No single facility can more thoroughly trace the historical development of US naval aviation and the diverse, ever-advancing aircraft which were integral to it than the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, located at the very Naval Air Station Pensacola where it all began.
Naval Air Station Pensacola:
Because of its dual advantages of the harbor and the abundant timber resources for shipbuilding, President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard elected to construct a Navy yard on the southern tip of Escambia County in 1825 on a Pensacola Bay site, which, four years earlier, became a naval squadron support location for operation in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
Construction, commencing in 1826, soon demonstrated the value of the facility, whose wet basin, floating dry dock, and building capability, gave birth to the stream frigate, the USS Pensacola, which itself was instrumental in two major Civil War battles-that is, the Battle of Mobile Bay and the Battle of New Orleans.
However, the base’s strength was subsequently tested in 1862, when Confederate troops captured New Orleans and demolished it and again in 1906 when a hurricane and tidal wave destroyed what had proven to be a valiant and resilient effort to rebuild. The yard itself was decommissioned five years later.
Nevertheless, the Navy’s aviation arm was literally waiting to take flight and became an integral part of its traditional water realm.
After civilian pilot Eugene Ely landed on the makeshift wooden deck erected atop the cruiser USS Pennsylvania moored in San Francisco Bay in 1911 in his Curtiss Model D Pusher biplane, complete with arresting hook, the Navy Department witnessed the possibilities of this extension to ocean-plying ships and urged Congress to include a provision for aeronautical development.
Toward this end, Captain W. I. Chambers contracted for three fledgling aircraft and pilots, including one from the Wright Brothers and two from Glenn H. Curtiss.
Aviation’s capabilities, through demonstration, were immediately apparent: an aircraft was successfully catapult-launched in 1912 and its aerially scouting capabilities, apparent during experiments the following year, sealed its fate.
Prior to the outbreak of World War I, an aviation training station, the first of its kind in the US, was created in 1914 on the site of the abandoned Navy yard in Pensacola. The initial facility, manned by nine officers and 23 mechanics, encompassed eight aircraft and ten beach-erected tent hangars, each water-accessed by a wooden ramp.
When World War I’s match was finally lit, personnel dramatically increased-to 163 enlisted men and 38 naval aviators who flew a 54-strong fleet.
“Naval aviation has… been at the cutting edge of aerospace expeditions, from the first successful crossing of the Atlantic by an aircraft, exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic, and journeys of discovery into outer space,” according to the National Naval Aviation Museum’s website. “The common denominator for those who participated in this exciting history was their training in a sleepy little southern city on the Gulf of Mexico–Pensacola, Florida, the site of the nation’s first naval air station. Since 1914, it was here that the fledglings tested their mettle against the demands of flying aircraft. They learned the unique skills required to fly from ships at sea, find distant targets, and return to their moving, rolling, and pitching ‘airfield,’ often in bad weather and frequently at night.”
By the close of the war, the station had swelled to include 438 officers and 5,538 enlisted men, and its size had exponentially increased. Indeed, its wooden and steel hangars, housing seaplanes, dirigibles, and free kites, stretched a solid mile down the beach.
Yet, because of the cadet training program initiated in 1935, this expansion only continued. Saufley and Ellyson fields were respectively added to the roster in 1935 and 1941.
Their need was once again mandated by war-in this case, World War II-and when President Franklin D. Roosevelt stipulated 126,000 aircraft to fight in it, Naval Air Station Pensacola, bursting at the seams, trained 1,100 monthly cadets to fly them.
The dramatic growth from its inceptional ten tents to the US’s premier Naval Aviation Center was echoed by Senator Owen Brewster when he stated, “The growth of naval aviation during World War II is one of the wonders of the modern world.”
At its peak in 1944, the station trained 12,010 men who collectively flew some two million hours, and US Naval superiority was reflected by the conflict’s statistics: Navy airplanes shot down 6,444 Japanese ones as opposed to the 450 losses of their own in a 14-to-1 ratio.
Paralleling technological advances, pure-jet types were integral to the training syllabus in 1948, after the Naval Air Basic Training Command (NABTC) relocated is headquarters from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Pensacola.
“NAS Pensacola today has myriad activities, including the headquarters and staff of the Chief of Naval Education and Training,” according to the museum’s website; “Training Air Wing 6 and subordinate squadrons; Naval Aviation Schools Command; Center for Naval Technical Training; Center for Information Dominance; Marine Aviation Training Support Group; Naval Air Technical Training Center; Naval Operational Medicine Institute; Naval Recruiting Orientation Unit; and the world-renowned Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron. A continuing attraction to the southeast is the National Museum of Naval Aviation.”
