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

  • Published

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.

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 partial history of postworld war two 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. In the chapter, difficult days, the book recounts the loss of an entire squadron of 22 aircraft during one deployment, an unacceptable statistic in aviation today.

As an historical accounting, the book does an admirable job of identifying the technical, cultural, and political issues that drove the need for enhanced and standardized flight safety. The author addresses the full range of issues affecting the naval aviation from a holistic point of view. The advent of jet-powered aircraft drove the need for improved carrier systems such as catapults, visual aids, and modifications to accept launch and recover more and faster aircraft. As examples, the book recounts the evolution of the steam catapult, the angled deck, and the optimal landing system, sometimes referred to as the meat ball, or ball.

The book further addresses issues related to a cultural shift in the way aviators and maintainers operated. As tradition, the maintenance of the aircraft was assigned to the senior chief. The senior chief ensured the aircraft were ready to fly whenever required. To do this, the senior chiefs maintained their own records, sometimes trading other squadrons and ships for the parts required to keep their aircraft in the air. While this “get the job done” culture was admirable and even necessary, it failed to standardize aircraft maintenance management across the fleet.

Nowhere else was the cultural shift away from individual initiative to higher-level direction and guidance more evident than with the aviators themselves. From the start of ab-initio training, aviators are taught to innovate and adapt their tactics and procedures to meet the current situation. The image of the lone aviator, patrolling the skies in search of the adversary is branded on every military aviator that takes to the sky. As a culture, aviators are individuals who value initiative and chafe at management, especially management sitting safely at a desk thousands of miles away. 

Admiral Dunn does an excellent job describing this cultural shift using examples of accident investigations, organizational changes and improved training such as the NATOPS program. The book further describes the political issues that affected naval aviation immediately after the war, continuing up to the next century. While not as visible as technology and culture, shifts in policy have had significant impact on the community and the capability. Among the political issues described was the natural competition between the Navy and the Air Force. Admiral Dunn noted Air Force leadership in the implementation of service-wide flight safety procedures and the Navy’s initial resistance to implementation of the same, a result of the “not invented here” culture.

The author further noted the political battle for development carrier aviation during the early 1950s in the face of an Air Force growing in size and influence, especially with regard to nuclear warfare. Matching the strategic Air Force required the fielding of heavier aircraft, capable of carrying the large nuclear weapons of the day from a carrier at sea. Aircraft such as the A-3 Skywarrior and the AJ Savage required larger carriers, equipped with stronger flight decks and more powerful catapults. In many ways, the political issues associated with naval aviation drove flight safely more than technology or culture.

Over the years, I’ve worked and flown with a multitude of military aviators. Each has their own stories of “that time” when a vital system failed, the weather closed in suddenly, or someone in the air or on the ground made a procedural error. In each case, the aviator recounted the use of established procedures to address and mitigate the problem. These procedures, developed by scientists, engineers, and aviators, were subjected to extensive testing and validation before being promulgated.  

One aviator however, said something that sticks with me today; “safety procedures are written in blood.” That statement well describes the message of Gear Up, Mishaps Down, The Evolution of Naval Aviation Safety. Throughout his book, Admiral Dunn effectively describes the two-decade challenge of US Navy Flight Safety battered by technological, cultural, and political change to become a successful and vital living program.



Dr. John L. Mahaffey
NATO Communications and Information Agency
The Hague, Netherlands


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."