100 Years of Naval Aviation
The Navy's first pilot and 10 more milestones.
- By The Editors
- Air & Space magazine, March 2011
US Navy/Lt. Cmdr. Tam Pham
(Page 4 of 5)
Before 1943, only one in 40 U-boat sightings resulted in a sinking. As ASV radar and MAD became effective, the ratio became one sinking per four sightings. In May and June 1943, the U-boat service lost nearly 100 submarines in the Atlantic. German countermeasures like the Metox radar detector and the Schnorkel system (which allowed diesel engine operation while submerged) temporarily slowed the U-boat’s death spiral, but not before the Allies’ crucial innovations had decisively altered the course of the war. —Roger Connor, Curator, Instruments and Avionics, National Air and Space Museum
6. FIRST CARRIER LANDING To prove the concept of carrier-based aviation, someone had to confirm two possibilities: that you can land an airplane on a ship, and that you can take off from one. One pilot did both. Eugene Ely was a member of Glenn Curtiss’ exhibition team, flying a four-cylinder-engine biplane. In 1910, at the International Air Meet at Belmont Park, New York, Curtiss and Ely met Captain Washington Irving Chambers, the U.S. Navy’s point man on integrating aviation into naval operations. They discussed demonstrating an airplane taking off from a ship (the Navy had first offered the opportunity to the Wright brothers, but they said no). Chambers had a platform built on the USS Birmingham, and on November 14, while the cruiser was off the coast of Virginia, Ely took off from it. After that success, Chambers, hoping to prove a ship landing was possible, had a larger deck constructed on the cruiser Pennsylvania. Twenty-two lines of manila fiber were strung across the deck, with each line anchored by two sandbags. Ely’s airplane was fitted with steel hooks to catch in the lines.
On January 18, 1911, Ely, flying at about 40 mph, approached the Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay. His hooks missed the first 11 ropes, but caught on the next.
The carrier concept wasn’t instantly loved. Secretary of the Navy George Von L. Meyer declared: “When you show me that it is feasible for an aeroplane to alight on the water alongside a battleship and be hoisted aboard without any false deck to receive it, I shall believe the airship of practical benefit to the Navy.” It wasn’t until 11 years after Ely’s historic landing that the Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Langley. On October 26, 1922, Godfrey Chevalier, flying an Aeromarine 39B seaplane trainer, set down on the Langley off Cape Henry, Virginia. And that was the world’s first carrier landing. —Perry Turner
7. CURTISS A-1 TRAID On July 1, 1911, the U.S. Navy purchased its first aircraft, a Curtiss Model E amphibian, with funds appropriated for the Navy to gain a start in aviation. The hydroaeroplane was equally at home in three environments: at sea, on land, and in the air.
Glenn Curtiss had been developing hydroplanes for many months, and after proving that the hydroplane was of practical use to the Navy, Curtiss moved on to the next challenge: designing an amphibian. He completed the pioneering aircraft in just a few days, and it flew for the first time on February 26, 1911. The first A-1 Triad flight made by a naval aviator occurred on July 1, 1911, when Lieutenant Theodore Gordon Ellyson piloted the craft on a brief flight from Lake Keuka near the Curtiss factory in Hammondsport, New York.
After one of his early test flights in the Triad, Curtiss described his experiences aloft that day. He wrote that “flying a hydroaeroplane is something to arouse the jaded senses of the most blasé. It fascinates, exhilarates, vivifies....[and] furnishes a thrill and inspires a wonder that does not come with any other sport on earth.” Curtiss may have been anticipating the spirit of naval aviators who followed in his slipstream over the next hundred years. —Dik Daso, Curator of Modern Military Aircraft, National Air and Space Museum
8. SUPER HORNET Can’t afford revolutionary? Consider evolutionary—and multi-role. For this, no airplane can best the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the U.S. Navy’s yellow jacket of all trades.
The Hornet evolved from the Northrop prototype that competed in 1975 to be a lightweight Air Force fighter (won by the General Dynamics YF-16). Though it lost, the prototype grabbed the Navy’s eye as an affordable replacement for the A-7 Corsair II and the F-4 Phantom II. McDonnell Douglas took charge and upgraded the YF-17 to the carrier-suitable F/A-18, with more combat radius and better radar. The Hornet became operational in January 1983. Cheap, quick, and maneuverable, it’s been ideal for the Blue Angels. But its 51,900-pound maximum takeoff weight and 1,089-nautical-mile range left fleet pilots wanting more.