Naval Aviation: 100 Years of Military Flight at Sea

Celebrating the science and art of naval aviation.

(August 2011) Just after 11 o’clock on a chilly San Francisco morning, Jan. 18, 1911, a 24-year-old civilian demonstration pilot named Eugene Ely coaxed his 50 hp Curtiss pusher biplane into the sky, made a wide circle over San Francisco Bay and set down on the deck of the anchored U.S. Navy armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania. Relieved that he’d safely accomplished the never-before-attempted feat, the young man from Iowa climbed out of his airplane to greet a throng of Navy brass, civilian dignitaries and newspaper reporters assembled for the occasion. He must have seemed an odd figure amidst those adorned in crisp Navy uniforms or stylish suits and homburg hats. His leather flying cap, goggles and heavy coat made him an unusual sight, but there was something else as well: Ely had wrapped his body with bicycle inner tubes, a makeshift flotation device for a flyer who couldn’t swim.

With Ely’s landing and his subsequent takeoff from the same ship less than an hour later, the era of naval aviation was officially born. The feat might have been celebrated two months earlier, on Nov. 14, 1910, when Ely took off in a different Curtiss pusher from the deck of the USS Birmingham moored at Hampton Roads, Virginia. But as soon as the airplane’s wheels left the end of the 83-foot platform runway, the fragile craft plunged in a scene straight from Red Bull’s modern-day Flugtag, splashing into the water before miraculously rising again. A terrified Ely, his goggles covered in spray, immediately landed on a nearby beach rather than circle around to the Norfolk Navy Yard as planned.

If you’ve never heard of this courageous young pilot and protégé of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, it’s understandable. Ely’s career as an aviator was distinguished, but sadly it was also brief. He earned his pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America on Oct. 5, 1910 (Certificate No. 17) and was killed in a crash at a Macon, Georgia, flying exhibition a year later, on Oct. 19, 1911. That a young man a mere month removed from earning his pilot’s license would be pressed into service by the U.S. Navy to demonstrate the first aircraft carrier operations is a testament to those bygone times, and it leaves a lasting impression of the brave vanguard of aviators without whom flying could not have flourished as it has in the course of the last hundred-plus years.

The history of naval aviation after 1911 is every bit as fascinating as the chronicle of the pursuit of manned, heavier-than-air flight itself. These two stories, in fact, are interwoven in ways that inevitably shaped both. Seven years earlier, the United States military might have laid claim to the first manned, powered flight had the catapult launching system for the aircraft designed by Samuel Pierpont Langley, endowed with a $50,000 government grant, not suffered a mechanical failure on Oct. 7, 1903, and then again on Dec. 8 — abortive attempts both made on Washington, D.C.’s Potomac River immediately preceding the Wright brothers’ successful first flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The Wrights too might have had more influence over the designs of the earliest Navy airplanes, except that when invited to participate in the first launch of an airplane from a Navy ship’s deck, the brothers from Ohio politely declined. The honor went instead to the pioneering Curtiss, who reveled in the opportunity to prove that an airplane could not only take off from a ship, but safely land on one as well. Later tests would show that airplanes could also safely take off and land from ships under way. Within two years of the start of flight activities, the era of naval aviation was blossoming under the direction of Navy Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, who signed the purchase orders on the first U.S. Navy airplanes.

Paradoxically, while the worth of aircraft in armed conflict as aerial scouts, pursuits and bombers was clearly demonstrated during World War I, the start of hostilities in Europe actually conspired to put the brakes on naval aviation’s nascent development as men involved in the activity of flight instead went off to fight a war in the trenches of Europe. But by the end of the conflict, the Navy had built up its aviation capabilities, turning out flying boats and seaplanes by the hundreds. At the start of World War I, the Navy’s first and only air station, located at Pensacola, Florida, had 38 naval aviators and 54 fixed-wing aircraft. Two years later, by the time of the signing of the armistice in November 1918, the air station was manned by 438 officers and 5,538 enlisted men and had trained more than 1,000 naval aviators. At war’s end, seaplanes, dirigibles and balloons were housed in steel and wooden hangars stretching a mile down the air station beach.