National Naval Aviation Museum:
The seed for a museum devoted to naval aviation was planted in 1955 when Magruder H. Tuttle, a Navy captain and Chief of Staff to the Commander who had first taken to the skies in Pensacola, identified a deficiency in the training curriculum-namely, there was no information or course that traced the history of this segment of aviation.
Although both time and financial resources were too sparse for a bonafide unit of study, the alternative of creating a small museum was explored, enabling young aviators to attain a sense of pride in the service’s past. Fundraising, to support it, was undertaken by active duty personnel in the Pensacola area, and on December 14, 1962, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Paul Fay, announced the establishment of the envisioned facility, charging it with the selection, collection, preservation, and display of appropriate memorabilia that represented the development and heritage of naval aviation.
While the 8,500-square-foot renovated wood frame building constructed during World War II that housed its initial eight airplanes and opened six months later, on June 8, was modest by any standards, it served as the foundation for a growing collection and expanded facilities, which, throughout the years, never ceased to evolve.
With 37 acres of outdoor grounds and more than 350,000 square feet of internal exhibit space, the National Naval Aviation Museum, located at Naval Air Station Pensacola and accessed by the visitor gate, is the world’s largest devoted to this segment and one of Florida’s most visited attractions. It received the American Association of Museums accreditation in 2002. Although most of the 700 aircraft are displayed in the 11 other official naval facilities throughout the country, the 150 pristinely restored ones in the current one are representatively significant.
“They are biplanes of the Great War, record-setters, experimental platforms, and survivors of epic aerial battles,” according to the museum. “In service they splashed through Pacific swells, slammed down on the pitching decks of aircraft carriers, flew through hails of gunfire, and blasted to the stars.”
“(The museum’s exhibits) seek to capture the human element of the enduring history of naval air power. Each represents a chapter of that story-stirring tales of combat, scientific discovery, technological achievement, and triumphs of the human spirit.”
The importance of naval aviation is not to be underestimated.
“During the twentieth century… few military organizations played a more crucial role than naval aviation,” the museum’s website continues. “In war at sea, eclipsing the battleship as the decisive weapon, aircraft carriers projected their powerful air wings over vast expanses of water, striking with surprise at enemy fleets and land bases, then disappearing with equal swiftness. In times of peace, the carrier and her battle group provided American political leaders a flexible, always-ready and potent way to respond to regional crises wherever and whenever American vital interests were threatened.”
Other exhibits include cockpit sections, simulators, and the Emil Buehler Naval Aviation Library, a significant, research-facilitating repository of personal and official papers, squadron records, and some 350,000 photographic images.
For the visitor, there are complementary guided tours; multiple films projected onto the laser-powered, seven-story-high Naval Aviation Memorial Giant Screen Theater, complete with candy and popcorn counter; two extensive Flight Deck Store gift shops; and the Cubi Bar Café, which replicates the Cubi Point Officers’ Club in the Republic of the Philippines that provided enjoyment for the Navy and Marine Corps squadrons whose ships passed through the Western Pacific. Since it contains the extensive plaque collection that once adorned its Plaque Bar, it is both an exhibit and a restaurant.
The museum consists of its main building, which is subdivided into the South Wing, the West Wing, and the Mezzanine, and Hangar Bay One.
Representative of Navy Aviation’s beginnings is the lobby ceiling-suspended A-1 Triad, which greets visitors as soon as they enter the museum. So designated because of the three environments in which it operated-air (wings), land (wheels), and water (floats)-it was ordered on May 8, 1911, only months after Eugene Ely successfully demonstrated the flexibility of (makeshift) carrier-borne operations. Because it was built by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, it became the first in a series of early seaplane designs and facilitated training and experimentation, including the first catapult launch of a winged machine.
Powered by a single, 75-hp Curtiss V-8 engine and able to accommodate both a pilot and a passenger, it had a 28.7-foot overall length and 37-foot wingspan. Its weights increased from its 925-pound empty to its 1,575-pound maximum and speed, even during its incubational time, was a respectable 60 mph.
It proved invaluable for early trials, including those entailing the first night water landing, the testing of wireless communication, and the completion of a 112-mile cross-country flight in 2.02 hours. Although several minor accidents never restricted its return to the sky, a major one, on October 6, 1912, took it beyond repair, but not until it had made 285 flights.
