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Pioneers Pushing the Envelope

Centennial of Naval Aviation

At the cutting edge of today’s naval aviation striking power, the newest U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77) is a modern marvel of technology, prowess and potential. But the new carrier is also the culmination of a long and proud tradition.

Naval aviation is about ships, planes and helicopters, but above all it is about people. The carrier Bush – apart from the retired Forrestal, the only American carrier ever to be named for a naval aviator – will soon be making history with a new generation of people. They’ll be following in hallowed footsteps.

The Bush and her crew will add new chapters to those written by naval air heroes like Eugene Ely, who piloted a fabric biplane off a ship deck in 1910, or David McCampbell, who shot down 34 Japanese warplanes in 1944, or Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space in 1961. Just as naval aviation and naval aviators have made their mark from the Coral Sea to Inchon to Yankee Station, the tradition will continue with the new carrier, her ship’s company, and her air wing.

And a proud tradition it is: Experts disagree on exactly when and where naval aviation was born, but one early milestone came in March 1898, when Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt directed naval officers to meet with Army leaders to evaluate an aircraft then being planned by air pioneer Samuel Langley. There was no immediate result to Langley’s endeavors – which included the attempted launch of an aircraft from a boat in a river – but there was more to come. Wilbur and Orville Wright completed humankind’s first sustained, powered flight on Dec. 17, 1903. The Navy was not following the Wrights’ work closely, but it did have a sharp eye on the wood-and-canvas airplanes being developed by another early pioneer, Glenn Curtiss.



Cmdr. Frederick I. Chapin, America’s naval attaché in Paris, attended the August 1909 Grande Semaine d’Aviation in Reims. In a report to Washington, he suggested that the airplane might be useful in warfare and suggested two ways airplanes might operate from ships at sea. They might be launched from battleships, Chapin wrote, or they could operate from flight decks mounted on auxiliary ships.

May 8, 1911 is the date usually cited as naval aviation’s true beginning. That’s when the sea service ordered its first aircraft – from Curtiss. Fully a year earlier, Eugene Ely flew a Curtiss biplane from a specially built platform aboard the cruiser USS Birmingham (CL 2). On Jan. 18, 1911, he made the world’s first shipboard landing on the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR 4). The modern aircraft carrier, the Bush included, traces its roots to the Birmingham and the Pennsylvania. The Navy did not yet have a pilot of its very own, but that changed, also in 1911, when Glenn Curtiss personally gave flight training to Lt. Theodore G. “Spuds” Ellyson, 26, the first naval aviator. Annapolis graduate Ellyson assisted in the search for a shipboard launching device for aircraft and on Sept. 7, 1911, made a successful take-off from an inclined wire cable device.

Eugene Ely takes off from USS Birmingham in November 1910. Library of Congress photo.

It was an eventful year. Also in 1911 – a year when half of the aviators in the United States were killed in accidents – the Navy issued a contract for two Curtiss biplanes, designated the A-1 and the A-2.

It was inevitable that the sea and the air would be brought together in some kind of flying machine having both wings and a hull. Navy and Coast Guard officers talked repeatedly about some kind of “air yacht” or “flying ship” that would operate on the world’s oceans and take to the sky. Of the two Curtiss biplanes built initially for the Navy, one was completed in a configuration that would become familiar in the Navy for decades. It was a flying boat.

In July 1911, this Curtiss A-1 Triad seaplane began flying from Lake Keuka near Hammondsport, N.Y., with Curtiss making the first two flights and Ellyson the next two.

Two more naval aviators joined Ellyson. Lt. John H. Towers was trained by Curtiss, Lt. John Rodgers by the Wrights.

These were the days when enterprising upstarts flew frail, fabric and wood aerial machines with the wind in their wires. Flying was exceedingly dangerous and had inevitable consequences. On June 13, 1913, Ensign William Billingsley was thrown from his Wright pusher 1,600 feet over Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and became the Navy’s first aviation fatality. His death inspired a requirement for safety belts.

During the Great War, the Curtiss H-4 flying boat became the Navy’s first twin-engine aircraft. Naval aviation grew at an impressive speed, and the Navy added guns, and later bombs and depth charges, to the long-distance flying boat. Navy anti-submarine patrols made 30 attacks on German submarines in 1918, although postwar studies documented no sinkings. The 22,000 flights over submarine-infested waters by Navy patrol craft contributed to the safe arrival of every American convoy to Europe. Navy surface warships alerted by airmen – usually with hand signals or other crude methods – were given credit for several successful engagements with U-boats.


Cmdr. Albert C. Read during the flight of NC-4 across the Atlantic. Library of Congress photo.

