Tailhook Assn.'s Long Climb Back to Respectability

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Its name indelibly linked to tales of sexual abuse and gender-based political upheaval, the Tailhook Assn. has waged a seven-year struggle for forgiveness and redemption.

The road back to respectability has been long and rocky and the end is not yet in sight.

If President Clinton is interested in seeing how difficult it is to survive a sex scandal, he might take a peek at Tailhook, whose orderly and G-rated convention at John Ascuaga's Nugget hotel and casino ends today.

After its infamous 1991 convention in Las Vegas, where dozens of women were allegedly mauled by drunken active-duty Navy aviators and all manner of sexual shenanigans took place in the hotel's hospitality suites, the privately run association went into a seemingly uncontrollable nosedive.

Overnight the group was stripped of its support from the Navy and booted out of its headquarters on a base in San Diego. Membership plunged. Corporate sponsors bailed out. Lawsuits descended like planes strafing a fleeing army.

While it may be years before the Navy--if ever--reestablishes ties to the group dedicated to the advancement of carrier aviation, there are signs that after once being given up for dead, the Tailhook Assn. is alive, well and on the upswing, sadder but wiser.

"We're not as radioactive as we once were," said Steve Millikin, editor of the association's glossy quarterly, The Hook.

Officers Attend on Their Own Time

While no active-duty admirals yet dare attend a Tailhook convention, dozens of junior officers from West Coast squadrons were in attendance. In keeping with Navy policy, the officers are here on their own time. No Navy aircraft or vehicles are to be used to get conventioneers to Tailhook.

All the lawsuits against Tailhook have been settled, and the group has purchased a comfy office suite in a tree-lined business park in the Scripps Ranch area of San Diego. Admirals are again writing for The Hook. Increased efforts are being made to invite spouses to the annual convention.

Active-duty officers are again serving on the Tailhook board on their off-hours. Membership, which was once 15,000, has climbed back to 10,300: 35% retired Navy, 38% civilians and 27% active-duty.

Aerospace companies are returning, eager to display their wares. For the first time since 1991, representatives from Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Rolls-Royce and Lockheed-Martin are at Tailhook.

"Tailhook historically has been a good place to communicate with the fleet, a good sounding board for our products, one of those rare opportunities to talk to a diverse cross-section of the Navy," said Boeing spokesman Denny Kline. "We believe they are returning to that place and we want to join them."

To help get its name tied with something other than sexual scandal, the Tailhook Assn. provided 400 subscriptions of The Hook to schools and colleges.

Group Refuses to Change Name

There is one thing that association members have steadfastly refused to do: change the organization's name to try to erase the past. Tailhook, of course, refers to the hook at the back of Navy aircraft that allows them to land on a carrier deck by snagging a cable stretched across the deck.

Thomas Brown III, a retired rear admiral who is chairman of the board of directors, told a membership meeting Friday that changing the name at this late date would smack of caving into "political correctness."

"We are tailhookers and always will be," Brown said to applause and cheers. "Of course there is stigma attached to our name, but I think it is receding."

In the spring, Tailhook officials ventured to Washington to meet with the top officers of naval aviation and later an undersecretary of the Navy to plead their case that the organization deserves to be brought in from the cold. They came away encouraged but with no promises.

"I would say we have the best relationship with two- and three-star (admirals) that we've had since 1991," association president Lonny "Eagle" McClung told the several hundred Tailhook members in attendance.

After canceling the 1992 convention, Tailhook met in San Diego in 1993 and 1994 and since 1995 has held its annual gathering at the Nugget hotel-casino outside Reno without incident. To the extent that surroundings influence behavior, the Nugget would not seem to encourage debauchery.

If a hotel-casino can be described as having a family atmosphere, it would be the Nugget. There are no pornographic movies in the rooms; skin magazines are not sold in the gift shop; and there are none of the scantily clad waitresses or hostesses common to other gambling meccas.

Pictures of the grandfatherly owner and members of his family adorn the walls, as do pictures of local high school honor students. No one would mistake the Nugget, say, for Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

'No Potential for Gantlet'

Still, Tailhook organizers have taken steps to make sure that there can be no repeat of 1991 when aviators in a crowded hallway outside a row of hospitality suites molested women trying to pass by. At Tailhook 1998, as at other recent Tailhook conventions, hospitality suites were spread throughout the hotel to avoid a critical mass from building.

"There will be no potential for a gantlet, that's for sure," said J. R. Davis, retired Navy captain and Tailhook executive director.

At a happy-hour mixer Friday night, several hundred members of the association were enjoying fellowship, cocktails and banjo music.

There was talk aplenty about hair-raising night landings aboard pitching carrier decks, the latest in integrated defensive countermeasures, and the problems associated with increased payload and bringback--the kind of talk you would expect from naval aviators, past and present.

"This is the real Tailhook, not the 'scandalous' one you've heard about," said Navy Cmdr. Sterling Gilliam, who serves at the Pentagon. "We just hope someday the public and the Navy will trust us when we say things have changed."

Lost in the public furor and congressional outrage over the 1991 convention--the latter led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.)--was the fact that the gathering was, in one sense, the most successful and beneficial ever staged.

At a "flag panel," more than a dozen admirals answered questions from more than 1,000 junior officers and retirees. Many of the former had just flown in Operation Desert Storm. In the sometimes hidebound and uptight culture of military service, that kind of candid and open communication is rare.

Formed in 1956, the Tailhook Assn.'s stated objective--along with providing the good cheer common to reunions of like minds--was to foster three-way communication between junior officers, high-ranking brass and the aerospace industry. But it was the partying that was always an unofficial part of Tailhook that ultimately was its undoing.

Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego), a decorated Navy pilot in Vietnam, laments the loss of the flag panel and the chance for younger aviators to sound off to their bosses. Even before 1991, he had warned that the hijinks at Tailhook needed to be curbed.

"I know the good things the association does," Cunningham said from Washington. "The association is trying to build back trust. But until the public's negative perception changes, the military is afraid to get too close to Tailhook."

Much of the latest membership meeting concerned how to repair Tailhook's battered image.

"I was there in the darkest days [after 1991] and I think this association is worth saving," said W. D. Knutson, a retired captain. "I refuse to accept the assumption that every naval aviator is a drunkard or womanizer."

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