Flight Line

By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum

The resulting Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) entered service in 1927. Dwarfing the Langley and attaining speeds capable of keeping pace with the Fleet, the two carriers bolstered the offensive capability of naval aviation, a fact the Saratoga dramatically demonstrated during Fleet exercises in January 1929. With only an escorting destroyer, the “Sara” separated from other ships and proceeded under cover of darkness to a position from which she launched a surprise dawn “attack” against the Panama Canal.

Meanwhile, for naval aviators wearing Marine Corps green, the “Banana Wars” provided the opportunity to put tactical doctrine into practice under enemy fire. In the jungles of Central America and the Caribbean were sown the seeds of close-air support and dive-bombing that would be so effective in the Pacific during World War II. Dive-bombing also proved effective against ships, with Navy squadrons perfecting the tactic during the interwar years.

To deliver ordnance on target at extended range, to say nothing of seeking out opposing fleets and protecting friendly forces from enemy aerial attacks, required capable aircraft, and the interwar years witnessed the dawning of new technologies in aircraft design. Beginning in the 1920s, air-cooled engines, notably the famous Pratt & Whitney Wasp, bolstered speeds. The next decade brought advances in metal construction, retractable landing gear, and a shift from biplanes to monoplanes.

A new crop of aviation manufacturers launched after World War I, including Grumman, Douglas, and Consolidated, provided a steady stream of aircraft to the Navy. Some of the planes introduced during the interwar years, including the capable PBY Catalina flying boat and SBD Dauntless dive-bomber, would prove so effective that advanced versions were still on the front lines when World War II ended.

Manning the cockpits of Sea Service aircraft were the successors of the pioneers who bravely took to the air in naval aviation’s formative years. Some were young officers who advanced up the ranks to command squadrons and air groups in gaining vital experience that prepared them to lead men into harm’s way during 1941–45. Others were senior officers, with names such as William F. Halsey, John S. McCain, and Frederick C. Sherman, who entered naval aviation later in their careers and became air admirals in World War II.

As the possibility of war became ever more pronounced during the troublesome 1930s, Congress passed the Aviation Cadet Act in 1935. It brought thousands of reserve officers into the ranks of naval aviation to serve a fleet that by December 1941 numbered eight aircraft carriers and more than 3,400 planes. That month one of those cadets in training penned a letter to his parents in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: “As the details . . . reached us, we stood with heads bowed in chagrin but defiance in our hearts.” Naval aviation had once again been called to fight a world war.


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