MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. --
The carrier air wing is possibly the most powerful conventional weapon in the world. More than 60 aircraft stationed aboard a nuclear aircraft carrier can deliver devastating sorties to any part of the globe, enabling the United States Navy to take the fight to any enemy anywhere.
The majesty of this modern marvel of steel and nuclear power has its roots in a few enthusiasts experimenting with canvas wings and gasoline engines a century ago.
This year marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of Naval Aviation when Navy Capt. Washington I. Chambers, officer in charge of naval aviation, bought the Navy’s first two biplanes on May 8, 1911.
Birth of Naval Aviation
Aviation has been a part of warfare since the Napoleonic Wars, when Napoleon would use hot air balloons to get a bird’s eye view on the movements of his enemies. Though this tactic would be used in other wars later, to include the American Civil War, the effect on warfare was not significant. Significant military air power had to wait until the invention of powered flight.
Theodore Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy, recommended in 1898 that officers investigate the potential use of aircraft in naval warfare. While the flight by the Wright brothers was five years away, the investigation was optimistic and encouraged the Navy to continue supporting private inventors in experimenting with aircraft.
In 1910, seven years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, it became evident to Navy planners that aircraft technology had advanced by leaps and bounds. Modifications were considered for many ships to support carrying an aircraft aboard. Naval engineers also lobbied the Secretary of the Navy for aircraft and instructors to teach Navy officers how to fly. Navy Capt. Washington I. Chambers was designated as the officer to whom all matters of naval aviation would be referred to. Chambers’ job had no official title, but this position was the head of naval aviation at the time.
“Captain Washington Irving Chambers, a battleship officer, could have easily been indifferent to aviation when he was assigned to handle the correspondence relating to it,” said Hill Goodspeed, historian of the National Naval Aviation Museum. “However, he proved a tireless advocate, studying the technical aspects of flying and embracing opportunities to demonstrate its potential.”
To head up the naval flight program, the Navy needed an expert. The Wright brothers were working to fulfill Army contracts, so the Navy picked up Glenn H. Curtiss.
“Glenn Curtiss brought both the innovative spirit and technical knowledge that was key to the development of naval aviation,” Goodspeed said.
Curtiss and his assistants, working in cooperation with Navy officers under the supervision of Chambers, would make the first great strides of naval aviation.
In 1910, Eugene Ely, an assistant to Curtiss, made the first takeoff from the deck of any ship, the USS Birmingham anchored in Hampton Roads, Va. In January of 1911, Ely again made history by being the first to land aboard a ship, the USS Pennsylvania while it was anchored in San Francisco Bay. The bare bones basics for operating today’s modern carriers had been learned, but still had to be improved upon.
The construction of the first ships specially built for the aircraft carrier role was still more than a decade away. However, planes for scouting, carrying cargo and personnel over water were needed immediately. In early 1911, Curtiss met the Navy’s needs by fitting his aircraft with pontoons and created their first seaplanes.
“Seaplanes were vital to integrating aviation into naval operations,” Goodspeed said. “For Eugene Ely’s flights, a temporary wooden deck had to be erected on the cruisers Birmingham and Pennsylvania. In normal operations, this would diminish the effectiveness of the warship, obstructing its gun batteries. For aircraft to operate at sea, they would need to use the water as a runway. Thus, seaplanes were the first aircraft produced in great numbers for the Navy.”
While he developed the first sea planes, Curtiss also accepted the first naval aviator as a student. Navy Lt. Theodore G. Ellyson became Navy Aviator No. 1 and attended the Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Camp at North Island, San Diego, Calif. Curtiss and his assistants would train most of the first generation of Navy aviators while those aviators assisted him in making new technological advances on the aircraft he was developing. Among other aviators was Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham, Naval Aviator No. 5 and the first Marine aviator, who was taught to fly by associates of Curtiss.
The technical workings of aircraft were under development by Curtiss, but in order for aviation to become a permanent part of the Navy, provisions to support aviation had to be made within the bureaucracy of the Navy.
In 1911, the General Board created a sub-office to handle affairs in naval aviation with Chambers at its head. Later, this office was transferred to the Bureau of Navigation and funds of $25,000 were appropriated for its use.
With an established office and money, Chambers bought two Curtiss biplanes on May 8, 1911, officially giving birth to naval aviation. The maiden flight of the A-1, the first Navy aircraft, occurred July 1, 1911, with Curtiss as the pilot. Later that day Ellyson became the first Navy pilot to fly a Navy aircraft in the A-1.
From these humble beginnings, naval aviation would grow to become the powerhouse of the United States Navy. Aircraft continued to be improved upon from those early days, eventually supplanting the battleship as the heart of the Navy.