In the 1500s, the waters of Florida’s Pensacola Bay drew Spanish explorers aiming to claim land in the name of their country. More than 300 years later, Union Navy ships under Admiral David G. Farragut operated there. Once again, in 1913, a board of officers led by Captain Washington Irving Chambers recognized the bay’s strategic importance—this time not as the foundation of a New World colony or a safe harbor for ships of war, but as a natural runway that would serve well for airplanes, naval warfare’s newest innovation.
In Search of the Ideal Location
From 1910 to 1911, while handling aviation matters for the Bureau of Navigation, Captain Chambers played a key role in arranging civilian aviator Eugene Ely’s shipboard flights using the cruisers USS Birmingham (CL-2) and Pennsylvania (ACR-4). He also signed the requisitions for ordering the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft, the A-1 Triad. In the ensuing years, the Navy’s fledgling aviation establishment had grown to include a handful of airplanes maintained and supported by a small cadre of junior officers and enlisted men. Theirs was a vagabond existence; the winds that carried their airplanes seemingly blew them around to their training and test sites, which were as varied as the sandy landscape of North Island in San Diego Bay; the Caribbean waters off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Greenbury Point, across the Severn River from the U.S. Naval Academy.
The Chambers Board convened to chart a course for aviation in the Navy, resolving to establish an aeronautical center where the service could concentrate its activities. With naval aviation wed to seaplanes, the center would need to be located near a protected body of water from which the airplanes could operate. Cold temperatures had resulted in the suspension of flying at Greenbury Point and the decampment to other locations, so a temperate climate that allowed for year-round flying would be necessary. Pensacola, the westernmost city in the Florida panhandle, offered both. As the site of a recently closed Navy yard, it already had an existing infrastructure of buildings. (They had been inspected the previous November by recently appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt before a contingent of Marines was sent there as diplomatic relations between the United States and Mexico soured.)
Thus the Chambers Board recommended Pensacola as the new home of naval aviation. On 20 January 1914, the battleship Mississippi (BB-23) and collier Orion (AC-11) made their way through Pensacola Pass, past the brick walls of Fort Pickens, and into the bay. On board was the entire naval aviation establishment, which was under the command of Lieutenant John Towers, the Navy’s third aviator. Tasked with establishing the station itself was Lieutenant Commander Henry Mustin, the commanding officer of the Mississippi, who recorded his first impressions of the former Navy yard in a letter to his wife:
We have done some hustling since arrival[,] for the yard is a wreck and the beach we have to use for hangars [is full of] drift wood . . . and all kinds of junk; the whole place is in scandalous condition, and I surely have a job on my hands. It looks as if it had been abandoned 50 years ago and since then had been used as a dump. However, there are fine possibilities in the place.
It would take time for these possibilities to become realities. The logistical challenges that establishing a shore command entailed would take months to overcome. Furthermore, the official designation of Pensacola as a naval aeronautical station—the first in the history of the U.S. Navy—wouldn’t come until November 1914. In the meantime, the aviation personnel lived on board the battleship and worked in canvas tent hangars along the shore of Pensacola Bay. On 2 February, Towers and Ensign Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier took to the skies in two of the recently assembled aircraft, which the Pensacola Journal likened to “giant buzzards.” In April the U.S. naval intervention at Veracruz prompted the dispatch of aircraft and personnel from Pensacola to Mexican waters. The naval aviators’ observation flights over enemy positions were the first aerial combat missions in U.S. military history.
After returning from Mexico, the fliers devoted their attention to integrating aviation into fleet operations. The armored cruiser North Carolina (ACR-12) arrived at Pensacola in 1915, the Mississippi having departed the previous year. The cruiser participated in experiments such as launching seaplanes by catapult while at anchor and under way, an essential technological advancement. During a research visit in 1916 for her upcoming book Old Seaport Towns of the South, popular writer Mildred Cram marveled at the stations’ seaplanes taking off “with a staccato roar and a blinding shower of spray” and the mechanics at work “with the complex, delicate veins and arteries that move the inert body [aircraft] . . . out of the water to the topmost skies.”
