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NEWS | April 5, 2011

The Centennial of Naval Aviation

By Capt. Rich Dann, Centennial Director of History Courtesy of Capt. Rich Dann, Centennial Director of History

Joint Base Charleston, the home of Charleston Air Force Base and the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek, S.C., is proud that this year's Air Expo will pay tribute to the Centennial of Naval Aviation by featuring a trio of WWII Pacific Theater demonstrations: "Tora, Tora, Tora," a simulation of the Jimmy Doolittle raid on Tokyo, featuring the B-25 bomber, "Panchito" and a recreation of the Battle of Midway.

Naval Aviation began when Glenn Curtiss, a young entrepreneur from Hammondsport, N.Y., began producing lightweight, powerful engines. Between 1908 and 1910, Mr. Curtiss helped build a number of aircraft and set several early aviation records, including the first long-distance public flight from Albany to Governors Island, N.Y. on May 29, 1910.

On Nov. 14, 1910, Mr. Curtiss' demonstration pilot, Eugene Ely, flew the "Hudson Flyer" from a temporarily erected flight deck on the fo'c'sle of USS Birmingham while at anchor in Chesapeake Bay. Two months later, Mr. Ely demonstrated the ability to land on a ship as well, this time on a temporary deck erected on the fantail of the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay.

Simultaneously, Mr. Curtiss was training Army and Navy officers at his newly-obtained winter flying school on North Island in San Diego Bay.

On Feb. 17, 1911, Mr. Curtiss flew his "hydroaeroplane" in San Diego Bay, landing next to USS Pennsylvania. The ship's crew hoisted the aircraft aboard, lowered it back to the water, meeting the requirements set by the Secretary of the Navy, convincing him to appropriate money for aviation.

The Navy's first aircraft - the A-1 Triad was delivered to Hammondsport July, 1, 1911. This day would later be adopted as the official birth of naval aviation. Marine Corps aviation began May 22, 1912, when Alfred Cunningham reported to the Naval Academy for flight instruction and became the fifth Naval Aviator and the first Marine Corps aviator.

In April 1914, Navy aircraft were ordered to sea aboard Navy ships to support American forces involved in the Mexican revolution. Lt. Pat Bellinger and Lt. Richard Saufley took fire from enemy forces, becoming the first American aviators to do so April 25.

Naval aviation expanded tremendously with the onset of America's involvement in World War I. While American industry lagged far behind that of the European powers, the U.S. contribution came in the form of anti-submarine aircraft, namely from the Curtiss Company. World War I saw several naval aviation firsts, including the first naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor and first Ace, Lt. j.g. David Ingalls.

Perhaps the most notable technical accomplishment in the first decade of naval aviation was the conquest of the Atlantic Ocean by air. Three Navy Curtiss flying boats embarked May 8, 1919 and 19 days later, landed at Lisbon, Portugal.

The Navy embarked on incorporating modern construction techniques into aircraft with the introduction of the Grumman, FF-1. With semi-monocoque aluminum construction, enclosed cockpits and retractable landing gear, the FF-1 was far advanced of contemporary aircraft in its class.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan embarked on a massive military operation to disable the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Although a majority of the fleet was caught in port, the aircraft carriers were at sea and able to conduct future operations. In the early months of the war, American aircraft carriers conducted raids in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, giving ship and plane crews combat experience.

Several events in the following months would change the fortunes of the Japanese in the Pacific War. The Doolittle Raid, April 18, 1942, saw 16 U.S. Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bombers launch from the deck of USS Hornet and fly more than 600 miles, striking targets in the Tokyo area. While tactically insignificant, the psychological effect was tremendous, causing Japan to withdraw equipment in the combat zones to defend her homeland.

Another milestone was the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first battle in naval history where opposing forces were not in sight of each other. Although a tactical victory for the Japanese, it was a strategic win for the Allies, causing Japan to cancel plans for further expansion into New Guinea.

1943 marked a turning point in naval aviation. Advanced aircraft designs, such as the F4U Corsair, F6F Hellcat and SB2C Helldiver entered squadron service, while the new Essex-class fast attack aircraft carrier and the smaller light and escort carriers reached quantity production. The smaller carriers, in concert with long-range, land based Navy patrol aircraft, provided much-needed anti-submarine support for Atlantic convoy escort.

After the war, jet propulsion reached a design maturity resulting in the F9F Panther and F2H Banshee. Another new technology resulted in the helicopter, which reached a level of technical competence that allowed for it to be a useful platform.

Following the establishment of the United States Air Force, an effort was made to place all U.S. military aircraft under that branch. Additionally, the Secretary of Defense agreed with the Air Force that their strategic bombing force of B-36s intercontinental bombers could eliminate the need for shipboard naval aircraft, and by default, aircraft carriers. Several high-ranking naval officers publicly disagreed with this philosophy in what was known as "The Revolt of the Admirals." The argument was rendered moot by the North Korean invasion of South Korea. Navy and Marine Corps aircraft were first on the scene to support allied troops and would play a key role throughout the conflict.

In the mid-1950s another distinct technological revolution took place. Jet aircraft, with their slow throttle response times and higher landing speeds made carrier operations more hazardous. In 1952, USS Antietam was fitted with an "angled" flight deck where landing aircraft were effectively separated from launching aircraft. This innovation, combined with improvements in arresting gear, catapults and landing signaling systems were essential to allow jets to operate safely. The USS Forrestal was the first supercarrier and was able to operate the larger aircraft such as the A3D Skywarrior.

As the 1960s began, the Navy commissioned its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier as another regional war in Southeast Asia was brewing. American intervention in Vietnam began in the early 1960s and by 1962, the first naval aviation assets were deployed in the form of Helicopter Medium Lift Squadron 362. More naval aviation would follow during the next 13 years and would play a major part of combat operations, both in the air and in support of troops on the ground.

The end of the Vietnam War signaled another revolutionary shift in aircraft and weapon development. New aircraft were procured, namely the S-3 Viking and F-14 Tomcat and later, the F/A-18 Hornet and SH-60B Seahawk.

In August 1990, Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. The first offensive striking power on station was USS Independence and by the time that the war began in January 1991, nearly 30% of aircraft in theater were either Navy or Marine Corps. Eventually six aircraft carriers and numerous land-based naval aviation units would participate in combat operations in the 42-day war.

Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, naval aviation again played a major role in taking the fight to the enemy. When Operation Enduring Freedom began, the only method of striking targets was via carrier based strike aircraft, since no status of forces agreements were in place for land-based operations. The invasion of Iraq in March 2003, also saw a significant naval aviation presence that continues to this day.

Naval aviation assets are increasingly being used for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. Operations in support of the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina relief on the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, and Pakistani and Haitian earthquake relief are just several of many such efforts where naval aviation played a key role.

As we begin the 100th year of Naval Aviation, it is still relevant and a uniquely American capability. No other nation has the depth of capability with a naval air arm as the United States. Naval Aviation will continue to serve well and faithfully through the next 100 years.