Socially distant Wings of Gold
Seven people from the U.S. Navy's HT-18 squadron at NAS Whiting Field got their wings of gold last week in a socially distant ceremony with few attendees — a far cry from the pomp and circumstance that usually accompanies one of naval aviation's most time-honored traditions.
The new aviators were "winged" by either a spouse or a close friend in a short outdoor ceremony, signifying how the military is having to adapt to pandemic precautions as it continues to train the next generation of warfighters.
"It's a mix of disappointment that their families can't be here, but they're also very understanding of the messaging from the air boss about how important it is for them to execute their mission, and to be able to do that, we have to protect the force and keep social distancing," said Justin "Tinkles" Cobb, executive officer of the HT-18 squadron.
The Wings of Gold ceremony at Whiting signals a naval aviator's official completion of basic helicopter training and their entrance into the "unrestricted naval aviator" territory.
The seven who graduated Thursday will go on to train on aircraft in Jacksonville, Virginia, San Diego and Spain as they continue their naval careers.
NAS Whiting Field has implemented several strict safety measures in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, including mandatory temperature screenings for everyone who drives on base and strict social distancing guidelines. All of the aviators at Thursday's ceremony wore masks with their flight suits and were spaced six feet apart from one another.
NAS Whiting Field currently has no confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Ensign Lucas Zalar, a 2014 graduate of Gulf Breeze High School, was one of the seven who received his wings on Thursday. The 24-year-old was winged by his wife, Kristyn Zalar, also a 2014 graduate of Gulf Breeze High.
Zalar said he was disappointed his family and friends couldn't attend the ceremony, but was looking forward to a socially distant celebration afterwards.
"It's just an interesting situation that we're all in right now, but when it comes to challenges, you have to adapt and overcome," said Lucas Zalar, who said it's taken him about two years to get through the initial flight training at Whiting. "This is just one of the ways the Navy has allowed us to celebrate and still get the recognition of getting our wings. It is what it is."
The Zalars will move to Virginia in June, where Lucas Zalar will train on the MH-60S helicopter.
"It's just a weird time, but training helicopter pilots is a necessity for the mission of the military," he said. "We need to be able to keep them going and continue our training. I'm going to miss Pensacola, we both will, but we'll be able to come visit."
Annie Blanks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8632.