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Fostering the Birth and Growth of U.S. Naval Aviation

For many years after the Wright brothers made history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, human flight still wasn’t taken seriously by most Americans; it was a novelty, a circus act, performed by daredevil “birdmen.” The U.S. Navy was firmly among the skeptics, despite the urgings of a small, passionate group of enthusiasts who claimed the airplane was on the verge of changing the way wars were fought. Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss was one of the most prominent of these advocates; in the summer of 1910, he simulated aerial bombing and gunnery exercises in front of naval officers near his aviation laboratory at Keuka Lake, near Hammondsport, New York.

When one of Curtiss’ pilots, Eugene Ely, became the first to land an aircraft on the deck of a ship in January 1911, the achievement, while impressive, still seemed perhaps a bit too improvisational to Navy brass: As Ely brought his pusher biplane down onto a wooden platform built above the deck of the USS Pennsylvania, he was wearing a football helmet and, because he couldn’t swim, several inflated bicycle inner tubes hitched under his armpits. To slow the momentum of his plane, steel hooks mounted on his undercarriage – not much different from today’s tailhooks – caught several ropes that had been stretched across the deck and weighted at their ends with heavy sandbags. This first arresting device had been introduced by another Curtiss pilot, Hugh Robinson, who had seen it used in his previous life as a circus performer.

After Kitty Hawk, the Navy had made some room for aviation within its organizational structure, appointing Capt. Washington I. Chambers its officer in charge of aviation matters, and Chambers convinced the Navy to approve the purchase of two Curtiss biplanes, one a “flying boat” equipped for takeoff and landing on water. Curtiss had offered to train pilots for both the Army and the Navy at his facility on North Island, San Diego Bay, and Chambers took him up on his offer. Lt. Theodore Ellyson – who was given the designation Naval Aviator No.1 – and several of his colleagues began training at North Island in 1911.

Douglas DT-2

A Douglas DT-2 torpedo bomber of Torpedo Squadron (VT) 2 shown in 1923. It was Douglas Aircraft’s first contract of a long association with the Navy, could be rigged with wheels or floats, and featured folding wings.

Because naval aviation was so new, even its most ardent advocates didn’t have a clear vision of what it should look like. One group, including Pennsylvania commander Capt. Charles F. Pond, urged the Navy to build a fleet of ships that could serve as floating airfields from which aircraft could take off and land. Others, including Chambers, thought such a configuration would interfere with the ship’s gunnery and leave it vulnerable; he advocated instead for the use of amphibious planes that could be raised and lowered over the sides of ships by rigging cables.

Naval aviation developed slowly in its early years. Some rudimentary work in solving the problems of naval aviation and weaponry had already begun: Rear Adm. Bradley Fiske had conceived and researched the idea of arming aircraft with lightweight torpedoes to attack naval ships and submarines. Cmdr. Cleland Davis had designed the Navy’s first true recoilless machine gun – the Davis gun, which essentially mounted two guns back to back, to fire simultaneously – as an airborne antisubmarine weapon. Ellyson and Lt. Cmdr. Henry Mustin had made the first successful catapult launches from ships. Most of these innovations remained in their early developmental phases, however, throughout World War I, which the United States entered in April 1917. The Navy had one operating air station, 48 available aviators and students, and 54 aircraft on hand.

World War I: Naval Aviation’s First Test

The infrastructure for creating and arming a fleet of naval aircraft ramped up during America’s 19-month involvement in World War I. In 1918, the service concluded it would build its own aircraft factory, for three reasons: It wanted to assure supply of at least part of its aircraft inventory; it wanted to generate cost data to help guide future dealings with private manufacturers; and it wanted its own facility for producing experimental designs. The Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF) was established in 1918 at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

Though Chambers had been replaced by then-Capt. Mark Bristol as the Navy’s officer in charge of aviation in 1914, it was Chambers’ vision of naval aviation that prevailed in World War I – perhaps merely because no “floating airfields” had yet been built. The Navy’s greatest need was for flying boats, built to the Curtiss design, that could perform long-range anti-submarine patrols. The first aircraft built at the NAF, a twin-engine H-16 flying boat, first flew on March 27, 1918, and the NAF’s first order, for 50 H-16s, was completed in July. Later that month the first experimental aircraft designed and built at the NAF, the N-1, made its fourth successful flight and the first in-flight test of the Davis gun.

