Although the official birthday of U.S. naval aviation is 8 May 1911, the U.S. Navy showed early interest in aviation in 1898, when an interservice board was formed to investigate the military possibilities of Samuel P. Langley's Aerodrome flying machines. Not until September 1910, however, was the first official aviation office established, when Captain Washington Irving Chambers was designated as the officer to whom all aviation matters were to be referred. Shortly thereafter, on 14 November 1910, Eugene Ely took off successfully from the USS Birmingham (CL-2), anchored in Hampton Roads, Virginia; just more than two months later, on 18 January 1911, Ely made the first arrested landing in history on the USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) in San Francisco Harbor. A series of memorable photographs commemorates these two significant milestones in aviation history.
Other historic events followed in quick succession that year. Lieutenant T. G. Ellyson reported for flight training as Naval Aviator Number One and was a key figure in demonstrating the Navy's first airplane, the Curtiss A-1. Lieutenant John Rogers and Lieutenant (junior grade) John H. Towers also reported for flight training as Naval Aviators Number Two and Three, respectively. Ellyson's efforts in the development of the catapult included his unceremonious dunking in Maryland's Severn River during an unsuccessful catapult shot at the U.S. Naval Academy in July 1912, as well as his successful launch in a Curtiss A-2 from a catapult at the Washington Navy Yard in November 1912. All these activities are preserved in photographs from the collection of Commander Ellyson.
The years leading to U.S. entry into World War I were marked by significant progress in the Navy's efforts to take aviation to sea. Pilots and aircraft set endurance records and executed the first successful shipboard catapult launch. In 1914, combat sorties were flown at Veracruz, Mexico, and the first permanent air station was established at Pensacola, Florida.
These achievements by a handful of pioneer naval aviators were remarkable in their scope and imagination. Nonetheless, when the United States declared war with Germany on 6 April 1917, naval aviation was ill prepared for such a conflict. Only one naval air station was in operation, and a mere 48 aviators and student aviators and 54 aircraft were on hand. In the ensuing 19 months leading to the armistice, however, programs at new air stations were training thousands of new pilots. All the while, Navy and Marine Corps pilots and planes were engaged actively in patrol and combat missions overseas. It was a remarkable period of growth in numbers and capabilities, and it set the stage leading to World War II.
During World War II, U.S. naval aviation expanded at an unprecedented rate, from a modest, untested peacetime force of one escort carrier, seven fleet carriers, and 1,774 combat aircraft to a fleet of 99 carriers of all types, and 29,125 combat aircraft. Four of the original seven carriers—the Lexington (CV-2), Yorktown (CV-5), Wasp (CV-7), and Hornet (CV-8)—were lost in the great carrier battles of 1942—Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and Santa Cruz. The losses in ships, aircraft, and people soon were replaced the following year. The new Essex (CV-9)-class carriers began to arrive in 1943, as did the Independence (CVL-22)-class light carriers. The smaller escort, or "jeep," carriers, which along with non-rigid airships had performed so well in the Battle of the Atlantic, resupplied the Pacific Fleet with new aircraft, as well as providing invaluable support for amphibious landings.
Naval aviation fought widely diverse forms of warfare over two oceans during World War II. In the process, requirements for new warfighting capabilities precipitated a vast variety of technological innovations in electronics, communications, weapons, aircraft engines, and shipboard damage-control systems. Radar and the proximity fuse played particularly key roles in the Pacific War, as procedures, doctrine, and training evolved rapidly to keep pace with technical advances.
With this unprecedented mix of offensive power, people continued to be the key to success. Many of the pioneer aviators emerged as the leaders, commanding task forces, carriers, and squadrons throughout the war. Marc Mitscher, John Towers, P. N. L. Bellinger, DeWitt C. Ramsey, and Aubrey Fitch all played important roles, as did the younger aviators who became the heroes of the carrier battles in the Pacific. Scores of Navy and Marine aviators distinguished themselves in individual combat while leading their squadrons in the key carrier and island battles of the war. Naval aviators such as Jimmie Thach, Max Leslie, Bill Martin, J. D. Ramage, and David McCampbell, and Marine aces Joe Foss, Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, and Marion Carl provided rare opportunities for photographs and interviews by the photographers and war correspondents who followed the fleet.
Among those who made tremendous contributions to the photographic documentation of naval aviation in World War II were world-renowned photographer Edward Steichen and his group of eight young professionals who were commissioned and sent to the Pacific to ride aircraft carriers and catch naval aviation in action. Many of the Naval Institute's photos are by the Steichen group. Large numbers are by Steichen himself. They are considered classics of the Pacific War.
With war's end came a rapid demobilization and decommissioning of aviation squadrons and carriers, as advancing technologies, such as jet propulsion, guided weapons, and nuclear weapons, effected fundamental changes in how the Navy would wage future wars. By the mid-1960s, helicopters had replaced catapults on the fantail of cruisers and battleships, and the airship and the flying boat, reminders of the golden age of naval aviation, had seen their missions absorbed by land-based patrol planes and helicopters.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Navy had progressed from the first operational carrier-based jets, the FJ-1 Fury and the FH-1 Phantom, to the fourth generation, so-called "high-performance" aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom II and the A-5 Vigilante. The arrival of these two aircraft spurred an all out assault by the Navy on world aircraft performance records. It was a throwback to the golden age, as Navy and Marine pilots took turns breaking most existing world speed and altitude records during the 1959-1962 period.
Of paramount importance to the success of the new airplanes were fundamental changes to aircraft carrier design and construction. From the British came the angled deck, the steam catapult, and the mirror landing system, later to be replaced by the Fresnel lens system. The Essex -class carriers of World War II were modernized, and the first of the so-called "super" carriers, the USS Forrestal (CV-59), arrived in 1955, to be followed by the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 1961, first of the nuclear-powered carriers that became the foundation of sea-based conventional striking power in the 21st century.
Captain Wooldridge retired after 26 years of naval service and enjoyed a second career as a curator and as assistant director for museum operations at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. In one year as an invaluable volunteer, he logged more than 700 hours in the U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive .