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Naval Aviation in the Tidewater

Suppose we mounted one of your 6-cylinder, 2-passenger machines on top of a turret 30 to 40 feet above water and steamed into a 10 knot breeze at the rate of 18 to 20 knots per hour, holding on until the engine had worked up full speed. In this way the inertia of the machine would have been overcome, or, it would have gathered acceleration of the ship’s speed, say 20 knots. Then if the ship’s engines were stopped and the aeroplane cast off, would the drop of 30-40 feet be sufficient to allow the machine to fly before touching the water?” – Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, USN, Feb. 26, 1912, in a letter to Orville Wright


Naval Station Norfolk has the distinction of being naval aviation’s founding home, and Naval Air Station Oceana was constructed during World War II as an auxiliary air base for Norfolk. Together these two bases contributed important chapters in the creation, development, and advancement of naval aviation.

Commissioned in 1917 as Naval Operating Base Norfolk, Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval station. The base occupies about 4,300 acres and includes 4 miles of waterfront space and 7 miles of pier and wharf space, supporting 75 ships and 134 aircraft alongside 14 piers and 11 aircraft hangars. Its population includes almost 83,000 active-duty personnel and 112,000 family members, and employs about another 30,000 civilians. Its Air Operations conducts an average of one flight every six minutes, amounting to 275 flights per day and more than 100,000 flights per year.

Naval Air Station Oceana was commissioned as Naval Auxiliary Air Station Oceana, Va., in 1943, and subordinate to the Norfolk military complex. After World War II concluded, it was expanded to serve as a home station for tactical air units. Oceana became a Master Jet Base in the 1950s, the first of only two remaining in the nation, with Naval Air Station Lemoore at Lemoore, Calif., being the second. Since 1943, Naval Air Station Oceana has grown 16-fold and presently contains about 6,000 acres. It is home to more than 9,700 Navy personnel and approximately 12,300 of their dependents, and employs almost 2,000 civilians. It is home to 20 fighter and strike squadrons and conducts approximately 219,000 training operations per year.

SB2C-5 of Torpedo Squadron VT-74

SB2C-5 of Torpedo Squadron (VT-74) pictured in flight over NAAS Oceana, VA. U.S. Navy photo

Norfolk Naval Station’s role in naval aviation history actually predates its commissioning as a Navy base. On Nov. 14, 1910, off the coast of Sewell’s Point near land that in 1917 would become Naval Station Norfolk, Eugene Ely became the first man to fly an airplane off a warship. An historical footnote event arguably suggests that Norfolk’s role actually began not in 1910, but 49 years earlier, during the Civil War.

In August 1861, balloonist John La Mountain ascended in a balloon tethered to the U.S. Navy collier George Washington Parke Custis anchored off Sewell’s Point. La Mountain proceeded to conduct reconnaissance of Confederate positions, sketching fortifications and artillery sites, and attempted to spot the location of the ironclad CSS Virginia. Historian Craig L. Symonds, a retired U.S. Naval Academy professor of history and Civil War expert, puckishly offers that this operation makes the George Washington Parke Custis the nation’s first aircraft carrier and La Mountain the first to pilot an aircraft off a warship. Regardless of whether one accepts the tenuous claim date of 1861 or the conventional one of 1910, in both cases Norfolk makes its mark as America’s first site and original home for naval aviation. Naval Station Norfolk has had many names over the years. To avoid confusion, the name Naval Station Norfolk, which became official in 1999, will be used throughout the article.

Norfolk’s association with nautical operations reaches back to colonial times when, in 1620, shipbuilder John Wood applied for a land patent from the crown and developed the site into a shipyard. Official U.S. Navy interest in heavier-than-air flight for military purposes began in 1896 when, at the behest of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, a joint Army-Navy board was created to examine recent aviation developments prior to the start of the Spanish-American War. The board’s final report recommended funds be earmarked for further research. Though the Army arranged for seed money, the Navy’s Construction Board rejected the report, claiming that an expenditure at the time was both premature and unsuited to the Navy. It was the first, but by no means the last, time the Navy’s bureaucracy in those early years would impede naval aviation development.

In December 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully flew the first motorized airplane. Six years later airplane development had progressed to the point where, in August 1909, France was able to host the world’s first international air show and flying competition, the Reims Air Meet. The Wright brothers chose not to attend, though some competitors flew their aircraft. Their rival, Glenn Curtiss, did and won two trophies. Among the many observers to the event was Cmdr. Frederick L. Chapin. Upon his return to the United States, he submitted a report recommending that airplanes be deployed on battleships and that new ships possessing a flight deck be constructed. Senior Navy leadership rejected the recommendations.

