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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral George A. Aitcheson Jr., USN (Ret.)

Feb. 2, 2024 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral George Alfred Aitcheson Jr. on 25 January 2024 at age 93. Rear Admiral Aitcheson enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in April 1952 and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in July 1985 as director of Command and Control Planning and Programing Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. His commands included Fighter Squadron ONE NINE ONE (VF-191), Attack Carrier Air Wing FIFTEEN (CVAW-15), Sacramento (AOE-1), Coral Sea (CV-43), and Carrier Group SEVEN. He flew 171 combat missions over North Vietnam and Laos in three combat deployments as executive officer/commanding officer (CO) of VF-191 and CO of CVAW-15, earning a Bronze Star with Combat “V” and seven Air Medals.  

Following graduation from the University of Pittsburgh in 1951 with a bachelor of arts degree in economics, George Aitcheson enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 10 April 1952 in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. He reported for active duty on 8 June 1952, commencing flight training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, and then Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Kingsville, Texas.  

He was honorably discharged on 6 September 1953 and the next day was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve and continued on active duty. Following additional flight training at NAS Corpus Christi, he was designated a naval aviator (heavier-than-air) on 18 December 1953. In January 1954, he commenced jet transition training as NAAS Kingsville.  

In May 1954, Ensign Aitcheson reported to VF-192 “Golden Dragons” at NAS Moffett Field, California, flying the F9F-2 Panther straight-wing jet fighter. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in March 1955 and the next month deployed to the Western Pacific with VF-192 embarked on attack carrier Oriskany (CVA-34). Upon returning from deployment in September 1955, the next month Lieutenant (j.g.) Aitcheson was transferred to Fleet All-Weather Training Unit, Pacific, Detachment Baker, at NAS Moffett Field as an instructor pilot.  

Lieutenant (j.g.) Aitcheson was honorably released from active duty on 12 June 1956, but he remained affiliated with a Naval Reserve squadron. He again reported for active duty on 11 September 1957, again at Fleet All-Weather Training Unit, Detachment Baker. He was promoted to lieutenant in September 1957 and the same month augmented from the Naval Reserve into the U.S. Navy. In May 1958, he reported to VF-124 “Gunfighters” at NAS Moffett Field as an instructor pilot.  

In October 1958, Lieutenant Aitcheson reported to Naval Test Pilot School, Naval Air Test Center (NATC) Patuxent River, Maryland, graduating in June 1959 with Test Pilot School Class 22. He then reported to the Weapons System Test Division at NATC Patuxent River as a project pilot and project manager. During this tour, he flew 25 different types of aircraft, including the F3H Demon, F4H Phantom II, A4D Skyhawk series, FJ-4B Fury, S2F Tracker, T2J-1 Buckeye, and F8U Crusader (pre-1962 designators).  

In November 1961, Aitcheson returned to VF-124, providing replacement training in the F-8 Crusader jet fighter. In July 1962, he reported to VF-141 “Iron Angels” at NAS Miramar, California, flying the F-8E Crusader. VF-141 deployed to the Western Pacific embarked on attack carrier Constellation (CVA-64) in February–September 1963. VF-141 was redesignated VF-53 in May 1963. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1963.  

In February 1964, Lieutenant Commander Aitcheson returned to VF-124 as a flight instructor, before proceeding to the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. He graduated from the War College in June 1965, concurrently earning a master’s degree in international affairs from the George Washington University.   

In June 1965, Lieutenant Commander Aitcheson returned to the Naval Test Pilot School at NATC Patuxent River, this time as an instructor teaching flying qualities and performance. During this tour he flew single-engine and multi-engine prop, turbo-prob, and jet engine aircraft, as well as helicopters. He ran the U.S. Navy “Quick EVAL” on the F-5E jet fighter, which have been used as “aggressor” aircraft. He also visited European flight test centers, flying British, French, and Swedish aircraft. He was inducted into the Swedish “Draken Order.”  

In August 1967, Lieutenant Commander Aitcheson was assigned to Norfolk-based anti-submarine warfare carrier Intrepid (CVS-11) as aircraft handling officer while the ship was deployed to the South China Sea. Intrepid had come through the Suez Canal just before the outbreak of the June 1967 “Six-Day” Middle East War. Intrepid was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation for this deployment. Aitcheson was promoted to commander in October 1967.  In December 1968, Commander Aitcheson returned to VF-124 for refresher training in the F-8J Crusader.  

In June 1969, Commander Aitcheson assumed duty as executive officer of VF-191 “Satan’s Kittens” at NAS Miramar, flying the F-8J Crusader. VF-191 deployed to Vietnam in June–November 1969 embarked on Oriskany. The moratorium on bombing in North Vietnam established in November 1968 was still in effect. Strikes could be conducted in North Vietnam south of the 19th Parallel in reaction to North Vietnam firing on unarmed U.S. reconnaissance flights; otherwise, bombing was restricted to Communist supply lines in Laos. Nevertheless, Aitcheson flew 62 combat missions during this period.  

In May of 1969, Commander Aitcheson assumed command of VF-191, deploying again to Vietnam embarked on Oriskany in May–December 1970 and flying 82 combat missions. On Oriskany’s last night on station, with Typhoon Patsy approaching, the ship and Ranger (CVA-61) launched a total of 51 aircraft in the largest night time flight operation of the war. In the pre-dawn of 22 November 1970, 20 of the aircraft, unarmed A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II bombers, conducted simulated strike and minelaying operations, dropping flares and chaff, in the vicinity of Haiphong, resulting in the North Vietnamese firing 20 SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), none of which hit. VF-191 contributed four F-8 fighters to an offshore combat air patrol. Unbeknownst to the Navy pilots, the purpose of the mission was to act as a diversion for the highly classified joint U.S. Army and Air Force raid attempting to rescue American prisoners of war from the Son Tay POW prison camp. The diversion worked and the raid got on and off target with minimal damage, but the North Vietnamese had recently moved the prisoners of war (POWs) from the camp. Although deemed to be a “failure,” the raid served as a major boost to POW morale and did lead to somewhat better treatment (comparatively) by the North Vietnamese.   

