Saturday, November 07, 2020

Loss of Naval Air Station Whiting pilots is reminder of risks those in uniform take every day

United States Navy Lt. Rhiannon Ross, 30, of Wixom, Michigan. 

United States Coast Guard Ensign Morgan Garrett, 24, of Weddington, North Carolina.

Capt. Tim "Lucky" Kinsella is commanding officer of NAS Pensacola.

By Capt. Tim Kinsella Guest columnist

Every day and every night, without fail, the men and women of Naval Aviation are in the air across the world.

They may be training, or they may be on an active mission. They may be bleary-eyed and weary in their F-18 Super Hornet, at the end of a six-hour combat night sortie, circling amongst the clouds in the marshal and waiting for their turn to come aboard the carrier, steeling themselves for the upcoming approach to a postage-sized deck rocking atop a dark frothy sea several thousand feet below. Or they may be piloting a helicopter on a training flight amongst the hills of Western Nevada, nerves taught as they strain through night vision goggles to see low power lines and hidden rises in the terrain on a moonless night.

Maybe they are high above in an E-6 Sentry, prepared at a moment's notice to transmit the order for a submarine to launch its nuclear missiles, an order they are ready to execute but hope never comes.  Perhaps they are tracking a foreign submarine over the Pacific in a P-8 Poseidon, or testing a newly-installed engine or rotor blade on their helicopter over the North Atlantic, sweating in their thick rubber exposure suits that will give them an extra few minutes of survival should the engine fail and they have to ditch in the frigid water. Maybe they are a coastguardsman off the coast of Alaska, searching for a sinking fishing boat in 20-foot freezing seas, or a Marine gently coaxing their F-35 to the deck of an amphibious ship in the steamy Persian Gulf.

Or they could be in the back seat of a T-6 Texan II trainer right here in Pensacola, teaching a hopeful student how to trust their instruments in bad weather, and not give in to the temptation of believing the false inner-ear signals of vertigo.

Every single day and night, the men and women of Naval Aviation are fueling, fixing, flying or training, and they do it with a spring in their step and gladness in their heart because they know that protecting our values and way of life takes relentless work and sacrifice.   

Naval Aviation is an exhilarating, but dangerous business. It is inspiring, yet also as cruel and unforgiving as the sea over which we ply our trade. The recent and tragic loss of two of our brightest stars painfully reminds us of that. One of them an aspiring Naval Aviator about to fulfill a lifelong dream of earning wings of gold, the other an accomplished instructor pilot already well on her way to a successful navy career.

Veterans Day is a time to remember those in uniform, and the untimely loss of Coast Guard Ensign Morgan Garrett and Navy Lieutenant Rhiannon Ross sharply remind us of the risks our men and women in uniform take, day in and day out, whether in training or on deployment. After 109 years of continuous operations, Naval Aviation recently had its first year without a fatal accident, a record that jarringly came to an abrupt halt when we lost ENS Garrett and LT Ross. I know I speak for the entire Pensacola community when I say that our heart is heavy as we join their families in this time of extreme grief.

Sadly, this is not the first time we have experienced such loss. In my first days of flight school, I sat in a classroom with 20 or so other students when the salty flight instructor told us to look around the room at each other. He told us that statistically one or more of us probably wouldn’t make it through our first flying tour. We thought it was bravado meant to scare us into studying more diligently.

To this day his words, while callous at the time, sadly ring true in my mind. In almost 25 years of flying, I’ve lost more colleagues due to accidents than I have fingers and toes. I don’t have a unique perspective - if you spend this long in the business, you’re going to lose friends. We spent a lot of time in our dress uniform in those first few years after flight school, either at weddings, because we were young and just starting out in life, or at funerals for lost comrades.

Pensacola is no stranger to loss in the aviation world; littered around the local area are airfields named for early aviators lost in training accidents - Saufley, Chevalier, Barin, Corry, and Bronson to name a few. During WWII, Naval Aviation lost two and a half times as many aviators to accidents as to enemy action. A stunning statistic that gives tremendous insight into not only the immense risk involved, but also into the courage and determination it took to persevere through the routine danger of carrier operations.

We have a saying in Naval Aviation – that our procedures, check lists, and manuals are “written in blood.” Every accident is methodically studied in extreme detail so we can learn what happened and why, and thus prevent the same thing from happening again. It is the very least we can do so that their sacrifice will not be in vain. The ability of our Navy to fly in all weather, day or night and around the globe with precision and constant presence, is only possible because of the ingenuity, persistent doggedness, and courage of our people ever since Naval Aviator number 1, Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson, made that first flight at North Island in 1911. Their sacrifices in war and peace have made possible everything we do today.

Every Naval Aviator or crewman is a volunteer, and while Naval Aviation is not for the weak-willed or faint-hearted, it is still very much a family with shared values, shared experiences, shared joys, shared terrors, and shared losses. I guarantee that every past or present pilot, naval flight officer, or crewman who earned their wings of gold is proud of their accomplishment and would do it again in a heartbeat.

So on this Veterans Day, I ask you to spend a moment thinking about the men and women all around the globe who, at this very moment, are risking all so that you may vote, pray, and live in freedom. Take a moment to give thanks for ENS Garrett and LT Ross. Give thanks that men and women like them still choose to don the cloth of their nation. For as long as they do, our future and our way of life will always remain bright and secure.

Capt. Tim "Lucky" Kinsella is commanding officer of NAS Pensacola.


  1. Well said. Having served a career in the AF, there are many sacrifices, some small and some ultimate. Thanks those who serve when they don’t have to. Thanks to those who served. And mostly prayerful thanks to those men and women who gave their lives for our way of life.

  2. I can hear the bands playing now with the speeches served...All grand standing aside.... grampaw petitbone wants to know what the scuttlebutt is on we can learn and live


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