A century is less than the blink of an eye in human history, but in 2011 it represents 92 percent of the era of powered flight. This marks the centennial of U.S. naval aviation, so it’s appropriate to look back on 100 years of astounding technological progress and historic achievement.
Glenn Curtiss’ and Eugene Ely’s experiments in 1910–11 are inevitably featured in any list of significant events in naval aviation history. But that is an exaggeration. While impressive at the time, they proved largely irrelevant—and far from pivotal. With temporary platforms rigged on two cruisers, Ely demonstrated the ability to take off from a ship in November 1910 and made a landing in January 1911. The fact that the Navy was willing to conduct the tests says more about the evolutions than what they achieved. There was no follow-up; more than a decade passed before a dedicated carrier appeared.
Meanwhile, aviators piloted flying boats, floatplanes, and land-based aircraft. Navy and Marine Corps contributions to the Great War in 1917–18 demonstrated that aviation had a nautical future, and three years later the first of ten pivotal events occurred in the long, proud history of those who wear Wings of Gold.
Number One: Bureau of Aeronautics, 1921
As a battleship officer, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett had been a card-carrying member of “the gun club,” but he grasped the potential of naval aviation. At age 52 he was selected to establish the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) and remained at its helm until his death on board the airship USS Akron (ZRS-4) in 1933. His successor was Captain Ernest J. King, later a Fleet Admiral and Chief of Naval Operations during World War II.
Previously, aviation was administered by various segments of the naval bureaucracy, including the steam engineering office, the Bureau of Construction and Repair, and the Bureau of Navigation for personnel. Consequently, BuAer gained cognizance of “all that relates to designing, building, fitting out, and repairing Naval and Marine Corps aircraft.”1
The following year the bureau complied with a new law requiring at least 70 percent of aviation officers to qualify as pilots or observers. Moffett led from the front, earning his place in history as the first naval aviation observer.
With establishment of BuAer, the brown shoes gained an approximately equal place at the naval table. Doctrinal and tactical matters relating to aviation remained a source of discussion and some contention for years to come, but at least the flying Navy possessed a firm administrative base with an optimistic eye on the horizon.
Number Two: USS Langley (CV-1), 1922
Prior to 1922, shipboard aviation in the U.S. Navy largely involved floatplanes launched from catapults on battleships and cruisers, with recovery accomplished by crane alongside the ship. Consequently, the decision to convert the collier Jupiter (AC-3) into an aircraft carrier (as opposed to a seaplane carrier) represented a milestone on the road of naval-aviation progress. Owing to the addition of a flight deck over the existing hull, the USS Langley (CV-1) became known as the “Covered Wagon.” On her short, narrow deck the first generation of tailhook aviators learned their esoteric trade.
The experimental carrier—named for the Wright Brothers’ rival, Samuel P. Langley—provided vital lessons in ship design plus operating equipment and techniques. The original grid of arresting wires gave way to the transverse configuration used today, as did an elevator to move planes between the flight and hangar decks. The lessons were quickly absorbed, leading to America’s first two combat-capable flattops only five years later, the USS Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3).
In 1937 the Covered Wagon was converted again, becoming a seaplane tender. She perished off Java in February 1942, victim of Japanese dive bombers, but the legacy she imparted remains part and parcel of carrier aviation in the 21st century.
Number Three: Development of Dive Bombing, 1920s
Naval aircraft employed torpedoes in the Great War but the chances of a hit on a fast-maneuvering warship were slim. However, the Royal Air Force proved in combat that glide bombing up to 30 degrees or more could provide superior accuracy over horizontal bombing, especially from low level. The U.S. Army experimented as early as 1919, and popular lore credits Marines with “inventing” dive bombing in postwar banana-republic conflicts. More significant, in the mid-1920s the Navy began experimenting with true dive bombing in aircraft modified for the purpose.
Competitive exercises began in 1926 involving Navy and Marine Corps squadrons that worked up to 45-degree dives from 2,500 feet. Following evaluation and further tests, a Fleet doctrine for dive bombing was promulgated in 1928. As aircraft performance improved, so did ordnance delivery, and by 1941 the Navy and Marines possessed arguably the finest dive bomber of World War II, the Douglas SBD Dauntless. It was the crucial weapon in historic victories at the Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal.
