Flight Line

By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum

Over the ensuing years, aircraft types ranging from the diminutive A4D/A-4 Skyhawk to the monstrous A3D/A-3 Skywarrior to an ultimately unsuccessful jet-powered P6M Seamaster flying boat were capable of delivering atomic bombs. And the Navy did eventually get its supercarrier in the form of the Forrestal (CVA-59), which was commissioned in 1955, and her successors, including the Enterprise (CVAN-65), the world’s first nuclear-powered flattop.

Yet naval aviation did not ignore the requirements of conventional warfare, as it advanced technologies that had emerged during World War II. Introduced into the sea service by the Coast Guard, helicopters became central to the Marine Corps’ tactic of vertical envelopment in a new element of amphibious assault, while the Navy made rotary-wing aviation a central component of antisubmarine warfare against the Soviets. Helicopters, along with land-based maritime patrol aircraft, eventually supplanted flying boats.

While the F4U Corsair, which first saw combat in February 1943, remained operational through the Korean War, and the AD/A-1 Skyraider fought in the skies over Korea and Vietnam, tactical aircraft in naval aviation increasingly thundered aloft powered by jet engines. The range of types included the unorthodox and short-lived F7U Cutlass, the all-weather A6F/A-6 Intruder, and the record-setting F4H/F-4 Phantom II. Aircraft wielded an array of new weaponry: missiles and bombs with names such as Sidewinder, Walleye, and Bullpup that extended the offensive reach of naval aviation.

Many of the high-performing aircraft were put through their paces at the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland, which became the portal to incredible heights for a select group of naval aviators chosen for the astronaut program by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Four naval aviators were among the seven military test pilots—the famed Mercury 7— chosen for America’s first manned space flights. One of them, Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard Jr., became the first American in space, while another, Marine Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn Jr., was the first American to orbit the Earth.

Other naval aviators completed some of the landmark missions in the race to the moon, culminating in Neil Armstrong, a Navy fighter pilot during the Korean War, making his “giant leap for mankind” on 20 July 1969. Apollo 13’s dramatic return to Earth after an in-flight explosion owed much to the mission’s commander, Navy Captain James Lovell, while it was another naval aviator, Navy Captain Eugene Cernan, who became the last man to leave his footprints on the lunar surface, in December 1972.

That same month, naval aircraft participated in Operation Linebacker, one of the final air campaigns in Vietnam. The war in Southeast Asia, like that in Korea during 1950–53, recast naval aviation on the battlefields of the Cold War. The great sea battles in which naval aviation forged for itself a prominent place in warfare did not materialize during the Cold War. Naval aviation and the inherent flexibility it represented was instead called on as a means of deterrence in far-flung regions, including Lebanon and the Taiwan Strait. In Korea and Vietnam, flattops and land-based squadrons served as instruments of power projection ashore, their embarked air wings waging interdiction campaigns, engaging enemy aircraft, providing close-air support, and striking industrial and military targets.

When Marine helicopters closed U.S. involvement in the bitterly divisive war in Southeast Asia by lifting officials and South Vietnamese nationals from the parking lot and rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon, a chapter of the Cold War ended. Over the horizon lay new battles against a traditional Cold War foe and shadowy enemies in desert sands and mountain enclaves.


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