As the nation begins its celebration of the Wright Brothers' first flight, we are afforded an opportunity to reflect on their enormous accomplishment and particularly on the profound effect it had on the future of the U.S. Navy. In December 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright ventured to the windswept sand dunes of Kitty Hawk to prove what hundreds of glider flights and four years of aeronautical experiments had demonstrated—that they had the basis for a machine capable of practical, powered flight. On the morning of the 17th, Orville launched into a gusty, 27-mile-per-hour wind and managed to fly just more than 120 feet from the point at which the flyer had risen into the air. It was, in his words, "exceedingly erratic . . . but it was nevertheless the first [flight] in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started."
A few hours spent in a photo archive such as the one at the U.S. Naval Institute's Beach Hall is a perfect way to reacquaint oneself with the progress of aviation in general and naval aviation in particular since 17 December 1903. Vintage black-and-white images evoke memories of the early years of naval aviation, World War I, the "golden age" between the wars, and World War II into the 1950s, while vivid color photographs predominate the jet age of the second half of the 20th century. It can be extremely worthwhile, a trip back in time that is educational and nostalgic and at the same time hugely entertaining.
Naval aviation's birthday came some years after the Wright Brothers' feat, on 8 May 1911. On that date, Captain Washington Irving Chambers, the Navy's first officer in charge of aviation, ordered the Navy's first airplane, the Curtiss A-1 Triad. The occasion had been preceded by a number of historic events that demonstrated in convincing fashion the practicality of taking aviation to sea. On 14 November 1910, civilian pilot Eugene Ely flew a Curtiss pusher airplane from a wooden platform on the bow of the USS Birmingham (CL-2) at anchor in Hampton Roads, Virginia. He followed that performance on 18 January 1911 with the world's first arrested landing on a specially built platform on the USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) in San Francisco Bay. On 17 February, Glenn Curtiss provided the final, convincing demonstration. Ably assisted by the officer who would become Naval Aviator Number One, Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, Curtiss landed alongside the Pennsylvania, was hoisted aboard and subsequently lowered back into the water, and then flew away. All of this delighted and astonished the ship's crew, which had manned the rails to witness the historic event.
The years leading to the entry of the United States into World War I were ones of experimentation, testing, gradual expansion, and hard work by a small but dedicated band of Navy and Marine Corps aviators. Though ill prepared to fight a war, aviation units were formed and deployed overseas, the first arriving in France in June 1917 under the command of Navy Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting. Meanwhile, unprecedented expansion occurred at home and abroad, with the number of planes, pilots, and air stations growing at a steady rate. The long-distance flying boat emerged as the major technical advance for the Navy, with aircrews flying patrols in Curtiss-built boats from England, Ireland, and France. Lieutenant (junior grade) David S. Ingalls became the Navy's only ace during the war, with five victories.
Following the war, the Navy's success with flying boats led to the design of the Navy-Curtiss NC boats, one of which, the NC-4, commanded by Lieutenant Commander A. C. Read, completed the first transatlantic crossing in May 1919. In the years to come, air racers and record breakers also grabbed the headlines, with the Navy and Marine Corps having their share of crowd pleasers. Led by perennial favorite Major Al Williams—known for his record-breaking performances in Curtiss-designed racers—Navy pilots David Rittenhouse, Rutledge Irvine, George Cuddihy, and Ralph Ofstie, as well as Marine First Lieutenant Christian F. Schilt, Medal of Honor recipient for heroism in Nicaragua, upheld their services' honor in annual competitions with Army pilots in the Curtiss Marine, Pulitzer, and Schneider Cup races.
The races of the 1920s resulted in considerable technological fallout for the Navy, as engine horsepower increased dramatically, and airframe designs by Dayton-Wright, Verville-Sperry, and Curtiss became more streamlined and sophisticated. Wood, fabric, and wire biplanes gave way to streamlined, all-metal, elegant aircraft powered by massive, in-line 500-horsepower engines. They were difficult and demanding to fly, and Navy and Marine pilots often found themselves in uncharted territory, flying with courage and intuition in a regime that eventually became the province of specially trained, experienced test pilots.
Less glamorous than air racing but essential to the future expansion of naval aviation were the Navy's long-distance flights and aerial expeditions by pioneers such as Richard E. Byrd. In May 1926, Lieutenant Commander Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett made the first flight over the North Pole in the Fokker Trimotor Josephine Ford, a feat repeated by Byrd and pilot Bernt Balchen over the South Pole in 1929. Commander John Rogers and the crew of the PN-9 flying boat distinguished themselves in 1925 by attempting a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Hawaii. They went down in the Pacific short of their objective but, undaunted, pressed on the rest of the way under the power of sails made from wing fabric. In June 1926, the Alaskan Aerial Survey Expedition, under the command of Lieutenant B. H. Wyatt, undertook an extensive survey of unexplored regions of southeastern Alaska.