Dive bombing was all the more important owing to the Navy’s scandalous failure to test its torpedoes before the war—a policy that continued into 1943. Absent a viable aerial torpedo capability, dive bombing remained the primary option for sinking enemy warships until nearly two years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Today, the image of SBDs plummeting on their targets in 70-degree dives remains an icon of naval aviation’s attack community.
Number Four: Fleet Problem IX, 1929
Developing operating equipment and procedures was one thing; putting carriers to military use was another. The pioneering work accomplished in the Langley continued with America’s first fighting flattops, when the Lexington and Saratoga joined the Fleet in 1927–28. Big, fast ships with 80-plane air groups, they afforded naval air-power theorists the long-awaited chance to show what carrier aviation could do.
The annual Fleet Problem for 1929 pitted the defending Blue Fleet against the hostile Black Fleet, threatening the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. In the Black force carrier Saratoga, Rear Admiral Joseph M. Reeves conceived an audacious plan. Eluding the defending Lexington force, in the predawn of 26 January he began launching 83 aircraft in successive waves, 140 miles offshore. Each formation targeted specific U.S. Army facilities or the locks on both ends of the canal, and the naval aviators enjoyed surprise, “destroying” the critical locks.
Though Blue Fleet warships and submarines “sank” the Saratoga, Reeves’ innovative plan was hailed as a master stroke. Admiral Henry Wiley, commanding the U.S. Fleet, declared: “No single air operation ever conducted from a floating base speaks so eloquently for the advanced state of development of aviation as an integral part of the Fleet.”2
With Fleet Problem IX, carriers emerged as combatants far more capable than merely scouting or gunfire spotting. They packed an offensive reach that would resonate around the globe in barely a decade.
Number Five: Development of Radar, 1940 Onward
Naval radar not only enhanced Fleet defense, it sparked a revolution in how the U.S. Navy operated, proving equally important in offensive missions. Other than jet propulsion, probably no other technology so heavily influenced naval aviation over the past 70 years.
America’s first carrier with radar was the USS Yorktown (CV-5) in 1940 after initial trials on surface ships. Soon thereafter the original CXAM set, with its distinctive “bedspring” antenna, was installed in other Fleet carriers, which began evolving doctrine and learning the advantages and limits of the new argus-eyed sensor.
Hand-in-glove with radar was battle management. From the crowded, hot early “radar plots” of World War II, fully developed combat information centers were operated by specially trained personnel who helped render aircraft carriers almost immune to conventional air attack.
From daytime fighter direction, radar went to work ’round the clock, controlling night fighters that prowled the periphery of carrier task forces and patrolled island bases across the Pacific. Nocturnal attack missions were made possible by radars small and light enough to fit into aircraft, whether TBF Avengers or PBY Catalinas and other patrol planes. Around the globe, naval aviation radar stripped away the enemy’s ancient advantage of darkness, exposing U-boats and Japanese shipping to attack in any light conditions and in obscuring weather.
Radar-controlled missiles became a reality in the 1950s, and over the next two decades they became more reliable, long-ranged, and lethal. Today, airborne radar is taken for granted both for navigation and combat purposes. But the pioneering legacy of the 1940s is seen in airborne early-warning aircraft such as the E-2 Hawkeye and a new generation of AWACS (airborne warning and control system) and JSTARS (joint surveillance and target attack radar system) platforms.
Number Six: Coral Sea and Midway, 1942
On the morning of 7 May 1942 something happened that had never occurred before: two fleets engaged in a naval battle without either side steaming within visual range of the other. From hull-to-hull slugfests dating to the age of oars, suddenly naval combat occurred “below the horizon,” more than 100 miles distant. The Battle of the Coral Sea inflicted a rare reversal on the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), blunting a thrust against Port Morseby, New Guinea. Japan lost the small carrier Shoho and America the large veteran Lexington, but the engagement had two significant consequences: It announced the arrival of a new era in naval warfare and removed two of the enemy’s largest flight decks from the next operation. Damage to the Shokaku and the mauling of the Zuikaku’s air group meant that neither participated in the decisive Battle of Midway.
