst into the American consciousness 69 years ago when a few
carrier aviators changed the course of history at the World War II Battle of
Midway. For the next three years the world was fascinated by these glamorous
young men who, along with the Leathernecks, dominated the newsreels of the
war in the Pacific. Most were sophisticated and articulate graduates of the
Naval Academy and the Ivy League, and as such they were much favored for
Pathé News interviews and War Bond tours. Their casualty rates from
accidents and combat were far higher than other branches of the naval
service, and aviators were paid nearly a third more than non-flying
shipmates. In typical humor, a pilot told one reporter: “We don’t make more
money, we just make it faster.”
Landing a touchy World War II fighter on terra firma was difficult enough,
but to land one on a pitching greasy deck required quite a different level
of skill and sangfroid. It took a rare combination of hand-eye coordination,
innate mechanical sense, instinctive judgment, accurate risk assessment, and
most of all, calmness under extreme pressure. People with such a rare
combination of talents will always be few in number. The current generation
of 9-G jets landing at over 120 knots hasn’t made it any easier.
Little wonder that poker was a favorite recreation and gallows humor the
norm. In his book Crossing the Line, Professor Alvin Kernan recounts when
his TBF had a bad launch off the USS Suwanee (CVE-27) in 1945. He was trying
desperately to get out of the sinking plane as the escort carrier sped by a
few feet away. Looking up, he saw the face of his shipmate, Cletus Powell
(who had just won money from him playing blackjack), leaning out of a
porthole shouting “Kernan, you don’t have to pay. Get out, get out for God’s
sake.” No wonder such men had a certain swagger that often irritated their
non-flying brothers in arms.
Louis Johnson’s Folly
By war’s end more than 100 carriers were in commission. But when Louis
Johnson replaced the first Secretary of Defense, Jim Forrestal—himself one
of the original naval aviators in World War I—he tried to eliminate both the
Marine Corps and naval aviation. By 1950 Johnson had ordered the
decommissioning of all but six aircraft carriers. Most historians count this
as one of the important factors in bringing about the invasion of South
Korea, supported by both China and the Soviet Union. After that initial
onslaught, no land airbases were available for the Air Force to fight back,
and all air support during those disastrous months came from the USS Valley
Forge (CV-45), the only carrier left in the western Pacific. She was soon
joined by the other two carriers remaining in the Pacific.
Eventually enough land bases were recovered to allow the Air Force to engage
in force, and more carriers were recommissioned, manned by World War II vets
hastily recalled to active duty. James Michener’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri and
Admiral James Holloway’s Aircraft Carriers at War together capture that
moment perfectly. Only later was it learned that many of the enemy pilots
were battle-hardened Russian veterans of World War II.
By the time of the armistice, the Cold War was well under way, and for the
next 43 years, naval aviation was at the leading edge of the conflict around
the globe. As before, aviators suffered very high casualties throughout.
Training and operational accidents took a terrible toll. Jet fighters on
straight decks operating without the sophisticated electronics or reliable
ejection seats that evolved in later decades had to operate come hell or
high water as one crisis followed another in the Taiwan Strait, Cuba, and
many lesser-known fronts. Between1953 and 1957, hundreds of naval aviators
were killed in an average of 1,500 crashes per year, while others died when
naval intelligence gatherers like the EC-121 were shot down by North
Koreans, Soviets, and Chinese. In those years carrier aviators had only a
one-in-four chance of surviving 20 years of service.
Vietnam and the Cold War
The Vietnam War was an unprecedented feat of endurance, courage, and
frustration in ten years of constant combat. Naval aviators flew against the
most sophisticated Soviet defensive systems and highly trained and effective
Vietnamese pilots. But unlike any previous conflict, they had to operate
under crippling political restrictions, well known to the enemy.
Antiaircraft missiles and guns were placed in villages and other locations
known to be immune from attack. The kinds of targets that had real strategic
value were protected while hundreds of aviators’ lives and thousands of
aircraft were lost attacking easily rebuilt bridges and “suspected truck
parks,” as the U.S. government indulged its academic game theories.
