The 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation: A Unique Opportunity Missed.
“Its gonna be a big year at Oshkosh” That’s the slogan for this year’s Airventure. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, “it’s not the size it’s how you use it” and EAA has once again under-performed. Every month of every year, we hear how Airventure is the biggest most influential aviation event on the planet. But why is “big” important if it is never used for anything other than lip service. Amazingly, this year is no different and Airventure hasn’t even happened. In all honesty though, aviation itself is no better.
If you are a keen observer, you know that every potential action in the universe has one possible moment in time that would make it most effective or most powerful. In today’s language that’s known as “timing”. Perfect timing is rarely necessary for anything unless you are faced with a critical task that needs everything in its favor. Interplanetary satellites are a great example. You could fire them off any time of the day but the window for launching one to a successful rendezvous with a comet is finely defined. Ultimately, the harder the task the more time critical the most effective campaigns are. This brings me to the subject at hand; Naval Aviation.
I wonder, how many of you general aviation people have been reading about the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation since last year? My guess is that many have. Therefore, you were also likely filled with the anticipation of what the Navy would do to celebrate. Today, some of you may even be on boards of airshows that will be hosting the Navy as a premier act. If so, you’ve likely been promoting your celebration of the 100th anniversary of naval aviation for six months minimum. The rest of you meanwhile have been buying every magazine featuring a Navy plane in “heritage” colors and passing around every link about the anniversary that comes your way. There’s only one problem. Outside of Naval Aviation, The Navy hasn’t been a friend to aviation for some time, if ever. Saying that pains me. It really does. But it’s true.
How can it be that the great American Navy, with such an amazing history as a defender of freedom, could end up on the side of anyone other that the citizens it is supposed to defend? Were it Congress I wouldn’t be surprised, nor if it were the President; but the Navy? I apologize, I am ahead of myself.
You see, my father served on the carrier Randolph in WWII. When he passed away fifty-five years later, he still beamed of his time in the Navy. It was one of the great achievements of his life. His story of an Avenger capturing a wire still haunts me. Returning to the carrier after a mission against Japanese ships, it staggered onto the deck, jerked to a stop, and expelled a steady stream of blood through its destroyed belly glass. Stories like these speak volumes about the Navy’s history and what Naval Aviation has meant to our country. It also speaks of the courage and tenacity of the guys who flew these planes until they were so tired or damaged, the Navy pushed them overboard as trash. Courage, sacrifice, and a willingness to do what is right is how I was raised to see the Navy. And for the most part, that is the Navy. Yet, it’s not the Navy’s war record that concerns me.
Early this year, I began calling around and emailing various aviation historians to see what they knew of the final outcome of the world’s only known Douglas TBD Devastator, discovered off the coast of Florida in the 1990s. When the plane was found, it was a huge aviation story. At the time, none of these aircraft were known to have survived, primarily due to their ironically devastating losses in the Battle of Midway. The confirmed sighting thus brought cheers of surprise and joy to aviation nuts around the world.
The Douglas, found resting upright in relevantly good shape, was not of particular interest to the salvage company which found it. The treasure they were after was a Spanish Galleon. The rights to it therefore were soon sold to someone who greatly valued historic naval aircraft, Doug Champlin. One of aviation great collectors, Mr. Champlin wasted no time pursuing the submerged bird and began in earnest to retrieve it. Soon though, despite all of his efforts to save the plane, it became clear the Navy didn’t want him to have it. That did not stop him either.
Finally, after a long trail of paperwork and communications with the Navy, Doug Champlin came to believe they had purposely misled him about their intentions in the matter. That was the final straw and soon a battle royale to save the TBD, almost befitting of the battle in which most of them were lost, transpired. The official record from this is one of aviation legend and Naval Aviation disgrace.
Champlin, a guy with a deep desire to save threatened historic aircraft, did everything in his power to save this plane. And when he saw the situation going south, in order to save the plane, he even offered to give the prize to the Naval Museum in exchange for one of the many spare Wildcats they had in inventory. If the Navy had accepted, he would have used his own money to rescue the legend, recouped the expense through the acquisition of another valuable airframe, and a Devastator would be sitting in the museum today; basically a gift to the Navy with future generations as primary benefactors. Instead, at every step the Navy treated Mr. Champlin to malice and attitude.