SBD-3 at NAS Norfolk

Ordnancemen loading belted cartridges into SBD-3 at NAS Norfolk, Va., September 1942. U.S. Navy photo

A third recommendation followed just a few months later. On Nov. 9, 1909, Navy Lt. George W. Sweet became the first American naval officer to fly when, as a passenger, he went up in one of the Wright brothers’ airplanes. In the report he filed, Sweet recommended that the Navy purchase the Wright airplane. Even though Sweet’s recommendation had the backing of his superior, Chief of the Bureau of Equipment Rear Adm. William S. Cowles, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Beekman Winthrop, supported by the Navy’s senior leadership, rejected the recommendation, stating that airplane technology had not “progressed sufficiently at this time for use in the Navy.”

By now all the major European nations were investing heavily in the development of military aviation. It was the U.S. Navy’s unfortunate fate to be caught in the dawning of this new technology at a time when it had already committed itself to battleship construction. In addition, Secretary of the Navy George Meyer had introduced an administrative reform called the “Aide System” designed to simplify the existing bureaucratic structure, reduce the independent power of the bureau heads, and promote intra-bureau cooperation. For the most part, Meyer’s system did not achieve its goal. But the first Aide for Material, Rear Adm. William H. Swift, picked as his assistant a man who would become a powerful advocate for naval aviation: Capt. Washington Irving Chambers.

Chambers, an 1876 graduate of the Naval Academy, had by this time established his reputation as one of the Navy’s leading intellectuals. He had taught at the Naval War College and while assistant chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, contributed to the design of torpedoes and, the Navy’s first all-big-gun battleships. Because of his interest in new technologies and experience with the Navy’s bureaucracy, Chambers would prove to be the right person in the right place at the right time for naval aviation.

Chambers had already had aviation conversations with Sweet and had witnessed various flights of both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air aircraft. But it was not until he was tasked with dealing with the overwhelming amount of civilian correspondence advocating the revolutionary power of aviation for the military in September 1910 that he became a vocal champion of naval aviation.

TBF/TBM Avenger

Personnel from an unidentified torpedo squadron pictured in front of a TBF/TBM Avenger at Naval Auxiliary Air Station Oceana, Va., circa 1944. U.S. Navy photo

In October 1910, the Navy’s bureaucracy received a fourth recommendation regarding U.S. Navy use of aircraft. This one they couldn’t ignore or dismiss. Adm. George Dewey and the Navy’s General Board, an advisory group of senior officers, submitted a recommendation that the Navy’s new scout cruiser, USS Chester, be equipped with airplanes. Now, instead of aviation being none of the Navy’s business, there erupted a turf war to claim it. The heads of the Bureau of Engineering and the Bureau of Construction and Repair promptly submitted separate requests to be the responsible bureau for the new aviation program. When Chambers learned of this, he immediately went to Winthrop and managed to get him to agree to order that both bureaus coordinate all aviation matters through Chambers. A more awkward and inefficient managerial arrangement would be hard to find: Chambers was responsible for personnel, policy-making, and the general direction of the program; the Bureau of Engineering was responsible for aviation engines; and the Bureau of Construction and Repair was responsible for the planes themselves. On top of that, possessing the temporary rank of rear admiral by virtue of their position, the bureau chiefs outranked Chambers, a mere captain. This meant they could bypass him whenever they chose, which turned out to be often. Incredibly, Congress authorized the arrangement and it remained in place for years.

As bad as it was, at least it was something, and Chambers was determined to make the most of it. He soon submitted a proposal for a Naval Aeronautics Office that would establish a national aeronautic laboratory that would conduct research on aviation with respect to the Navy’s needs and develop doctrine and requirements for pilot training and aircraft. But the bureaucratic door had been opened only a crack regarding the subject of naval aviation, it had not been flung wide open. Chambers’ proposal promptly fell on deaf ears.

