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Naval Aviation Centennial Gala

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, National Building Museum, Washington D.C., Thursday, December 01, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a true honor to be able to have this opportunity to be with you this evening.  John McCain, a dear friend, distinguished guests, leaders of the department, there are many other members of Congress here, it is a real privilege to be here to celebrate 100 years of U.S. Naval Aviation.

I think it was Churchill who said, and I quote, "Pilots, not Dukes, Earls or Princesses, are the true nobility."  And I say that with all deference to His Royal Highness the Duke of York, who was here with us earlier this evening.  I think we all agree that we're truly in the company of greatness here this evening:  people like John McCain, brave and courageous, whose heroism is something that I think everyone respects.  And I'm also very honored to have been sitting at the same table as retired Navy Captain Thomas Hudner, the only living Navy aviator who received the Medal of Honor.

Now, I'm well aware that naval aviators are a colorful bunch. You like to tell stories, mostly with your hands and wristwatches. And for good reason: there's a lot to learn from practical experience, those bits of advice that you won't find in training manuals.

For example, here are some of the important points that you provide. "Flying is the second-greatest thrill known to man.  Landing is the first." Or, "The probability of survival is directly related to the angle of arrival." Or, "The only time that you have too much fuel is when you're on fire."  And always remember, "It's far better to be down here wishing you were up there than to be up there wishing you were down here."

Tonight we celebrate the magnificent history of American Naval Aviation.  It is a history with perhaps no finer chapter than, as John pointed out, the Pacific campaign of World War II. It was a time for bold offensive action, for daring in the face of grave risks, and for the kind of innovation that matters most.  It was, in other words, a mission for naval aviators.

The Japanese fleet attacked Pearl Harbor 70 years ago next week.  That story, the story of how America fought back from that terrible attack and reclaimed the Pacific, one bloody battle after another, hardly needs to be recounted before this audience.  But it suffices to say that as our fleet island-hopped to the west, naval aviation cleared the way.

In one of the campaign's boldest moments, Admiral Nimitz vowed at Midway to greet our expected visitors with "the kind of reception they deserve," and so he did.  Nimitz outmaneuvered the enemy fleet with only three available carriers and turned back the Japanese offensive.

The victorious pilots at Midway, like all great combat aviators, possessed a rare mix of natural gifts:  supreme hand-eye coordination, physical endurance, presence of mind, instinct, engineering sense, spatial awareness, and more importantly, they were tough sons-of-bitches.  And they took bold offensive action.  They showed an innovative, pioneering spirit, and they gave the enemy that old American moxie.  That's the essence of what you do. Vigilance is always necessary – patrols, search-and-rescue operations, reconnaissance, and even deterrence.  But offense – offense, not defense – bold, offensive action – is in the heart of the people in this room.

Boldness, risk-taking, it was in the heart of Navy Pilot Eugene Ely, who in 1911 first launched from the bow of a ship, less than a year from when the Navy took delivery of its first airplane.  And boldness has been at the heart of our aviators ever since:  the first crossing of the Atlantic by air; the daring missions in Korea; the first Americans in space; the missions at risk that led to capture in Vietnam; dominating displays of striking power during the Cold War, the first Gulf War, and beyond.

Boldness is at the heart of naval aviation today.  Last week marked the astounding 50th birthday of the “Big E,” USS ENTERPRISE, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the eighth U.S. Navy ship to carry that name.  Like ENTERPRISE, which Admiral Sandy Winnefeld and others so ably led into nearly every major combat operation over the last half-century, today's aviation assets are absolutely essential to projecting power overseas.  Indeed, they comprise an unrivaled force in the world today on the seas and far inland as well.  In Afghanistan, a landlocked country hundreds of miles from the nearest sea, carrier aviation accounts for fully half of all air combat missions and one-third of close air support for our troops in contact with the enemy. 

Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan this past spring, Navy helicopters were among the first to provide assistance.  I had the chance last month to visit USS BLUE RIDGE, and thanked our sailors and our helicopter teams for their impressive efforts.  They provided critical relief – 200 tons of food and water and supplies – during a difficult time for a friend and ally in need.

All of this takes a talented team of more than just pilots. It's the forward air controllers. It's the logistics specialists, the maintainers, the rescue swimmers, the crew chiefs, the weapons systems specialists. They, too, are the heroes that we celebrate tonight.  Heroes like First Lieutenant Stephen Boada a forward observer and a forward air controller with the 3rd Marines in Afghanistan, who in 2005 directed supporting fires while battling Taliban insurgents.  And though wounded, he fought off the enemy while Marines extracted fallen comrades, and at the same time directed gunships to engage and destroy the enemy.  These are the bold actions that are in the finest tradition of naval aviation.

The future is no different.  We need the entire military to be bold, to take the offensive, to innovate, to embrace risk.  Air superiority may not necessarily be the birthright of the United States, but it is the birthright of our pilots – pilots who are willing to act boldly and to adapt when necessary.  And that's exactly why we have air superiority.

Even as we adapt to a changing strategic environment, and as we enter a period of fiscal constraint, naval aviation, let me assure you, will continue to play a vital role in the nation's defense.  We are intensifying our role in the Asia-Pacific region and establishing a posture that is broadly distributed, flexible, and sustainable. And the experience, skill, and boldness of this community will be absolutely essential to meeting that goal.

For months now, we at the Department of Defense have been focused on building a strong military for the future while doing our part to meet our fiscal responsibilities.  I've made clear that we will abide by four guidelines:

Number one, that in the end, we will continue to maintain the best military in the world.

Number two, that we will not hollow out this force.

Number three, that we will take a balanced approach, looking at every area that needs to be looked at within the Defense Department.

And number four, we are not going to break faith with the troops and their families.  These are individuals that committed their lives to duty for this country.

Now, as I've often made clear, unless Congress acts in the next year, we face the possibility of additional automatic across-the-board – a nutty formula that was established up there on the Hill – these across-the-board cuts that would undercut all of our strategy-driven efforts.  And so I take this moment to strongly urge the members of Congress to draw inspiration – draw inspiration – from the boldness that we celebrate tonight, to put partisanship aside, and to find the solutions to this country's fiscal problems that everyone expects.  If our aviators, if our men and women in uniform, are willing to put their lives on the line, are willing to fight and to die for this country, then surely our elected leaders should be able to take a small risk in order to do what's right for this country.

To America's naval aviators, I want to thank you for all that you've done in the service of our country. I thank you for your sacrifice. I thank you for your patriotism.  And I also want to thank as well your families, your loved ones, of our naval aviators, for your support and for your love.  We simply could not do these jobs without the love and support of those that are dearest to us, our spouses and our families. And we thank you for your loyalty, for your support, and for your constant love of not only those that deploy to battle, but your love of country as well.

America is stronger because of what you've done. But more importantly, America is stronger because of who you are.  In that great movie "The Bridges at Toko-Ri” the commander at the end of that movie, as he watches pilots taking off from the carrier, says a line that all of us remember very well: "Where do we get such pilots? Thank God we get them."

You are the best.  You are great citizens.  You are great warriors.  And you are great patriots.  God bless you, God bless our military, and God bless this great country.

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