The Great Navy Fighters
In the years immediately following World War I, naval aviation training activity slowed considerably. It wasn’t until 1935 that the Navy began anew turning out aviators in appreciable numbers. As nations again edged toward world war, NAS Pensacola experienced a vast expansion, and by the start of World War II this station alone was graduating more than 1,100 naval aviators a month. The growth of naval aviation during World War II, it has been said, was one of the true wonders of the modern world, as the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States and Japan into the fiercest seafaring fighting that history has ever known. Airplanes, of course, played central roles on both sides of the conflict.

The Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber was given a vital responsibility in the early days of the war in the Pacific, serving as the Navy’s main dive bomber until 1943. Although it suffered from a lack of speed and maneuverability, the rugged and dependable Dauntless more than held its own against the Japanese fighters it faced and sank more Japanese ships than any other aircraft during World War II. Likewise, the Navy’s PBY flying boats, while perhaps already past their prime at the start of the war, command a legacy as being among the most widely used multi-role aircraft of World War II, serving in diverse missions from submarine hunting and patrol bombing to convoy escort and search and rescue. With more than 4,000 built, it can be argued that the long-range PBY was as important in the war in the Pacific as the B-17 Flying Fortress was in the European Theater during World War II.

No single aircraft better exemplifies what U.S. naval air power was all about during World War II than the Vought F4U Corsair. The first single-engine fighter capable of level flight at more than 400 mph, the Corsair is immediately recognizable for its inverted gull wing, which made it dead sexy but, more importantly, also allowed for the design of a lighter, shorter landing gear. The unusual design was needed to maintain adequate clearance for the Corsair’s 13-foot-diameter propeller connected to what was then the biggest and most powerful engine available on a fighter aircraft — the legendary 1,800 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial. Pratt & Whitney’s mechanical masterpiece endows the Corsair with a sound through the air more distinctive than any other World War II-era fighter with the exception of the legendary P-51 Mustang. The Corsair was known to the Japanese as “whistling death” because of the sound of the air flowing through the oil coolers when an F4U pilot threw his airplane into a dive.

The Corsair entered service in 1942 and remained in the arsenal of several navies even through the 1960s. Although designed from the outset as a carrier fighter, landing the F4U on carrier decks proved difficult from the outset. The Corsair was a slick airplane with tricky slow-speed handling and a poorly designed landing gear that tended to bounce the airplane, causing it to miss the arresting wires. This, together with the poor visibility over its long nose, made landing a Corsair on a carrier an activity fraught with danger. For these reasons, most Corsairs initially went to Marine Corps squadrons and shore-based Navy squadrons that operated off runways on land. Still, the Corsair was the most formidable fighter in the Pacific Theater, with a kill-to-loss ratio of 11:1. A complete redesign of the hydraulic cylinders finally fixed the Corsair landing gear’s shortcomings.

The F4U-5, introduced in 1945, incorporated a number of other design modifications intended to increase Corsair’s overall performance and add many pilot suggestions. It featured a more powerful 2,300 hp Pratt engine with a fully automatic two-stage supercharger. Other improvements included electric trim control, automatic cowl flaps and a gyroscopic lead-computing gun sight. The modifications allowed the Corsair to continue fighting with the Navy and Marines through the Korean conflict, reborn in a ground-attack and night-fighter close air support role.

Space constraints prevent a discussion of all the great Navy fighters produced throughout the ensuing decades, but suffice it to say there have been many. The Grumman F4F Wildcat deserves special recognition as the Navy fighter that came closest to matching the Japanese Zero in the early part of the war. Likewise, the F6F Hellcat occupies a coveted spot in naval aviation lore as the most deadly fighter ever pressed into service, with more than 5,270 confirmed shoot-downs and an overall kill ratio during World War II of 19:1.

