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Marking the 109th Anniversary of Naval Aviation Excellence

By Rear Adm. John Meier, Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic

U.S. Naval Aviation marks its early beginnings on May 8, 1911, with a purchase request made by Capt. Washington Irving Chambers for the Navy’s first aircraft. In the years leading up to World War I, pioneer aviators pushed the development of hydroaeroplanes and flying boats, turning them into effective tools for warfare and working to integrate Naval Aviation into the Navy’s mission to protect and control the seas.

The colorful history of Naval Aviation is filled with hundreds of unlikely milestones, linked through the years by imagination, innovation, and good fortune—all building on the hard-fought lessons and determination of daring pioneers.

Catapult launch of a C-2 flying boat from the USS North Carolina in Pensacola Bay. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

These lessons have
sharpened for me in the last week amid a whirlwind of change, as I find myself stepping
into the shoes of leaders who many of us have studied and tried to emulate
through the years.

Just one week ago
today, I assumed command of AIRLANT, when I relieved Rear Adm. Roy “Trigger”
Kelley as Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic in a small, but memorable ceremony
at AIRLANT headquarters on May 1. Talk about big shoes to fill: Trigger
superbly commanded AIRLANT for more than two years and is retiring after 36
years of Naval service.

So today, it’s most
fitting to step back and to commemorate a truly great day in our Naval Aviation
history: Our 109th birthday!

For starters, everyone
who knows Naval Aviation knows of the courage and exploits of Eugene Burton Ely,
who performed the first aircraft takeoff from the cruiser USS Birmingham anchored in the Chesapeake Bay
on November 14, 1910. The story goes he flew about three miles in less than
five minutes and set his plane down on a nearby beach. That pivotal takeoff
would lead to accomplishing the first carrier arrested landing on the cruiser
USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) in San Francisco Bay just two months later on January 18, 1911.

But few may know the name of the officer who proved to be the driving force in formally establishing Naval Aviation: Capt. Washington Irving Chambers—the first to have oversight of the Navy’s Aviation program. In fact, it was Chambers who arranged for that first takeoff and arrested landing by aviation pioneer Ely! Talk about aviation innovation at its best!

At the time, Secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke Meyer selected Chambers to determine the feasibility of Naval Aviation for military uses by the U.S. Navy bestowed upon him the responsibility for developing aviation in the Bureau of Navigation. Chambers prepared and submitted the first requisition for a Triad A-1 aircraft, and that airplane was purchased on May 8, 1911, thus officially marking the birth of Naval Aviation.

A hand-picked group of
aviators assisted Chambers in creating this defining program and came to be known
as the Navy’s first designated aviators, a cadre from which all Naval aviators
have followed in their stead.

Some of these follow-on pioneers included the likes of Cmdr. Theodore Ellyson, who was the first of these Navy-designated aviators. Initially serving as a submariner, Ellyson was ordered to North Island, Calif., for instruction in aviation under Glenn Curtiss, the founder of the U.S. aircraft industry. While stationed in North Island, Ellyson earned his wings and served as an experimental test pilot for the budding Naval Aviation program.

Lieutenants T. Ellyson (left) and J.H. Towers (right) in the A-2, Navy Triad. Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

Other pioneers who paved the way included Adm. John Towers, who fostered many organizational elements of Naval Aviation. Tower trained under the tutelage of Curtiss and Ellyson, and ultimately became the first aviator to reach the rank of admiral. During his distinguished career, Towers created the first official Naval Air Station and flying aviation unit at Greenbury Point, Maryland.

Still others, such as Lt.
Cmdr. Henry Mustin, distinguished themselves as pioneers. Mustin completed the
first catapult launch from the stern of the armored cruiser USS North Carolina (ACR-12) off the
coast of Pensacola, Florida. He was an outspoken proponent on the potential of
Naval Aviation and assisted in the design of seaplanes with his fellow naval
aviator, Kenneth Whiting. Every aviator who launches from a carrier today
follows in their hallowed footsteps and all of us recognize these pioneers
through the Air Stations that bear their names.

These aviators are just a handful of many who would define a century of innovation and triumph. The U.S. Navy has led a wild ride through the years, transitioning from sea planes launched from the back of warships to Super Hornets, propelled by twin turbofan engines, and finally to the cutting-edge stealth technology of our F-35. From the successes of our early aviators, we have defined an organization of Naval Aviation that has evolved as the Navy has matured in its mission of forward power projection.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 10, 2017) An F-35C Lightning II assigned to the “Rough Raiders” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 125 approaches the flight deck for landing during flight operations aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Juan Cubano)

As Naval Aviation expanded, so did the role of the squadron. That expansion paved the way for squadron designations that identify the functions of aviation within the fleet. On July 17, 1920, the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels prescribed a standard nomenclature for the types and classes of naval vessels and aircraft. It is from this that the letter “V” was first used to designate heavier-than-air aircraft. It is a designation still used in assigning carrier hull numbers.