In 1917, Rear Adm. David W. Taylor established a requirement for the Navy to develop a flying boat that could span the Atlantic Ocean. Prompted by efforts from Towers, now a commander in the Aviation Section in Washington and renowned for finding new ways to do things, the Navy developed a majestic flying boat, the biplane Curtiss NC series, with a wingspan of 126 feet (more than the length of the Wrights’ first flight). In May 1919, one of these planes, the NC-4, pulled off the unprecedented feat of crossing the Atlantic in an 11-day air and sea marathon. Three NCs, including one piloted by Towers, started out, but two fell by the wayside and one of these sank. Towers ended up taxying his aircraft on the ocean surface for more than two days to reach Horta in the Azores. The NC-4 flew a Newfoundland-Azores-Lisbon route, its crew headed by the intrepid and slightly edgy Cmdr. Albert C. Read.

In 1919, Congress authorized the ship that became the USS Langley (CV 1), the first Navy aircraft carrier. In 1926, Cmdr. (later Rear Adm.) Richard Byrd, together with Floyd Bennett, a noncommissioned naval aviator, laid claim to the first flight over the North Pole in a Fokker FVII-3m trimotor airplane with skis. Although experts today believe Byrd and Bennett fell short of the pole, their daring flight – pushing the envelope – began a role in the Arctic and Antarctic that was dominated by naval aviation for decades.

The Navy also pressed ahead with development of observation planes that could be launched from a catapult aboard a surface warship, and retrieved by crane after landing at sea. These planes were intended to scout ahead of cruisers and to direct long-distance gunfire by battleships. In the 1930s, the Vought OS2U Kingfisher first took to the air – the most famous and widely used of these catapult aircraft. The mid-1930s also saw the advent of the legendary PBY Catalina, which was already approaching old age when it achieved greatness in World War II.

Legendary aviators such as Lt. Cmdr. John S. Thach (right) and Lt. (left, later Lt. Cmdr.) Butch O’Hare helped develop the tactics and operational methods for the flood of new pilots and equipment that changed the course of the war in the Pacific. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo.

While the Navy’s carrier force grew on the eve of World War II, biplanes gave way to monoplanes, wood and canvas construction was replaced by metal, and the Navy acquired new planes like the F4F Wildcat fighter and the SBD Dauntless dive-bomber that turned the tide at Midway in 1942. The F4U Corsair and F6F Hellcat were not far behind. Again, the naval aviators at the controls were mavericks – like Lt. Cmdr. John S. “Jimmy” Thach, skipper of Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3), who sat at a kitchen table in Coronado, Calif., and with matchsticks developed the defensive fighter tactics credited with saving untold Navy flyers throughout the war, or Lt. Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, who became the first Navy ace of the new war and earned naval aviation’s first Medal of Honor when he shot down five Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers on Feb. 20, 1942.


During World War II, as in the early days of flying, naval aviation enjoyed an edge because naval aviators were willing to take risks and push the envelope. Naval aviation, of course, included Marines, like Joe Foss, who shot down 26 Japanese aircraft and was awarded the Medal of Honor for a prolonged effort of Guadalcanal that encompassed 51 days in late 1942 and early 1943. Naval aviation also included Coast Guardsmen, like those in patrol squadron VP-26, who scoured the North Atlantic for wolf packs of German U-boats.

Naval aviator David McCampbell, who had been near the bottom of his class at Annapolis, swam away from the carrier Wasp when a Japanese submarine sank her in September 1942. He returned to the war and was air group commander in 1944 aboard the carrier Essex. “He could be irreverent at times,” said an aviator who knew him. “You might not invite him to a garden party. But he had the stuff of leadership and he knew how to shoot.”

McCampbell and his Hellcat took large chunks out of Japan’s navy in the Marianas and at Leyte Gulf. He became the Navy’s top ace, ever, and the only pilot of the Fast Carrier Task Force to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Cmdr. Frank A. Erickson, USCG, and Dr. Igor Sikorsky (right) aboard a Sikorsky Helicopter HNS-1. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The turn of the tide in the Pacific saw Navy flyers supporting the landings at Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima. The Navy’s F4U Corsair fighter,initially cast off to the Marine Corps, proved especially adept at supporting ground troops and was able to fight its way out of a jam as well. As Americans landed in the Philippines and on Okinawa, moving closer to the Japanese heartland, the primary threat to the fast carriers came from suicide aircraft called Kamikaze – the name of a “divine wind” that had interceded to protect Japan from invaders centuries ago. This time, it did not help.

On the home front, Coast Guard Cmdr. Frank Erickson defied conventional wisdom by taking to the sky in a new kind of aerial machine that went straight up. In an HNS-1 helicopter, Erickson flew the world’s first helicopter lifesaving mission in January 1944, and soon afterward demonstrated that helos could operate from ships by landing on the cutter Cobb. From 1944 onward, the helicopter would always be part of the Navy’s story.