New designs from the nation’s fledgling aircraft industry frequently arrived at Pensacola for evaluation, including the Navy’s first airship, DN-1. Aviators increasingly pushed the bounds of flight, foremost among them Lieutenant Richard C. Saufley, who in 1916 reached an altitude of 16,072 feet on one flight and remained aloft for 8 hours, 51 minutes on another. The latter resulted in his death when the aircraft crashed.
Role During World War I
By 1917 hangars built along the waterfront symbolized the station’s permanence, but aviation in the U.S. Navy remained a small affair with just 287 personnel, 54 aircraft, 1 dirigible, and 2 balloons. This stood in stark contrast to the aviation forces of the great powers engaged in World War I, which the United States entered in April of that year. Pensacola grew dramatically following the declaration of war, and was redesignated as a naval air station (NAS) in December. Millions of dollars flowed to construction projects that added some 100 structures and a seawall to the air station, which would become home to an increased number of training aircraft—notably N-9s, the mainstays of primary training well into the 1920s. The ranks of flight students, once virtually all Naval Academy graduates, expanded to include members of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps. Many of them had left their studies at some of the finest colleges in the nation to serve in the newest and most exciting component of warfare.
“This is a very interesting station,” flight student Wayne Duffett wrote his brother in November 1917. “The govt. is certainly hurrying up things—have changed the qualifying hours from 40 to 20 . . . and more machines are coming in every day.” The first flight left a lasting impression on every student, and he was no exception. “I am simply wild about it. We spun along the water until we attained about fifty miles per hour and then gently rose into the air,” he told his parents. “Went about 1200 ft. and flew around awhile. Where the big sensation comes in is where you go ‘over the hump.’ All of a sudden you pitch down and the first thing you know you are once more gliding over the water. Oh! It is the greatest sensation you can imagine.”
Duffett would eventually receive his wings, serve overseas in Italy, and be awarded the Navy Cross. A higher honor would come as a result of actions by Aviation Machinist’s Mate Francis Ormsbee, who heroically dove into the waters of Pensacola Bay to rescue the crew of an N-9 seaplane that crashed during a training flight in September 1918. For his actions, which resulted in a crew member’s rescue, he received the Medal of Honor.
During the Great War, the train station in downtown Pensacola regularly offloaded scores of enlisted men bound for Camp Bennett, a detention camp where new arrivals were kept in quarantine before embarking on courses of instruction as machinist’s mates, carpenters mates, radioman, and specialists to work on aircraft instruments. “It is not an attractive place,” Arthur Niedermiller wrote home. “It is situated on the bay [and] surrounded by the bay, a few trees, and hard white sand.” He spent 21 days in the camp before joining others in assignment to the main station. “We marched first to one place then another. Then into the big mess hall, which must seat almost a thousand men at a time.” To the Michigan native, it looked like an auto plant.
The Interwar Years
By war’s end, Pensacola was not the Navy’s only air station. Similar installations had been established around the United States and abroad. Some remained in operation, assuming the test and evaluation duties that personnel at NAS Pensacola had performed before the war. But the first air station retained its role as the preeminent training location for naval aviators. It adopted a station insignia, a gosling bedecked in a helmet and goggles preparing to take flight from the water, during the interwar years. This symbol only partially conveyed the training objectives of the 1920s and 1930s: Landplane flights were introduced into the traditional curriculum, operating from Station Field (eventually renamed Chevalier Field). Training evolved into a more formalized program that consisted of a concentrated ground school with classroom instruction in engines, Morse code, and other subjects. By the late 1920s, five training squadrons provided flight instruction across a spectrum of platforms that included primary seaplanes and landplanes, observation planes, flying boats, and combat types.
