From the Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
While ribbons and medals adorn uniforms and depict a service member’s professional journey, there’s one honor unlikely to be shared by any other naval aviator or worn on a uniform: the Gray Eagle.
It’s exactly as it sounds: A nod to distinguish and recognize the pilot who has the earliest Naval Aviator designation for the longest continuous active-duty service.
For the time the recipient remains the most senior aviator, the trophy may be kept at their command or in the custody of the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla. It features a silver eagle landing on the arresting gear of the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV 1).
The inscription: “The Venerable Order of the Gray Eagle. The Most Ancient Naval Aviator on Active Duty. In recognition of a clear eye, a stout heart, a steady hand, and a daring defiance of gravity and the law of averages.”
The newest person with that “clear eye, stout heart and steady hand” is Adm. Bill Gortney, Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. He received the Gray Eagle Trophy Award Saturday afternoon, Oct. 18, just prior to the U.S. Fleet Forces Band Birthday Concert aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during Fleet Week Hampton Roads’ celebration of the Navy’s 239th birthday.
Adm. “shortney” Gortney has amassed more than 5,360 mishap-free flight hours and 1,265 carrier-arrested landings over his nearly 38-year career, primarily in the A-7E Corsair II and the F/A-18 Hornet. He spent that time flying in support of maritime security operations and combat operations in the U.S. Central Command for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, including stints with Carrier Strike Group 10 onboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), Carrier Air Wing 7 onboard USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67), and VFA-15 onboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).
Prior to that, Gortney served with Attack Squadron 82 onboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68), VFA-87 onboard USS Theodore Roosevelt; served as executive officer of both VFA-132 onboard USS Forrestal (CV 59) and VFA-15 onboard USS Theodore Roosevelt, and deputy commander of Carrier Air Wing Seven onboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69).
The Gray Eagle Trophy Award was established in 1960, making its first appearance in 1961 during the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Naval Aviation when it was presented to Adm. Charles R. Brown. Naval aviators who would have earned the distinction if it had been in existence were also given the honor, beginning with Cmdr. Theodore Ellyson, Naval Aviator No. 1, who would have held it from June 2, 1911 to Feb. 27, 1928, up through and including Vice Adm. Thomas S. Combs. Combs would have held the honor from Oct. 1, 1959 to April 1, 1960.)
The trophy was originally sponsored by Chance Vought Aircraft, which after several acquisitions, was folded into Northrop Grumman Corporation in 1994. Retired Vice Admiral Jim Zortman presented the trophy to Gortney.
Gortney’s military awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (four awards), Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), Meritorious Service Medal (three awards), Air Medal (three awards: Gold Numeral One, two Strike/Flight), Defense Commendation Medal (three awards), Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Sea Service Ribbon (8 awards), and the Overseas Service Ribbon (2 awards).