A Navy scientist armed the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945. Fast carrier forces closed in on Japan. The carrier air groups flew their last combat over Japan in August 1945. Naval aviators had shot down 6,826 Japanese aircraft. More than 7,100 Navy and Marine Corps pilots and crew were killed in World War II carrier operations alone. At war’s end, naval aviation had become the Navy’s premier weapon.

Demobilization and downsizing followed V. J. Day. It was a critical juncture, for the Navy was beginning its long shift from propeller to jet aircraft. The Department of Defense was established in 1947. That year, measures were taken to strengthen the Naval Air Reserve program that has since become an essential component of overall naval operations.

For a time, as the world plunged deeper into the Cold War, critics wondered whether the Navy’s biggest enemy was the Soviet Union or the blue-suiters of the U.S. Air Force, which became an independent service branch in September 1947: In the “Revolt of the Admirals,” Navy leaders fought hard for a new supercarrier, the USS United States (CVA 58) and found themselves pitted against Air Force generals pushing for the B-36 bomber. The admirals lost, and the Strategic Air Command gained a foothold in Washington’s budget battles that it never relinquished.


The U.S. was unprepared for the North Korean attack on South Korea on June 25,1950 and when the carrier USS Valley Forge (CVA 45) rushed to the scene, naval aviation was entering a new era. Navy carriers in the Sea of Japan launched air strikes for 37 months in poor weather or worse (the weather in Korea was almost never good), while land-based Navy aircraft flew reconnaissance and anti-submarine missions. In the air-to-air arena, the Navy was unprepared for the Soviet MiG-15. The straight-wing Grumman F9F Panther remained the service’s standard fighter, while MiGs and Air Force F-86 Sabres, with higher performance and swept wings, clashed over the Yalu River. One Navy pilot, Cmdr. Guy Bordelon, became the war’s only air ace to fly a propeller plane – using his F4U-5 Corsair to shoot down five night hecklers.

A VF-24 F9F Panther seen over Task Force 77 during the Korean War. National Archives photo.

Always a leader in rotary wing aviation, the Navy introduced the world’s first turbine-powered helicopter, the Kaman K-225. By the time of the Korean War, both the Navy and Coast Guard were introducing variants of the K-225 to service. More obscure was the Bell HSL, the world’s first helicopter designed expressly for anti-submarine work – not placed into production, but paving the way for a strong emphasis on ASW throughout the Cold War.

During and after Korea, the Cold War always had top priority in the E Ring of the Pentagon, where the Navy’s top officer, the chief of naval operations, resides. In the 1950s, dozens of Lockheed P2V Neptune squadrons stalked the 450-boat Soviet submarine fleet. The Navy pioneered development of air-to-air missiles, including the Sidewinder that became a spectacular success. There were also innovative ideas in the 1950s that didn’t quite make the grade – a tail-sitting fighter designed to take off straight up, a jet-powered waterborne fighter. The Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), starting with Polaris, were central to U.S. planning for the nuclear war that never came.

In the 1950s, the admirals’ quest for a truly postwar aircraft carrier was met with the 78,000-ton USS Forrestal (CVA 59) in the 1950s. In the post-Korea years, the Navy continued making technical and scientific advances. The F8U Crusader became the service’s first jet fighter capable of going supersonic in level flight. The Navy introduced the mirror landing system and ground-level ejection. The keel was laid for the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVAN 65).

Astronaut Alan Shepard steps aboard USS Lake Champlain (CVS 39) from the recovery helicopter after his sub-orbital flight as the first American in space. His Mercury capsule, Freedom 7, is secured on deck behind him. NASA photo.

Not every idea worked. The Navy never fielded a jet-powered flying boat even though it tested one – the beautiful P6M Seamaster. Thoughts of a nuclear-powered flying boat never reached fruition. Turboprop-powered fighter planes that could stand on their tails and take off vertically never became operational and look comical today, but a different approach produced the Marine Corps’ short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) AV-8 Harrier.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were dominated by events in space. Naval aviators were assigned to NASA as astronauts. In 1961, Cmdr. Alan B. Shepard rode the Mercury Redstone MR-7 vehicle into space. A year later, Marine Corps Lt. Col. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Former naval aviator Neil A. Armstrong took the first walk on the Moon in 1969.

Dirigibles and later blimps were an important part of the Navy’s story for decades, but that era ended when the last blimp flew a mission in 1962.