On July 1, 1938, the term Air Group became official with the creation of Air Group Commander billets. Numerical designations of these Air Groups followed in 1942, with the first being Carrier Air Group Nine (CVG-9). These Carrier Air Groups became Carrier Air Wings in 1963. The unique culture of Naval Aviation has also matured alongside technology and organization. Our aviators continue to ride on that cutting edge of innovation and our nation continues to depend upon and to benefit from that evolution. 

PHILIPPINE SEA (May 4, 2020) Sailors brace, as an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the Wolf Pack of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 75 lands on the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG 59). Russell is deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Lynch)

Also, this month – on May 24 – the aviation industry will mark Aviation Maintenance Day. In the U.S. Navy, there is a long and proud history between aircraft air crew and ground crew. For instance, on Nov. 16, 1923, the Bureau of Aeronautics directed that all planes attached to vessels of the fleet were to be overhauled once every six months. The long linage of air crew and their ground crew were forever linked.

Navy Seaman Wolfgang Calero, left, and Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Amber Ballantine perform maintenance on the wing of an EA-18G Growler in the hangar bay on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Pacific Ocean, July 11, 2016. Calero, an airman, and Ballantine, an aviation structural mechanic, are assigned to Electronic Attack Squadron 136. Navy photo by Seaman Daniel P. Jackson Norgart

As the first CO of the Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), I am watching with great pride the tremendous progress the ship has made in the last several months. She’s now more than six months into her 18-month Post Delivery Test and Trials (PDT&T) phase of operations, and the ship has attained flight deck certification and conducted more than 2,300 catapult launches and arrested landings using state-of-the-art flight deck technology.

NORFOLK (Feb. 3, 2020) Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Alexis Lanier, from Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, assigned to the air department aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), folds the American flag as the ship gets underway. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Zack Guth/Released)

Beyond earth’s orbit,
one of the aviators who embraced innovation and powered aviation to new heights
in the 1960s was Neil Armstrong. Before he walked on the moon as an astronaut,
Armstrong was a Naval Aviator. He is only one of more than a hundred Naval
aviators who have become astronauts—one in a line of great pilots, who continue
to proudly represent the nation as a U.S. Naval aviator.

As our U.S. Navy propelled further, we saw other pioneers advance in Naval Aviation, such as Naval Reservist Lt. Cmdr. Kathryn P. Hire, who was selected for assignment to Patrol Squadron (VP) 62 on May 6, 1983 and became the Navy’s first woman to be eligible to compete for assignments in aircraft engaged in combat missions. Seven years later, on July 12, 1990, Cmdr. Rosemary B. Mariner relieved Cmdr. Charles H. Smith as commanding officer of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ-34), becoming the first woman to command an operational aviation squadron.

Such are the individual triumphs and collective successes that have defined Naval Aviation through the years. These are triumphs we celebrate not only on May 8th, but every day of the year.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (April 22, 2020) An EA-18G Growler assigned to the Rooks of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 137, left, and an F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Fighting Checkmates of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 211 launch from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) in the Atlantic Ocean, April 22, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Samuel Gruss/Released)

Finally, on this very day we mark the anniversary of Naval Aviation, is understanding the vital importance of our aircraft carriers. Our CVNs represent the most survivable air bases in the world. I expect that we work every opportunity to demonstrate the readiness, the lethality and the primary point that maneuver warfare is inherently naval. I believe that we are close to a point where CVNs will not be able to respond to our nation’s crises if force structure is further reduced or if we cannot increase the operational availability of these national assets. Operating these national assets are our people. For the people who have paved the way of Naval Aviation for the past 109 years, to those who stand the watch today, our people are in fact our greatest resource.  Our collective actions and deeds should reinforce that sentiment each and every day. 

Watch the video above to see how an F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to “Blacklions” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 213 launches from the flight deck of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) during flight operations March 24, 2020. (U.S. Navy video by Chief Mass Communication Specialist RJ Stratchko)

Naval Aviation Focuses on Maintaining Readiness

note: As the Program Executive Officer, Tactical Aircraft Programs, Rear Adm.
Shane Gahagan serves as the lead for the engineering reform pillar of the Naval
Sustainment System-Aviation. In his column below, he summarizes some of the process
improvements that are designed to sustain readiness.

By Rear Adm. Shane
Gahagan, PEO(T)

A week ahead of the Secretary of
Defense and Air Boss’ deadline, we surpassed an incredible milestone in Naval Aviation
in September exceeding 80% mission-capable (MC) F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and
EA-18G Growlers. That’s more than 341 Super Hornets and 93 Growlers ready
to fight the fight at a moment’s notice.

We have proven to ourselves, our
nation and our adversaries that we can surge in time of need. But our work’s
not done.

