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Legacy of Navy’s ‘Top Gun’ Pilot Continues


Capt. William Perkins, commanding officer, Naval Air Facility (NAF) El Centro, hosted Marc and Torben Vraciu, the son and grandson of the late WWII Navy fighter ace, Cdr. Alexander Vraciu, during a summer tour onboard NAF El Centro, 2021.

A legendary pilot in naval history, Cdr. Alexander Vraciu was a ‘Top Gun’, Navy Cross recipient, and Medal of Honor nominee during WWII. At the end of the war, Vraciu ranked fourth among the Navy’s flying aces, with 19 enemy planes downed during flight and 21 destroyed on the ground. NAF El Centro officially named their airfield “Vraciu Field” in 2019 to honor the hero who had direct ties to the base.

“It was an honor to meet members of the Vraciu family as they carry Alexander Vraciu’s legacy forward,” said Perkins. “Throughout NAF El Centro’s 75-year history, our claim to fame has been that nearly every aircraft carrier aviator will spend time here. Many come back multiple times to use our bombing ranges during critical training for the nation’s missions downrange, and all of them learn the Vraciu legacy.”

Marc Vraciu is the youngest son of Cdr. Alexander Vraciau and named after Adm. Marc Andrew “Pete” Mitscher, a pioneer in naval aviation. His son Torben toured the facility of his grandfather’s namesake with aspirations of someday following in his footsteps as a Naval aviator and perhaps attending the Naval Academy.

“Torben is proud and inspired by his grandfather’s legacy,” said Marc. “We might have a future flyer in the family if Torben’s path leads to the Naval Academy. He would certainly be the talk of the town. Whatever decision he makes, he now has a better understanding of his identity and how he can carry this forward in the future.” 

Vraciu was tagged to be the skipper of VF-51, assuming command in March 1956. Flying FJ-3 Furies, the “Screaming Eagles” prepared for the annual aerial gunnery meet at NAF El Centro in January 1957. It was the highlight of every fighter squadron’s year. He would continue to train warfighters at NAF El Centro until retiring his helmet on Jan. 1, 1964, after 3,550 hours and 141 carrier landings.

“Early in the base’s legacy, the Fleet Air Gunnery Unit, the pre-cursor to ‘Top Gun’, operated from NAF El Centro,” said Perkins. “In addition to learning air-to-ground bombing skills, air-to-air gunnery was taught in the skies over the Imperial Valley. These skills, exhibited by Vraciu during WWII combat missions and honed at NAF El Centro, are critical in carrier-based airpower’s success during operations around the globe from the 1940s, until today.”

Touring the facilities at NAF El Centro, Torben Vraciu was inspired and stated, “It would be an honor to serve like my grandfather.”

The mission of NAF El Centro is to support the combat training and readiness of the warfighter. This includes air operations support to operational fleet and training squadrons as well as squadrons from other services (Marine Corps, Army, Air Force) and international military partners.

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