Gear Up, Mishaps Down
The Evolution of Naval Aviation Safety, 1950–2000
Robert F. Dunn
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2017, 224 pages
Book Review published on: May 10, 2019
Gear Up, Mishaps Down: The Evolution of Naval Aviation Safety, 1950–2000, by retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn, details the evolution of U.S. naval aviation safety as the Navy moved into the jet age. This is a fascinating time of change in Navy culture, equipment, missions, and people that the author captures through stories, research, and “being there.”
The book tragically starts with the crash of a fighter into an aircraft carrier during a night landing. Dunn then details how this was not unique and that, in 1954, the U.S. Navy lost 536 seamen and 776 aircraft in one year. Moving forward, loss rates within the U.S. Air Force and commercial aviation declined, but the Navy continued to suffer losses at a high rate. Naval aviators will tell you they are some of the best in the world, but no service can survive such high peacetime losses.
Dunn pulls no punches in his book, cataloging at times the stubbornness, or the “if we didn’t invent it, it won’t work” culture of the Navy, and how it slowly changed. The reader learns the differences between flying and landing jets on aircraft carriers compared to propeller-driven aircraft. Dunn details changes in culture, aircraft acquisition and development, pilot training, and maintenance issues in the Navy. And he does it at the right level of detail—enough to be interesting without overwhelming the reader with charts and graphs.
It is understood that culture changes occur slowly, and Dunn reinforces this in the book. While the Navy knew mishaps were too frequent, it faced a culture of “what we do is dangerous, and mishaps happen.” It took the arrival of strong leaders focused on safety to start changing the culture. Still, it took nearly fifty years to turn it around.
Another key element to change was training. Dunn details how every replacement air group had its own techniques for training arriving pilots, and they could be very different from another group’s. Establishing a standardized training regime that every replacement air group bought into was a key element to reducing mishaps. This led the Navy to create and implement the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization Program, which provided a set of flight and operating instructions that every pilot had to know for his or her particular aircraft.
The Navy also had to get a handle on how it bought and maintained aircraft. Every manufacturer was pushing a new jet to the Navy without much concern for the pilots. Then, when the aircraft arrived at a unit, there were no manuals to help maintain them. Thus, every unit had its own maintenance program, and Dunn details how this led to the establishment of the Naval Aviation Maintenance Program. Dunn details how this lead the Navy to finally accept human factors in performance science and apply them during the aircraft design process.
Finally, there were the pilots. The Navy added flight surgeons, doctors who were also qualified aviators. Many aircrafts flew with a crew of two or more, so the Navy adopted crew resource management and operational risk management to improve crew coordination and efficiency.
How well did it work? In 1950, naval aviation suffered 1,488 major mishaps. In 2000, there were only twenty-nine mishaps, and they averaged less than twenty per year for the next fifteen years. Deaths dropped from 227 in 1950 (significantly lower than the previously mentioned 536 deaths in 1954) to forty-six in 2000 and twenty in 2014.
Gear Up, Mishaps Down will be an interesting read to most people and fascinating to those interested in naval aviation. Dunn captures evolution and culture change through fifty years of flight. He keeps the reader interested as he thoroughly documents his work while also explaining that though naval aviation is not free of risk, it can be mitigated.
Book Review written by: Mike Bizer, Assistant Professor, Command and General Staff School, Fort Belvoir, Virginia