This feat was achieved by all hands
— from
maintainers on the deck plate to senior leaders — working together to achieve the same
goal using the six pillars of the Naval Sustainment System-Aviation
(NSS-A) initiative to identify and swarm the issues that kept our MC rates lower
than 80%. With NSS-A, we put the right people in the right places, equipped
with the right parts and the right processes and empowered them to achieve the

PHILIPPINE SEA (Aug. 17, 2019) Aviation Boatswain’s Mates (Fueling) move fuel hoses to refuel F/A-18E Super Hornets on the flight deck of the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) during flight operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Janweb B. Lagazo/Released)

Naval Aviation has always been
focused on readiness, but our Super Hornet MC numbers hovered around 250-260
for nearly a decade. That doesn’t mean we weren’t combat ready, Naval Aviation always
answered our nation’s call, but those numbers were not where we wanted them to
be. With the current increase in readiness numbers, we have increased our
lethality and survivability response.

We have institutionalized many
processes that will continue to improve readiness, and we are doing things better.
NSS-A efforts have been about challenging ourselves to work more efficiently.

The success of the NSS-A is a
product of years of lessons learned and a culmination of the hard work of many individuals
throughout the Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE). We brought in aviation experts
with demonstrated proficiency in improving efficiency, effectiveness and
performance from the commercial aircraft industry. By collaborating and implementing
their best practices, we have decreased turnaround times for maintenance, improved
efficiencies at fleet readiness centers (FRCs) and delivered parts to the fleet

We also set up an environment that allowed
open communication among the stakeholders, which allowed everybody to bring the
brutal facts necessary to find the root cause of why we were not getting
aircraft in a MC status.

ARABIAN SEA (Oct. 23, 2019) Two F/A-18E Super Hornets attached to Fist of the Fleet of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 25 launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Mohamed Labanieh/Released)

I want to summarize some of these
changes in each of the pillars that will sustain our MC rates for years to

Maintenance Operations Center (MOC)/Aircraft-On-Ground (AOG) cell: One
of the best industry practices we implemented was establishing an MOC/AOG cell.
This cell built strategic partnerships across Naval Aviation communities, focused
on getting aircraft up faster instead of focusing on departmentalized internal
metrics. This single-decision entity had all the enabling functions and
organizations present to make decisions on a daily basis, and all were focused
on the same goal.

Fleet Readiness Center (FRC) reform: Within the FRCs, we’ve created
elite-level organic facilities that have adopted proven commercial practices to
maximize quality and cost efficiency while minimizing cycle times.

Organization-level reform: The NAE refocused and balanced demand
with optimal maintenance performance close to the flight line by empowering
petty officers to oversee aircraft throughout the inspection process.

Supply chain reform: We are making sure that the right parts are at
the right place at the right time by having various stakeholders form a single
accountable entity responsible for the end-to-end material process. Naval
Supply Systems Command, Weapon Systems Support continues to improve the supply
chain with more responsive contracting, supplier integration, enhanced customer
presence and improved collaboration with the Defense Logistics Agency.

Engineering and maintenance reform: We have developed an
engineering-driven reliability process that improves how systems are sustained
throughout their life cycle. Reliability engineering is another industry best
practice applied through the establishment of a Reliability Control Board
(RCB). Through the RCB, we identify the top degraders in a single list and
strategically align activities throughout the NAE to prioritize and put the
right people, parts and processes in place to address them.

Governance, accountability and organization: We have a single point
of accountability for sustainment with the infrastructure to better support
fundamental changes. The governance pillar identified issues that each pillar
was having, and then swarmed, crushed the barriers and moved forward.

CORAL SEA (July 19, 2019) The Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) conducts flight operations during Talisman Sabre 2019.

These six pillars impact all aspects
of the maintenance process and require the expertise, experience and support of
each and every member of the Naval Aviation team. We have aligned how we
communicate and focus as one on the end game by identifying and solving the
issues that limited our number of MC aircraft.

Keep in mind that while we were
making these changes, we were continuing to fly, deploy and respond to national
tasking. Some of the changes were truly a cultural shift, which took time to
implement fleet-wide, but once the parts and processes were in place, we saw readiness
improve steadily.

These cultural shifts are becoming
the new normal for the fleet and the workforce, all of whom have bought into industry
best practices. Embracing and continuing to improve our processes remains key to
maintaining a MC rate of 80% or more.

Achieving the goal for the Super
Hornet and Growler fleets was just the beginning. Now, our focus is on keeping those
readiness numbers where we need them to be while improving readiness and safety
for each type/model/series.

While the initial focus of the
NSS-A was on the Super Hornets, we have already applied
it to the E-2D fleet and have seen an MC rate increase of more than 10% in
three months. We will continue to implement the NSS-A best practices across the

With the best practices implemented
under NSS-A, we have the tools and visibility to gauge our sustainment efforts
daily —
so if they aren’t working, we will readjust and swarm the problem areas
to maintain our sustainment levels.

Congratulations to the NAE on exceeding the goal and thank you for getting us there. As we move forward, it’s important to remember that we still have work to do—we now have the equally challenging task of sustaining these efforts.

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. (Sept. 24, 2019) Two U.S. Navy EA-18G Growlers based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, fly in formation awaiting fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 92nd Air Refueling Wing based at Fairchild Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr./Released)