Son Number One is back in Sandy Eggo, for to share the upcoming Thanksgiving festivities – my favorite holiday – with his clan. He went hence from Chez Lex to the local Flight Standards District Office, having completed his military competency test, to receive his civil ratings: Commercial & Instrument; Single Engine Land/Rotary Wing. Which is one more rating than I’ll ever get. Old dogs and new tricks, and those things go down. They go down. It’s the complexity in it.
A flight school classmate from Whiting Field joined him there at Montgomery Field. The FSDO at Pensacola apparently charges $90 for providing naval aviators their civilian ratings, which is odd for a government servant on full-time salary, whose paid work it is to service the certification requirements of airmen. I get that an FAA-certified examiner, who is not a government employee, charges for his time. I do not grok a civil servant playing the fiddle on the backs of recently winged naval aviators.
After they’d gotten their temporary airman certificates, we headed out to the ramp, to see if there was summat in the rotary wing stable which they could rent, and fly. The answer is, “no”, apparently. You could sign up as a student upgrading to a flight instructor ticket, but they rent neither pigs nor helicopters. The young men – they seem painfully young – ne’er the less trod the flight line, cooing and oohing at the various fling wing assets on the line. Bell 206s, roughly analogous to the TH-57s they’d flown in training. Robinson R-22s and R-44s. Other machines whose names I disremember.
Not out of disrespect, you understand. But out of ignorance. You can only know so much.
The torch is passed, the next generation rises to catch it. Which somehow put me in mind of those things I saw along the way.
When I was an ensign, the fleet flew Phantoms, Tomcats and Corsairs. I saw a Crusader in the break at NAS Fallon as lieutenant junior grade. The FA-18 Hornet, which was to be my alternate wife for twenty years, was still going through operational test. We had fourteen carriers in the fleet, 41 (Midway), 43 (Coral Sea), 59 (Forrestal), 60 (Saratoga), 61 (Ranger), 62 (Independence), 63 (Kitty Hawk), 64 (Constellation), 65 (Enterprise – our first nuke), 66 (America), 67 (Kennedy), 68 (Nimitz), 69 (Eisenhower), and 70 (Vinson). Throw the training command carrier qualification ship in – AVT-16 (Lexington, a World War II survivor) and we had fifteen capital ships.
Out of those fifteen carriers, eleven were oil burners. Now there are none of the old breed left, and of those eleven that remain, are all nukes. They are named almost entirely for politicians; 71 (Roosevelt), 72 (Lincoln), 73 (Washington), 74 (Stennis), 75 (Truman), 76 (Reagan), 77 (Bush), 78 (Ford). In the steamship days we used to content ourselves that some things would remain broken: The hot water heater when it was cold, the cold water when it was hot. Boilers got salted. Now things mostly work. Mostly.
In the fleet, anyway. If not Washington.
When I started flying fighters, we faced MiG-21s and -23s, and feared no man who flew. Then the MiG-29 Fulcrum came along, and we became thoughtful, at least in a close-in fight. Now the Fulcrum is yesterday’s news, and the fleet is more thoughtful still. We evolve, the threat evolves to meet us. We outweigh them across the globe, but they concentrate.
Our escorts included nuclear powered cruisers, who have gone the way of all flesh, even as their conventionally powered high value assets have themselves retired. Frigates flogged the littorals – they too are all but gone, in the process of being replaced at the low end by
corvettes Littoral Combat Ships. My first ship as a midshipman was the USS Nicholson (DD-982), a Spruance-class destroyer. She was the newest ship in the fleet when I joined her.
My career lasted longer.
We now have email of course, and web-browsing. Starbucks deliveries to the ship. Fresh vegetables routinely, CHT milk rarely. Command and control is via chat rather than voice circuits. The cell phones break out on the weather decks when we raise land. Much has improved.
But we used to have 15 fleet carriers and their escorts, and now we have nine. Next year, who knows?
We were once the leaders of the free world, and now we lead from behind. We seem prepared to reject those things which stiffened us, and embrace those things which soften us.
It started, I have to think, when we started naming our carriers after politicians rather than battles. Perhaps it wasn’t cause and effect – correlation does not equal causation. But it was right around then.
I left the young lieutenants junior grade to go have lunch together.
It’s their Navy now.