Unwilling to back down, Champlin pursued and was able to get John McCain onboard his efforts. The Senator immediately recognized the lack of logic in the Navy’s policy toward abandonment of aircraft and did all he could to help. Yet in the end, the Navy won and the Devastator was left to rot. Yes, it was left to rot. But not before the battle turned into scandal.
The Naval Aviation Museum, it seems, was seen by its leaders as a personal toy box. This meant that nothing was to get in the way of any toys they wanted. When the battle for the Devastator began to include which salvage company would be allowed to raise it, the Navy found one it liked. So enamored were they with this company, they “sold” to it $11,000,000 (million) worth of C-130’s for $200,000. Again, things moved quickly except this time the Navy found itself under investigation. Amazingly though, the entire mess quickly disappeared into sealed depositions and quietly went away.
The complete story of the battle to save this one airplane would justify a book. Were it to exist, it would chronicle much that is wrong with government and how Navy bureaucracy has led it astray of its heritage. Clearly the Navy’s policy of claiming ownership of items scratched from inventory decades ago would be shown to be an outright insult to many. Among them would be the men who flew them, the people who built them, the taxpayers that paid for them, and modern citizens with a clear and present desire to save these treasures. Unfortunately, this policy is a sad chapter in Naval Aviation that goes on to this day.
This brings me back to beginning of the year when I began to contact historians in an effort to learn the final outcome of the Champlin Devastator story. Amazingly, all the hard-core, “nobody knows more” types, had no idea what ever became of it and most really didn’t seem to care. Are you starting to see why I said aviation is no better? Here were many of aviation’s finest, they didn’t care, and most seemed resolved to defeat.
That attitude kind of ticked me off and so I set out to contact people in the Navy to see if they might have an interest in changing their policy on salvaged aircraft. Being that they suddenly had a newfound love of their Naval Aviation History, I thought no time was better. Hey, there’s the timing.
My very first email was to the head of the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Vice Admiral Hoewing. This is exactly what I asked, “Vice Admiral Gerald Hoewing, can you tell me the ultimate fate of the TBD Devastator off the coast of Florida?” His only response was to have a subordinate answer my questions because as his carbon copied email said, “I don’t know who this is or what the agenda is, so I think you are better equipped to respond. Besides, I don’t know the answers.” Yep, that’s pretty much what I expected but the Captain who corresponded with me was nice enough to me, in so many words, the Navy intended to let the Miami Devastator rot as they didn’t want to open up any more lawsuits. And besides that, they had found others. “WHAT?” was my reaction. Sensing my excitement, he even had the guts to ask if I would be interested in contributing to the restoration. And although I kindly refused, due to their salvage policy, I have to admit I felt privileged to have been told this news at the time when very few people knew about. But ultimately, my mind could not escape from what I had heard. The Navy’s official attitude on the issue was we got ours so we no longer care.
Moving on, I then asked the Captain about Navy aircraft in the Great Lakes. To my astonishment, he told me that those would also never be salvaged since the Zebra Muscles had invaded and sped up the corrosion process. The only ones worth saving, according to him, were now in deep water. Stunned, I sat there again as the Navy admitted to me their efforts to keep others from rescuing these planes had led to their demise. It also did not seem to bother them at all. At least that’s the impression the Captain gave me. Unable to take it any longer, I politely asked him if he could see the lack of logic in all this, to which he responded, ‘most of the people at the museum feel although they should not be allowed to fly they should be allowed to be rescued’. That sounds good but there’s a problem with that. It cost money to raise these planes and a plane you can’t sell nor fly is worthless. I was then very politely pointed up the chain of command, almost sensing the Captain hoped I would succeed.
Back during Champlin’s efforts, one of the Navy’s key players expressed something that pretty much sums up the Navy’s attitude. “"The argument is made that the Navy is ignoring the planes and they're rusting, when private salvers and collectors could preserve them and show them off," acknowledges Captain Robert Rasmussen, director of the National Museum of Naval Aviation.”My counter to them is: 'You give me a sound plan to pull them up and maybe I'll let you do it and then loan it to you.' But that's not so attractive because they can't make any money out of it." Now, isn’t that one of the most condescending things you have ever heard? This guy is essentially saying,”How dare they make money saving history that I want in my toy box” while slathering his statement with strong undertones of elitism and class warfare. But do you suppose Mr. Rasmussen hated that his paycheck was paid for with tax revenue from people like Mr. Champlin? I seriously doubt it. Certainly, this statement makes it clear that the Navy had a major attitude problem and I believe they still do.