In Korea, the Navy F9F Panther proved the dominance of jet aircraft over North Korea’s prop-driven fighters, yet these advanced U.S. airplanes were still generally overmatched by the new, swept-wing MiG 15 jet interceptor, which mainly tangled with the Air Force’s F-86 Sabres. But by 1960, the Navy had at its disposal the Mach 2 McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, which packed the power to enable its skilled pilots to engage and disengage from the fight at will. An icon of Vietnam, the F-4 holds the distinction of being the last fighter to attain ace status in the 20th century.

By the mid-1980s the more modern Grumman F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet replaced the F-4. The F-14 was the U.S. Navy’s primary air superiority fighter and tactical reconnaissance platform from 1972 to 2006. The Navy rolled out the first F/A-18 in September 1978, and the airplane remains in the fleet to this day, the most recent version being the highly advanced Boeing EA-18G Growler, an electronic warfare version that replaces the Navy’s EA-6B Prowler.

To meet the changing requirements of naval aviation’s diverse mission, the U.S. Navy and Marines are buying more than 500 carrier-variant Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II fifth-generation fighters, which, when these stealth-capable aircraft begin arriving en masse in 2014, will boast twice the range of the F/A-18 and superior air-to-air fighting abilities to satisfy Navy requirements for at least the next 25 years.

Training Navy Style
Pensacola, Florida, has been called the cradle of naval aviation, and for good reason. It was here, on the grounds of an abandoned shipyard, that the U.S. Navy established its first aviation training station in 1913. Since then Naval Air Station Pensacola has served as the primary training base for generations of Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aviators, as well as the advanced training base for most naval flight officers, and also has been the home of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s precision-flying team, since 1946.

When Pensacola’s training facilities could no longer accommodate the ever-increasing number of cadets accepted by the Navy, two more naval air stations were created — NAS Whiting Field in Milton, Florida, and NAS Corpus Christi in Corpus Christi, Texas. Naval aviators by the thousands learned to fly at the controls of the piston-powered Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, based on the Model 35 Bonanza, and later the T-34C Turbo Mentor. The earliest, piston-engine versions of this venerable primary trainer joined the Navy’s training squadrons in the late 1940s, replacing the legendary North American T-6 Texan, designated the SNJ by the Navy. Naval aviators who flew the subsequent T-34C introduced in 1973 found the airplane was a far more serious machine, as the extra power and turbine lag from the C model’s Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 made it a difficult airplane to fly well. Today, entry-level naval aviators prove their mettle at the controls of the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, powered by a single, 1,100 shp PT6A-68 turboprop.

In 1969, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as Top Gun, opened for business at Miramar, California. In his wonderful, 372-page photo book, Fly Navy: Celebrating the First Century of Naval Aviation, photographer Erik Hildebrandt devotes a section to naval aviation in popular culture, recounting the films and novels that have paid homage to Navy fliers for more than 80 years. While heaping praise on movies like 1931’s Hell Divers, 1949’s Task Force and others, Hildebrandt chooses to focus on the real Top Gun rather than the Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Cruise.

Fans of the movie might not realize how Top Gun training has evolved since its beginnings during Vietnam to meet a new and diverse number of threats. In 1996 the school was moved from Miramar to NAS Fallon in the high desert of northern Nevada, merging into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC). Top Gun instructors have retired their A4s and F5s seen in the movie in favor of F-16 and F/A-18 aggressor aircraft, which more closely mimic the flight characteristics of today’s potential adversaries, such as the MiG 29 Fulcrum. NAS Fallon is also home to a lesser-known fighter weapons school, “Strike U,” which was formed in 1984 to focus on air-to-ground operations. Today, the NSAWC is truly naval aviation’s center of excellence for every aspect of strike warfare, and the lessons graduates take back to their squadron mates cannot be undervalued.