Flight-school classes were small throughout much of this period, especially following the onset of the Great Depression. However, the ranks of those graduating included officers who would become pivotal figures in World War II: Arthur Radford, John S. Thach, Forrest Sherman, John S. McCain, and William F. Halsey Jr. The latter two were among a small group of senior officers who went to flight school at an advanced age and rank to take advantage of regulations mandating that the commanders of aircraft carriers and air stations be qualified as aviators or aviation observers. But their rank gave them no special privileges. Captain Halsey, for example, was tossed into the waters of Pensacola Bay by his classmates after he soloed for the first time, and was forced to wear a medal in the shape of a donkey after he was awarded the “Benevolent Order of the Flying Jack-Ass” for running over landing lights while taxiing.
The passage of the Aviation Cadet Act in 1935, which gave college graduates the chance to earn their wings and serve a period of active duty in the Fleet, brought more trainees to Pensacola. They arrived at an air station already in a state of expansion. The towns of Warrington and Woolsey, which for years had been located outside the brick wall that formed the boundary of the original 19th-century Navy yard, literally moved across Bayou Chico to make way for more structures and hangars.
The new aviation cadets included future fighter aces who would fly against the Japanese fleet at Midway, and Medal of Honor recipients such as Gregory Boyington, who while serving as an instructor at NAS Pensacola in 1941 resigned his commission in the Marine Corps to join the American Volunteer Group, the famed “Flying Tigers.” Among the aviation cadets undergoing training that year was William Prescott. After receiving the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he wrote his parents, “A change has occurred here. . . . There was shocked silence and for several minutes the only sound was the announcer’s voice bringing us the tragic news. . . . I realized then what this strenuous training we had undergone was meaning . . . now.”
Second World War Commences
World War II brought a level of growth to NAS Pensacola dwarfing that of the Great War two decades earlier. “Mainside,” as the air station was known, served as the hub for a network of surrounding auxiliary air stations and outlying fields collectively known as Naval Air Training Center Pensacola. Everyone living in Pensacola was immersed in the sights and sounds of a nation at war. The skies were filled with N3N and N2S biplanes collectively known as “Yellow Perils” because of their high-visibility color scheme, and the streets were awash with uniformed personnel on liberty. One young boy recalled visiting a relative in a distant town and being immediately struck by the silence, his ears having become accustomed to the constant buzzing of aircraft.
While still known as “the Cradle of Naval Aviation,” Pensacola shared the role of training naval aviators with other bases large and small, from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Ottumwa, Iowa. Yet as Marine aviator-turned-Princeton professor Samuel Hynes so eloquently captured in a memoir of his wartime service, Flights of Passage: Reflections of a World War II Naval Aviator, Pensacola had a sense of permanence that did not exist elsewhere due to its links to the earliest days of naval aviation. Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams joined Hynes in taking his commission in the Corps after flight training there; the legendary eyes that made him a great hitter served him well in the cockpit.
International students were also trained there during World War II, including 2,775 British and 58 French students. The base started this longstanding tradition in 1917, when three Argentine Navy students were trained among the first 100 naval aviators. The 173 U.S. Army Air Forces officers who learned to fly seaplanes at NAS Pensacola during World War II foreshadowed present-day joint training there of Air Force navigators and Navy and Marine Corps naval flight officers. Of the 64,770 personnel trained as naval aviators during World War II, some 44 percent received their wings of gold at NAS Pensacola.
In early November 1945, the aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4) moored at NAS Pensacola and spent a few weeks operating from the air station carrier, qualifying aviators. She was not the first carrier to visit—The Langley (CV-1),the Navy’s first flattop, made a port call following her commissioning in 1922. However, the Ranger signaled a permanent change to the air station’s landscape. A string of training aircraft carriers followed her, among them the Monterey (CVL-26), whose wartime crew had included future President Gerald R. Ford, and the Lexington (AVT-16), which called Pensacola home for nearly three decades. These flattops trained a new generation of carrier pilots for service in far-flung Cold War battlegrounds, including outer space. The path to the stars for many astronauts began in Pensacola, notable among them Alan Shepard, Jim Lovell, and Neil Armstrong. Armstrong was part of the Flying Midshipmen program, which also included Jesse Brown, the first African-American to complete the Navy’s flight-training program and receive gold wings.
