I went to this year’s Tailhook Reunion and came away with a sense that Naval Aviation, specifically carrier aviation, is in good hands. Those hands just might be a bit younger than an outsider looking in might suppose. This observation is not intended as direct indictment of our senior leaders. In fact, this year’s Hook served as an opportunity for the community to recognize the Air Boss, Vice Admiral Shoemaker, for his time at the controls. Countless junior officers were heard commenting that he “really seems like a good dude who gets it.” That’s high praise in carrier aviation! More to this point, retired Admiral Gortney publicly praised Shoemaker for his style of leadership that actively encourages debate, intellectual innovation, and even a healthy bit of skepticism. With that being said, my biggest take-away has nothing to do with Flag Officer pleasantries. I left this year’s reunion with a refreshed belief that the junior officers charged with carrying out our nation’s bidding are some of the brightest young men and women our country has to offer, and are more than capable of excelling in the most demanding environments.
Perhaps the best proof of this came when four aviators from Carrier Air Wing Eight debriefed a packed audience on the recent shoot down of a Syrian Su-22 near Raqqa. Though three of the aviators wear the dreaded gold oak-leaves, they are all young. To some in the audience they must have looked really young. At a time when the word millennial has been turned into a pejorative, these young men proved how judging a class of people based on their age and cultural differences is as foolish as using gender or race to do the same. Their display of tactical excellence, outstanding headwork, and a level of teamwork that would make Bill Belichick proud is truly remarkable. And while the young men on stage were certainly proud to be recognized by their peers, the truth is those four could have easily been replaced by any of the other strike-fighter pilots onboard the ship that day. I write this not as a slight toward the four who did the deed, but as a recognition that, despite the many challenges facing Naval Aviation, wondering if the millennials manning the cockpits are up to the task is not one of them. They are.
It would be easy to point to this panel discussion and use it as a single data point to support the idea that the future is bright, but there was more — much more. The level of engagement, both during formal Q&A sessions and informal one-offs, with senior leaders was notable and encouraging. In years past many of the questions posed during the always-anticipated Flag Panel were more complaint than constructive. I’ve been guilty of this myself. The depth and breadth of dialogue this year showed a junior officer cadre that “gets it,” and wants to make Naval Aviation as good as it can be. They care, and while many of them might not be in the game for a 25 year career, what they’re doing now is important and should give the American public much to be proud of.
Watching our youngest aviators share a drink, listen to a story, and even roll a few dice with WWII, Korea, and Vietnam era aviators is a large part of what makes the annual pilgrimage to Reno so rewarding. As a nugget I had an opportunity to share some time and a few hands of blackjack with a Vietnam POW. That’s an experience that I’ll never forget and one that I’ll always be grateful for. I can only hope it meant as much to him as it did me. This year I smiled when I saw a nugget sharing laughs with an older Naval Aviator who is a three-time Distinguished Flying Cross recipient. Millennials are often maligned for being self-absorbed and uninterested in the past. Those who make such foolish claims haven’t seen what I’ve seen. This young pilot may have turned around and shared the experience on Facebook, but he undoubtedly did so with a respect and reverence that disproves the stereotype.
The Tailhook Association has actively redefined itself, overcoming the stigma of the storied unfortunate past. As proof of the maturity and changes, during “regular business hours” the expo floor was filled with families and small children, Civil Air Patrol and NJROTC students, civilians, industry partners, and a several noble philanthropic groups. When the hours drew later, and the “grown ups” had all retired to their in-port cabins, carrier aviation’s youngest professionals carried on — together. Stories were told (most of them true), backs slapped, and hands shaken. For a generation that is often accused of being detached and isolated due to technology and social media, these young men and women merged with retirees, veterans, and even helicopter pilots (!) to carry on a tradition of camaraderie that is unique within the military services to those who’ve gone where we’ve gone and done what we’ve done.
It had been a few years since I’d attended a Tailhook Reunion. I was anxious and a bit apprehensive to attend this year, as I’m no longer the younger version of myself. This is a liability for a number of reasons… But there’s something incredibly invigorating being surrounded by such youth and energy. When that youth is as talented, motivated, and patriotic as those in Reno last weekend it’s even more impressive. As I prepare to join what will likely be my last ready room, I do so knowing that the young men and women I’ll be serving and flying with are the real deal.
The next time you hear someone refer to them as “kids” or deliver some millennial snark, remind them that our air wings and squadrons only function because of the young people who stood up to be counted and said “send me.” They’re not “kids,” they’re not lazy, and they’re not selfish. From pilot to Plane Captain, they’re national treasures - and one of them has a kill.