Few events in history have had greater significance in their ultimate impact on the social and economic development of the human race than the fulfillment of man’s dream to fly. When the Wright brothers soared aloft in their frail machine, a half-century ago, an era began which is assuredly the most outstanding fifty-year period the world has ever known.
We live today in a small world, only hours away from the farthest spot on earth. Travel that once took weeks, months, even years, is now accomplished in a day or two. Where trading areas once were narrow, the resources of the entire world are at the command of the average man today. Mail moves across the world at incredible speeds. The pace and radius of business have increased many fold. Once-strange lands are now within reach in an ordinary vacation span.
Beginning as an experimental courier and scouting arm of the surface forces, air power has become our first line of defense. Today, military and naval aviation team to provide the primary striking arm of our national security. Air supremacy has become the greatest deterrent to aggression.
By 1953, fifty years after Kitty Hawk, planes moved faster than sound. An aircraft had travelled faster than 1,250 miles per hour. There is 2,000 miles per hour and faster, just ahead. No one laughs at the idea of interplanetary travel any more. What would the pioneers of aviation think if they could see the miracle they had wrought?
Naval aviation just by itself provides a remarkable history of the airplane from the time when, with caps turned backward and the sky open on all sides, the pioneers of the flying machine tried to interest the government in their hazardous experiments, up to the fearful combination of sea and air power that now dominates oceans and continents. It is a plain-spoken story of how a handful of devoted young men fought a long and wearisome war against those who thought of the airplane as an interloper, a preposterous challenger of the power of the great warship. It is the story of a crusade, fought on every front—a battle won against technical obstacles and many persons in places of high authority whose perception, understandably, failed to visualize the future of aviation.
Pensacola, Florida, is assuredly the cradle of naval aviation. Aptly called the “Annapolis of the Air,” Pensacola has nurtured the most influential men and deeds in naval aviation history. Starting with a few tent hangars, a handful of planes, and a gallant band of men who knew that the future held a place for naval aviation, Pensacola has trained the world’s mightiest array of naval airmen, who can operate at will over the waters and skies of the world.
Fifty-five years ago, Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, wrote to his superior, the Secretary, proposing that the Navy investigate a flying machine that a Professor Samuel P. Langley had developed. He wrote in part:
“The machine has worked. It seems to me worthwhile for this government to try whether it will work on a large enough scale to be of use in the event of war. ... I think it is well worth doing.”
Roosevelt had just heard an enthusiastic account of Langley’s “aerodrome,” with its 13-foot wingspread, its tiny steam-driven engine, and its total weight of 30 pounds. The model had actually risen into the air and had stayed up for a minute and a half, to cover a distance of 3,000 feet, in the first of all flights by a heavier-than-air machine.
The Secretary of the Navy passed the proposal on to the Board of Construction, where this verdict was handed down:
“The Board has had the honor to report that it has considered the within subject, and is of the opinion that such an apparatus as is referred to pertains strictly to the land service and not to the Navy. The question is too intricate for this Board to do justice to, and it respectfully asks to be excused from further consideration of the subject, but believes that it is not expedient at this time for the Navy Department to carry on experiments or furnish money for the purpose.”
During the next few years, many inventors approached the Navy Department with various ideas for a flying machine. The reply was usually a terse “plans and descriptions returned this date.” Could any words better express how little was generally believed or imagined about aviation at the beginning of the twentieth century?
By 1903, Theodore Roosevelt had become President. He no longer had to submit “proposals.” After reading a newspaper article about two brothers by the name of Wright, who were conducting experiments with a flying machine, he cut out the item, scribbled “Investigate” across it, and passed it on to the War Department. Five years later, Orville Wright fulfilled the Army’s flight specifications and the United States government at last owned an airplane—six years after man had first flown!
The Navy then trained its eyes on the airplane and visualized it as a seaborne craft. All that was required was to obtain the airplanes, train pilots to fly them, and devise a way to operate them with the Fleet! Starting with the operating factor first, a temporary platform was erected on the cruiser U.S.S. Birmingham and Eugene Ely, a civilian aviation pioneer, volunteered as a free-lance pilot to attempt to fly an airplane off the warship.
