100 Years of Naval Aviation

The Navy’s first pilot and 10 more milestones.

(US Navy/Lt. Cmdr. Tam Pham)
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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 TRIAD 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.

They got it with the 25-percent-larger Super Hornet, operational since 2001 in E (single-seat) and F (two-seat) models. The Super’s jet intakes are squared off and stealthy. With 8,000 pounds more thrust, the Super Hornet increased in maximum takeoff weight to 66,000 pounds, and its range grew to 1,275 nautical miles. Its landing weight increased as well: When the ordnance drop doesn’t happen, 9,000 pounds of those expensive smart bombs get returned to the carrier instead of dumped in the drink. The Super Hornet has replaced the F-14 Tomcat, while an electronic warfare variant, the EA-18G Growler, is replacing the EA-6B Prowler. The Super is a refueler too, replacing A-6 Intruders and S-3 Vikings. The larger wing lowers the landing speed to 144 mph, down 23 mph from that of the legacy Hornet.

Yet it’s still an F/A-18, says Captain Michael “Woody” Peoples, a former test pilot and deputy program manager for mission systems at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. “As a Hornet guy who’s spent 20 years flying the legacy airplane, you can jump into an E/F and start it right up and probably fly the airplane with little or no instruction.” That of course doesn’t happen, but legacy pilots do say they make a seamless transition. “Flying it, you don’t feel like you’re in a bigger airplane,” says Peoples. “With roll rate in a bigger airplane, usually you’ll feel a little more sluggish. You don’t feel that.” He adds: “And the new car smell is always nice. On my operational tours, I flew Block 10 legacy Hornets, and loved ‘em. You jump in those airplanes and the paint’s worn off in the cockpit. Hundreds of guys have flown the airplane. Then you jump in a [Super Hornet] that was at St. Louis-Boeing two days before. It’s like getting the 2011 Cadillac Escalade compared to the 1985 version.” —Michael Klesius

9. BATTLE OF THE CORAL SEA History’s first fight between aircraft carriers—the Battle of the Coral Sea—was also the first in which the opposing ships neither saw nor fired directly upon each other. More important, the battle, fought from May 4 to 8, 1942, set the course for the end of Imperial Japan’s sea power in World War II.

In the battle, U.S. and Australian forces, led by the carriers USS Yorktown and Lexington, stopped a Japanese attempt to land at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, by turning back Japan’s covering carrier force. In four days of fighting around New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, U.S. Grumman F4F Wildcats, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers clashed with Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zeros and Nakajima B5N2 torpedo-bombers to see who could inflict more damage on the enemy’s fleet.

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