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Naval Aviation

Throughout the history of Naval Aviation, one can see a growing force. As new technology and innovations arose and advanced, Naval Aviation improved as well. In times of war and peace, through training and dedication, naval aviators improved their abilities and tactics to produce the fighting force it is today. If by chance, the “revolt of the admirals” had failed, the United States Military would not be what it is today and the Navy could not have the liberty of enjoying the Mahanian concept of commanding the sea.

As new technology and innovations arose in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the military potentials for Naval Aviation were not so evident. Interest grew in 1898 during the inventions of the flying machine and the aircraft from Wilbur and Orville Wright, although naval officials did not recognize the military potentials the airplane possessed. However, in 1912, LT T.G. Ellyson, the first naval aviator, flew an aircraft successfully catapulted off a barge in the Potomac River. This began the evolution of Naval Aviation and in the years to come, the face of naval warfare would change drastically.

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Official interest began in 1898 when the Navy assigned officers to sit in on an interservice board to investigate the military possibilities of Samuel P. Langley’s flying machine. During the years ahead, naval observers attended air shows and the public demonstrations of the Wright Brothers. By 1909, naval officers were excited about the possibilities of the aircraft to be used as a scout and urged the purchase of the aircraft.

Progress in the years from 1898-1916 were marked by an endurance record of six hours in the air, the first successful catapult launch, exercises with the fleet at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and combat sorties consisting of scouting at Veracruz, Mexico. These activities of the new aviators furthered the importance of Naval Aviation. By 1914, Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, announced that the United States had reached a point “where aircraft must form a large part of our naval forces for offensive and defensive operations” (Grossnick, 1).

Although the pioneers of 1898-1916 brought to reality Naval Aviation, it was much too small and poorly equipped to wage war. In April 1917, the call for war came. However, the navy only had 48 aviators and students available with 54 aircraft that were not designed for the work that World War I required.

However, in the next 19 months, during the time period when World War I was declared and ended, Naval Aviation expansion was astonishing. New air stations opened, training programs began at the new Naval Air Stations, colleges and universities, and with the private industry. Many types of aircraft were produced and an aircraft engine was advanced from a trial product to mass production and operation.

The flying boat, in 1919, was the first aircraft to fly the Atlantic Ocean. This aircraft was Naval Aviation’s outstanding technical product of World War I. Many aviators were impressed with the flying boat and urged that it would be the means to take airpower to sea. However, other officers believed and insisted that aircraft should fly from combatant ships at sea.

During the 1920s, development grew in both the flying boat and the proposed aircraft carrier. Finally, the aircraft carrier won many hearts of naval officers and the Navy decided to convert a collier to a carrier. This conversion would be the beginning of a movement that would gain the attention of ship builders, aircraft designers, and naval tacticians for the years ahead (Grossnick, 23).

In the 1920s, Naval Aviation increased both in size and in strength. In this decade of growth, air detachments proved themselves effective under the conditions at sea. Three aircraft carriers were in full operation and patrol squadrons carried out their scouting missions. Each year aircraft flew faster, higher, and longer due to the rapidly changing technology.

In this decade, tactics also developed. Dive-bombing was a common practice and the Marine Expeditionary Forces learned the values of air support. Torpedo attacks, scouting, and spotting for enemy gunfire were studied and practiced (Grossnick, 47).

For history’s first time, 30 years after the Navy bought its first aircraft, naval engagements were fought entirely in the air without enemy surface forces ever sighting each other in pure carrier versus carrier battles during World War II. During this period, Aviation brought the fighting to the enemy while carrying out the missions. Therefore, Naval Aviation became the basis of the fleet’s striking power (Grossnick, 101). Finally, after World War II and years of experimentation and innovation, the development of carrier airpower in the Navy brought success to the war front (Wildenberg, 13).
After World War II, the Navy, in whole, struggled with demobilization. The Navy suffered from this rapid demobilization as it watched most of their ships retire and their aircraft placed into storage. Naval Aviation fell to one quarter of its size of World War II.