Such was the stuff of the "golden age." Navy and Marine aviators pushed the envelope and faced a world of unlimited opportunity, adventure, and challenge, unfettered by convention, regulations, and restrictions. Farsighted flag officers such as Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, first chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1921, provided vital support and encouragement. Admiral Moffett was a keen advocate of the Navy's rigid airships of the era—the USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), USS Los Angeles (ZR-2), USS Akron (ZRS-4), in which Admiral Moffett lost his life, and the USS Macon (ZRS-5). Rear Admiral Joseph M. "Billygoat" Reeves, Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, provided crucial leadership in development of tactics and doctrine for the aircraft carriers of the 1920s, the USS Langley (CV-1), USS Lexington (CV-2), and USS Saratoga (CV-3).
At the foundation of the improvements in aircraft design and performance was a diverse group of exceptional design engineers, managers, and executives in the aircraft industry. Beginning with Glenn Curtiss, whose early seaplane designs and revolutionary racers gave naval aviation the impetus it needed in its formative years, U.S. naval aviation was fortunate to be the beneficiary of their foresight, determination, and genius. The Consolidated Aircraft Company, headed by early airmail pilot Reuben H. Fleet, produced a series of flying boats for the Navy in the 1930s, leading to the PBY Catalina of World War II fame. Glenn L. Martin, Donald Douglas Sr., William E. Boeing, Chance M. Vought, and LeRoy Randle Grumman were pioneers whose names, though not their original companies, endure to this day.
More than 12,000 photographs are in the World War II collection of the U.S. Naval Institute, covering every conceivable aspect of Navy and Marine Corps operations in every theater of the war. Images of leaders such as Arleight Burke, Frank Jack Fletcher, William F. Halsey, John McCain, Marc Mitscher, and Raymond Spruance evoke memories of the battles across the Pacific. Leading Navy and Marine Corps aces pose by their Wildcat, Hellcat, and Corsair fighters. Commander David McCampbell (34 victories) and Marine aces Lieutenant Colonel Gregory "Pappy" Boyington (28 victories) and Major Joseph F. Foss (26 victories) head the list of some 520 naval aviator aces in the war. Heroes of another sort were PBY Catalina flying boat aircrews who braved abominable weather conditions to fly long-range patrols in the Aleutians and the Atlantic or made night attacks on Japanese warships in their "Black Cats." Countless naval aviators owe their lives to the battleship and cruiser OS2U seaplane pilots who pulled them out of the water, often within range of enemy gunfire from shore.
Scarcely had the war ended when naval aviation found itself involved in a conflict of another sort. Gone was the island-hopping strategy of World War II. Carriers now steamed in a sanctuary off the coast of North Korea, supporting a land war in which generations of young carrier pilots and senior commanders learned the complexities of operating jets at sea under combat conditions. Aerial victories were hard to come by. Two naval aviators emerged as aces: Marine Major John F. Bolt, an ace in both World War II and Korea, and Navy Lieutenant Guy P. Bordelon, with five victories at night in a Corsair. An outstanding example of courage and chivalry was the attempted rescue of downed aviator Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the Navy's first African American aviator, by Lieutenant (junior grade) Thomas J. Hudner Jr., an act for which Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Following the Korean War, the 1950s were years of intensive flight-testing and fleet introduction of second and third generations of jet aircraft. Navy test pilots such as Alan Shepard, E. L. "Whitey" Feightner, Don Engen, and Larry Flint were busy with new airplanes with exotic names like Crusader, Fury, Tiger, Skyhawk, Skyray, and Skywarrior. The last three named were the product of the fertile mind and creative genius of Edward H. Heinemann, chief engineer of the El Segundo Division of Douglas Aircraft from 1936 to 1958. It was an exhilarating, exciting time for naval aviation, a time in which U.S. Navy aircraft became the equal of any in the world.
The McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, founded in July 1939 by James S. McDonnell, had brought the Navy into the jet age in 1946 with its FH-1 Phantom, and in 1959 McDonnell produced what became the finest fighter of the era, the F4H-1 Phantom II. The arrival of the Phantom II, along with the North American A3J-1 Vigilante, sparked an all-out assault on practically every world performance record within reach. Speed, altitude, and time-to-climb records were broken on a regular basis by Navy pilot Commander Larry Flint, future astronauts Lieutenant Commander John W. Young and Lieutenant Richard F. Gordon, and future admiral and Commander-in-Chief Pacific Command, Lieutenant Huntington Hardisty, who passed away on 1 October 2003. Marine pilots included Lieutenant Colonel Thomas H. Miller Jr., who later became a determined and convincing advocate of the AV-8B Harrier aircraft for the Marine Corps.
Captain Wooldridge retired after 26 years of naval service and enjoyed a second career as a curator and as assistant director for museum operations at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. He is the author or editor of nine books, including the Naval Institute Press titles Into the Jet Age: Conflict and Change in Naval Aviation, 1945-1975 (1995), Night Fighters Over Korea (1998), and The Golden Age Remembered: U.S. Naval Aviation, 1919-1941 (1998). His survey, "Milestones in Naval Aviation: Flight from the Sea," appears in the December 2003 issue of Naval History magazine.
The primary source for names, places, and events for this article is United States Naval Aviation, 1910-1995, by Roy A. Grossnick (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1997), an indispensable reference work for any researcher of naval aviation history.