On November 14, 1910, Ely “roared” down the 57-foot platform, took off across Chesapeake Bay, near Baltimore, and landed on the north shore after a flight of two and one-half miles. The first flight from a man-of-war had been made and the airplane’s naval application successfully demonstrated.
Six weeks later, on January 18, 1911, Ely landed his pusher-type aeroplane on a specially built platform aboard the armored cruiser U.S.S. Pennsylvania, further proving the adaptability of aircraft to shipboard operation.
Ely’s flights added greatly to the Navy’s interest in aviation and when Glenn Curtiss, another civilian aviation great, offered to train an officer of the Navy to fly his Curtiss plane at no cost to the government, the offer was promptly accepted. The man chosen to be the Navy’s first student flier was one whose name appropriately heads the list of Naval Aviators—Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, a Naval Academy graduate and classmate of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
In July, 1911, Curtiss wrote the Secretary of the Navy regarding the qualifications of Lieutenant Ellyson, as follows:
“Dear Sir, I have the honor to report that Lieutenant Ellyson is now competent to care for and operate Curtiss aeroplanes and instruct others in the operation of these machines. Mr. Ellyson is a hard worker and acquired considerable knowledge of the art of aviation. He has been especially successful in operating the machine and is easily capable of qualifying for a pilot’s license. It is a pleasure for me to recommend Mr. Ellyson as a man who will make a success in aviation.”
Ellyson’s pioneering in naval aviation is without equal. He assisted Eugene Ely in making the first landing in an aircraft aboard a naval vessel. He rode on a pontoon when Glenn Curtiss made the first passenger-carrying amphibious flight in 1913. “Spuds” Ellyson also made the first ride in a device shot from a catapult operated by compressed air, tested the first dual controls installed in an aircraft, and was the first Navy officer to be designated a Naval Aviator. Few pioneers, particularly of aviation, have lived to see their visions become realities, and Ellyson was not an exception. He lost his life in 1918 while on a night flight from Norfolk to Annapolis. Ellyson Field, an auxiliary air station at Pensacola, where personnel receive helicopter training, is named in honor of that illustrious flier.
John Rodgers, Naval Aviator No. 2, had his first experience in the air when, with Ensign Alexander M. Charlton, he substituted for a sandbag for a kite experiment! Samuel F. Perkins, an early kite expert, had succeeeded in lifting two sandbags with a kite. With volunteers Rodgers and Charlton replacing the sandbags, he successfully followed that experiment by towing the two human beings through the air. Among the other contributions that Rodgers made to naval aviation was commanding a flight of three seaplanes from the coast of California to Honolulu. Although finally forced to set down at sea, 25 hours after his takeoff, because his last drop of fuel was gone, Rodgers established a world’s record for airline by seaplane.
John H. Towers, Naval Aviator No. 3, was the third officer to cast his lot with naval aviation as an active pilot. His very name is synonymous with naval aviation. He was the officer-in-charge of the Navy’s first Flight School at Pensacola, a member of the first Board of Aeronautics, assistant Naval Attaché to London during World War I, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics during World War II and, today, a retired four-star admiral. His aerial accomplishments include making the first night flight and landing in an aircraft, setting a world’s record of 6 hours and 20 minutes for hydroplanes, and commanding the famous NC trans-Atlantic flights to Europe.
By 1912 the Navy Department had received many requests from officers who desired flight training, but it was difficult to transfer the candidates from their regular shipboard duties as the Navy was undermanned at that time. Some requests were approved, however, and during the summer of 1912, First Lieutenants A. A. Cunningham and B. L. Smith, of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant (jg) Patrick N. L. Bellinger, Ensign G. deC. Chevalier, and Ensign W. D. Billingsley, received orders to aviation duty. Rodgers and Towers had received their wings and, with Ellyson, the Navy had three ininstructors to train the new fledgling aviators.
The names of the new student fliers will be long remembered. Ensign Billingsley made a good start, only to meet early death in a flying accident. Ensign Chevalier, in whose honor the landing field at the present day Naval Air Station, Pensacola, is named, was to have ten years of great accomplishment before he too lost his life. Lieutenant Bellinger had a distinguished career that eventually made him the vice admiral commanding the Air Force, Atlantic Fleet, in World War II. The Marine representatives, Cunningham and Smith, were also destined to make fine records.
