For generations, U.S. Presidents have asked the same question famously attributed to the nation’s 41st President, George H. W. Bush, who said the first question he always asked when national security was threatened: “Where are our aircraft carriers?” In 2011, as U.S. naval aviation celebrates its 100th anniversary, U.S. Navy carrier and expeditionary strike groups support U.S. combatant commanders worldwide with credible striking power from the sea. Naval aviation is the centerpiece of those groups and will be for the immediate future.
The Navy Program Guide 2011 is the highest-level requirements document listing all major Navy programs. The preamble to its naval aviation section provides a succinct description of what that community contributes to the nation and the Navy today:
Naval Aviation is a critical component of the Nation’s ability to carry out full-spectrum operations in the 21st Century . . . from delivering humanitarian assistance and disaster relief at home and overseas . . . to maritime security operations to ensure safe passage of commercial vessels . . . to high-intensity sea control and power projection in a major contingency. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft operating from nuclear aircraft carriers, large deck amphibious ships and shore stations, and helicopters operating from cruisers and destroyers—complemented by advanced unmanned aerial vehicles—are key contributors to the capabilities of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.1
Given its centrality in the nation’s military strategy of expeditionary operations and sea-based power projection, it is difficult to imagine that naval aviation had extraordinarily humble beginnings. On 8 May 1911—the date recognized as its birthday—Captain Washington Irving Chambers requisitioned the Navy’s first aircraft, the A-1 Triad, from aviator and inventor Glenn Curtiss. It was the beginning of an era—but also the culmination of several intense months—when naval aviation, sea-based aviation, was a very near thing.
In the Beginning
The Wright Brothers electrified the world when they flew their 600-pound Wright Flyer, not once, but four times at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on 17 December 1903. But the U.S. Navy was not immediately impressed and viewed their invention as something of a death trap and a frail machine.
Nonetheless, visionaries were eager to prove—and profit from—the airplane. One of them was Curtiss, who issued the bold prediction: “The battles of the future will be fought in the air. The aeroplane will decide the destiny of nations.”2 The U.S. Navy was interested but moved cautiously, assigning Captain Chambers, who had commanded the battleship USS Louisiana (BB-19), as assistant to the aide for matériel in the Office of the Secretary of the Navy to “advise the Navy Department on the potential applications of aviation.”3
Chambers moved aggressively to carry out the directions of Admiral George Dewey, president of the Navy’s General Board, who directed that “the value of aeroplanes for use in naval warfare should be investigated without delay,” by attending air meets throughout the country.4 Chambers saw “aeroplane” inventors such as the Wright Brothers, Louis Bleriot, Claude Grahame-White and Curtiss demonstrate their machines at the International Aviation Tournament at New York’s Belmont Park in October 1910 and was intrigued by Curtiss’ flying machine. He ultimately met Curtiss at an air meet in Halethorpe, Maryland, the next month. There, after watching one of Curtiss’ pilots, Eugene Ely, drop flour-bag “bombs” on a target, Chambers decided that Curtiss could become his ally in helping the Navy understand the efficacy of this new technology.5
It is virtually impossible to overstate the importance of Captain Chambers to naval aviation. In an editorial on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, The New York Times noted: “It’s true that even without the Wright brothers, someone would have discovered the right combination of balance, propulsion, lift and wing-surface control sooner or later. But it would have been later.”6 In a similar manner, Chambers’ contributions include his ability to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and other challenges by reaching into his deep reserves of endurance, technical skills, and acumen for political and bureaucratic maneuvering. Thus, he overcame doubting superior officers, a skeptical and penurious Congress, rival inventors, and a host of other impediments, making him, singularly, the most remembered and most honored naval aviation pioneer.
Chambers enlisted Curtiss to help show the feasibility of flying an airplane from a ship. The two men moved quickly. While the Halethorpe air meet was still under way, Chambers had the 2,700-ton scout cruiser USS Birmingham fitted with an 83-foot-long landing platform. Once the construction was complete, Ely headed for the Birmingham’s home port of Norfolk, Virginia, in Curtiss’ Hudson Flier. Chambers had Ely’s aircraft lifted aboard the ship, and the Birmingham got under way on the morning of 14 November 1910 in fog, rain, and hail with the intent to launch Ely as the ship steamed at 10 knots.
