Gear Up, Mishaps Down: The Evolution of Naval Aviation Safety, 1950-2000

By Mahaffey, John L. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

Gear Up, Mishaps Down: The Evolution of Naval Aviation Safety, 1950-2000


Mahaffey, John L., Air & Space Power Journal


Gear Up, Mishaps Down: The Evolution of Naval Aviation Safety, 1950-2000 by Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn, USN, Retired. Naval Institute Press, 2017, 204 pp.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed or implied in the Journal are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government. This article may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission. If it is reproduced, the Air and Space Power Journal requests a courtesy line.

Gear Up, Mishaps Down, The Evolution of Naval Aviation Safety is a first-person historical account of the evolution of flight safety for US Navy aviation during the period 1950 to 2000. My initial interest was due in no small part to a personal connection with the subject. My father was a naval aviator and a Naval Air Training and Operations Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) safety officer for several naval air stations where we were assigned while I was growing up. As a youngster, I was keenly aware and very proud of what my father did as a naval officer and an aviator.

My first inkling of his role as a safety officer was an award presented to him by his fellow aviators and maintainers from Naval Air Station Twin Cities (now the Minneapolis-St. Paul Joint Air Reserve Station) in Minneapolis, Minnesota and proudly displayed in our recreation room. The award was a self-made tomahawk, inscribed with the words "NATOPS is a tool, not a weapon." As a boy, I thought the tomahawk was very cool but NATOPS? Not so much.

Later in life, as a US Air Force rated officer I was able to discuss my father's work and experience, comparing to my own, ultimately realizing a better understanding of the meaning of the phrase, "a tool, not a weapon." While my father's knowledge was first-person, specific to his own experience, the big picture of naval aviation flight safety and its evolution was still somewhat nebulous. The why, where, who, and how was still unresolved. Admiral Dunn's book, Gear Up, Mishaps Down, The Evolution of Naval Aviation Safety, succinctly answers those questions and more.

As a combat-tested aviator, former commander of the Naval Safety Center and a member of National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Government Services Administration advisory panels on flight safety, certainly qualifies Admiral Dunn as an expert on the subject of flight safety. I'm certain he can quote chapter and verse the various safety programs and regulations that are now deeply interwoven in military and indeed civil aviation. What makes his book different is the author's ability to describe with detail, historical, technological, cultural and political benchmarks and their impact of the development of the US Navy flight safety program.

Those familiar with military aviation know flight safety permeates virtually every aspect of the process, from training to operations to maintenance. Every aspect of aviation is addressed in some way through training and qualification, emergency checklists, and technical orders. Every procedure is approved and documented, from towing an aircraft on the ground to restarting its engine midair to when and how to bail out or crash land when all other options are exhausted. Aviators are constantly subjected to safety training and processes, operational risk assessment, and the maintenance of the equipment required to fly effectively. Over time, these procedures and requirements become second nature, part of the "muscle memory" of aviation operations.

It wasn't always this way. Admiral Dunn's book provides a partial history of post-World War II naval aviation safety, describing a stark and dangerous profession, unforgiving of errors, and without standardized direction and guidance. The "fly by the seat of your pants" and "get the job done" mentality that made US naval aviation a lethal force against adversaries during the war continued killing its own afterward. …

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