Ensign Billingsley was the first Naval Aviator to-lose his life. He was in the air at the controls of a Wright hydroplane, with Lieutenant Towers as a passenger. It was an unusually rough and bumpy day and the aircraft was sorely buffeted about. At 1,600 feet, a severe downdraft dropped the machine violently. Billingsley was thrown from his seat and, as he was catapulted from the plane, grasped the elevator control lever. This caused the craft to nose sharply downward and Towers was thrown from his seat. Billingsley lost his grasp on the elevator control and fell to his death.
Towers, with amazing coolness that may have been due partly to his being an expert gymnast, clung to the strut beside which he had been sitting. As the plane whirled and spun through its wild plunge, he held on and fell the 1,600 feet into the water. As the ill-fated plane struck the water, Towers was thrown clear. Badly injured, he managed to lash himself to a drifting pontoon of the wrecked aircraft before he became unconscious. Undaunted, he was back in the air after four months of hospitalization.
The immediate result of this unfortunate accident was an order for all pilots to wear safety belts. The idea had been considered before, but fear of being trapped in a burning plane had caused hesitancy in its adoption.
With a nucleus of aircraft and pilots, the Navy looked around for a suitable site for an air station. The Secretary of the Navy appointed a board to examine possible sites for its first Naval Air Station and Pensacola was unanimously chosen. At that time, Pensacola consisted of an abandoned Navy Yard. Its history dated back to 1836 when the Yard, authorized in 1825, was established to maintain control over the Caribbean. As the United States extended its bases deeper into the Caribbean, Pensacola ceased to be a strategic base for the Navy.
When, in January, 1914, the U.S.S. Mississippi steamed into Pensacola Bay to serve as a station ship for the air station, the personnel found nothing but a huge concentration of debris. The sandy beaches along the land-locked bay that had at first appeared so inviting proved to be spotted with scrapped cement blocks, old piling stumps and decayed docks. The entire area was surrounded by mucky swamps and a rutted, irregular sandy track that led for miles through the pines and marshes to the city of Pensacola.
The entire aviation group was sent ashore to set up tent hangars and rig wooden ramps for the planes. Next, the gear was unloaded. The aircraft consisted of six Curtiss flying boats, two hydroplanes, and one Burgess- Dunne flying boat. Of these craft, only two were alike. Six qualified commissioned pilots and 23 enlisted men comprised the personnel
Naval aviation at least had a home of its own. The entire organization was termed the Naval Aeronautic Station and consisted of the Flight School and the station ship, Mississippi. The Commandant was Lieutenant Commander H. C. Mustin who also served as commanding officer of the station ship. The entire history of naval aviation reflects the brilliance and foresight of this man.
Mustin was the first to advocate the fast- carrier as an integral part of the Fleet and outlined the proposal that resulted in the first assignment of aircraft to the Fleet. He was also the first to urge the use of land- planes on aircraft carriers, the first to advocate that flying duty be recognized as the equivalent of sea duty, and that aviators be given extra pay when flying. Mustin Beach, a popular recreation area at Pensacola, perpetuates the memory of this great pioneer.
Lieutenant Towers was named officer-in-charge of the Flight School and he pushed the training as rapidly as his small fleet of aircraft would allow. Seldom were half of the planes in flying condition because of the lack of skilled mechanics. Spare parts were scarce and those that could not be obtained were replaced by “home-made” ones. Operating time of engines between overhauls was well under 50 hours, while minor damage to planes kept the crews busy day and night.
Little time was available for recreation. Horses would sometimes be hired to take the young pilots into town, for automobiles of the day found the sandy ruts of the area very difficult to navigate. Normally, steam launches were used to transport liberty parties. Later on, as the station assumed more importance, a paved highway was constructed to Pensacola. Picnics and swimming parties were popular summer diversions, while cold evenings generally found the young airmen around the firesides of their civilian friends in the city.