Much World War I naval aviation was devoted to anti-submarine patrols, and Allied naval aviators managed to attack and damage a dozen German submarines. By war’s end, the Northern Bombing Group, composed of four squadrons each of Navy and Marine Corps aviators, were flying missions from 27 stations in Europe, as well as other stations in Canada, the Azores, the United States and the Panama Canal Zone.

The performance of naval aviators in World War I convinced the U.S. Navy – which now had 2,000 aircraft – of their importance, and the service began its serious and sustained pursuit of arming the fleet. To enable further experiments in seaborne aviation, the first U.S. aircraft carrier, Langley, was created in 1920 by building a flight deck atop the collier Jupiter. Jupiter’s commander, Capt. Joseph M. Reeves, became Langley’s commander and one of the leading early tacticians of carrier aviation.

In 1921, the Navy placed Adm. William Moffett at the head of a new Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer), with responsibility for the design, procurement, and support of naval aircraft and related systems. The responsibility for developing aerial weapons, however, remained with the Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd), a circumstance that would create occasional friction for decades to come.

SOC-1 Seagull

Then-Rear Adm. Ernest J. King, completing his tour of duty as chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, (BuAer) with his personal SOC-1 Seagull.

In the postwar years, the Navy began to expand its naval aviation work among existing facilities:

At Naval Air Station (NAS) San Diego, located at Curtiss’ former North Island Facility, the Navy opened its first Assembly and Repair Department to modify, repair, and support naval aircraft. North Island remains a Fleet Readiness Center and Logistic Support Activity for NAVAIR today.

At the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, beginning in the early 1920s, the Navy began to develop bombsights that would continue to perform regardless of a plane’s roll or pitch.

The Naval Aircraft Factory, which had turned its attention away from production to focus on experimental designs, began to evaluate torpedo-launching gear, and the Navy bought its first torpedo bombers, modified Martin MB-1 biplanes, in 1921.

N3N-3 “Yellow Peril”

A Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-3 “Yellow Peril” training aircraft in 1942. The NAF produced 997 N3Ns for the Navy and Marine Corps from 1935 to 1942. It was the last aircraft produced by the Naval Aircraft Factory – wholly owned by the U.S. Navy.

The Navy established NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, just east of the Naval Aircraft Factory, in 1921 for use as an airship station and home to its lighter-than-air program.

In 1935, the Navy’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger, joined the Langley, Lexington, and Saratoga at North Island, where each anchored its own air group. The commanders of these carriers, and the aviators who flew from their decks, honed the tactics – including dive-bombing and aerial combat – that would make the U.S. Navy a lethal threat in the coming war.

World War II: A Show of Strength

The remarkable postwar growth of naval aviation required some refocusing: In 1937, BuAer decided to consolidate the service’s various aviation test programs at Cedar Point, a spur on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay coast just southeast of the nation’s capital. Construction at the site began after the U.S. entry into World War II, and it was formally dedicated NAS Patuxent River on April 1, 1943. During World War II, hundreds of combat-experienced pilots arrived at “Pax River,” as it was known, to test airplanes.

The United States launched its war effort after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, and the Navy accelerated its aviation work. BuAer established a Special Devices Section within its Engineering Division to create “synthetic training devices” that could increase the readiness of pilots and aircrews. Throughout the war, at what would later become known as the Naval Training Device Center on Long Island, New York, numerous training devices were invented, some that would today be called simulators, including one that used moving pictures to train aircraft gunners. Meanwhile, two new Assembly and Repair Departments were stood up – at NAS Jacksonville, Florida, and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, to complement the work being done at North Island.

Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien

A captured Imperial Japanese Army Air Force Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien (Flying Swallow) being tested by the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland, in June 1945.

To provide the Navy with a proving ground for its ordnance, and a site for California Institute of Technology researchers to test experimental rockets, the Navy purchased an old emergency-landing airstrip in the Mojave Desert, at Inyokern, California, and began building larger facilities 10 miles east, at China Lake, now home to Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division. The Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) was formally established there in November 1943. The NOTS became the Navy’s testing and training hub for air-launched rockets, solid propellants, fire-control systems, and guided missiles. By mid-January 1944, fleet squadrons were arriving at the NOTS for weapons and tactics training on weapons like the 3.5-inch and 5-inch aircraft rockets at a rate that required parts and supplies to be flown in daily from San Diego.