The museum’s example is one of two replicas built by the Institute of Aerosciences in San Francisco to commemorate the Golden Anniversary of US Naval Aviation in 1961.
The first era represented in the museum’s South Wing is that of World War I.
“The World War I exhibit depicts life as an aviator during the Greater War,” according to the National Naval Aviation Museum’s website. “The first Aeronautic Detachment, led by Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting, naval aviator number 16, was the first American combat unit to arrive in France following US entry into the war. Training and serving with foreign aviators, US Navy pilots, both enlisted and officers, entered the fray in myriad roles, but most importantly operated from Naval Air Stations established in the United Kingdom and the continent, during which they attacked and damaged a dozen German U-boats and flew as part of the Northern Bombing Group.”
There are several significant-era aircraft on display here.
The first of these is the Curtiss MF-Boat. After the A-1 Triad had demonstrated its capabilities to the Navy, Curtiss himself shifted his focus to the design of true flying boats, the first of which, as the C-series, made significant naval aviation contributions.
The AB-3 became the first American military aircraft to fly a combat mission during the Vera Cruz insurrection and the AB-2 was successfully catapult-launched the following year. Successors were the Navy procured F- and MF-Boats, which respectively accounted for 144 and 102 orders.
The museum’s example of the later, constructed at the Naval Aircraft Factory at a $5,821 cost in 1918 dollars, excluding the engine, introduced hull-jutting sponsons to facilitate training. After its military service, which occurred between 1918 and 1922, the aircraft, powered by a 100-hp Curtiss OXX-3 engine and featuring a 49.9-foot wingspan and 2,488-pound gross weight, was operated civilly, affording passengers aerial tours of Atlantic City.
Another influential aircraft on display is the Hanriot HD-1. Because the British Royal Navy made great strides in operating airplanes from ships during World War I, Navy officers realized that wheel-provisioned designs offered greater speed and capability, resultantly procuring several foreign types in order to conduct experiments with them from ship-erected decks.
Of the 26 HD-2 seaplanes obtained, ten were converted to landplane configuration and designated HD-1s.
Another European design was the Nieuport 28. Twelve acquired from the Army were equally subjected to carrier-borne trials when they operated from turret supported wooden platforms installed on battleships. Like other throttle-devoid types of the era, speed was controlled by altering the number of engine cylinders fired by means of a blip switch.
From the 142 Fokker D.VIIs the Army brought back to the United States as a result of Versailles Treaty stipulations, a dozen were obtained by the Navy in May 1920 to facilitate metal construction study and development. An example is on display in the museum.
Other era aircraft include the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, the Sopwith Camel, the Curtiss F6C-1 “Hawk,” and the Vought VE-7.
Taking center stage and serving as the threshold to the Golden Age of Aviation is the mammoth Navy-Curtiss NC-4 Flying Boat, a biplane of astronomical proportions. Constructed of wood, fabric, and metal, and powered by four 400-hp Liberty 12 engines-of which three were in tractor configuration and the center one was in pusher arrangement-the triple vertical tail design, considered “the mightiest aeroplane of the day,” sported a 68.3-foot length and a 126-foot wingspan. Operated by a commander, a pilot, a copilot, a radio operator, and two flight engineers, it had an 85-mph speed, a 4,500-foot service ceiling, and a 1,470-mile range.
Although it was conceived as a long-range anti-submarine warfare platform intended to patrol the European coast in search of German U-boats, it was delivered too late for World War I application. Nevertheless, Commander John H. Towers proposed that it be used to regain American aviation prestige by demonstrating its capability of crossing the Atlantic, a challenge the Navy Department ultimately embraced.
It was not to be achieved alone, however. A triplet of aircraft, designated NC-1, NC-3, and NC-4, departed Naval Air Station Rockaway on Long Island for the dual-stop flight on May 8, 1919, although the third was forced to land because of engine trouble, while the other two completed the nine-hour sector to Halifax, Nova Scotia, without incident.
Ultimately reunited at Trepassey, Newfoundland, all three took off on the evening of May 16 for the actual, 1,200-mile oceanic traverse to the Azores Islands. But cloud and rain closed in until NC-1 and NC-3 were choked from the sky and forced down into the water. While the crew of the first was rescued by a Greek freighter, NC-4 was the only one to reach its destination by air the following day after a 16.49-hour flight. NC-2 also achieved this milestone, but “sailed” the remaining 205 miles to its destination.
