fbpx vie magazine subscribe button

The Centennial of Naval Aviation: 1911–2011

By Bill Weckel

In 2011, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Coast Guard join forces to celebrate one hundred years of Naval Aviation. This yearlong event reflects on a century of innovations, achievements, and sacrifices that have shaped these services into an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, capable of global reach.

The President of the United States has, at his disposal, no less than eleven carrier strike groups, each with an air wing numbering up to eighty combat aircraft and capable of delivering ordnance, including tactical nuclear weapons, anywhere in the world. A single carrier strike group constitutes a force more powerful than most countries’ entire militaries. It’s no wonder that in times of crisis, often the first question asked is: “Where are the carriers?”

NAS Pensacola, located on Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast, is the United States’ oldest naval air station and the primary training site for all Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard aviators and Naval Flight Officers. Regarded as the Cradle of Naval Aviation, and home to the Naval Aviation Museum as well as the Blue Angels flight demonstration team, it is the obvious choice to host the events and activities comprising the centennial celebration.

vie magazine centennial of U.S. naval aviation aircraft florida's gulf coast f/a-18 super hornet
AMM3 Joel Pena gives a thumbs-up as an F/A-18 Super Hornet is launched from the USS Eisenhower. Photo: U.S. Navy

Although the Navy expressed its first interest in powered aviation as early as 1898—a full five years before the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk—it was the year 1911 that saw the official creation of a naval flight training program.

The Navy quickly realized the airplane’s potential as an observation and reconnaissance platform. Launched from a ship and equipped with another of the Navy’s newest technological innovations—the wireless telegraph—a single aircraft and crew could now replace the cruiser, a large and fast armored warship, which had traditionally fulfilled the fleet’s scouting duties. Efforts quickly focused on how best to embark and operate aircraft aboard the Navy’s ships.

These earliest naval aircraft often presented more of a threat to the aviators piloting them than they did to the enemy. Accidents and mishaps were common, and many aviators lost their lives while perfecting the art of launching and recovering aircraft at sea.

Just four months after the establishment of a Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Europe plunged into what would become known as The Great War. World War I sparked rapid advances in military aviation, expanding the role of the airplane from simply an observation platform to that of an offensive weapon, capable of bombing enemy forces both ashore and at sea, as well as shooting down the enemy’s aircraft.

vie magazine centennial of U.S. naval aviation aircraft navy VFA-25's Hornets
Sailors aboard the USS Carl Vinson ready one of VFA-25's Hornets for a "cat shot." Photo: U.S. Navy
vie magazine centennial of U.S. naval aviation aircraft navy military installations in Tokyo
Photo aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier receive last minute instructions before taking off to attack industrial and military installations in Tokyo, February 17, 1945. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

Not everyone in the Navy recognized the aircraft’s potential as an effective offensive weapon. Much of the Navy’s leadership still regarded the battleship as the centerpiece of naval strategy. These “battleship admirals” believed that future conflicts would be decided by a grand clash between large fleets of battleships. It wasn’t until an Army officer, General Billy Mitchell, demonstrated (much to the embarrassment of the Navy’s old guard) that bomb-carrying aircraft could locate and destroy these mighty castles of steel.


If Mitchell’s demonstration left any lingering doubts among the U.S. Navy’s leadership, these were erased on December 7, 1941, when, operating from a striking group consisting of six aircraft carriers, pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy decimated the U.S. Pacific Fleet in a surprise attack on the Hawaiian Islands.

World War II ushered in a complete and profound change in naval doctrine and strategy. The carrier task force would become the Navy’s primary offensive weapon and lead the U.S. effort to defend Australia, recapture territory throughout the Pacific, and eventually carry the war to the Japanese home islands.

The Battle of the Coral Sea, a strategic victory for the U.S. Navy, would be the first naval battle in history in which aircraft carriers engaged each other; and, it was the first in which neither side’s ships came within visual or firing range of each other. Carrier-based aviation remained at the forefront of U.S. military strategy and played a critical role in all theaters of war.


The Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf War were no different. In each case, naval airpower was utilized extensively. Today, in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aviation units and personnel are involved in combat operations against insurgent and terrorist groups operating in those countries.

The focal point of modern Naval Aviation is, without doubt, the supercarrier. These Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are capable of sustained combat operations, on short notice, anywhere in the world, unhindered by the limitations of diplomacy and requiring no permission from foreign governments. This provides our leadership with an incredible array of options when dealing with crises, contingencies, and natural disasters.

During NAS Pensacola’s weeklong celebration marking this important anniversary, the entire range of current Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aircraft were on display, as well as many historic aircraft. Navy F-18 Super Hornets shared the tarmac with Coast Guard Dauphin helicopters, Marine Corps Harriers, and restored aircraft spanning nearly eight decades.

vie magazine centennial of U.S. naval aviation aircraft navy military planes
vie magazine centennial of U.S. naval aviation aircraft navy military F6F Hellcat aboard USS Yorktown
Dynamic static. F6F Hellcat aboard USS Yorktown November 1943. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

The week was a veritable who’s who of Naval Aviation, both past and present. Distinguished guests included many high-ranking officers from the Naval Aviation community, noted historians, and retired military. The most notable, however, were the World War II pilots, like ninety-year-old Burrel Sumner. Sumner, a Marine Corps F4U Corsair pilot who went on to fly the A1D Skyraider during the Korean Conflict, took to the air once again in the cockpit of an N2S-4 Stearman—the same type of aircraft he learned to fly in at NAS Pensacola nearly seventy years ago.