Stephen Coonts’ Flight of the Intruder brilliantly expressed the
excruciating frustration from this kind of combat. During that period,
scores of naval aviators were killed or taken prisoner. More than 100
squadron commanders and executive officers were lost. The heroism and horror
of the POW experience for men such as John McCain and Jim Stockdale were
beyond anything experienced since the war with Japan.
Naturally, when these men hit liberty ports, and when they returned to their
bases between deployments, their partying was as intense as their combat.
The legendary stories of Cubi Point, Olongapo City, and the wartime Tailhook
conventions in Las Vegas grew with each passing year.
Perhaps the greatest and least known contribution of naval aviation was its
role in bringing the Cold War to a close. President Ronald Reagan believed
that the United States could win the Cold War without combat. Along with
building the B-1 and B-2 bombers and the Peacekeeper missile, and expanding
the Army to 18 divisions, President Reagan built the 600-ship Navy and, more
important, approved the Navy recommendation to begin at once pursuing a
forward strategy of aggressive exercising around the vulnerable coasts of
Russia. This demonstrated to the Soviets that we could defeat the combined
Warsaw Pact navies and use the seas to strike and destroy their vital
strategic assets with carrier-based air power.
Nine months after the President’s inauguration, three U.S. and two Royal
Navy carriers executed offensive exercises in the Norwegian Sea and Baltic.
In this and subsequent massive exercises there and in the northwest Pacific
carried out every year, carrier aircraft proved that they could operate
effectively in ice and fog, penetrate the best defenses, and strike all of
the bases and nodes of the Soviet strategic nuclear fleet. Subsequent
testimony from members of the Soviet General Staff attested that this was a
major factor in the deliberations and the loss of confidence in the Soviet
government that led to its collapse.
During those years naval aviation adapted to many new policies, the removal
of the last vestiges of institutional racial discrimination, and the first
winging of women as naval aviators and their integration into ships and
‘Break the Culture’
1991 marked the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War.
But as naval aviation shared in this triumph, the year also marked the start
of tragedy. The Tailhook Convention that took place in September that year
began a scandal with a negative impact on naval aviation that continues to
this day. The over-the-top parties of combat aviators were overlooked during
the Vietnam War but had become accidents waiting to happen in the postwar
Whatever the facts of what took place there, it set off investigations
within the Navy, the Department of Defense, the Senate, and the House that
were beyond anything since the investigations and hearings regarding the
Pearl Harbor attack. Part of what motivated this grotesquely
disproportionate witch hunt was pure partisan politics and the deep
frustration of Navy critics (and some envious begrudgers within the Navy) of
the glamorous treatment accorded to the Navy and its aviators in Hollywood
and the media, epitomized by the movie Top Gun. Patricia Schroeder (D-CO),
chair of the House Armed Services Committee investigation, declared that her
mission was to “break the culture,” of naval aviation. One can make the case
that she succeeded.
What has changed in naval aviation since Tailhook? First, we should review
the social/cultural, and then professional changes. Many but not all were
direct results of Tailhook.
‘De-Glamorization’ of Alcohol
Perhaps in desperation, the first reaction of Pentagon leadership to the
congressional witch hunt was to launch a massive global jihad against
alcohol, tellingly described as “de-glamorization.” While alcohol was
certainly a factor in the Tailhook scandal, it was absolutely not a problem
for naval aviation as a whole. There was no evidence that there were any
more aviators with an alcohol problem than there were in the civilian
population, and probably a good deal fewer.
As a group, naval aviators have always been fastidious about not mixing
alcohol and flying. But social drinking was always a part of off-duty
traditional activities like hail-and-farewell parties and especially the
traditional Friday happy hour. Each Friday on every Navy and Marine air
station, most aviators not on duty turned up at the officers’ club at 1700
to relax and socialize, tell bad jokes, and play silly games like “dead
bug.” But there was also an invaluable professional function, because happy
hours provided a kind of sanctuary where junior officers could roll the dice
with commanders, captains, and admirals, ask questions that could never be
asked while on duty, listen avidly to the war stories of those more senior,
and absorb the lore and mores of the warrior tribe.
