100 Years of Naval Aviation

The Navy’s first pilot and 10 more milestones.

(US Navy/Lt. Cmdr. Tam Pham)
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But in 1921, Ellyson was offered a position as executive officer at the naval air station at Hampton Roads, Virginia, and was then detailed to the U.S. Naval Mission to Brazil. He and his family spent three years in Rio de Janeiro, where Ellyson offered the Brazilian air force technical and flight instruction—to little effect. (After complaining that the pilots were erratic fliers fond of breaking formation to perform stunts, Brazilian officials excused them by saying, “Young men must show off for their girls.”)

The family returned to the United States in 1925, and Ellyson began fitting out the USS Lexington, the Navy’s second aircraft carrier; he would eventually become the ship’s executive officer.

On February 27, 1928, Ellyson learned from his wife that their 11-year-old daughter Mildred was gravely ill. He asked to borrow Norfolk air station’s Loening OL-7, and two crew members, and fly to Annapolis. The aircraft took off from Norfolk that night, but never arrived at its destination. On March 11, the Secretary of the Navy’s office sent a telegram to Helen Ellyson: “Very reluctantly yesterday the Secretary came to the conclusion that it was necessary for us to declare the officers who were lost in the plane with your husband officially dead. We had hoped against hope that something might be found of those officers living but it does not seem now that there is any hope left.”

For more than a month the Navy searched for the missing airplane. On April 11, Ellyson’s body washed ashore in the lower Chesapeake Bay. —Rebecca Maksel

1. SIKORSKY SEAHAWK In December 1994, a Black Hawk variant called the HH-60G lifted off from an Air National Guard airfield in Long Island, New York, to search for Ukrainian sailors bobbing in the north Atlantic. Their ship, the Salvador Allende, had sunk in 30-foot waves 780 miles from land. After 15 continuous hours in the air, including 10 midair refuelings, the helicopter returned to its Long Island base with a world record for longest over-water rescue. The helicoptrian Igor Sikorsky, who felt that fixed-wing airplanes were only good for throwing funeral wreaths when a person is drowning, would have been proud.

Sikorsky’s most ocean-minded line of twin-engine helicopters flies under the name of Seahawk. First fielded in 1983 as the SH-60B and later exported as the S-70, the Seahawk and its subsequent variations have been successful enough to show all older U.S. Navy helicopters the door. Sikorsky’s forward momentum continues with the Navy’s recent decision to carry out all helicopter operations with just two Sikorsky Seahawk platforms: the MH-60R for anti-vessel operations and MH-60S for multi-mission work. Think of the “S” model as a Swiss Army knife, suited for rescue, transport, resupply, combat insertion, medevac, and surface attacks executable with guns or missiles like the Penguin and Hellfire. When SEALs need to pay bad guys a visit, there are fittings to tuck an inflatable boat under the fuselage.

Ocean work is demanding enough to make Seahawks pricier than land-bound Black Hawks. All Seahawks have main rotor blades that fold and a tail pylon that swings on hinges. Together, these modifications shave more than 23 feet off its length when parked. Seahawks also have corrosion-resistant engines and are set up for extra fuel capacity and dicey landings on frigate helipads.

Says Sergei Sikorsky, son of Igor, retired but still consulting: the firm’s MH-60R and MH-60S Seahawks “will be the workhorses of naval helicopter operations for the next 10 to 15 years.” Depending on the date chosen to retire the last of the CH-46D Sea Knight tandem-rotor helicopters, this sea change in naval aviation could be complete by 2018. —James R. Chiles

2. BLUE ANGELS June 15, 1946: The Blue Angels Flight Exhibition team, named by its pilots after a Manhattan nightclub, makes its first public performance, at Craig Field in Jacksonville, Florida, in three Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats, led by Lieutenant Commander Roy “Butch” Voris. The team’s purpose was largely recruiting; despite postwar cuts in military service, the Navy needed young men—naval aviators—to staff its aircraft carriers. And the Navy wanted a bigger piece of the defense appropriations pie to build more carriers. Voris told the authors of Blue Angels: 50 Years of Precision Flight he had his own motivation: “Beat Army [Air Forces].” He choreographed flashy aerial maneuvering, reasoning: “This should give [Army] something to jump at.” In a “combat segment” of the show, the team downed a North American SNJ trainer in Japanese Zero livery.

In May, the Blue Angels had performed for Vice Admiral Frank Wagner, who would give the new team a thumbs-up or -down. Says Voris: “The admiral was there and about four or five captains, horse-holders, and so forth…in folding chairs, pretty close to the flight line. We shoot down the Zero and out goes the dummy pilot. The static cord fails, and the parachute does not open. The dummy full of sand and sawdust, chute still packed, hits about 5 feet in front of the admiral’s group. It could have killed half of them if it had hit them…. We finished the show and landed, pulled up, and got out. I knelt down on one knee in front of them because they were still seated, and the admiral was shaking his head…. I thought I was looking at a court-martial, and he said, ‘Voris, I’ve got one suggestion: Move it out a little further on the field just in case that happens again.’ ” —Patricia Trenner

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