The past century has seen U.S. Naval airpower transformed from a small scouting force used in support of the battle fleet to a robust and powerful strategic military asset, capable of a wide range of missions from conventional operations, such as antiship, antisubmarine, and air combat operations, to twenty-first-century missions including counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, antipiracy, and humanitarian operations. U.S. Naval Aviation once again finds itself at the bleeding edge of innovation as it prepares for the transition to next-generation stealth aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator and Reaper.

One hundred years later, Naval Aviation is alive, well, and stronger than ever along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

— V —

VIEtv Celebrates 100 Years of Naval Aviation from VIEzine on Vimeo.

Read Responsibly

VIE Magazine - The Art & Design Issue November 2021
VIE Magazine January 2021 Special Commemorative Edition
VIE Magazine September 2020 Wanderlust Issue, Fancy Camps, The Idea Boutique
VIE Magazine August 2020 Art & Culture Issue, Nathan Alan Yoakum Art
VIE Magazine - Architecture & Design Issue - July 2020
VIE Magazine - Decor and Home Issue - June 2020
VIE Magazine May 2020 Entertainment Issue, Leslie Odom Jr
VIE Magazine - April 2020 Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine March 2020 The Fashion Edit, VONDOM, Alys Beach Fl, Digital Graffiti, Tres Chic, isidro dunbar Modern Interiors, Digital Graffiti Festival
VIE Magazine February 2020 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Travel Issue - January 2020 - Tanzania Safari Cover
VIE Magazine - Women's Issue - December 2019 - Tina Brown Cover
VIE NOV19 Goodness Issue
VIE Magazine, September 2019 Art & Culture Issue, Paul Hanninen
VIE Magazine - August 2019 - The Architecture and Design Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2019 - The Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - June 2019 - Fashion Edit
VIE Magazine - May 2019 - Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine - April 2019 - The Health & Wellness Issue
VIE Magazine - Special Entertainment Edition - March 2019
VIE Magazine February 2019 Luxury Homes & Technology Issue with Robbie Antonio of Revolution Precrafted
VIE Magazine - January 2019 - Southern Sophisticate Issue Cover
VIE Magazine - Special Anniversary Travel Edition - December 2018
VIE Magazine - The Goodness Issue - November 2018
VIE Magazine - The Art & Culture Issue - October 2018
VIE Magazine - Home & Garden Issue - September 2018
VIE Magazine - August 2018 Animal Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2018 Architecture & Design Issue - Subscribe to the magazine!
VIE Magazine - June 2018 Travel & Tech Issue
VIE Magazine - May 2018 Couture Issue
VIE Magazine - The Culinary Issue - April 2018 Cover - Chef James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst
VIE Magazine - The Entertainers Issue - March 2018
VIE Magazine - February 2018 Destination Travel Issue
VIE Magazine - January 2018 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine, The Sophisticate Issue, December 2017
VIE Magazine - November 2017 Art & Culture Issue
VIE Magazine - October 2017 Home & Garden Issue
VIE Magazine | September 2017 | The Stories and Storytellers Issue
VIE Magazine - The Adventure Issue - August 2017
VIE Magazine - July 2017 - Art & Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - The Voyager Issue - June 2017
VIE magazine 2017 March-April Cover South Walton Fashion Week
VIE Magazine - January/February 2017 - The Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Nov/Dec 2016 The Sophisticate Issue
christian siriano vie magazine september october 2016 vie magazine
the modern minimalist issue
the culinary and couture issue march april 2016 vie magazine
the voyager issue alys beach vie magazine january february 2016
cultural issue vie magazine november december 2015
home and garden issue vie magazine september october 2015
the art and style issue vie magazine july august 2015
the wedding issue 2015 May June vie magazine
the food and fashion issue vie magazine march april 2015
the travel issue vie magazine january february 2015
the music issue vie magazine 2014 november december
The Animal Issue vie magazine september october 2014
the home and garden issue vie magazine july august 2014
the wedding issue vie magazine may june 2014
emeril lagasse food and fashion vie magazine
the men's issue january february 2014
the music issue november december 2013 vie magazine
the home and garden issue 2013 october september
the wedding issue vie magazine july august 2013
the artist issue may june 2013 vie magazine
the food and fashion issue march april 2013
the men's issue january february 2013 vie magazine
The Holiday Issue
the love issue july august 2012
the all american summer may june 2012
the entertainment issue march april 2012
the fashion issue vie magazine winter 2011
the home and garden issue vie magazine fall 2011
the anniversary edition vie magazine summer 2011
the wedding issue vie magazine spring 2011
vie magazine the holiday issue 2010 Dec
vintage swimsuits vie magazine 2010 Fall
judith march designer vie magazine summer 2010
wedding giveaway vie magazine spring 2010
holiday gift guide vie magazine winter 2009
emarketing explosion vie magazine fall 2009
tribute to mother's day vie magazine summer 2009
james and robert redford vie magazine spring 2009
zz top vie magazine fall winter 2008
project dreams vie magazine new york fashion week
Sign-up for VIEmail

Sign up for VIEmail