Still Flying on Wings of Gold
By: T.R. Matson
It was the end of 2004 when, after 48 hours of travel, I arrived at my first fleet squadron, the Wallbangers of VAW-117, that had just pulled into port the night prior in Perth, Australia. I was exhausted from the travel but also very excited to meet my new family with whom I would be for the next three years. After three years of flight school and moving all around the country I was finally in the fleet as a “nugget” or new pilot, and I fully expected to be treated as such. We all heard stories of “FNGs” (new guys) coming to a squadron and not making a good first impression, so I decided to try my best to keep my mouth shut (not an easy task) and my ears open.
The junior officers had rented a condo while in port, which I learned was called the “Admin” and was a tradition. It was a place to get away from the squadron, have fun, and unwind. I entered the Perth Admin as most members of the squadron were recovering from a hard night. I did not know it at the time, but the morning after the first night in port tended to be a rough one as everyone had let loose the night prior after being at sea for a long time. It was like walking into the lion’s den, and I was fresh meat. I took it all in stride knowing it was all part of Naval Aviation, and I was just happy to be there. While most of my fellow squadron mates were nice, only a few stood out to really enjoy giving me a hard time. On the other hand, one stood out as exceptionally friendly. LT Cameron “Gazer” Hall came down the stairs looking for a bottle of water and saw me. He immediately shook my hand and welcomed me to the Wallbangers. I could tell right away that something was different. He seemed to genuinely care about me. He asked about my trip and if I had any questions about squadron life or needed anything.
Over the time that I served with Gazer I realized that was just the person he was. It didn’t matter if you were a Pilot or Naval Flight Officer (NFO), he looked out for those around him. Whether he knew it consciously or not he was always trying to make you a better person. One unique quality I learned about Gazer was that while he was the life of any party, he was also an absolute professional in the back of the Hawkeye. I would see him control large groups of aircraft with a degraded Hawkeye radar, all while mentoring the junior NFOs, and never break a sweat. I learned a lot from Gazer, but the most important thing that I learned was that those around you, those closest to you, are the most important thing. He once told me, “It is one thing to possess the skills needed to do this job, but if you cannot pass those skills on to others then it doesn’t mean a thing.”
After serving together, Gazer went on to the Greyhawks of VAW-120 to be a Fleet Replenishment Squadron (FRS) instructor. He would teach the future NFOs of the Hawkeye all the skills he had honed, both in and out of the aircraft, over his years with the Wallbangers. While serving at the FRS, Gazer volunteered to be part of the Naval tradition of carrier qualification. One of the last phases of training for a Hawkeye pilot was to complete both day and night landings aboard an aircraft carrier before moving on to be a fleet pilot. Gazer’s love of flying was so great that he volunteered to sit alone in the back of the Hawkeye, which is a requirement, to ensure the aircraft was operating properly during these flights. This would mean long flights, both day and night, and many landings at the ship with new pilots trying to get qualified. For Gazer it was an opportunity to share the milestone of Naval Carrier Aviation with the next generation of pilots.
On August 15, 2007, Greyhawk 620 launched off of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) with new pilot LT Jerry Smith, instructor pilot LT Ryan Betton, and LT Cameron “Gazer” Hall in the back. The flight would last less than 10 seconds as the Hawkeye crashed shortly after the catapult launch into the ocean with no survivors. It was a tragic day for Naval Aviation and the Hawkeye Community and even more so for those who knew the crew. As for the Wallbangers, we were back at sea on another deployment and the news hit us hard. I will never forget the tears from my squadron mates as they recounted story after story about Gazer over the years. Rarely in this world have I met someone that lifts others up as much as Gazer did. While he left this world far too early, he was the kind of person who lived every day to its fullest. We should all learn a lesson from Gazer that while there are no guarantees in life, we can be the best we can be today and lift those up around us to do the same. Many years later I still think of Gazer when I go fly. The job of being a pilot is inherently dangerous at its core, but somehow I feel safer knowing that I have friends like Gazer looking down on me, guiding me to make the right decisions, and ensuring that I always find a long runway to land on with calm winds. I have to doubt in my mind that Gazer is up in the clouds with a smile on his face, soaring like an eagle on his Wings of Gold.