Just four years later, when the final mission by a Martin SP-5B Marlin was completed in Vietnam, the Navy ended its use of flying boats, although the Coast Guard continued to operate HU-16E Albatrosses for a decade longer. The possibility of some future, high-tech flying boat that would owe its heritage to Glenn Curtiss but draw its design  from the digital world is never far from the minds of naval aviation planners.

VA-55, VA-164,  and VA-212 A-4F Skyhawk aircraft of Attack Carrier Wing 21 prepare to launch from the flight deck of the attack aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA 19) for a mission over North Vietnam on May 25, 1972. U.S. Navy photo.

The Vietnam war was the longest in American history and challenged naval aviation, from carrier decks to inland riverways. One of the first Americans in the Vietnam war was a Navy lieutenant, Ken Moranville, who turned over AD Skyraiders to Saigon’s air arm in September 1960. F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader pilots battled North Vietnamese MiGs near Hanoi and, after overcoming early flaws in training and readiness, gave a good account of themselves. But as usual, the real war was closer to the ground. Naval aviators flew armed Huey helicopters and OV-10 Bronco planes on river convoy duty and prowled the coast for North Vietnamese infiltration.


After Vietnam, naval air still had its upstarts and visionaries, and was plagued by a material inventory decline, but continued to make progress in research and development, witness the Navy’s introduction of the F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet. Addition to the fleet of the new S-3 Viking and the LAMPS (light airborne multipurpose system) SH-2D Seasprite helicopter were intended to curb the Soviet submarine threat. Another landmark was passed on Feb. 22, 1974, when Lt. (j.g.) Barbara Ann Allen – a new kind of maverick – became the first female naval aviator.

In 1982 and 1983, naval aviators fought in Grenada and Lebanon. In 1986, then-Vice President George Bush, who had been a naval aviator in World War II, officiated at a ceremony to commemorate naval aviation’s 75th anniversary. That year, Navy warplanes flew air strikes against Libya. The decade ended with naval aviators assuring passage of friendly vessels in the Persian Gulf, where the threat came from Iran. Two years later, attention shifted to Iraq. It was the beginning of a new era, one that still required vision and a willingness to push the envelope.

Iraq’s Aug. 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait led to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, with Navy land and carrier-based aircraft flying thousands of missions. The war against Iraq vindicated actions that had been made in the 1980s to foster “jointness,” with the military services serving under a single Joint Forces Air Component Commander (JFACC), in this case Air Force Gen. Charles “Chuck” Horner. For once, the Air Force was not the “enemy” and co-operation was the order of the day. Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles went “downtown” to Baghdad and wreaked havoc in Saddam Hussein’s capital. Navy F/A-18 Hornets and A-7 Corsairs destroyed more of Iraq’s MiGs on the ground than all coalition air forces destroyed in the air.

An F/A-18 Hornet assigned to the Knighthawks of Strike Fighter Squadron One Three Six (VFA-136) conducts a combat mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by Capt. William E. Gortney.

When the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, took place, USS Enterprise turned around and headed to join USS Carl Vinson and prepare for strikes on Afghanistan. USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Kitty Hawk, and later USS John C. Stennis, joined the Enterprise and Vinson to launch strikes on Afghanistan unlike any flown before. The location of Afghanistan and politics over basing rights meant that U.S. Navy aviators had to carry a major part of the load over Afghanistan. Naval aviators flew missions up to 10 hours in F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats, the latter of which had been transformed from fleet defense fighters into superb strike aircraft. Squadrons set records for flying hours, and other records as well. Better than 84 percent of Navy sorties hit their targets, 93 percent of the munitions used were precision guided, and on an average mission each Navy aircraft struck more than two targets. More importantly, because aircraft had to be kept overhead friendly forces at all times, 80 percent of Navy sorties were launched against targets unknown to the pilots when they were catapulted from the deck, and this responsiveness was vital to the soldiers and Marines on the ground. Similar achievements became commonplace over Iraq.

Today, Navy leaders feel they have completed the transition from Cold War priorities to the expected conflicts of the future. The Navy’s carrier decks are increasingly populated with F/A-18E/F Super Hornet warplanes capable of both air-to-air and air-to-ground action, while the service looks ahead to the future F-35B and F-35C Lightning II slated to become operational in 2015. The Navy’s SH-60 Sea Hawks, once used to stalk the mighty Soviet undersea fleet, now perform reconnaissance and conventional fighting duties applicable to smaller-scale actions in Third World crisis spots. Today, the planes fly on microchips, are made of composite matter, and burn JP-8 aviation fuel. Back in the beginning, they were made of wood and fabric, and steered by human muscle. Naval aviation really is leaner and smarter than in the past but still, as always, led by pioneers with an eye on the future.

This article was first published, in slightly different form, in Freedom at Work: USS George H.W. Bush CVN 77.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...