Heavy weather forced the Birmingham to remain at anchor most of the day, and rather than wait, Ely rolled down the deck shortly after 1500. As he dove to get flying speed, his wheels and propeller skimmed the water, damaging the propeller and kicking up salt spray that partially blinded the pilot. With a crippled airplane, poor weather, and rain “beat into his face,” Ely landed just two and a half miles from his launch platform, well short of Chambers’ original, ambitious objectives.7
An Experiment in Landing on a Ship
Undaunted by Ely’s near-catastrophic flight and recognizing that landing on a ship at sea was critical to convincing naval authorities of the value of the aeroplane, Chambers put the wheels in motion to accomplish just that. Because Curtiss and Ely were committed to perform at the 1911 San Francisco exhibition, Chambers decided a shipboard landing there presented a golden opportunity. He arranged for a 119-foot-long wooden platform to be constructed on the stern of the 13,400-ton armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (Armored Cruiser #4).
On the morning of 18 January 1911, Ely took off from shore, found the anchored Pennsylvania (the ship’s captain vetoed the idea of being under way because he feared colliding with other ships in the crowded San Francisco anchorage), lined up with the deck, and landed aboard the ship. His hook, attached to the skid on the bottom of the airplane, seized the 11th of 22 athwartships lines stretched between pairs of sand-filled sea bags and held a few inches above the deck by longitudinal wood runners. Ely’s airplane stopped in 30 feet.8 The experiment was a success.
In a letter to Chambers shortly after his impressive feats, Ely expressed his thoughts about the potential of aviation in the Navy. “I have proved that a machine can leave a ship and return to it, and others have proved that an aeroplane can remain in the air for a long time,” he wrote. “I guess the value of the aeroplane for the Navy is unquestioned.”9
While Ely’s feats of aerial skill proved the capability of operating on board a ship fitted with a flight deck, the Navy did not see this demonstration as something that could be of practical use to a Fleet comprised of surface ships. In fact, Secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke Meyer’s response to Ely’s 18 January demonstration was typical of his skepticism of the aeroplane: “When you show me that it is feasible for an aeroplane to alight on the water alongside a battleship and be hoisted aboard without any false deck to receive it, I shall believe the airship is of practical benefit to the Navy.”10
Answering the Skeptics
Curtiss was already hard at work developing just such a craft, and demonstrated the “hyrdroaeroplane” in San Diego Bay eight days later by conducting the first successful operation of an aircraft from the water in the United States on 26 January 1911. Only three weeks later, Curtiss flew a “tractor”-style aircraft from his base at North Island, landed alongside the Pennsylvania, and was hoisted aboard to prove the feasibility of Meyer’s demands. That demonstration finally opened the Navy’s purse strings and $25,000 was written into the Navy’s Fiscal Year 1912 budget.
Captain Chambers moved quickly to build on these signature events, requisitioning two Curtiss biplanes on 8 May 1911, organizing the acceptance and delivery flight on 1 July at the Curtiss facility at Keuka Lake, Hammondsport, New York, and establishing a naval-aviation training facility at Annapolis, Maryland, in September. He also organized the Navy’s first aircraft-catapult demonstrations in November 1912 before being forced to retire at the rank of captain—the result of not having enough sea duty under his belt. Successfully petitioning the Navy for reinstatement, Chambers continued to work on naval-aviation policy over the next several years.
In spite of this string of accomplishments spearheaded by pioneers like Chambers, Curtiss, Ely, and Theodore G. Ellyson (Naval Aviator No. 1), aircraft were not immediately embraced by the Navy, with the General Board declaring in 1916, “Aeronautics does not offer a prospect of becoming the principal means of exercising compelling force against the enemy.”11 Like any bureaucracy, the Navy was slow to adapt, even to such a promising invention as the aeroplane. It would take war to change that.
Naval Aviation in the Nation’s Wars
Naval aviation has been at war since April 1914, when members of the fledgling aviation arm joined a naval force sent to Vera Cruz, Mexico, in response to the unlawful arrest of naval personnel there, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Patrick Bellinger’s Curtiss Pusher took enemy ground fire.12 By 1917 the Navy was conducing aerial patrols in European waters; in March 1918 it conducted the first air attack on a German submarine and also scored the first kill by a naval aviator, shooting down a German seaplane. U.S. Marine aviators formed the Day Wing of the Northern Bombing Group, and flew De Havilland DH-9a bombers in missions against the enemy. Growing rapidly from just over 50 aircraft at the beginning of America’s involvement in World War I, the naval aviation force proved its utility in combat, and by November 1918 comprised nearly 2,000 aircraft.
