June 12, 2011 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
I feel the need . . . the need for speed.-- Maverick, "Top Gun" (1986)
You can't call yourself really alive if the flying scenes in "Top Gun" don't put you on the edge of your seat, pulse racing, goose bumps forming, the hair standing on the back of your neck.
In fact, it's kinda fitting that the 25th anniversary of the blockbuster film, which brought the living-on-the-edge world of the hotshot Navy jet jock to America's attention, comes in the same year as the 100th anniversary of naval aviation.
Try landing a 30-ton fighter jet on the rolling deck of an aircraft carrier . . . on a moonless night . . . in bad weather . . . in the middle of the ocean . . . far from home.
No matter what anyone says: Nothing quite measures up. No wonder naval aviators are given "Wings of Gold."
In fact, some equate a jet carrier landing to a "controlled crash," going from 150 mph to full stop in two seconds. Take-off Gs push you back in your seat as the plane is hurled off the ship's "pointy end," accelerating from 0 to 150 mph just as quickly.
It's not much better for prop cargo and surveillance planes that land on those 90,000 tons of sovereign US territory, or for the workhorse Navy helos that jump from one postage-stamp-like ship landing deck to another.
The Marines, who operate both from land and at sea in a variety of aircraft, provide unmatched nap-of-the-earth flying and close air support to their ground-pounding fellow warriors.
But it's not just what the men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps are so bravely doing today. Naval aviation's story isn't just 100 years long, it's deeply entrenched in the history of our great nation.
Way back in 1898, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt recommended to his boss that they take a look at newfangled flying machines for their potential in war.
Of course, with ships being the Navy's heart and soul, it wasn't love at first sight. In 1910, Big Navy told the head of naval aviation those aeroplanes "don't merit funding," according to the Navy's historians.
The fleet didn't pay much attention; the same year, it launched a Curtiss "Hudson" Flyer off the armored cruiser USS Birmingham.
In 1911, the first landing was made aboard USS Pennsylvania while in San Francisco Bay -- followed by a takeoff. Talk about guts!
Wasting no time, naval aviation saw combat in Mexico in 1914, when "flying boats" conducted patrols near Veracruz, where the Marines put ashore.
While on patrol, the aircraft took fire from the ground, riddling its fabric skin. Though the plane was unarmed, one flyboy shot back by reportedly throwing a bar of soap at the Mexicans below, or so the story goes.
Of course, there were no reports of Mexican casualties from what historians jokingly call the first naval "air-to-ground weapon." Fortunately, naval air ordinance has improved significantly since then.
By the end of World War I, the Navy had more than 2,000 aircraft, including their first Ace as well as Medal of Honor winner. Shortly thereafter in 1922, the Navy commissioned its first "bird-farm," USS Langley, a converted coal-carrier.
Carriers, of course, were indispensable in World War II in the Pacific, where the Battle of Midway proved to be the turning point in the fight with Japan.
It went on: Navy and Marine aviators were thick in the fights in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and still are in Iraq and Afghanistan -- plus deterring bad guys across the globe during the Cold War and since.
But one of the toughest battles the Navy fought wasn't in the sky but in the halls of the Pentagon in 1949 -- when the newly independent Air Force insisted that naval aviation wasn't needed in the strategic-bombing age.
Fortunately, in true Navy spirit, the admirals "revolted." In the end, naval aviation prevailed -- and thankfully so.
So, it makes perfect sense to take a moment to give a hearty "well done" -- or Bravo Zulu -- to those who have made, and are making, us the mightiest naval air power the world has ever known -- or ever will.
Most important, we should remember they've selflessly done so on our behalf for a century -- despite the well-known hazards of heading for the sky in audacious acts of aviation adventure.
These modern-day daredevils give up the comforts of home, their families' affection and time with their friends to go in harm's way for our national security. Tragically, some don't return.
No doubt, it's a great honor and blessing to be able to call these proud patriots: family, friends and fellow Americans. Fly Navy!
Peter Brookes is senior at fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The New York Post