During this time, tragedy struck and claimed the life of Lieutenant (jg) J. M. Murray, Naval Aviator No. 10, who crashed to his death in the Burgess-Dunne flying boat. He had gone aloft to practice landings and had climbed to 1,000 feet. From there he descended in a series of long glides with engine idling. During one of these glides, he lost control of the plane. This was the first occasion that naval aviation lost a pilot through the dreaded stall and its resulting spin. It is a coincidence that Lieutenant Murray, whose designation number followed that of Ensign Billingsley, Naval Aviator No. 9, should follow his comrade to death in the same order.
With the coming of spring the aviators gladly shed the heavy garments which had been so necessary in the wide-open pusher hydroplanes during the cold season. No special flight clothing had been designed and the pilot wore as many jackets as he could possibly put on. Over these he drew a bulky kapok life jacket. With a leather safety belt tightly cinched around his waist and with his shoulder jammed into the aileron yoke, he could hardly budge. On his head was lashed a football helmet for protection in case of a crash and to protect his eyes he wore a pair of flat-lens goggles which were so popular with automobile racers of the day. His legs were bound with leather puttees. Sitting thus on his lonely outrigger, a pilot had no protection from the slipstream. All the clothes he could possibly put on failed to protect him from the icy windblasts.
Order and routine at the Flight School collapsed one day with the arrival of dispatch orders for the hydroplanes to join the Fleet on an expedition to the port of Vera Cruz, Mexico. For some time a difficult situation had existed between Mexico and the United States and when, in April, 1914, diplomatic relations were strained to the breaking point, it was decided to occupy the port of Vera Cruz.
Excitement was great among the pilots who had scouted Cuba the winter before and proved that accurate reports of reconnaissance flights could be made. Aviation had a place in the Fleet and this was the chance to prove it.
The U.S.S. Birmingham steamed into Pensacola. Taking aboard three hydroplanes, along with pilots Towers, B. L. Smith, and Chevalier, with their plane crews, she sailed for Tampico, one of the trouble centers. The following day, the Mississippi, with two planes and pilots Pat Bellinger and Lieutenant R. C. Saufley aboard, sailed for Vera Cruz.
Saufley Field, an auxiliary air station at Pensacola, is dedicated to Saufley’s memory. Naval Aviator No. 14, he gained fame when he took a Curtiss seaplane up to 14,500 feet in 1915 and set a new world’s endurance record of eight hours and 20 minutes in the air. He also flew the same type of plane to a new world’s altitude record of 16,072 feet, over Pensacola. Saufley was one of the first advocates of a separate aviation corps for the Navy and he drafted a recommendation before his death, which was later approved and resulted in the establishment of the Naval Flying Corps. Saufley also gave his life to the cause of naval aviation. He was killed in 1916 when his head was thrown back upon the motor of his pusher-type plane and the tragedy had a direct result in the Navy abandoning that type in favor of the safer tractor-type aircraft.
At Vera Cruz, during one of the many daily scouting flights, Pat Bellinger became the first naval pilot in history to fly an airplane of any nation in actual combat with an enemy. He returned from a flight over enemy lines with his plane punctured by many rounds of enemy rifle fire.
A landing force had moved in and occupied Vera Cruz and the international situation at Tampico had proved exceedingly quiet. After standing by for a month at Tampico, the Birmingham steamed to Vera Cruz to add its aerial assistance to the Fleet. With order restored, the Mississippi loaded all the pilots and gear and returned to Pensacola.
In the meantime, the Flight School had carried on as best it could with reduced equipment and the absence of the pilot instructors. Morale problems, though few, arose and had to be reckoned with. For one thing, the aviation mechanics were serving in an indefinite status and had little incentive to advance themselves along aviation lines for the reason they were actually on temporary duty away from the Fleet. Mustin drafted a recommendation that special ratings be created for aviation mechanics on a permanent basis, to give the men “definite status” and “added incentive” to advance themselves and thus increase the efficiency of the whole force.
The result was a compromise, in which the Bureau of Navigation authorized the rating of “machinist, aeronautics,” to hold while men were actually serving in aviation but not to apply when they returned to other duties. This inevitably left many men still convinced that their chances for permanent advancement depended upon keeping their feet on a ship’s deck. This situation was eventually remedied with the establishment of the separate Naval Flying Corps.