Naval aviation’s contributions to the Allied victory over the Axis powers in World War II has been well chronicled in the pages of Proceedings, Naval History and U.S. Naval Institute (and other) books and needs no detailed retelling here. What is perhaps most remarkable is the fact that only 30 years after the Navy had acquired its first airplane, and only 19 years after it had acquired its first aircraft carrier, naval aviation faced the supreme test of war and carried the fight to the enemy.13 It not only carried out its tasks but became the backbone of Fleet striking power and the one indispensible asset in any action against the enemy.
Carrier aviation’s rise in influence can be directly attributed to events in the early days of World War II. The damage sustained by the U.S. Pacific Fleet during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor virtually guaranteed that the carrier would play a major role in offensive operations, mainly because nothing else was left. Following “pinprick” raids in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands in the opening days of the war, several major events in the following months, all of them heavily involving naval aviation—the Doolittle Raid, the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway, and the establishment of a Marine garrison on Guadalcanal—dramatically changed the fortunes of the belligerents in the Pacific war.14 The outcomes of those operations cemented the ascendancy of the aircraft carrier as the centerpiece of U.S. Navy power projection
The influence of naval aviation in the Atlantic in World War II receives little attention in historical literature. But while certainly lesser-known, naval aircraft played a large role in dedicated and persistent efforts to defeat the German U-Boat threat, supporting invasion forces in North Africa in November 1942 and France later in the war, and protecting the vital sea lanes connecting the United States to its overseas allies during the war in the Atlantic.15 Land-based Navy patrol aircraft and escort carrier aircraft such as the Wildcat and Avenger took the fight to the enemy across this theater of operations. That, along with effective intelligence reports from “Ultra” code breakers and newly developed sensors such as radar, the sonobuoy, and magnetic anomaly detection finally overcame the U-boat threat by late 1943.
Naval aviation built on its war-winning doctrine, tactics, techniques, procedures, and technological advances to earn a prominent place in the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and subsequently during what Max Boot has dubbed “The Savage Wars of Peace” in his book of the same name.16 Naval aircraft proved indispensible in conflicts as diverse as Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, Desert Storm, Bosnia, and Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. But it is fair to ask, what does naval aviation contribute today to the nation and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps team working as a global force worldwide?
Naval Aviation Today—in Peace, War, and Nontraditional Missions
The U.S. Navy’s strategy, clearly articulated in A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, involves pursuing six missions: forward presence, deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance/disaster response.17 The Naval Aviation Vision focuses on what Navy and Marine Corps aviation does to support the nation and the naval services’ missions.18 While no one publication, no matter how comprehensive, can describe the depth and breadth of how naval aviation does this, The Naval Aviation Vision describes how U.S. sea power is inextricably linked to and dependent on naval aviation thusly:
Forward Presence establishes maritime forces in regions throughout the world. The deployability and expeditionary character of naval aviation distinguishes it as the centerpiece of this core capability. The fact that Mideast tensions early in 2011 caused the commander of U.S. Central Command to require the presence of two carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf area of responsibility is mute testimony to how naval aviation is the linchpin of forward presence for the nation and the Navy.
Deterrence is aligned to the national belief that preventing wars is as important as winning them. Naval aviation forces alone can serve effectively as goodwill ambassadors and simultaneously anchor an aircraft carrier or large-deck amphibious ship just offshore to serve as a grim display of national determination and unquestioned lethal potential. The two-carrier presence in the Persian Gulf in 2011 also provides a strong deterrent to others in the region who would cause mischief in much the same fashion as the permanently forward-deployed USS George Washington (CVN-73) carrier strike group in northeast Asia provides a deterrent to aggressive moves by countries such as North Korea.
