100 Years of Naval Aviation

The Navy’s first pilot and 10 more milestones.

(US Navy/Lt. Cmdr. Tam Pham)
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Allied casualties included two fleet carriers (the Lexington scuttled, the Yorktown damaged) and 69 aircraft. For Japan, the losses included one light carrier, one destroyer, and 92 aircraft. But two of its fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, were damaged enough to be unable to fight the following month in the decisive Battle of Midway, the turning point of the Pacific war. Because of Coral Sea, when the Americans entered that carrier battle, they had rough parity with the Japanese—and they won. —Paul Hoversten

10. UAVs IN THE NAVY John VanBrabant is fired up about the Fire Scout, the Navy’s first unmanned helicopter. “If you don’t need to put a crew at risk, why do it?” asks the former U.S. Navy helo pilot. VanBrabant, now Northrop Grumman’s business development manager for maritime unmanned aerial systems, likes the vehicle’s eight-hour endurance too, more than twice what his Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk offered. “At 3.5 hours, you just had to go back to get gas. If you were on a mission where you’re tracking somebody, you lose situational awareness.” While it probably won’t fly from aircraft carriers, the 10-foot-tall, 1.5-ton helo can fly from any ship with a decent landing pad. The Navy may take delivery of up to 168 Fire Scouts after trials conclude in the coming year.

The Scouts are one example of how far naval aviation has come since the Navy fielded Pioneer, its first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), in 1986. The 14-foot-long, twin-tail, 26-horsepower, propeller-driven airplane was a joint venture of AAI Corporation and Israel Aircraft Industries. Pioneer offered peeks over the horizon at 109 mph with a ceiling of 15,000 feet, primitive by today’s standards. Having proven its chops in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Iraq, Pioneer bushwhacked a path that is now seeing some exotic stuff.

“As we turn the corner on the second hundred years of naval aviation, we’ll be taking people out of the airplane,” says Walt Kreitler, a former P-3 Orion pilot now shepherding the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV program, the Navy’s version of the Global Hawk, for Northrop Grumman. “Nobody wants to fly Friday afternoon, or Saturday or Sunday. BAMS will be remarkably obedient.”

Finally, for autonomous and anonymous, there’s the X-47B, a creature resembling a throwing star and expected to make its first autonomous landing on an aircraft carrier in 2013. A tailless stealth fighter/bomber with no pilot, it’s an unmanned combat air system, as large as an F-14 Tomcat, able to reach an altitude of 40,000 feet and cruise at high-subsonic speed with 4,500 pounds of ordnance. The demonstrator is now being flight-tested at Edwards Air Force Base in California. —Michael Klesius

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