Role of the Aircraft Carrier
Of course, the Navy wouldn’t rule the skies without the modern aircraft carrier, and that includes the thousands of men and women who ensure operations topside continue running smoothly amidst a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hive of flight activity. Since World War II, the U.S. Navy’s carriers have been the force of choice no matter the conflict. In times of crisis, the first question U.S. presidents usually ask is “Where are the carriers?” followed quickly by “Where can they be in 24 hours?”

For a pilot, landing on an aircraft carrier is the ultimate expression of what it means to be a naval aviator — and possibly about the most stressful routine operation any pilot will encounter. First there is the anxiety of lining up and planting your wheels on something that looks about the size of a postage stamp floating on a pond. The first time a pilot tries it at night and the deck is heaving and pitching in rough seas, daytime carrier landings seem effortless by comparison. Each carrier-based aircraft has an eight-foot-long tail hook bolted to the aft fuselage that the pilot catches on one of the four steel cables stretched across the deck at 20-foot intervals. Snag a cable while still traveling at 150 miles per hour and the aircraft will come to a complete stop in about 320 feet.

The U.S. Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley (named for the man who came tantalizingly close to predating the Wright brothers’ famous feat in 1903), on March 20, 1922. The Langley was badly damaged in the beginning of World War II by Japanese bombers and subsequently scuttled on Feb. 27, 1942. It was one of six carriers sunk due to enemy action during World War II in the Pacific Theater, all but one of them in 1942.

All told, the U.S. Navy has commissioned 76 aircraft carriers, with the 10 in operation today representing the world’s most advanced Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarriers. The newest in the fleet, the 1,092-foot-long USS George H.W. Bush, was commissioned on Jan. 10, 2009, and entered active service this year. Total cost to build topped $6.2 billion.

Welcome to NAS Oshkosh
Want to learn more about the amazing aircraft that have shaped the rich history of naval aviation? The National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola is a great place to start, with more than 150 historical aircraft on display. But if you’d prefer to feel and hear the rumble and roar of these airplanes in person, you’re in luck. The largest collection of naval aircraft ever assembled in one location is coming together for EAA AirVenture 2011 during the Experimental Aircraft Association’s weeklong Centennial of Naval Aviation commemoration at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Spanning unique warbird restorations and replicas to today’s technology-packed Navy fighters, an incredible assortment of aircraft will be on display and in action all week, July 25 to 31, at Wittman Regional Airport. A special parking area just east of Warbird Alley is being dubbed “NAS Oshkosh” in recognition of naval aviation’s special status at this year’s show.

Among the scores of unusual naval aircraft on hand will be several World War II and Korean War-era naval warbirds, including the only flying Curtiss SB2C Helldiver in the world, one of only two airworthy Lockheed PV-2 Harpoons, a Stinson OY1/L-5B Marine Corps observation aircraft that saw combat during the Battle of Iwo Jima, a rare Temco Pinto jet trainer and a Grumman TBM Navy torpedo bomber painted in the same scheme as the one flown by President George H.W. Bush during World War II. Other notable arrivals will include an award-winning North American SNJ Navy trainer, a Grumman F8F Bearcat in a Blue Angels paint scheme, a Grumman J2F Duck Navy amphibian and, of course, rows of Vought F4U Corsairs.

The Vietnam War era will be represented by a Douglas R4D (C-47/DC-3), Douglas AD Skyraider, Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and North American T-2 Buckeye, to name a few. Bookending the centennial attractions are a replica of the Curtiss-Ely pusher that made that first carrier landing on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania back in 1911, and more than 25 current naval aircraft repainted in colors from previous eras.

There is no other place where one can witness such a historically significant gathering of aircraft representing all the eras of naval aviation over the past 100 years. The event will not only honor the heritage of these legendary warbirds, but also the brave men and women who have served and sacrificed in them as their stories came to life.

And what a story it has been.

View our 100 Years of Aviation Photo Gallery.


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