Flight Line

By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum

On 8 May 1911, the date the U.S. Navy celebrates as the birthday of naval aviation, Chambers prepared requisitions for the purchase of the service’s first two aircraft. During the ensuing years preceding World War I, the Navy added an array of airplanes to its inventory, all either built to fly from the water or converted to that configuration. Among the more successful were flying boats, the appearance of their hulls likened by some to wooden shoes, and seaplanes with floats. Others were unorthodox, notably a design by the Gallaudet Engineering Company of Connecticut in which the engine and propeller were located in the middle of the plane’s fuselage.

With the procurement of aircraft came the assembly of personnel. The first naval aviators were junior officers, a number of whom were drawn to flying after witnessing European aircraft during cruises overseas. They were men willing to take a risk professionally, turning their backs on tried-and-true career paths to participate in an endeavor whose success was uncertain. Out of necessity, given the primitive airplanes of the day and the fact that aviation was just beginning to be understood, they were daring. Seven of the first 20 naval aviators lost their lives in Navy aircraft accidents, a testament to the hazards of flying during that period.

Naval aviation did not have a permanent base of operations until aircraft and personnel arrived at Pensacola, Florida, in January 1914 to establish an aeronautic station. The first aviators and their support personnel would make significant strides in the years before America’s entry into World War I. During exercises with the Fleet, notably off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, they demonstrated the ability of aircraft to improve the accuracy of warship gunfire by spotting its fall. Also of significance to the future of aircraft in the sea service, naval aviators conducted successful catapult tests ashore and from the decks of ships and experimented with aerial bombing. When the Navy was called into action to occupy Vera Cruz, Mexico, in April 1914, naval aircraft from Pensacola deployed to the scene and flew observation and scouting missions that marked the first combat operations by U.S. airplanes.

While such experiments and operations helped aviation gain a foothold in the Navy, events across the Atlantic pointed to the dawning of the air age in warfare. Despite the fact that Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels had proclaimed in 1914, the year World War I began, that “aircraft must form a large part of our naval force for offensive and defensive operations,” by April 1917 the Navy’s entire aviation force consisted of fewer than 300 personnel and just 58 aircraft, none suitable for combat. That same month, the United States declared war on Germany. The decisive test for fledgling U.S. naval air power would occur in Europe during the Great War.During 2011 these and other photographs tracing the history of U.S. naval flight can be viewed at www.usni.org . Follow the Naval Aviation Centennial links. Slideshows change monthly.


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