The pace of wartime operations compelled the Navy to re-enter the aircraft manufacturing business. After Brewster Aeronautical Corporation went bankrupt and failed to build its quota of 1,500 Vought-designed gull-wing Corsairs, the Navy took over its facilities in Johnsville, Pennsylvania. By 1943, the facility – now Naval Manufacturing Unit (NAMU) Johnsville – was producing 70 Corsairs a month. The Naval Aircraft Factory, also, stepped up to manufacture its N3N trainer biplane, a rugged flyer that helped a generation of aviators learn to fly. In July 1943, the secretary ordered these Philadelphia-area facilities, including NAMU, NAF, and the Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst, to be consolidated into an umbrella organization, the Naval Air Material Center (NAMC) with overall command of production, modification, experimental, and air station facilities.

In November 1944, the BuAer directed the NAMC to study the requirements to test turbojet and turboprop powerplants. At the time, the Navy’s first all-jet-powered airplane, the McDonnell FD-1 Phantom, was under development (a bigger, faster, refined development of the Phantom became the Banshee). The BuAer request ultimately led to establishment of the Naval Air Turbine Test Station in Trenton, New Jersey.

The BuOrd, meanwhile, was wrestling with torpedo issues. The Navy’s mainstay air-dropped torpedo, the Mark 13, was shown to have major problems, proving ineffective at the Battle of Midway and requiring a “low and slow” approach that exposed aviators to enemy fire. By late 1944, BuOrd had turned the Mark 13 into the best air-dropped torpedo in World War II, and meanwhile developed a successor – a torpedo that would home in on targets by means of hydrophones. The resulting Mark 24 torpedo, known as the FIDO, sank its first U-boats in May 1943 after being launched from a PBY Catalina flying boat and a B-24 Liberator. A total of 37 submarines were sunk by the FIDO during the remainder of the war.

Like the rest of the U.S. military, the Navy had entered the war poorly prepared to execute the Allied strategy, but by war’s end, naval aviation had proved indispensable, and it looked nothing like it had in the previous world war. The carrier-based task group, in particular, had emerged as a powerful means of projecting military might – but the atomic bombs that had hastened Japan’s surrender also renewed debates about the costs and benefits of the Navy and its aviators.

Ryan FR-1 Fireball

A U.S. Navy Ryan FR-1 Fireball mixed power fighter at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland, on March 11, 1945. The Fireball had a radial engine pulling from up front and a jet engine pushing from behind. It has the distinction of making the first jet-powered landing aboard an aircraft carrier on Nov. 6, 1945, when a Fireball of VF-41 had to land under jet power aboard USS Wake Island after its radial engine failed on final approach.

These debates were nominally resolved by the National Security Act of 1947, in which the U.S. military underwent the most radical reorganization in its history, combining the armed forces – including the new U.S. Air Force – together into what would become known as the Department of Defense (DOD). The new law defined the Navy as “including such aviation as may be organic therein.” For the Navy, the reorganization was merely the beginning of a long process of streamlining ad hoc efforts that had been launched to solve the problems of war. Over the next two decades, the technical and administrative units of naval aviation would undergo several further realignments.

A Unified Command

As World War II wound down, American naval aviation both contracted and expanded, as facilities closed or consolidated and new technologies showed promise for further investigation. The NAF ended all production in early 1945, and its aircraft test functions were later passed on to the newly formed Naval Air Test Center (NATC), which was established as a separate entity within Naval Air Station Patuxent River on June 16, 1945.

With its support and test functions now organizationally divided, Pax River formalized classroom training for pilots in 1948 at its new Test Pilot Training Division. The Naval Air Station became the site for several important aviation support facilities throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (1958) and the Weapons Systems Test Division (1960).

To complement the work of the NOTS, the Navy in 1946 established the Naval Air Missile Test Center at Point Mugu, southeast of Oxnard, California. The new center would give the Navy a 36,000-square-mile area of open ocean for the testing of guided missiles and components and operates today under the Naval Air Weapons Center Weapons Division.