Another Golden Age aircraft design on display, although hailing from the following decade, is the Ford RR-5 Trimotor. Contrasted with the NC-4, it was an all-metal, cantilever monoplane of high-wing configuration.
One of the few museum exhibits that had more commercial than military application with operation by some 100 worldwide airlines, the aircraft, affectionately called the “Tin Goose” because of its corrugated metal construction, traces its origins to the 3-AT designed by William B. Stout. Since it was less than successful, it was reconfigured into its 4-AT iteration after Henry Ford purchased the Stout Aircraft Company.
Powered by three wing- and nose-installed, 450-hp Pratt and Whitney R-1340-88 radial engines, the airliner, which first flew in June of 1926, featured a 77.10-foot wingspan, an 835-square-foot area, and a 13,499-pound maximum weight. Piloted by a crew of two and accommodating up to 15 passengers, it had a 122-mph cruise speed, 505-mile range, and 18,000-foot service ceiling.
Designated XJR-1, the example the Navy ordered was operated between 1928 and 1930 as a passenger and cargo transport, and led to the nine Trimotors in five versions both the Navy and the Marine Corps flew between 1927 and 1935.
The Ford Trimotor and the Curtiss-Wright Condor, perhaps predecessors of the Boeing B-247 and Douglas DC-3, spurred significant passenger acceptance and US airline growth during the 1920s.
The museum’s RR-5, powered by three 450-hp, nine-cylinder, air-cooled, supercharged R-985 radial engines, features nine passenger seats. Note the ceiling panel that covers the cabin-traversing wing spar.
Sharing space with these aircraft are numerous designs from the Cold War.
“The main floor of the South Wing is home to the museum’s World War I exhibit… and aircraft collections from two great eras of experimentation: the Golden Age of the 20s and 30s and the early Cold War of the 50s and early-60s,” according to the museum’s website. “During the Golden Age that followed World War I and the record-breaking flight of the NC-4, naval aviation became a formidable force… just in time for its ultimate test during World War II. The Bureau of Aeronautics was formed in 1921, led by Rear Admiral William Moffett, and under his leadership, the Navy’s early aircraft carriers were built, aircraft procurement and aviation training expanded, and naval aviation successfully developed into a potent, fleet-deployed weapon of war.”
That did not necessarily happen in a seamless manner, however, since the era was characterized by the technological teething troubles of transition from World War II’s piston-powered fights to the era’s rapid development of high-performance, swept-wing, minimal airfoil-area pure-jets.
One of these links was the McDonnell F2H-4 Banshee, which was developed at the close of the Second World War and served as a step toward modern carrier-borne aviation. What it lacked in speed, at 532 mph, it excelled in altitude, at 44,800 feet.
The North American FJ-2 Fury, the swept-wing, more streamlined successor to the original FJ-1 requested by the Navy in 1951 at the height of the Korean War, was almost 100 mph faster than jet fighters otherwise flown during that conflict. Although it appeared too late for actual combat, it became the first of a long line of Fury versions that served frontline naval squadrons until 1962.
Era-representing Russian designs take form in the museum as the MiG-15. Powered by a single 5,955 thrust-pound VK-1 centrifugal-flow turbojet fed by a nose-mounted air intake, the swept-wing and -tail fighter, with noted airfoil-mounted anhedral, first flew on December 30, 1948. It had a 641-mph speed and almost 50,000-foot service ceiling. Nevertheless, most of those plying Korean skies were shot down by Navy and Marine Corps pilots.
Cornerstone of the West Wing is the USS Cabot (CVL-28) island, paired with a replica of its flight deck. One of nine light aircraft carriers to have engaged in combat during World War II, it operated fighters and torpedo bombers alongside the large-deck Essex class carriers in the Pacific Theater.
The West Wing is otherwise devoted almost exclusively to the Second World War.
“Naval aviation and the nation’s greatest test came with the onset of World War II,” according to the museum. “After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was thrust into the global conflict and the Navy took the fore in the Pacific War. Naval aviation was a key component of victory, whether in the great carrier battles with the Imperial Japanese Navy, supporting the island-hopping campaign, or combating U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic. By 1945, the ranks of naval aviation personnel numbered over 430,000 men and women. The museum’s World War II exhibit chronicles naval aviation’s role through displays mounted along the walls of the West Wing… “