Sea Control protects the ability to operate freely at sea and is an important element of joint and interagency operations. Establishing and maintaining sea control relies on numerous maritime capabilities, and naval aviation is critical to that effort. Surveillance, detection, and attack of coastal, surface, and subsurface platforms are missions readily executed by naval aviation assets. The “long arm” of Navy aviation provides both operational presence around a carrier strike group and also persistent presence over millions of square miles of ocean expanse.
Power Projection from the sea is the essential combat element of the latest maritime strategy. This core capability is uniquely suited to the strengths of naval aviation. Operating from aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, or forward operating bases, Navy and Marine Corps aviation forces can defeat those who mean the United States and its allies harm. Naval aviation assets are providing a large percentage of the combat sorties supporting U.S. and coalition troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Navy and Marine Corps Hornets and Super Hornets, Growlers, and AV-8B Harriers fly sorties every day in direct support of troops on the ground. A typical carrier strike group operating in support of Operation Enduring Freedom will fly thousands of combat sorties in one deployment.
Maritime Security is the maintenance of security at sea and the mitigation of threats short of war. Naval aviation assets cooperate with other services to keep watch, to disrupt, and, when necessary, to destroy those aggressors who seek to limit the sanctuary of the seas for others. Naval aviation assets are providing maritime security on a daily basis by way of anti-piracy patrols, interdiction of illegal trafficking in drugs and humans, and a host of other missions.
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response is an important part of the U.S. Navy’s serving as a “Global Force for Good.” Bringing aid, offering relief and escape from disaster sites, or conducting non-combatant evacuations from unsafe situations are results accomplished most effectively through the use of naval aviation assets. Navy and Marine Corps helicopters have responded to natural catastrophes as diverse as Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan, flooding in Pakistan, a devastating earthquake in Haiti, and Operation Tomodachi, the massive relief effort in Japan in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami there.
Naval Aviation’s Future
As we begin the second century of naval aviation, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation assets are carrying out the work of the nation. The Navy’s strategy will continue to adapt to the challenges of a changing world environment. Naval aviation will develop new platforms, sensors, and weapons to meet future threats in peace and in war. Over the next 20 years, new aircraft will be developed to replace their aging counterparts and provide the bridge to the future and to the “Navy-after-next.”
But the future will build on the past and the present, where naval aviation will continue to fly, fight, and win. The camaraderie born of a passion for flying and dangers shared binds together past generations of naval aviators to the young men and women airborne today in naval aircraft around the globe. It is in their minds, hearts, and hands that the future of naval aviation and America’s security lies.
2. Craig Collins, “The First Launch, The First Trap,” Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation (Tampa, FL: Faircount Media Group, 2011), p. 30.
3. Clifford Lord, “The History of Naval Aviation, 1898–1939,” microfilm, Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air) (Washington, DC: Naval Aviation History Unit, 1946), p. 24.
4. Stephen Stein, Torpedoes to Aviation: Washington Irving Chambers and Technological Innovation in the New Navy, 1876-1913 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2007), pp. 59–66.
5. Lord, “History of Naval Aviation,” pp. 24–25.
6. “That First Flight,” Editorial, The New York Times, 17 December 2003.
7. William Trimble, “It Began at Belmont: The Birth of Naval Aviation,” in Naval Aviation News, Winter 2011, pp. 16–18.
8. Ibid. 20–21.
9. Hill Goodspeed, The Spirit of Naval Aviation, Second Edition (Pensacola, FL: National Museum of Naval Aviation, 2002), pp. 14–15.
10. Thomas Ray, “Naval Aviation: The Beginning,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 97/1/815 (January 1971), accessed at: http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1971-01
12. Allen Myers, “Continuing a Proud Legacy,” Seapower (Supplement to Seapower Magazine: Celebrating 100 Years of Naval Aviation), May 2011, pp. 36–37.
13. Roy Grossnick, United States Naval Aviation 1910-1995 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1991), pp. 101–102.
14. Barrett Tillman, “The Ten Most Pivotal Events in U.S. Naval Aviation,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2011, p. 59.
15. Ibid., pp. 60–61.
16. Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
17. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC, Department of the Navy, October 2007), www.navy.mil.
18. The Naval Aviation Vision January 2010 (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2010), www.lcnaf.navy.mil/nae.
Captain Galdorisi is director of the Corporate Strategy Group at SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific. His most recent book is Leave No Man Behind: The Saga of Combat Search and Rescue (Zenith Press, 2009).