Wings of Gold – Trevor Rieck, Jack McCaffrie & Jed Hart

Review by Andy Wright.

The projection of power by naval aviation is an important asset and requires the retention of a variety of skills and capabilities often too costly for smaller navies, but a source of pride for those that do. Politics, as ever, play their part, not just from governments, but from other services as well (look at how an air force will dig its heels in if it has to ‘compete’ with naval strike capabilities it sees as its own). Only one navy has maintained carrier operations since the entry of ‘flat tops’ into its fleet. The USN has, for almost a century now, never been without a carrier and its capabilities and operations are proof of that. So, too, is its training regime, a system built on decades of advances, the advent of the jet and helicopter aside, and lessons learned the hard way. The vast majority of its graduates have been American, of course, but many European, Asian and South American naval aviators have benefitted from being part of the system. To that list can be added 49 Australians.

The Australian government’s announcement of the acquisition of what became the two Canberra-class vessels, complete with ‘ski-jump’, caused a lot discussion about a possible return to fixed wing aviation for the already very capable Royal Australian Navy. While it hasn’t happened, many interested parties cast their minds to the heady days of the sixties and seventies when HMAS Melbourne, the old Majestic-class carrier, flew Skyhawks, Trackers and Wessex helicopters from her deck. This was the pinnacle for the RAN’s Fleet Air Arm, but it almost didn’t happen. In the late fifties, it was decided to disband the FAA (an odd decision whichever way you look at it) when the Melbourne was to be retired in the early sixties. Given the threat of Soviet submarines, this was adjusted to just fixed wing ops (the Melbourne to become an ASW carrier) several years later. However, the damage was already done. The initial plan to disband the FAA completely saw many experienced aircrew and service personnel leave for greener pastures. Yet another back pedal came with the announcement fixed wing flying (Sea Venoms and Gannets) would continue until Melbourne reached the end of her extended service life in 1967. Then came Vietnam.

Fixed wing flying was here to stay, but the aircraft at the time were not. Skyhawks and Trackers were ordered, a massive leap in capability, not to mention the RAN’s first major step away from the British aircraft industry. Add the big fleet of Wessex helicopters ordered and, after a few years of indecision, coupled with rapidly approaching delivery dates, the RAN was suddenly faced with having to train more aircrew on new types than it had the ability to. The traditional path for extra capacity, the Royal Navy, could only offer several places for observers and the RAAF was too busy with Vietnam. This would not do so the USN was approached and an agreement reached. Sanity prevailed at this end, despite the coup that this was, and those men (some were still teenagers) selected for overseas training were first ‘screened’ by way of Chipmunk and the Royal Victorian Aero Club.

The immediate thought for any reader familiar with British and Commonwealth naval flying is that the Americans do things differently. That was very much the case, as the Australian trainees quite gleefully experienced, as was the pleasant culture shock, militarily and socially, of 1960s Vietnam-era America. Entering the USN aviation training scheme was a far cry from what they had experienced with the RAN (and several already had a few years under their belt). The expectations of their professional and experienced instructors, for ground school and flying, was equally high, as were the standards required to earn the coveted Wings of Gold, but the number of aircraft and population of just one base were easily greater than the entire Fleet Air Arm. Only two of the pilot candidates did not proceed and neither was due to issues with their flying. The result was a cadre of pilots who had carrier qualified in the T-28 Trojan with some going on to do the same in the Tracker while the majority completed their rotary wing training. As RAN pilots, you’d expect the latter to return to fly the Wessex, but a significant proportion saw service in Vietnam with the RAAF and US Army.

These pilots and observers, and some trained in Canada, returned to Australia to join locally trained aircrew. There were some issues with transition, the RAN deciding some were a bit short in some areas, but their integration and contribution to the FAA’s flying over the next decade was noteworthy as was the reputation they acquired within USN training circles. That several have only just retired from the RAN speaks volumes, but it is interesting to note all have experienced considerable success in their professional lives.

This, then, is the story told in Wings of Gold. A 304-page hardback from Big Sky Publishing, and supported by the RAN, it is heavily illustrated with barely a two-page spread passing by without at least one colour image present. Many of these photos come from the trainees’ own collections and include the obligatory aircraft shots as well as training documents, vehicles, training aids, tourist attractions, accommodation and parties. The quality varies (remember, it’s more than fifty years ago now), but all illustrate the lives of the men very well.

While the training of 49 Australian servicemen is hardly anything major, even in the RAN, how it was done certainly is. This is, naturally, the core of this book. The three authors, no doubt relishing looking back at their time in the US, go to great lengths to explain every facet of the USN training, very occasionally comparing it to that of the RAN. Each step of the program is covered in depth, greatly enhancing the understanding of just how much the USN had learnt, from operations, but also from previous student intakes, what worked best when turning out swathes of naval aviators. The scope of the training is breathtaking with no stone left unturned and the welfare of the student, physically and academically, paramount. Happily, the authors have treated the development of this book as a sort of reunion, massaging their network to stir up their coursemates who, in turn, provided valuable reminiscences for every aspect of the training in Australia and the US. Of course, such a historical record would be of little value without the memories of those involved. At least twenty of the USN trainees provide such content and are briefly introduced before their first comment is included, with many reappearing to add their experiences, some amusing, some hair-raising, throughout the training period. It does get a little difficult to follow some of them (despite their paths being more or less the same), however, as, after that first introduction, many are only referred to by their nicknames which are sometimes used in the captions (but not always!). It is indicative of the close ties these men have, but the reader can be left scrambling trying to remember who ‘Yak Yak’ was, for example, and what his progress to date had been, especially after a typically epic description of the latest tranche of training procedures.

It’s here the book is at its most impressive. This is a snapshot of USN naval training as seen by outsiders who were made to feel very much at home. It does get a bit technical, especially in terms of some of the equipment used, but regular readers of aviation titles, not necessarily naval aviation, won’t have a problem. While definitely skewed to the military or aviation enthusiast, there is also a lot of value to anyone interested in the social adaptation nature of a ‘secondment’ such as this.

Like this review, it’s not a sparkling narrative, but it is honest and, probably unlike this review, gets the point across with little in the way of embellishment (that, naturally, comes from the aviators themselves, but often in the form of self-deprecation). For a book covering an aspect of Australian naval history, it should have an index and this should be something the RAN stipulates if it is to support such a publication. Another editorial pass, particularly to ensure consistency of caption formatting and to catch clangers like the ‘Iowa Jima Memorial’, would have been nice, but, as a whole, this is a fine book worthy of addition to any military history library, and will hopefully see wide distribution to Australia’s public library system, such is the quality of record presented and the need to highlight the RAN’s long, often innovative, contribution to the nation and aviation history.

ISBN 978-1-92226-585-2

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