Another aspect of astronaut training that occurred at the Cradle of Naval Aviation was water-survival training to prepare for emergencies that might arise in splashdown. Trainees had to plunge into a training pool in the “Dilbert Dunker,” a training device first used there during World War II and made famous in the film An Officer and a Gentleman. Though this movie was not made at NAS Pensacola, other films brought stars such as John Wayne, Olivia DeHavilland, and Charlton Heston there.
A Modern Chapter
A new sound had echoed across the sky in the early 1950s as jets—at first training versions of fleet aircraft and then those designed on the drawing board as jet-age trainers—joined the propeller-driven airplanes in Pensacola skies. With the runways of Chevalier Field too short to accommodate them, Forrest Sherman Field opened at the west end of the air station on 2 November 1951. The distinctive blue-and-gold-painted jets of the Blue Angels would soon be among the aircraft based in hangars lining that airfield, as NAS Pensacola has been the home of the Navy’s famed flight demonstration squadron since 1955. (Another major milestone would occur in 1973, when the first female naval aviators reported for training.)
To many an aviation officer candidate, not even the roar of a jet aircraft was as loud and piercing as the voices of Marine Corps drill instructors, whether marching them on the seawall or yelling commands inches from their ears. But the last newly commissioned ensigns graduated in Pensacola in 2007, prior to the consolidation of officer candidate school at Newport, Rhode Island, and those barked cadences are no longer.
Today, NAS Pensacola is one of the largest training establishments in the U.S. Navy, graduating nearly 60,000 officers and enlisted personnel each year. There, modern operations blend harmoniously with the past. Some of the Navy’s newest sailors and Marines march to classes at the Naval Air Technical Training Center in the shadows of hangars from which training aircraft operated from Chevalier Field. Aircraft in formation still fly over one surviving World War I–era hangar, which stands vigil on the seawall. There, one could once see scores of brightly painted seaplanes leaving telltale wakes as they took off from Pensacola Bay, whose waters delivered the first aviators ashore a century ago.
Frank Simpson, Jr. Papers, National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, FL.
Henry C. Mustin Papers, National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, FL.
Mildred Cram, Old Seaport Towns of the South (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1917).
Samuel Hynes, Flights of Passage: Reflections of a World War II Aviator (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988).
Wayne Duffett Papers, National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, FL.
William Prescott Papers, National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, FL.
Aviation Medicine’s Humble Beginnings
Just one month after the first aviators arrived in Pensacola in January 1914, correspondence from the station made the first mention of the unique physical requirements for flying. Early flight physicals were unrefined. In a 1916 letter home, Lieutenant Frank Simpson Jr. described a primitive test for heart rate:
They looked me over for an hour and a half and among other things connected me up with a machine which registers in big red ink curves each heartbeat, breath, blood pressures, etc. The paper record kept rolling out in front of me and I kept looking and waiting for a miss with my heart. Then they slapped a lump of ice on my bare back when I wasn’t looking and then shot a pistol off [unexpectedly] right behind my ear.
But aviation medicine would evolve. Though the first aviation medical officers in the Navy were actually trained by the Army Air Corps, NAS Pensacola soon became the home of the Naval School of Aviation Medicine, which performed groundbreaking research on the physical and physiological effects of flight on the human body. (This would include work with one of the first primates to venture into space and the human astronauts who followed.)
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“An Unconventional Path to Wings of Gold,” by Hill Goodspeed, is included in the digital edition of Naval History’s December issue, available on the Apple Newsstand. Print subscribers can download the issue for free.