This coming fall, the Naval Institute Press will publish a book by retired Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn. Although he is an accomplished writer with many articles in professional journals and newspapers to his credit, this will be his first book.
Like many other veterans with colorful careers, Admiral Dunn could have chosen to write about his many achievements as a naval aviator. Few who have worn Wings of Gold have accomplished more in the cockpit. He is a natural flyer who piloted fighters and attack aircraft—including the AD Skyraider, the A-4 Skyhawk, and the F-4 Phantom—as well as helicopters and sail planes. His flying spanned many decades, accumulating more than 9,000 hours and 934 carrier landings, which was capped by ten “traps” in an F/A-18 Hornet on his 60th birthday.
Bob Dunn could have chosen to write about his 255 combat missions in the skies over Vietnam, or he might have told some of the stories behind his two Distinguished Service Medals, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Meritorious Service Medals, the Air Medal with four gold stars and 28 bronze stars, and four Navy Commendation Medals with Combat “V” and seven stars.
He might have written about his role as a Cold Warrior in times when confrontations with the Soviets were all too frequent, or his extraordinary leadership when commanding the USS Saratoga (CV-60) in troubled times. Or he might have recounted his part as Air Wing Commander during one of the early showdowns in the Middle East when the 6th Fleet confronted Black September in the 1970 Jordanian Crisis.
Instead, Admiral Dunn chose to draw on the expertise he gleaned while serving as Commander of the Naval Safety Center and while researching as a Ramsey Fellow at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Forgoing the many more glamorous and naturally exciting topics that he might have drawn on to write his book, he chose to shine the spotlight on others and to highlight the less glorious but absolutely vital realm of naval aviation safety.
Gear Up, Mishaps Down recounts the years 1950–2000 when naval aviators faced and defeated a formidable enemy, one that had neither weapons nor opposing forces but was claiming the lives of naval aviators at a terrifying rate. In 1954, the Grim Reaper took 536 lives as an astounding 776 aircraft were lost. The accident rate reached a high when “there were three people killed every two days and more than two major accidents every day of the year.”
By its defiance of the laws of physics, aviation can be a very risky business, and naval aviation adds an extra dose of hazards by including such things as tossing decks and tail hooks. Anyone who has ever witnessed a carrier recovery or the incongruous sight of a helicopter operating from the deck of a destroyer is not likely to see it as anything short of miraculous—and very, very dangerous.
Yet, today the Navy’s aviation safety record “is at least as safe as Air Force aviation, safer than general aviation, and approaches even commercial aviation in terms of mishaps per given time period.”
Bob Dunn’s forthcoming book is an important contribution to naval history and is a tribute to the tenacity of those who refused to merely accept the inevitability of accidents and who found ways to overcome daunting odds.
And—lest we forget—it is also a reminder of the courage and sacrifice of those who dare to take to the air, defying the laws of nature, facing hostile fire when required, and paying the ultimate price when called to do so.