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Defeat and Decline

 Woman Helo Pilot Turning Up

The setting for this painting is Naval Air Station, North Island, in the metropolitan San Diego area. Ensign Joellin Drag of HC-3 Squadron was the only woman helicopter pilot at that station when the painting was made. With her under the front of the helicopter is pilot Catherine Graham. They are going through the routine checks that precede every flight—a process called "turning up." Aviation training was opened to women in 1973 at the Naval Flight Officer Program six years later. (Painting, oil on canvas, by Christine Cancelli, 1974, 88-161-FJ).


Naval aviation began its seventh decade with the United States embroiled in the Vietnam War, but an uneasy truce resulted in disengagement from the war in 1973. Two years later, naval air power assisted in the evacuation of refugees who fled the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam. Eastern Bloc naval expansion challenged Western control of the sea and Soviet cruise missiles threatened aircraft carriers. The Navy struggled to meet its commitments because of a diminishing and aging fleet that eroded through constant use, at the same time confronting declining budgets that hindered the acquisition of replacements, recruitment shortfalls and difficulties in retention, drug and alcohol abuse, and racial unrest. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. shook up the Navy with his mandates, known as “Z-Grams.” Americans faced recurring crises in the Middle East, and in 1979, Iranian militants captured the United States Embassy in Tehran.

The burden of naval air action in the Vietnam War fell upon the carriers and aircraft of the Seventh Fleet. Helicopters served in combat, and land-based patrol aircraft scoured the South Vietnamese coastline in search of infiltrating enemy vessels during Operation Market Time. Operations Linebacker I and II waged heavy interdiction and bombing campaigns against the North Vietnamese.

Naval aviation nevertheless made headway in research and development. The 1970s witnessed the decommissioning of most of the remaining World War II–vintage Essex (CV-9) class carriers and the commissioning of a new class of nuclear-powered carriers, the Nimitz (CVN-68). The F-14A Tomcat, and AV-8A vertical and/or short takeoff and landing Harriers were introduced to the fleet. The Light Airborne Multipurpose System combined shipboard electronics with helicopters to confront the growing threat from submarines.


Significant Dates

11 April 1970Apollo 13 crewed by Capt. James A. Lovell Jr., John L. Swigert Jr., USAF, and Fred W. Haise Jr., USMCR, launched from John F. Kennedy Space Center, Florida. On 13 April, the crew reported, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” A loss of oxygen and primary power in Command and Service Module 109 Odyssey required an immediate abort of the moon mission.

Apollo XIII Astronauts

The prime crew of the Apollo 13 Lunar Landing Mission. From left: Capt. James A. Lovell Jr., USN-Cmdr.; Lt. Cmdr. Thomas A. Mattingly Jr., USN-Command Module Pilot; and Fred W. Hais Jr.-Lunar Module Pilot. They are seated behind the mission emblem (center), sextant on left, and astrolabe on right. Houston, Texas, December 1969. (Courtesy of NASA, USN 1143249)

21 December 1970—Grumman test pilots Robert Smyth and William Miller made the first flight of an F-14A Tomcat at Grumman’s Calverton, Long Island, New York, plant. The aircraft’s design emphasized fighter missions including air-to-air combat and fleet defense, and they became the first variable sweep-wing fighters accepted into Navy squadron inventory.

24 July 1971—Carrier Anti-Submarine Air Group Reserve 80 began antisubmarine operations from Ticonderoga (CVS-14). This marked the first time in U.S. Navy history that the Naval Air Reserve demonstrated the capability for immediate employment of fleet-size wings and groups, fully manned, properly equipped, and operationally ready to perform all phases of carrier operations.

10 May 1972—On 9 May, President Richard M. Nixon announced an air campaign against the North Vietnamese named Operation Linebacker — subsequently designated Linebacker I. This counteroffensive emerged as an outgrowth of Operation Freedom Trail and the chief executive’s mining declaration during Operation Pocket Money. Its three principal objectives were the destruction of military supplies within North Vietnam, the isolation of North Vietnam from external suppliers, and stoppage of the supply flow to their troops in South Vietnam.

F-4J PHANTOM II Aircraft

F-4J Phantom II aircraft. Attack Carrier Air Wing Nine (CVW-9) wait on the after flight deck of Constellation (CVA-64) in the Gulf of Tonkin to be launched on air strikes in the Haiphong area of North Vietnam, 9 May 1972. (USN 1151725)

7 December 1972—The final manned lunar mission, Apollo 17, crewed by Capt. Eugene A. Cernan, Cmdr. Ronald E. Evans, and geologist Harrison H. Schmitt, launched from John F. Kennedy Space Center, Florida. On 11 December, Cernan and Schmitt in Lunar Module 12 Challenger landed on the moon. On 19 December, command module America splashed down in the mid-Pacific several miles from the primary recovery ship Ticonderoga (CVS-14). An SH-3G Sea King of HC-1 Detachment 3 recovered and returned the crew to Ticonderoga, the mission having achieved all the primary objectives. Naval aviation squadrons and ships performed all the recovery operations for the 11 Apollo missions, and 22 of the 33 astronauts involved in the Apollo program had Navy backgrounds.

13 April 1975—The Naval Aviation Museum, NAS Pensacola, Florida, was dedicated, and the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation presented the building to the Navy. It replaced the small temporary museum set up in 1962. Seventy-two vintage aircraft were displayed, including the NC-4, the first airplane to fly the Atlantic Ocean.

21 July 1979—The National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, inducted Neil A. Armstrong. He served as a Navy pilot during the Korean War and later, as commander of the Apollo 11 mission, became the first man to step on the moon.

Additional Resources

Vietnam War

The Navy's Role in Space Exploration

National Naval Aviation Museum

United States Naval Aviation 1910-2010

Operation Homecoming

The war in Southeast Asia ended in 1973 for most United States forces. Offensive action against North Vietnam ended and a peace pact was signed in January. By the end of March, United States troops had been removed, and the 509 prisoners of war, returned by North Korea, were repatriated. In August, bombing of Cambodia ceased. (Painting, watercolor on paper, by Dante Bertoni, 1973, 88-161-bj)

Published: Fri Sep 13 10:42:16 EDT 2019