Clearly if Chambers was going to get anywhere, he had to conduct a demonstration. With that in mind, in October 1910, he attended the International Air Meet at Belmont Park in Long Island, N.Y. Among the people he talked to were aircraft designer Glenn Curtiss and 24-year-old Eugene Ely, one of his test pilots. At another air show near Baltimore, Md., in early November, he again saw Ely give a flying demonstration. When Ely learned the purpose of Chambers’ visits, the pilot volunteered to fly the Hudson Flyer pusher biplane that Curtiss agreed to provide Chambers. After securing the official approval for the demonstration from Winthrop and funding from aviation enthusiast John Barry Ryan, Chambers had to find a site for his demonstration. He chose a location off the shore of what would later become Norfolk Naval Station. This strategic site at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay had attracted serious attention as a Navy base during the 1907 Jamestown Exposition because the location offered sheltered water in an ice-free harbor. An appropriations bill authorizing the spending of $1 million to purchase the land was introduced in Congress in 1908. The bill died in committee when the assistant secretary of the Navy decided that the Navy needed a new coal ship more than it needed a new base. The Navy would not acquire the land until after the nation entered World War I.

FJ-3 Fury fighters VF-61 Jolly Rogers

U.S. Navy North American FJ-3 Fury fighters from Fighter Squadron VF-61 “Jolly Rogers” at Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., circa 1955. VF-61 was assigned to Carrier Air Group 8 (CVG-8). U.S. Navy photo

The cruiser Birmingham was fitted with an improvised flight deck, an 83-foot-long wooden ramp attached to its foredeck and given a 5-degree downward slope to help increase the plane’s speed, and was anchored off the shore of Norfolk. Due to space limitations, the biplane was only able to use 57 feet of the ramp as a runway.

The historic demonstration was scheduled for Nov. 14. Ely, who could not swim, fashioned a life jacket out of a brace of inflated tire inner tubes. At first it appeared that the demonstration would have to be postponed. A line of squalls made flying that morning impossible. The weather began to clear in the early afternoon. But with a new line of squalls approaching, Ely’s flight window was going to be brief. Impatient to get the demonstration over with, Ely climbed into his pilot’s seat and signaled the handlers to spin the propeller to start the engine. Ely applied full throttle, bringing the V-8 engine up to its maximum output of 50 horsepower, about the same delivered by a modern 125 cc motorcycle engine, and at 3:16 p.m., took off from the Birmingham’s flight deck.

But the Hudson Flyer had not gained enough airspeed. Instead of taking to the air upon clearing the edge of the ramp, the onlookers saw the Hudson Flyer plummet toward the water. Ely pulled up on his controls and managed to lift the nose of his airplane. Even so, the plane’s undercarriage hit the water, sending up spray that damaged the propeller and temporarily blinded him. Realizing that he had to make an emergency landing, Ely flew to the closest ground he could see. Five minutes later he touched down on Willoughby Spit, about two and a half miles away.

It was a near disaster. Even so, naval aviation was born.

In June 1917, two months after the United States entered World War I, a law was passed authorizing the Navy to purchase for $1.2 million 474 acres, most from the former Jamestown Exposition site, to establish the Norfolk Naval Station. An additional $1.6 million was set aside for development of the base.

Construction commenced on July 4, 1917, and within six months the base was flourishing. Almost immediately the base outgrew its original boundaries and about 8 million yards of dredging was conducted in the flats north and west of the base to allow for the berthing of capital ships and seaplanes. This almost doubled the size of the base to 792 acres.

Aircraft NAS Oceana

Aircraft around the tower at NAS Oceana. U.S. Navy photo

Naval Air Detachment, Norfolk, was established at the same time and seven student aviators, led by Lt. H.B. Cecil, were initially assigned to the Curtiss Aeroplane Company Field at Newport News, Va. They were soon joined by two ensigns and 15 seamen of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps. Facilities at Newport News proved unsuitable, and in late 1917, the aviation detachment was relocated to Norfolk in the northeastern corner of the base on a portion of the former Jamestown Exposition. Initially 150 acres, which included a half-mile of waterfront and a lagoon, was set aside for the unit,. The air station originally consisted of seven seaplanes, five officers and 20 mechanics, six canvas hangars for the aircraft, and repair maintenance shops, barracks, and mess halls. On Nov. 30, 1917, Lt. Cmdr P.N.L. Bellinger became the air station’s senior naval officer and by the end of the year, 63 students were undergoing flight training and the enlisted personnel complement had grown to 450 men.

Naval Station Norfolk was commissioned on Aug. 27, 1918, with Bellinger appointed the air component’s first commanding officer. The air station’s mission statement included operations in experimental aviation, pilot training, and enlisted personnel instruction in maintenance and repair, as well as anti-submarine patrols over the strategic waterways in the region.

In addition to development and training with heavier-than-air aircraft, the air station built a large dirigible hanger and conducted training in rigid and non-rigid lighter-than-air aircraft until 1924 when that unit was decommissioned.

