The 1966 reorganization that replaced the Navy’s outdated bureaus with Systems Commands (SYSCOMs) finally placed two key functions of naval aviation – aircraft and aerial weapon systems – within a single line of authority: the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). The new command began exercising its untrammeled authority immediately, establishing full organizational and operational control of development and support for aircraft, weapons, training, and support functions. It streamlined the operations of the assembly and repair departments at North Island, California, Jacksonville, Florida, and Cherry Point, North Carolina, and redesignated them Naval Air Rework Facilities, as each developed expertise in servicing and supporting specific aircraft and systems. It moved its center for training and flight simulation from Long Island, New York, to its current home in Orlando, Florida.
Meanwhile, at its primary research and development facilities – Naval Air Station Patuxent River (or Pax River), China Lake and Point Mugu (both in California), and its Philadelphia-area installations – NAVAIR worked to resolve both the short-term issues associated with the escalating conflict in Vietnam and the sustained progress of key aircraft and weapons programs, including:
Helicopters. Historians today sometimes refer to Vietnam as the “Helicopter War.” In a thickly forested tropical region with little infrastructure, mobility and firepower were a must, and the helicopter’s combat role expanded enormously. Throughout the war, the Navy contracted with Bell, manufacturer of the Huey helicopter variants, for aircraft that filled a variety of roles including combat, search and rescue, and supply.
To strengthen the Navy’s surface anti-submarine warfare, NAVAIR in 1970 began development of the Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) program, which initially relied on shipboard electronics and the Navy’s fast ship-based utility helicopter, the SH-2 Seasprite. Later versions of LAMPS involved the SH60B Seahawk, a larger helicopter capable of carrying the required equipment and weaponry.
The next-generation carrier jet. In 1968, NAVAIR issued a request for proposals (RFPs) for the Naval Fighter Experimental program (VFX), a tandem two-seat, twin-jet air-to-air fighter. The aircraft that emerged, the F-14 Tomcat, used design input based on aviators’ air combat against MiG fighters in the Vietnam War. It first deployed in 1974 aboard the USS Enterprise. The F-14 revolutionized air combat, with its variable-sweep wings; a speed of more than 1,500 miles per hour; a radar system that could track up to 24 targets simultaneously; and the ability to carry six Phoenix AIM-54 missiles, each with a range of more than 100 nautical miles.
NAVAIR issued a second RFP in 1974 for its Advanced Experimental Fighter Aircraft (VFAX), a process that resulted in the F/A-18 Hornet, the first tactical aircraft designed for both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The Hornet made extensive use of composites, and was the first tactical jet to use digital fly-by-wire flight controls. It flew for the first time in 1978.
Precision weapons. Activity in Southeast Asia quickened the pace of activity at the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) at China Lake and at Point Mugu. By the mid-1960s, nearly 20 different aircraft types were being evaluated for weapons, targeting, integration, and component projects, as well as fleet training and logistics. NOTS researchers began to lay the groundwork for a new generation of night-attack systems, cluster weapons, and “smart” bombs, including the TV-guided Walleye – which naval aviators used to knock out Hanoi’s main power plant in 1967. Laser-guided munitions, which required the use of a microchip, were first used in Vietnam in 1972, and the NOTS began looking at ways to integrate this technology into rockets, missiles, and bombs.
Vertical takeoff. In 1966, as the culmination of an Army/Navy/Air Force project to develop a prototype vertical and/or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) transport aircraft, a Navy aviator piloted the experimental XC-142A tilt-rotor aircraft on its first carrier flights. While the Navy continued to pursue the tilt-rotor concept, MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, became home to the first operational V/STOL squadron when it took delivery of three British-made AV-8A Harrier “jump-jets.”