U.S. Navy Aviation History: Celebrating 100 Years
The history of aviation in the Navy is actually quite recent. Beginning in 1910, the Navy has really driven its aeronautical program to new heights. From its modest beginnings before World War I, aviation in the Navy has come a long way. It was not until World War II that the Navy really understood just how important aviation capabilities were and the investment in aircraft carriers helped win the war in the Pacific against a heavily fortified Japanese navy with landing strips on a variety of islands throughout the region. Innovation seemed to stall until new threats in the Cold War once again demanded the Navy to invest in innovation to protect the nation’s waters. The height of the Cold War saw the introduction of jet planes and nuclear capabilities on aircraft carriers. In the years after, the Navy has continued to play a crucial role in supporting Army ground offenses, as well as providing much needed assistance in humanitarian efforts for ocean related disasters. Today, the Navy has celebrated over 100 years of aviation within its ranks and the two have become synonymous in regards to the strength and power seen in the Navy today.
It was not until the turn of the Twentieth Century that the U.S. Navy employed aviation on a large scale. Theodore Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1898, was a huge supporter in the U.S. Navy implementing flying aircraft into its regiments (Naval History and Heritage Command 1). At the time, the Navy lacked the technology to really acquire and use aircrafts, but with time came greater opportunities.
One of the earliest pioneers of American Navy aviation was Glenn Curtiss (Naval History and Heritage Command 3). Curtiss was crucial in helping demonstrate to the Navy that planes could be transported via ships at sea and that these ships could provide enough runway space for planes to actually take off from the deck while out at sea. The first American Navy pilot to actually successfully take off from a Navy ship Eugene Ely. The attempt took place off the coast of Virginia on one of the Navy’s top ships of the day, the U.S.S. Birmingham, in 1910 (Naval History and Heritage Command 3). Curtiss was successful in flying a model A-1 from a plane and worked continuously to improve the technology aboard Navy ships to accommodate aircraft. In 1911, the Navy would launch the A-2 as its second aircraft design to fly off a ship at sea. Ely was also crucial in helping demonstrate that planes could also land on U.S. Navy ships out at sea as well, with his successful landing on the U.S.S. Pennsylvania in the waters near San Francisco also in 1910 (Dann 4).
From these initial demonstrations, Curtiss continued to work with the Navy to develop platforms that would allow for the successful taking off and landing of the top planes so that the Navy could incorporate aviation into its battle arsenal. Curtiss’ work was augmented with the help of Henry C. Mustin, who helped develop the catapult launch in 1915 that was used to successfully launch the Navy’s AB-2 flying boat (Naval History and Heritage Command 16). Still, World War I saw little use of Navy spearheaded aviation strategies and most of the planes used by the U.S. Navy were heavy sea planes that could not land on ships at sea. However, just after World War I in 1919, Admiral William Benson spearheaded efforts to stop aviation practices within the Navy. The research suggests that Benson wanted to stop the Navy from using aviation and instead create an entirely separate government entity, the Department of Aeronautics. Yet, a number of top officials, including then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned successfully to keep an aviation program active within the ranks of the U.S. Navy. Just like his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt in 1898, FDR helped secure a greater future for aviation in the Navy
By the 1920s, the U.S. Navy was in the process of making large-scale aircraft carrier ships. In the years preceding World War II, the U.S. Navy worked diligently to amp up its aviation capabilities. This was not in vain, as American involvement in World War II required the Navy to focus heavily on aviation, especially in the Pacific, where most of the fighting was done out at sea or on small islands requiring the use of heavy aircraft carriers to shuttle planes close to intended targets. During World War II, the Navy employed the F4U Corsair, the F6F Hellcat and the SB2V Helldriver in its arsenal of aircraft carriers (Dann 5). At the very beginning of the war with the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was clear that aircraft was going to play a huge role in the fighting. During this period, massive ships acted as battle installments with cannons, but also featured their own arsenals of aircraft, primarily bombers and fighter planes. In the U.S. Navy’s advancement further into the Pacific, they encountered heavily fortified islands with airfields equipped in order to allow for Japanese fighter planes to attack American battleships at sea (Naval History and Heritage Command 145). Thus, battles like the Battle of Midway and the Battle of Okinawa made it crucial for the Navy to have its own ability to launch aircraft in order to counterattack incoming Japanese planes. Additionally, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was one of the largest battles in Navy history and also featured the first appearance of Japanese suicide bombers known as kamikazes. This forced the U.S. Navy to equip itself heavily with ships capable of launching planes to fend off kamikazes and other airborne attacks during the war in the Pacific. Clearly, the aircraft carrier was an essential tool for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific and it eventually surpassed the battleship in regards to strategic advantage and power. Air cover was a huge advantage at sea, and without it, even the most impressive battleships could not stand a chance against incoming fighter planes.
After World War II, Naval aviation began to fall off track, but was eventually brought back to life with the threat coming from the east. In the Cold War era, naval air craft carriers became even more complex. The U.S.S. Enterprise was the first American aircraft carriers to se nuclear reactors as its main source of power and the U.S.S. Antietam featured the first angled flight deck that would later facilitate the use of jet planes (Dann 6). The Navy played a huge role in the Cold War, as it helped secure American waters, especially in the frantic days during the Cuban missile crisis, where Russia had battleships loaded with nuclear warheads in Cuban waters.
The Navy once again got a major overhaul in the 1980s and 1990s as government funding allowed the agency to develop more complex technologies that used the latest innovations in aviation. In 1990, the U.S.S. Independence helped lead the attack against Iraq in operation Desert Storm (Dann 7). Since then, the Navy has helped work with humanitarian efforts, including lending aircraft to help in the Indonesian tsunami in 2004 and even Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (Dann 8). 2010 marked the 100th anniversary of naval aviation and today, the Navy is still using the latest innovations in aviation to present a solid security force. One of its most recent achievements has been the inclusion of technology allowing for the launching of unmanned drones off aircraft carriers. In 2013, “the U.S. Navy made aviation history” when it successfully launched an unmanned drone and then landed the same aircraft without incident (Ackerman 1). It was an X-47B aircraft, representing the latest in aeronautical technology coming to life with the Navy backing it.
Ackerman, Spencer. (2013). U.S. Navy Makes History by Landing Unmanned Drone on Aircraft Carrier. The Guardian. Web. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/10/us-navy-x47b-drone-aircraft-carrier
Dann, Capt. Rich. (2010). Naval Aviation Historical Narrative. Centennial Documents. Web. http://www.public.navy.mil/airfor/centennial/Documents/Naval%20Aviation%20Historical%20Narrative.pdf
Naval History and Heritage Command. (2014). United States Naval Aviation 1920-1995. Naval Aviation History. Web. http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/naval-aviation-history/united-states-naval-aviation-1910-1995.html
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