Early achievements by Naval Station Norfolk’s Experimental Division included testing new aircraft designs, development of the first method of aerial refueling and mail pickup, aerial torpedo launching, and the use of the first aerial cannon, the 37 mm Davis gun, mounted on the HA two-seat seaplane also known as the Dunkirk Fighter.

The end of World War I initiated a general reduction of naval aviation activity. But because Naval Station Norfolk was among the bases not decommissioned, its operations as a result of consolidation actually increased. In 1923, the base’s engineers and draftsmen created the first practical arresting device for aircraft carriers, and installed it on the nation’s first carrier, the USS Langley, a converted collier. They also developed the first naval aircraft catapult device. Even with restrictions caused by congressional budgetary cutbacks and the Great Depression of the 1930s, Naval Station Norfolk became one of the foremost air stations in the nation, and continued its advances in technology and naval aviation doctrine.

In 1940, a new land expansion and construction program was authorized that dramatically increased the size of the naval base. Dredging commenced in marshland southeast of the base and Congress authorized the purchase of 1,000 acres of land that once had been an Army base called East Camp. Included in this expansion was 353 acres set aside for the air station. Bellinger, now a captain (he would retire with the rank of vice admiral), returned as commanding officer and oversaw the construction of new permanent structures to accommodate the new and expanding needs of the air station.

With war clouds looming, Naval Station Norfolk trained air groups for the carriers Wasp, Ranger, Yorktown, and Hornet. In fact, almost every U.S. Navy squadron that fought in the war was trained at Norfolk, with most of them being deck qualified on the escort carrier USS Charger, which acted as a school ship at Norfolk for both squadrons and flight deck personnel.

CH-46D Sea Knight helicopters HC-8  SH-60 Seahawk

Two CH-46D Sea Knight helicopters assigned to the “Dragon Whales” of Helicopter Support Squadron Eight (HC-8) fly for the final time over Norfolk, Va. The squadron’s helicopters were decommissioned on Sept. 24, 2004, and replaced by the SH-60 Seahawk. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Steven Harbour

The air station’s activities and ground acquisition continued to expand after the war. At the height of America’s space program in the 1960s, Norfolk Naval Station assumed an important support role as the Recovery Control Center Atlantic, providing command, control, and communications for ships and aircraft involved in the recovery of the Apollo 7 spacecraft. In 1998, as part of the U.S. Navy’s “regionalization” realignment, the ship and air stations that had been separate were combined into a single installation under the name Naval Station Norfolk.

The base that became Naval Air Station Oceana was created in November 1940. Because of the close proximity of the civilian population to the Norfolk base, it had become increasingly difficult for squadrons to conduct necessary training and workups. To solve this problem, the Navy identified what was then a relatively remote section of swampy farmland about 25 miles east of Norfolk and received authorization from the government to purchase about 330 acres. A small asphalt runway was built, and 32 officers and 172 enlisted men were assigned to the air station. In 1943 at the height of World War II, Congress approved expansion plans for new and longer runways and an increase of personnel to 160 officers and 800 enlisted men. This expanded facility was commissioned Naval Auxiliary Air Station Oceana, Va., in August 1943, with Lt. Jesse A. Fairley as officer-in-charge.

Instead of shrinking or being decommissioned in the post-World War II drawdown, operations actually increased at the Oceana base and by 1952, activity had reached such a high level that on April 1, 1952, the secretary of the Navy elevated the base’s status to full Naval Air Station.

As jet aircraft became operational, the still-remote location and long runways of Oceana made it an ideal base for the new aircraft and Oceana quickly became the center of high performance and advanced naval aircraft, a distinction it has held ever since.

Naval Air Station Oceana is home to a number of major commands, including commander, Carrier Air Wing 1; commander, Carrier Air Wing 3; commander, Carrier Air Wing 7; commander, Carrier Air Wing 8; commander, Carrier Air Wing 17; commander, Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic; Marine Aviation Training Support Group 33; Naval Aviation Engineering Support Unit, Strike Weapons and Tactics School; and Atlantic and Combat Direction Systems Activity. Naval Air Station Oceana presently has four runways occupying more than 7 miles of land that are capable of operating every type of aircraft used by the U.S. Navy.

Naval aviation has come a long way since 1917, and Naval Station Norfolk and Naval Air Station Oceana continue to build on the legacy of Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, Eugene Ely, and others who helped make naval aviation possible.

This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...