In May 1971, Aitcheson attended the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. In June 1972, he was administratively assigned to the staff of Commander, Naval Air Forces Pacific (COMNAVAIRFORPAC), while undergoing an Air Wing Commander training pipeline with Commander Fleet Air Miramar at NAS Miramar.  

In October 1972, Commander Aitcheson assumed command of CVAW-15 embarked on attack carrier Coral Sea (CVA-43), deploying to the South China Sea in March–September 1973. Although the “Peace Accords” had been signed with North Vietnam in January 1973, strikes against Communist supply lines through Laos along the route known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” continued, and Aitcheson flew 23 more combat missions.  

In March 1974, Commander Aitcheson reported to the staff of COMNAVAIRFORPAC as force training officer at NAS North Island. He was promoted to captain on 1 July 1974.  In January 1975, Captain Aitcheson reported as prospective commanding officer of fast combat support ship Sacramento (AOE-1) and assumed command in April 1975 at Bremerton, Washington, deploying to the Pacific and Indian Ocean.  

Following attendance at the Senior Officers Ship Material Readiness Course at Idaho Falls, Idaho, Captain Aitcheson assumed command of carrier Coral Sea in March 1977 while the ship was deployed to the Western Pacific in February–October1977.  

In June 1978, Captain Aitcheson reported to the staff of Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, at Camp Smith, Oahu, Hawaii, as chief of the Current Operations Division. In September 1979, he was designated a rear admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank, and he reported to the staff of Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, as deputy chief of staff for the Management/Fleet Inspector General. He was promoted to rear admiral on 1 October 1980.   

In June 1981, Rear Admiral Aitcheson assumed command of Carrier Group SEVEN at NAS Alameda and NAS North Island, embarked on Ranger and other carriers. In August 1983, he was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as director of Command and Control Planning and Programming Division. Rear Admiral Aitcheson retired on 1 July 1985.  

During his career, Rear Admiral Aitcheson amassed 6,700 flight hours and 782 fixed-wing recoveries (traps) on aircraft carriers.  

Rear Admiral Aitcheson’s awards include the Legion of Merit (at least one award, and probably three); Bronze Star with Combat “V”; Meritorious Service Medal; Air Medal with Numeral “7”; Navy Unit Commendation; Meritorious Unit Commendation; China Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Vietnam Service Medal (four campaign stars); Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross Color); Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device; and Republic of Vietnam Navy Distinguished Service Order–First Class.   

After retiring from active duty, Rear Admiral Aitcheson flew as a civilian test pilot in 1990–1991 for Navy, Air Force, and civilian aerospace contractors in the F-4C and F-4D, F-100, F-86, and “T-bird” (T-33). He was a Golden Eagle Emeritus.  

A private burial will be held at Miramar National Cemetery.  

During the course of the Vietnam War, over 60 U.S. Navy wing and squadron commanding officers/executive officers lost their lives because they led by example and from the front; the culture did not allow them to ask their pilots to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. By the time Commander George Aitcheson was in such a leadership position, the war had become very unpopular (as evidenced by groups such as “Vietnam Veterans against the War”) and it was clear that the U.S. policy was to get out rather than to win. And yet, he continued to do his duty to the utmost, leading his squadron in numerous combat missions. On the night of 21–22 November 1970, his squadron participated in a highly secret operation in which attack aircraft from Oriskany (and Ranger) flew into North Vietnam to stimulate and confuse North Vietnamese air defenses, resulting in numerous ineffective SAM launches. Due to the (absurd) rules of engagement at the time, the attack aircraft were unarmed, using only flares and chaff to convince the North Vietnamese that a major attack was underway. The pilots also did not know “why” they were flying this mission, and yet they went in anyway, because they had leaders like George Aitcheson to trust. The Son Tay POW camp rescue attempt failed because the POWs had been moved, but the Navy diversion was very successful, enabling the Son Tay raid to get in and out with minimal damage. The Navy’s role in this operation was so highly classified that the OPORDERs and records were destroyed (even the commander of Seventh Fleet wasn’t informed beforehand). So, while the Son Tay raiders were showered with medals, it was as if the Navy operation had never happened.  

George Aitcheson chose to enter the U.S. Navy as the Korean War was raging (and also becoming unpopular). He proved to be an extraordinary pilot, selected to be a test pilot and then later becoming an instructor for test pilots. This was dangerous business, and his experience was instrumental not only in improving the performance of U.S. Navy aircraft but also in enabling safer operations, bringing down the very high operational loss rate that existed in the 1950s. He no doubt displayed exceptional leadership throughout his career, although possibly his toughest challenge came as CO of CVAW-15 when he was asked to lead his wing into combat on the Ho Chi Minh Trail after the Vietnam Peace Accords had been signed, and he did. In the movie The Bridges at Toko-ri (about U.S. naval aviation in the Korean War) the last line is, “Where do we get such men?” That certainly applies to Rear Admiral Aitcheson—and our Navy and nation still owe him, and our Vietnam veterans and their families, an immense debt of gratitude.  

Rest in Peace, Admiral Aitcheson.