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Naval Aviation Through the Decades: After Vietnam, a Decade of Skirmishes

100 Years of Planes, Progress, and Personal Narratives: Part 10

After Vietnam, naval air was plagued by a material inventory decline but continued to make progress in research and development, witness the Navy’s introduction of the F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet.

The HH-52A Seaguard served the Coast Guard from 1961 to 1985, and was the first turbine helicopter procured for the Coast Guard as well as the first to be able to alight on water. More importantly, in the hands of Coast Guard aviators, the Seaguard saved more than 15,000 lives – more than any other helicopter in history. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Addition to the fleet of the new S-3 Viking and the LAMPS (light airborne multipurpose system) SH-2D Seasprite helicopter – a twin-engined version of Lassen’s single-engine craft – were intended to curb the Soviet submarine threat. While the fleet shrank from more than 700 ships to fewer than 500, which included the loss of some dozen carriers, the Navy also saw five nuclear-powered aircraft carriers enter service before 1990. The first of them was USS Chester W. Nimitz (CVN 68), lead ship of a class of 10. A landmark was passed on Feb. 22, 1974, when Lt. j.g. Barbara Ann Allen became the first woman naval aviator.

While the Cold War grew hotter and everyone braced themselves for the great conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, a series of smaller conflicts ensued instead.


Line of Death

In August 1981, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi announced an extension of its territorial waters into what were considered international waters in the Gulf of Sidra, proclaiming a “line of death” stretching from Benghazi to Tripoli. President Ronald Reagan authorized carrier battle groups centered on USS Forrestal (CV 59) and Nimitz to deploy off the

AV-8A Harrier Aboard USS Nassau

An AV-8A Harrier prepares for takeoff from the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau (LHA 4). The aircraft was assigned to Marine LIght Attack Squadron 231 (VMA-231). The Harrier, one prime example of the Marine Corps’ spirit of innovation, has been an ideal tool for the Corps’ requirements over the years. DoD photo by JOC James R. Giusti

Libyan coast to enforce freedom of navigation rights. In response, the Libyan Air Force deployed scores of MiG-23s, MiG-25s, Sukhoi Su-20s and Su-22s, and French-made Mirage F1s. On Aug. 19, 1981, two F-14s from VF-41 “Black Aces” were flying CAP when E-2Cs alerted them that two SU-22 “Fitters” had an air base near Tripoli and were approaching.

The two F-14s were ordered to intercept. A few seconds before the merge one of the Libyans fired and missed with an AA-2 Atoll missile. The two Sukhois continued past the Americans and then tried to extend away, but the Tomcats evaded and were cleared to return fire. The Americans fired Sidewinders to destroy both Fitters, and both Libyan pilots ejected. Far from being cowed, Ghaddafi merely redirected some of his energies to supporting terrorism.

In 1982 and 1983, naval aviation was committed to conflicts in Grenada and Lebanon. In the first time naval aviators had ever been in two wars on a single cruise, the USS Independence (CVA 62) launched missions in Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada and, just a month later, carried out a one-day strike against terrorist-related targets in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Urgent Fury also saw USS Guam (LPH 9) lead off the attack by delivering more than 400 Marines of the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit by helicopter to the small Caribbean island being developed into a military base with Soviet aid.

This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...