|I'm the Government. Do as you're told.|
In the minds of the Navy, sailors are up here, and the rest of you are down there. Remember that “Maybe I’ll let you do it and then loan it to you” statement. “You,” could be the person whose parents participated in scrap drives so the planes could be built and gas rations so the Navy would have power, having already lost a relative in the battle for the Pacific. But that never crosses their minds. Yet you know what? Despite all their bureaucratic arrogance, I don’t care about the people in the Navy that think this way. My problem is with aviation and its so called leaders.
The 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation was the perfect opportunity for aviation to stand its grounds and say “no more.” Yet it didn’t. Instead, everyone associated with flying chose to suck from the government tit, beg for the Navy to come to their events, and then promote them by any and all means available (Note: The Navy does these events to recruit new sailors and encourage tax expenditures). Across the nation, airshow boards giggled like children upon receiving confirmation the Blue Angles would attend their event. Advertising dollars flowed abundantly to promote the Navy’s “Heritage” paint schemes which were paid for with tax dollars our country doesn’t have. And immediately thereafter, warbird enthusiasts began forwarding Navy public relations photos with the subject line “Can’t wait to see them in person”. Yet none of those same people, none that I have met, ever stopped to consider all the brave citizens who took on the Navy to save a true piece of Navy Heritage and lost. Nobody in aviation seems to care.
Why? I’ll tell you why.
Airshows make money off the Navy as they pay their own way and they drive attendance numbers (read money). Therefore, they couldn’t care less. Pilots who surely have read the stories of the Navy’s malice toward civilian salvers conveniently forget because they want to get a “cool” photo to put on their smart phone home screen. Historians are so excited to have something new to write about, they all have selective amnesia. EAA’s sub-group Warbirds, perhaps the most blatant offender, doesn’t care because many of its leaders will get to fly with the modern Navy planes in airshows and get their names in print for doing so. And the rest of our groups, EAA, AOPA, and all the others, are running so scared they’ll even promote groups who have no interest in General Aviation, other than taking advantage of it, because they believe things are so bad they can’t afford to have principles.
Folks, I’m here to tell you, this is wrong. Today, rarely a moment is had where citizens aren’t complaining about the arrogance and out of touch leaders in Washington. Yet, when it comes to each citizen’s pet hobby or project, aviation in this case, they somehow manage to put those feelings aside. And as with our country, whatever path we may chose to pursue, we must do it with principle if we are to succeed. Kissing abusive fanny in exchange for photo ops is not acting with principle.
How many times have you said “If I were President of EAA, I would do ____”? Well if I were the President of EAA, I would have started last year encouraging airshows to not host naval planes and in exchange offered to do everything possible to promote those that agreed to it. I would then have used the power of “the biggest airshow” to tell the Navy we thought that the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation would be a great time for the them to change their ridiculous salvage policy (perfect timing for saving face) to allow private salvers to rescue and own these historic birds. To sweeten the pot, I would also have suggested that in order for people to rescue these machines, they would have to agree to paint, somewhere on the plane, a gracious recognition of the Navy along with the machines naval history record. The new owners would also be required to sign an agreement giving the Navy first rights of refusal on any sale. At that point, if the Navy didn’t agree, I would have refused their attendance at Oshkosh and set out to make sure every segment of aviation was reminded, to the fullest extent possible, of the Navy’s hypocrisy and irresponsibility toward that which we all as aviators strive to preserve, Aviation Heritage. But hey, money trumps logic. Therefore, you can expect to see the Navy in full force at Oshkosh.
Rod, if you’re listening, I was able to find out that the person you need to speak with is Admiral DeLoach at the Navy History and Heritage Command (NHHC) in the Washington Navy Yard. Maybe his response would be positive. Have you tried?
Here are two brief pieces about Champlin’s efforts. Neither of these comes close to telling the full story:
If you would like information about the TBD Devastator or Torpedo 8, click here. And here's a free video about Torpedo 8.
And finally, as a tribute to my father and the other great folks who served with him, click here for information on the Randolph, CV-15.
|Hellcat on the Randolph wearing Randolph tail markings.|