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Tailhook Assn.'s Long Climb Back to Respectability

Scandal: The aviators' group shows signs of overcoming the stigma from its infamous 1991 convention.

September 13, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SPARKS, Nev. — 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'

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