Another morale factor involved pay. The paymaster was based at New Orleans and this caused complaints. Pay days were irregular and some of the men had difficulty meeting the payments on the automobiles they were purchasing. The Locomobile and Buick were popular makes of the day and the operation of automobiles was becoming relatively convenient. Most grocery stores stocked gasoline and the driver could usually find gasoline also available at wood and coal yards. The most difficult part of motoring was patching tires. However, even the arduous toil of manning the tire pump was not as difficult as finding a bit of solid ground in the sandy pine country surrounding Pensacola on which to jack up the wheel!
Plans for organized classes, disrupted by the Vera Cruz incident, were taken up again. In July, 1915, the first new class assembled with eight naval and two Marine officers, while twenty enlisted men, including four Marines, reported for ground work,
Exercises for training, as well as further experimental flying, were designed to bring out the strengths and weaknesses of existing planes for practical air tactics. They included antisubmarine patrols and bombing, as well as spotting flights for battleship target practice. Bellinger, for example, proved that colored stars of Very pistols, used to signal the results of shots, were indistinct by day unless lampblack was used to make a lot of smoke. He could, however, readily distinguish “splashes” from altitudes up to 8,000 feet and, from his observations, concluded that a ship should get “on the target” after four ranging shots had been corrected by spotting.
Such exercises emphasized the importance of further tests and experiments and resulted in the recommendation and approval for six more planes, a dozen additional student officers, and the assignment of qualified pilots to postgraduate work.
The matter of pilot certificates was brought up in early 1915 and it was decided that, if aviators were to be given certificates only after they had been passed upon by a qualified board, such a board should be made up only of men who were, themselves, aviators. Accordingly, certificates were issued to the seven pioneers, Ellyson, Towers, Mustin, Bellinger, Herbster, B. L. Smith, and Chevalier. Since John Rodgers had been on other duty for two years, he did not receive a certificate at the time, but later on his name was inserted between those of Ellyson and Towers.
Other “firsts” continued to be chalked up by the Pensacola pilots. Bellinger climbed 44 minutes before he flew his hydroplane to a world’s record of 6,200 feet. Mustin rode the flying boat, AB-2, down the catapult track of the U.S.S. North Carolina to become the first pilot to make a catapult shot from a moving vessel. First Lieutenant Cunningham, of the Marines, flew the first amphibian, the OWL-1 (Over Water-Land), a converted hydroplane equipped with wheel-type landing gear. A stout metal claw was installed which the pilot could lower to the ground to act as a drag when landing on earth. This strange device was the forerunner of brakes.
Chevalier was one of the first pilots to undergo landplane training and was also one of the first to qualify in deck landings with landplanes aboard our first aircraft carrier, the converted collier, U.S.S. Langley. This achievement was accomplished later on, in 1922. Towers had become one of the first members appointed to a Board of Aeronautics by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to draw up comprehensive plans for the organization of a Naval Aeronautic Service.
Pensacola had received the Navy’s first airship, a nonrigid dirigible, and had set it up in a floating hangar. The airship was so much overweight that it could hardly take to the air. The envelope leaked badly and the power plant was unreliable. Efforts were made to give the airship some sort of trials, but these were far from satisfactory. Shortly after its acceptance, the ship was taken out by inexperienced personnel and, in attempting to get it back into the hangar, the car was dragged in the water, damaging the ship beyond possible economical repair. Many lessons were learned from this fiasco and it probably was an inexpensive experiment in the end. It served to prove that the design of airships was a highly technical project and that much study had to be made of this type of aircraft. Further, it proved that personnel must be especially qualified to fly an airship. Just because an officer could pilot a plane was no proof that he was capable of flying an airship.
Under a Department Order issued in 1916, Pensacola was reorganized to closely follow the pattern of Navy yards. Manufacturing and experimental departments were established to be headed by officers who were qualified pilots. The mission of the station was outlined as: training of personnel, repair and maintenance of school aircraft, testing of new aircraft, experimental work on aircraft and aircraft instruments, and collecting data on design which might lead to improvements in types of aircraft motors.
Pat Bellinger was given the job of carrying out experiments which would permit pilots to have easier control over their aircraft. He soon found himself aloft with so many types of controls that he could recall only with difficulty which particular one he had installed at the moment!