By the end of World War II, U.S. naval aviation had begun its transition into the age of jet propulsion and “smart” weapons, but this transition was complicated by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. U.S. military objectives – namely, to confine the fighting to the Korean peninsula and avoid a wider war – generally limited air operations. The Grumman F9F Panther, whose prototype had first flown in 1947, had become the Navy’s first successful carrier-based jet fighter, and it became the primary fighter and ground-attack aircraft for Navy and Marine Corps aviators in the Korean War. Carrier-based helicopters (the Navy’s first two helicopter squadrons had been established at Lakehurst in 1948) made a significant contribution in rescue and evacuation, coastal patrol, and short-range supply missions.

Grumman F9F-2 Panther

The eighth production U.S. Navy Grumman F9F-2 Panther in flight in 1949. The Panther was one of the Navy’s most successful early jet fighters. Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 2011.003.281A.001
Author U.S. Navy

While the Korean War was being fought, researchers at the NOTS were developing what would become the air-intercept missile (AIM) 9 Sidewinder, a heat-seeking short-range air-to-air missile that downed its first target, an F6F Hellcat drone, in September 1953. The Sidewinder and its variants have become the world’s most-used and -copied air-to-air missiles, and have seen service in every engagement between Western armed forces and their adversaries since its development. NOTS engineers, on the heels of Sidewinder’s success, began to adapt some of its technology to develop a glide bomb – the Walleye – that could be guided remotely by means of embedded television cameras. The Walleye made its first hit on a NOTS target in 1963. It was the progenitor of generations of guided weapons that would evolve into the standoff precision munitions in use today.

A World War II-era problem that continued to trouble DOD leaders in the 1950s was the amount of time it took to field new weapon systems, which were plagued with delays throughout a byzantine process of requirements, approval, contracting, and reporting. The Navy’s BuOrd had been criticized during the war for failing to remediate flaws in its submarine-launched torpedoes, and while it continued to work with BuAer to improve coordination on aerial weapons, Navy leadership had already set another solution in motion.

Vought F8U-1T Crusader

This Vought F8U-1T Crusader (later designated the TF-8A) was one of many unique or unusual aircraft to be tested at Patuxent River. It was thought that a two-seat trainer version of the Crusader would aid pilots in mastering a sometimes difficult aircraft with a high accident rate. There was only one “Twosader” ever built, however, constructed by modifying the 77th production F8U-1 (F-8A BuNo 143710). It also served as the prototype for the F8U-2NE (F-8E).

In 1957, a special committee led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Reuben B. Robertson Jr. issued its final report on its studies of the delays and conflicts in the development of aircraft and weapons. The Navy acted swiftly on the committee’s recommendations: It established a long-range objectives group in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, and managers for each weapon program within BuAer. The problem remained, however – particularly with increasingly sophisticated weapon systems that required integration of aerial weapons and onboard targeting systems – that BuAer and BuOrd needed to be brought under a single command. In 1959, the two bureaus were merged into a newly created Bureau of Naval Weapons (BuWeps).

The new bureau, however, was only a temporary solution, as the Navy was on the verge of concluding that the “bureau system” that had existed since 1840 was discouraging its organizations from working together. In 1966, the Navy replaced its bureaus with “system commands,” or SYSCOMs, which gave internal leaders authority over broader functional areas.

One of the six new SYSCOMs was the Naval Air Systems Command, or NAVAIR, which would assume authority over the full life cycles of naval aviation aircraft, weapons, and systems operated by sailors and Marines. Activities under NAVAIR’s authority included research and development, design, acquisition, test and evaluation, training facilities and equipment, repair and modification, and in-service logistics and engineering support.

Navy RA-5C Vigilante

A U.S. Navy RA-5C Vigilante in flight off the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland. The RA-5C heavy reconnaissance aircraft was delivered directly to the NATC for testing in June 1963, the first of those modified from their original A5A/A3J bomber configuration.

The components of NAVAIR, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, were well established, from Pax River to Point Mugu. But as the United States became drawn further into the conflict between Communist insurgents and Democratic governments in Southeast Asia, a new kind of warfare was emerging, one that would test the new command’s ability to respond swiftly and decisively to new issues in naval aviation.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...