Japan needed to destroy the remaining Pacific Fleet carriers before America’s immense industrial base kicked into high gear. Consequently, the thrust against Midway Atoll 1,100 miles from Oahu forced a showdown: four imperial flattops against three American carriers, plus multi-service U.S. aircraft on Midway itself. In a stunning reversal of fortune, Yorktown and Enterprise (CV-6) dive bombers destroyed all four Japanese carriers the morning and afternoon of 4 June. The victory cost the Yorktown and a destroyer, but Midway changed the complexion of the Pacific War literally overnight. Japan was never able to regain the strategic initiative, and American forces went on the offensive at Guadalcanal two months later.
Midway meant that Japan could not win the war, and Guadalcanal meant that America would not lose. But the vital importance of naval aviation was never better demonstrated than that Thursday morning when the sky rained Dauntlesses over a previously undefeated IJN, forever sealing the fate of the Japanese Empire.
Number Seven: Defeat of the U-Boats, 1943
“The Battle of the Atlantic” is a misnomer: it was a years-long campaign involving hundreds of battles and duels to preserve the vital lifeline between the New World and the Old. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared the Atlantic the decisive battleground of World War II. He wrote: “The only thing that ever frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”3 He was right. Until the U-boats were defeated, the Normandy invasion would have been impossible.
The Atlantic campaign was measured in tonnage, quantifiable on a graph. The Allies—notably Great Britain and the United States—needed to produce merchant ships faster than Admiral Karl DÖnitz’s wolfpacks could sink them. The lines finally crossed on the chart in May 1943 when at long last the edge began shifting in favor of the Allies. With more tonnage reaching Britain, supplies could be stockpiled for the liberation of occupied Europe.
From 1942 through 1945 the U.S. Navy sank or captured some 160 Axis U-boats (including some shared with Allied forces) in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean. Patrol squadrons accounted for 41 in whole or in part, while Avengers from escort carriers accounted for another 53.4 Thus, aviation contributed nearly 60 percent of the Navy’s tally of enemy subs in western waters. But the greater value was deterrence: TBFs and patrol planes overhead day and night meant that U-boat skippers often could not get into position for a good shot at a convoy.
Number Eight: The Postwar Revolution, 1949 Jets and Helicopters
After World War II, jets and helicopters transformed naval aviation with performance from a dead hover to transonic speeds. The Navy began experimenting with jets during the war, leading to limited purchases of the composite jet-piston Ryan FR-1 Fireball, the twin-jet McDonnell FH-1 Phantom I, and the more capable North American FJ-1 Fury in 1945–46.
The seminal year was 1949, when two new fighters joined the Fleet: Grumman’s F9F Panther series and McDonnell’s F2H Banshee. Both proved to be long-lived designs with considerable “stretch.” Though the first generation of Navy jets lacked the performance of most land-based fighters, tailhook aviators mastered the wider flight regimes and higher landing speeds on carrier approaches. In less than a decade Vought F8U Crusaders redressed the deficit, followed by the long-lived F-4 Phantom and successive designs.
Naval aviation’s introduction to rotory-wing designs began in 1943 when the U.S. Coast Guard began working with Sikorsky, probing the search-and-rescue capabilities of helicopters. From the original HNS-1 onward, the company steadily improved performance, with the HO2S/HO3S series entering service in 1946 and 1947. The waspish helo became the standard shipboard chopper. Beginning in 1949 almost every carrier deployed with at least one Sikorsky as the duty “angel” to retrieve downed fliers. By 1949 helos had replaced floatplanes on U.S. Navy surface combatants.5
Today, approximately half of those who wear wings of gold are rotary-wing pilots, proving that the once-primitive whirlybird has more than fulfilled its early promise.