During this period, Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting reported to Pensacola for flight training. There is an interesting story about Whiting’s entry into naval aviation. He and Spuds Ellyson had served in rival submarines back in 1910. One night, at a party given by Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, then a junior officer, Whiting announced that he had requested aviation duty. Ellyson thought this such a good idea that he copied Whiting’s request and submitted it to the Navy Department. Ellyson’s request was approved and he became the Navy’s first pilot, while Whiting was left to serve in submarines for six more years!
Another auxiliary air station in the Pensacola area, where future naval aviators receive their first flight instruction, is named for Whiting. Naval Aviator No. 16, Whiting headed the first advance guard of fighting men, seven pilots and 122 mechanics, to be sent to Europe in World War I. He was the first to propose the building of seaplane carriers to transport bombers to points where their cruising radius could permit raids over inland Germany. Whiting also recommended the purchase of a big railroad ferryboat on the ground that the double-deck construction would provide both protection for planes and a launching platform. This recommendation was disapproved, but it is interesting to note that 25 years later, in World War II, two such ferryboats were converted into aircraft carriers. Whiting is also credited with being the first aviator to be catapulted from the deck of an aircraft carrier when, at the controls of a PT-type plane, he was shot into the air from the deck of the U.S.S. Langley.
Meantime, advanced flying courses were established at Pensacola to indoctrinate students in the mysterious arts of navigation and gunnery. Also, a training program for officers of the Coast Guard was set up. Lieutenant Elmer F. Stone of that service was sent to Pensacola and was eventually designated Naval Aviator No. 38. He was later selected to participate in the Navy’s historic NC flights to Europe.
Another program was established for officers and men of the now defunct Naval Militia. While members of the Militia, like members of the Coast Guard, might not be considered fully qualified for the naval standards in navigation, gunnery, and seamanship, there was not enough time available to train them completely in such subjects. Instead, the main effort was directed toward teaching them to fly and consequently these students were never designated Naval Aviators or given acting commissions as were the officers of the Flying Corps. They did, however, learn to fly, and later, when they got into World War I, they flew with great credit to themselves, their service, and their country.
Contracts had been let for some new N-9 type training planes and, while awaiting their delivery, operations at Pensacola reached a low ebb. Experimental flights were continued, however, and Bellinger was quite successful in dropping live bombs from the tailless Burgess-Dunne. Soon after, the first machine gun to be carried aloft in a Navy plane was mounted in the same craft. This machine was so stable that little effort was required to fly it. On one flight a stoppage occurred in the gun during the initial firing and the gunner had difficulty in clearing the jam. Bellinger, turning the controls loose, was assisting the gunner and was too occupied to notice what the plane was doing. Too late, he discovered it was diving into the bay and the occupants received an unexpected salty bath!
The delivery of the N-9’s in the winter of 1916 put an end to experimentation with freak designs and naval aircraft began to follow the more normal and standardized types. Once more, training began to take precedence and the powerful N-9’s won great favor among the pilots. However, the pilots had to become accustomed to the excess power and performance of the new planes by easy stages. This fact is best described by the story of a formation flight which actually occurred at the time.
Captain J. L. Jayne was ordered to relieve Mustin as Commandant and it was decided to parade a formation of five N-9’s as a fitting salute to the new official. On that day a stiff wind was blowing. The water was so choppy that two of the planes nosed under on the takeoff. The remaining three staggered through the air until one, flying almost directly behind the leader, was thrown out of control by the slipstream and crashed into the bay almost at the side of the new Commandant. One of the two remaining in the air was vibrating so badly that the wings shuddered. When the plane finally set down, it was discovered that the propeller was split its entire length. The fifth plane was the only one to carry out its mission of circling the bay!
In spite of the many crashes which were to occur at Pensacola during the next few years, the fatalities were few, thanks to the introduction of the tractor-type seaplane. Student aviators, and even qualified pilots, managed to crash the N-9’s in every way imaginable, but the wide-spread wings and frontal engine normally absorbed the shock and serious injuries were mostly avoided.
On one occasion a student pilot lost control of his plane and rode it directly into the open doors of a hangar. Without sufficient clearance, the wings lodged themselves and the plane remained suspended twenty feet from the ground. The pilot descended by means of a ladder, very much shaken but otherwise none the worse for his experience!