When bounds of decorum were breached, or someone became over-refreshed, as
occasionally happened, they were usually taken care of by their peers. Only
in the worst cases would a young junior officer find himself in front of the
skipper on Monday morning. Names like Mustin Beach, Trader Jon’s, Miramar,
and Oceana were a fixed part of the culture for anyone commissioned before
1991. A similar camaraderie took place in the chiefs’ clubs, the acey-deucy
clubs, and the sailors’ clubs.
Now all that is gone. Most officers’ and non-commissioned officers’ clubs
were closed and happy hours banned. A few clubs remain, but most have been
turned into family centers for all ranks and are, of course, empty. No
officers dare to be seen with a drink in their hand. The JOs do their
socializing as far away from the base as possible, and all because the
inquisitors blamed the abuses of Tailhook ’91 on alcohol abuse. It is fair
to say that naval aviation was slow to adapt to the changes in society
against alcohol abuse and that corrections were overdue, especially against
tolerance of driving while under the influence.
But once standards of common sense were ignored in favor of political
correctness, there were no limits to the spread of its domination. Not only
have alcohol infractions anonymously reported on the hot-line become
career-enders, but suspicions of sexual harassment, homophobia, telling of
risqué jokes, and speech likely to offend favored groups all find their way
into fitness reports. And if actual hot-line investigations are then
launched, that is usually the end of a career, regardless of the outcome.
There is now zero-tolerance for any missteps in these areas.
Turning Warriors into Bureaucrats
On the professional side, it is not only the zero-tolerance of infractions
of political correctness but the smothering effects of the explosive growth
of bureaucracy in the Pentagon. When the Department of Defense was created
in 1947, the headquarters staff was limited to 50 billets. Today, 750,000
full time equivalents are on the headquarters staff. This has gradually
expanded the time and cost of producing weapon systems, from the 4 years
from concept to deployment of Polaris, to the projected 24 years of the
But even more damaging, these congressionally created new bureaucracies are
demanding more and more meaningless paperwork from the operating forces.
According to the most recent rigorous survey, each Navy squadron must
prepare and submit some 780 different written reports annually, most of
which are never read by anyone but still require tedious gathering of every
kind of statistic for every aspect of squadron operations. As a result, the
average aviator spends a very small fraction of his or her time on duty
Job satisfaction has steadily declined. In addition to paperwork, the
bureaucracy now requires officers to attend mandatory courses in sensitivity
to women’s issues, sensitivity and integration of openly homosexual
personnel, and how to reintegrate into civilian society when leaving active
duty. This of course is perceived as a massive waste of time by aviators,
and is offensive to them in the inherent assumption that they are no longer
officers and gentlemen but coarse brutes who will abuse women and gays, and
not know how to dress or hold a fork in civilian society unless taught by
One of the greatest career burdens added to naval aviators since the Cold
War has been the Goldwater-Nichols requirement to have served at least four
years of duty on a joint staff to be considered for flag, and for junior
officers to have at least two years of such joint duty even to screen for
command. As a result, the joint staffs in Washington and in all the
combatant commands have had to be vastly increased to make room. In
addition, nearly 250 new Joint Task Force staffs have been created to
accommodate these requirements. Thus, when thinking about staying in or
getting out, young Navy and Marine aviators look forward to far less flight
time when not deployed, far more paperwork, and many years of boring staff
Zero-Tolerance Is Intolerable
Far more damaging than bureaucratic bloat is the intolerable policy of
“zero-tolerance” applied by the Navy and the Marine Corps. One strike, one
mistake, one DUI, and you are out. The Navy has produced great leaders
throughout its history. In every era the majority of naval officers are
competent but not outstanding. But there has always been a critical mass of
fine leaders. They tended to search for and recognize the qualities making
up the right stuff, as young JOs looked up the chain and emulated the top
leaders, while the seniors in turn looked down and identified and mentored
youngsters with promise.