In the years of 1946 to 1949, during these years of demobilization and organizational readjustments, changes in Naval Aviation occurred very rapidly. Scientific and technological advances occurred and were eventually replaced by better technology before the latter could be studied and taken advantage of. The destructive power and possibilities that the United States possessed during this technological age were not carefully learned. The United States was merely focused on having the best weapons and most power in the world.

Because of disputes of the services wanting larger shares of the decreasing budget, the Navy was faced with the possibility of becoming obsolete. With the introduction of the Air Force’s B-36 and the atomic bomb, critics of the Navy argued that the Navy was outmoded. Unlike in the 1920s, when the battleship was said to be obsolete, it was now the aircraft carrier because of its expense and vulnerability. Although carrier supporters retaliated by criticizing the new, expensive, and vulnerable B-36, the Secretary of Defense cancelled the already in construction, aircraft carrier (Grossnick, 159).

In the early years after World War II, during this time of heated debate and the “revolt of the admirals,” many naval officers were convinced that Naval Aviation was important to the offensive and defensive effectiveness of the fleet (Barlow, 292). Naval Aviation began to project the power the Navy possessed to strike many targets, not only at sea, but also inland, thus leading to the function of the Navy, commanding the sea.

During the outbreak of the Korean War, while the United States military was being reorganized and the decreases in the budget reduced its size, it was apparent that Naval Aviation suffered from incomplete integration of new weapons and equipment. Development of new operating techniques and tactics was still underway. With the introduction of jet aircraft, a wide range of performance characteristics, support and maintenance requirements, and tactical applications arose between jet and propeller-driven aircraft.

In the Korean War, the mission of Naval Aviation was to confine the battle area to the peninsula. Because of carrier Aviation, naval aircraft flew deep support missions and could attack enemy targets well inland effectively. Although the Korean War was much smaller than World War II, Navy and Marine aircraft flew over 276,000 sorties, only 7,000 less than in World War II. Naval Aviation stepped up to the challenge and demonstrated its usefulness in war.

The years from 1950 to 1953 brought research and development toward modernizing Naval Aviation. High-speed flight was researched through new designs of aircraft. Advances were also made in aircraft performance (Grossnick, 183). Carrier modernization also continued and the steam catapult was incorporated. An angled flight deck was also introduced so that aircraft could land as others were launching. These advances in Naval Aviation represented a forward movement rather than a decline as the years before (Grossnick, 184).

In the years to follow, from 1954-1959, Naval Aviation advanced as new technological and scientific advances arose. These advances in technology and the many improvements in weapons and aircraft created a new avenue for the Navy to control the sea (Grossnick, 203).

The 1960s and 1970s left the Navy’s role of controlling and commanding the sea unchanged. As new aircraft, like the F-14 Tomcat, and new innovations of missiles and electronics, such as the light airborne multipurpose system, for tracking the submarine threat came about, Naval Aviation had no reason to doubt its integrity (Grossnick, 279). For sure, the Navy’s aircraft would help the United States possess the strongest navy in the world.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Naval Aviation saw a buildup in its forces. During international events, Naval Aviation reaffirmed their importance by performing successful missions in all parts of the world (Grossnick, 331). Naval Aviation, as it always has, adjusted to the changing times and technology. New strategies and tactics changed with the world to do its job: to serve the United States during peace and war.

Naval Aviation indeed serves the Navy and the United states remarkably. Without this magnificent evolution and the endurance of its aviators and officials promoting this promising future, it is virtually certain that the United States and its Navy would not be prepared for the wars and conflicts that the United States have been and will be involved with. The future of the Navy lies not only with budget cuts and with the changing world, but also with the improvements in naval aviation and the ability to project its power from sea to wherever the conflict exists. Without a state of the art aviation force, the Navy will not sustain its command of the sea and the United States will be a substandard world power.

1. Barlow, Jeffrey G. Revolt of the Admirals. Brasseys. Washington. 1998.

2. Grossnick, Roy. United States Naval Aviation, 1910-1995. Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington, D.C.

3. Wildenberg, Thomas. Destined for Glory. Naval Institute Press. Annapolis, MD. 1998.

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