As soon as it became apparent that entry into World War I was inevitable, training and training facilities at Pensacola were hastily expanded. Naval aviation had been given little consideration as a striking force in the event of war. How could it? It consisted only of 43 officers, a little over 200 enlisted men, six flying boats, 45 seaplanes designed only for training, three landplanes, two kite balloons, and one unsatisfactory dirigible. However, the declaration of war opened up new vistas and from that day can be traced the beginning of modern naval aviation.
Pensacola was the only training station in operation at the time of our entry into the war. Its capacity was 64 pilots and the same number of mechanics, but this was ridiculously inadequate for the emergency. The courses were hastily expanded to accommodate the many recruits sent there immediately in order to give them elementary instruction in naval practice, navigation, seamanship, and gunnery—all subjects which the regulars of prewar years had been taught at the Naval Academy.
The station itself began immediate expansion. Beaches were graded, barracks and hangars erected, and thousands of yards of cement laid in anticipation of a full wartime quota of men and planes. The station swarmed with newly-enlisted bluejackets, eager and willing to do their part. The roar of engines filled the air from morning until night, with time out only to shift pilots. When the sun had set, the last machine would come onto the beach, only to be run into a hangar where engines were checked under the glare of electric lights.
The length of the flight course was reduced from 19 to 9 months. However, the demand for pilots overseas became such that, as time went by, a student aviator who had from 25 to 50 hours of flight time, and who was considered capable of carrying on alone, was designated a Naval Aviator. The student of one day was, literally, the instructor the succeeding day!
Considering the tremendous pressure under which pilots were trained during the war period and the relatively little training they received, it is a miracle that more fatalities did not occur. A total of 36 officers and 86 men were lost in aviation accidents overseas, while in the United States, 38 officers and 48 men met their deaths. Of this number, 25 were students killed at Pensacola.
In the two decades following World War I, Pensacola continued to hold its high place in the realm of naval aviation. Training facilities were further enlarged, the development of aeronautical machines continued at a rapid rate, and the evolution of modern naval aviation followed through. During World War II, 28,582 Naval Aviators were forged at the “Annapolis of the Air.” Compared with its nine planes, six pilots and 23 enlisted men in 1913, the Navy at the end of World War II, mustered 41,272 planes, 60,747 pilots, 32,827 ground officers and 344,424 enlisted men.
Training facilities at Pensacola today consist of the main Naval Air Station and seven auxiliary air fields, requiring 1,340 aircraft and 16,685 support personnel to develop new Naval Aviators to carry naval aviation to even greater heights in the future.
Mustin Beach, Saufley Field, Whiting Field, Ellyson Field and Chevalier Field, all bearing the names of naval aviation’s heroes of the past, have been previously mentioned. At Pensacola, too, are Corry, Barin, and Forrest Sherman Fields, dedicated to other intrepid pioneers.
Lieutenant W. M. Corry was another pioneer in naval aviation experimentation. He had a brief but distinguished career, dying in October, 1920, as a result of inhaling flames while attempting to rescue a companion from a burning plane in which they had crashed. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his brave sacrifice of life.
Barin Field, where students wind up their basic training, is to dedicate the memory of Lieutenant Louis T. Barin, Naval Aviator No. 56. He received the Navy Cross for service performed during the NC trans- Atlantic flights. His career was also a brief one, ending when he was killed in June, 1920, while testing an aircraft.
Sherman Field, now under construction, and adjoining the main Naval Air Station, will be a master jet field, dedicated to the memory of Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, Naval Aviator, military leader, and statesman, who died in July, 1951, while serving as the youngest Chief of Naval Operations in U. S. Naval history.
Of the pioneers, only a handful remain. Ellyson, Rodgers, Billingsley, Murray, Saufley, Chevalier, Barin, and many others, flew to their deaths to bring Naval aviation to its present high place. Only that handful that remain can know the long road, from the moment when it had been suggested that the Navy try the airplane “on a scale to be of use in war,” to the present, when sea power no longer consists of controlling only the waters of the earth, but has another mighty arm reaching high into the sky.