Number Nine: Close-Air Support in Korea, Summer 1950
It may not be excessive hyperbole to credit Kim Il Sung with saving carrier aviation. In the bitter postwar feuding between the Navy and the nascent U.S. Air Force, the Truman administration considered reducing naval aviation to maritime patrol status with the “light blue” airmen taking over offensive and strategic missions. From a high of 99 carriers of all types in 1945, five years later the Navy had 15 deployable flattops and only one in the Western Pacific when North Korea steamrolled southward in June 1950.
In a few weeks the communist juggernaut overwhelmed most American and Republic of Korea forces, winning near-total domination of the Korean peninsula. With U.S. Air Force units forced to withdraw to Japan, on-call tactical air power was largely limited to the USS Valley Forge (CV-45) and the few others that could be rushed to the area. Against massive North Korean ground forces, the heavily outnumbered allied infantry badly needed the speed, mobility, and responsiveness of tailhook squadrons.
Time and again Corsairs and Skyraiders offset the enemy advantage in manpower. When the amphibious landing at Inchon reversed the course of the war in September, carrier aircraft were overhead and maintained air supremacy thereafter. The dark blue aircraft again proved invaluable during the Chinese offensive that winter, and air power helped stabilize the front along the 38th parallel from 1951 onward.
The Korean War provided conclusive proof that carrier aviation represented America’s geopolitical trump card, and thus remains a pivotal event in naval aviation history.
Number Ten: Angled Decks, 1953 onward.
In the 1950s, naval aviation faced a dilemma. Aviation progress mandated jet tactical aircraft, especially fighters with transonic speeds. The advent of swept-wing jets meant ever-higher landing speeds, which reduced the narrowing safety margin for carrier aircraft. Operating high-performance jets off straight-deck carriers probably was the most demanding exercise that humans have ever routinely performed.
Axial decks required wire barriers separating the landing area toward the stern from the parking area forward. The World War II-era deck configuration simply was unsuited for jet operations, as noted by future astronaut Wally Schirra who said: “In those days you either had an arrested landing or a major accident.”6
The British Royal Navy wrestled with the same problem and found a solution. In 1952 HMS Triumph was modified with a flight-deck extension along the port side, angled to permit landing aircraft to touch and go, or “bolter,” in case their tailhooks failed to snag an arresting wire. It was an immediate success, and their American counterparts took note.
In 1953 the USS Antietam (CV-36) was modified with an angled deck 8 degrees to port, with arresting wires reoriented accordingly. Her sea trials confirmed that jets could operate with much improved safety margins and far fewer accidents. Eventually, the U.S. Navy settled on a 9-degree angle, which remains standard today.
Closely related to the angled deck were two other British innovations: steam catapults superior to previous hydraulic models, and the mirror landing system that provided greater precision in landing approaches than handheld paddles wielded by landing signal officers. U.S. Navy carriers began using both systems in the early 1950s, although to this day LSOs (landing signal officers) proudly maintain the identity of “paddles.”
Other significant events in naval aviation, while not pivotal, bear mentioning:
• The transatlantic flight of the NC-4 in 1919 demonstrated the potential of long-range patrol aviation and captured the public’s attention as nothing before.
• Nuclear propulsion for carriers began with the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 1961, and the Nimitz class will remain in service long into the future. While the endurance provided by CVNs has little effect on how carriers are operated, the Navy and the nation remain willing to bear the enormous cost of nuclear power.
• On 9 May 1972, nine aircraft off the USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) marked the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War. By mining Haiphong Harbor, the A-6s and A-7s closed North Vietnam’s main port to outside supply, leading to the process that ended America’s decade-long nightmare in Southeast Asia. Never has carrier mobility and economy of force been better demonstrated.
1. Administration of the Navy Department in World War II. Washington, DC: U.S. Navy, 1959. Chapter IX, Bureau of Aeronautics, p. 360.
2. Norman Polmar, Aircraft Carriers, Vol. I. (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2006), p. 56.
3. Carlo E’Este, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill, (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), p. 570.
4. Submarine sinking totals derived from tables in Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1947–62)Vol. I, p. 414; Vol. X, pp. 370-373.
5. “The History of Helicopters, Ch. 4, The Helicopter Comes of Age.” http://www.aviastar.org/history/index4.html
6. CAPT Wally Schirra, USN (Ret.), to author, 1994.