By nature, these kinds of war-winning leaders make mistakes when they are
young and need guidance—and often protection from the system. Today, alas,
there is much evidence that this critical mass of such leaders is being
lost. Chester Nimitz put his whole squadron of destroyers on the rocks by
making mistakes. But while being put in purgatory for a while, he was
protected by those seniors who recognized a potential great leader. In
today’s Navy, Nimitz would be gone. Any seniors trying to protect him would
themselves be accused of a career-ending cover-up.
Because the best aviators are calculated risk-takers, they have always been
particularly vulnerable to the system. But now in the age of political
correctness and zero-tolerance, they are becoming an endangered species.
Today, a young officer with the right stuff is faced on commissioning with
making a ten-year commitment if he or she wants to fly, which weeds out some
with the best potential. Then after winging and an operational squadron
tour, they know well the frustrations outlined here. They have seen many of
their role models bounced out of the Navy for the bad luck of being
breathalyzed after two beers, or allowing risqué forecastle follies.
‘Dancing on the Edge of a Cliff’
They have not seen senior officers put their own careers on the line to
prevent injustice. They see before them at least 14 years of sea duty,
interspersed with six years of bureaucratic staff duty in order to be
considered for flag rank. And now they see all that family separation and
sacrifice as equal to dancing on the edge of a cliff. One mistake or unjust
accusation, and they are over. They can no longer count on a sea-daddy
coming to their defense.
Today, the right kind of officers with the right stuff still decide to stay
for a career, but many more are putting in their letters in numbers that
make a critical mass of future stellar leaders impossible. In today’s
economic environment, retention numbers look okay, but those statistics are
Much hand-wringing is being done among naval aviators (active-duty, reserve,
and retired) about the remarkable fact that there has only been one aviator
chosen as Chief of Naval Operations during the past 30 years. For most of
the last century there were always enough outstanding leaders among
aviators, submariners, and surface warriors to ensure a rough rotation among
the communities when choosing a CNO. The causes of this sudden change are
not hard to see. Vietnam aviator losses severely thinned the ranks of
leaders and mentors; Tailhook led to the forced or voluntary retirement of
more than 300 carrier aviators, including many of the finest, like Bob
Stumpf, former skipper of the Blue Angels.
There are, of course, the armchair strategists and think-tankers who herald
the arrival of unmanned aerial vehicles as eliminating the need for naval
aviators and their culture, since future naval flying will be done from
unified bases in Nevada, with operators requiring a culture rather closer
computer geeks. This is unlikely.
As the aviator culture fades from the Navy, what is being lost? Great naval
leaders have and will come from each of the communities, and have absorbed
virtues from all of them. But each of the three communities has its unique
cultural attributes. Submariners are imbued with the precision of
engineering mastery and the chess players’ adherence to the disciplines of
the long game; surface sailors retain the legacy of John Paul Jones, David
G. Farragut and Arleigh “31 Knot” Burke, and have been the principal
repository of strategic thinking and planning. Aviators have been the
principal source of offensive thinking, best described by Napoleon as
“L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” (Audacity, audacity, always
Those attributes of naval aviators—willingness to take intelligent
calculated risk, self-confidence, even a certain swagger—that are invaluable
in wartime are the very ones that make them particularly vulnerable in
today’s zero-tolerance Navy. The political correctness thought police, like
Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, are out to get them and are relentless.
The history of naval aviation is one of constant change and challenge. While
the current era of bureaucracy and political correctness, with its new
requirements of integrating women and openly gay individuals, is indeed
challenging, it can be dealt with without compromising naval excellence. But
what does truly challenge the future of the naval services is the mindless
pursuit of zero-tolerance. A Navy led by men and women who have never made a
serious mistake will be a Navy that will fail.
Dr. Lehman was the 65th Secretary of the Navy and a member of the 9/11