Happy 100th Anniversary, NAS Pensacola!
On January 20, 1914, the aviation unit from Annapolis, Maryland, under Lieutenant John H. Towers, as Officer in Charge, arrived at Pensacola, Florida on board USS Mississippi (BB 23) and USS Orion (AC 11) to set up a flying school. Lieutenant Commander Henry C. Mustin commanded Mississippi and was in command of the aeronautic station.
The United States Navy’s official interest in airplanes emerged as early as 1898. That year the Navy assigned officers to sit on an interservice board investigating the military possibilities of Samuel P. Langley’s flying machine. In subsequent years there were naval observers at air meets here and abroad and at the public demonstrations staged by Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1908 and 1909. All were enthusiastic about the potential of the airplane as a fleet scout. By 1909, naval officers, including a bureau chief, were urging the purchase of aircraft.
It was in 1910 that a place was made for aviation in the organizational structure of the Navy. That was the year Captain Washington I. Chambers was designated as the officer to whom all aviation matters were to be referred. Although holding no special title, he pulled together existing threads of aviation interest within the Navy and gave official recognition to the proposals of inventors and builders. Before the Navy had either planes or pilots he arranged a series of tests in which Glenn Curtiss and Eugene Ely dramatized the airplane’s capability for shipboard operations and showed the world and a skeptical Navy that aviation could go to sea.
Early in 1911 the first naval officer reported for flight training. By mid-year, the first money had been appropriated, the first aircraft had been purchased, the first pilot had qualified, and the site of the first aviation camp had been selected. The idea of a seagoing aviation force was beginning to take form as plans and enthusiasms were transformed into realities. By the end of the year a humble beginning had been made.
The need for more science and less rule of thumb was apparent to Captain Chambers. He collected the writings and scientific papers of leaders in the new field, pushed for a national aerodynamics laboratory, and encouraged naval constructors to work on aerodynamic and hydrodynamic problems.
The Navy built a wind tunnel, and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was established. The first real study of what was needed in aviation was conducted by a board under Chambers’ leadership and included in its recommendations the establishment of a ground and flight training center at Pensacola, Fla., the expansion of research, and the assignment of an airplane to every major combatant ship of the Navy.
Progress in these early years was marked by an endurance record of six hours in the air; the first successful catapult launch of an airplane from a ship; exercises with the Fleet during winter maneuvers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and combat sorties at Veracruz, Mexico.
These were but some of the accomplishments by pioneer pilots. Their activity furthered the importance of aviation to the Navy. In 1914, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels announced that the point had been reached “where aircraft must form a large part of our naval forces for offensive and defensive operations.”