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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fly Navy’

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FLY NAVY: DISCOVERING THE EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE AND ENDURING SPIRIT OF NAVAL AVIATION
By Alvin Townley
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press,
$25.99, 314 pages

For real-world adventure and excitement surrounding people from all backgrounds, income and education, and to learn lessons that will stick for life, this book is on-target. Piloting a Navy aircraft on and off an aircraft carrier, or helping to fly one, becoming an aircraft maintainer or working on the deck of an aircraft carrier - it's all here. Vignettes about combat and finding - and then landing - on an aircraft carrier in bad weather at night, with no airfield a-shore available, is here, too.

Not neglected are tales about the camaraderie among the enlisted flight deck and maintenance personnel and the aircrews. There are stories of men and women from all walks of life who come together and excel, all bound together by training and tradition into one all-American team believing in honor, courage and commitment - the ethos of the 21st century Navy.

The story begins 100 years ago when a few individuals saw that, one day, the Navy would have use for aviation at sea. It proceeds through Pensacola, Fla., "the cradle of naval aviation," and on into the fleet. In the fleet, there are long periods on a carrier away from home, sometimes in combat, but always joyous homecomings.

Included are stories of a World War II fighter pilot, the Corsair pilot in Korea who crashed his aircraft behind enemy lines to save a downed shipmate and flights from carriers in the Arabian Sea supporting troops in Afghanistan. There's the grizzled "old" chief at age 36 who mentors the 19- and 20-year-olds in his charge as they work in the hectic, noisy, dangerous environment of an aircraft carrier flight deck filled with whirling propellers, noisy and powerful jet engines, helicopter rotors, blasting catapults and arresting gear.

We read of what it takes to be a Blue Angel and the story of what it took for Alan Shepard to become the first American astronaut. Fascinating are the stories of the families left at home, the training, training and more training of the squadrons, officers and enlisted personnel alike. Included is a fresh view of what "Maverick" of "Top Gun" fame was really like and how the once-maligned Tailhook convention has become so much more professional.

Lesser known accomplishments of the carrier Navy also are brought out. Providing assistance to the stricken people of Haiti after the disastrous earthquake in January 2010 is one such example. Helicopter rescues, on occasions almost too numerous to count, are others.

There are downsides, too. Aircraft crash and shipmates are lost. In combat, aircraft are hit and aircrews taken prisoner. The story of Jim Stockdale and the Hanoi Hilton is appropriately included.

Unfortunately, along with spellbinding vignettes come some regrettable inaccuracies. In this centennial year of naval aviation, there should have been more attention paid to historical accuracy. For example, Adm. John Towers was indeed naval aviator No. 2, but he did not establish Pensacola as the base for naval aviation training. Henry C. Mustin did that. By emphasizing Towers, who needs no special emphasizing, he neglects such early heroes as Theodore Ellyson, naval aviator No. 1, (who made the first catapult launch) and H.C. Richardson, a naval constructor who was in essence the first aeronautical engineer in the Navy.

The author repeats the tiresome shibboleth that "battleship admirals" were dead-set against introducing aviation to the Navy. In fact, among others, it was Washington Chambers, William Moffett and Joseph Reeves, all former battleship commanding officers, who were instrumental in making naval aviation part of the fleet, and it was the latter two who shepherded carriers to the point where they became the centerpiece of the Navy.

Then, there's the title of the book: "Fly Navy." It's a great title, but it should more appropriately be, "Fly from a Carrier." Except for one vignette about a P-3 Orion naval flight officer instructing in Pensacola, there's precious little about patrol aviation, a vital part of naval aviation. There is one chapter about Navy helicopter aviation but a book titled "Fly Navy" should have a lot more. Fifty-five percent of active duty naval aviators are helicopter pilots.

Even worse, the author acknowledges early on that Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviators are also naval aviators, then ignores them. If discovering, "the extraordinary people and the enduring spirit of Naval Aviation," is the purpose of the book as his subtitle states, by minimizing the contributions of the helicopter and ignoring Marines, Coast Guard and the patrol force, his purpose has been missed.

Nevertheless, the vignettes are personal and engaging and they paint a vivid picture of life in the aircraft-carrier Navy. If one is content with the description of the way things are on carriers today and not their history, it's a worthwhile read.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn was a carrier pilot. He is president of the Naval Historical Foundation.

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