“It’s nice to be in a place like this where I’m not the oldest man in the room,” said Neil Armstrong to the 2009 reunion of the Flying Midshipmen Association.
Some in the room were impressed with how comfortable and calm Armstrong seemed – then, and most of the time.
Armstrong wasn’t old at all when he pinned on naval aviator’s wings at Pensacola, Fla., on Aug. 16, 1950. The date was a fortnight past his 20th birthday, but Armstrong later said he was 19 at the time. Although he did most of his test flying as a civilian, Armstrong initially became a Navy pilot after earning his wings as the youngest – he said – member of the little known and now nearly forgotten Aviation Midshipman Program.
Beginning in 1946 as part of a program devised by Vice Adm. (later, Adm.) James Holloway, 3,600 high school graduates entered the Aviation Midshipman Program and 58 percent earned wings of gold, although the precise number is not known. These pilots remained “Flying Midshipmen” and did not receive regular Navy commissions as ensigns until two years after entering the program. Armstrong was an ensign by the time he flew in combat in Korea, but a handful of others were still Flying Midshipmen when they went into battle. The program ended in 1951.
It was common in the early 1950s for naval aviators to ask one another: “Did you get your commission the hard way or the Holloway?” Aviation midshipmen called themselves “Holloway’s Hooligans.” Their mentor was the father of a future chief of naval operations. Well-known Aviation midshipmen included Jesse Brown, the first African-American to complete naval aviator training, and Eugene Tissot, who later commanded the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN/CVN 65).
In a 2003 interview, former Aviation Midshipman Vincent Dauro said, “No one quite knew what we were.” He added: “Although we occupy a part of naval history, it is difficult to find us in any official recounting of history. For example, United States Naval Aviation 1910-1980 NAVAIR 00-80P-1 [an official Navy reference work] has no entry for us. And there are no official records compiled that list our members.” The Flying Midshipman Association was formed in part to correct the record and to publicize the group. Its most famous member was Armstrong.
They are both gone now. Armstrong died Aug. 25, 2012. The Flying Midshipman Association decommissioned itself May 8, 2011. “We wanted to stand down while we could hold our heads high,” wrote the group’s president, Louis Kriser.
Before he became a civilian test pilot and astronaut, Armstrong flew F9F-2B Panthers with VF-51 “Screaming Eagles” off USS Essex (CV 9) and had to eject from an aircraft on Sept. 3, 1951 after being hit by gunfire. Refuting other accounts, Armstrong later wrote that he “was not in a spinning dive, did not get [down] to 20 feet [and] did not hit a telephone pole.” Armstrong wrote that he had elevator control damage and that he hit “what I believe was a cable strung across the valley” before bailing out.
Small wonder Armstrong was little fazed when he ejected from the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle near Houston on May 6, 1968. If he sounded unusually calm when announcing a “giant leap for mankind” on the lunar surface the following year, it was because Armstrong was calm nearly all the time.