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Naval Institute: Heroes by Any Definition

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    Heroes by Any Definition

    By Captain E. T. Wooldridge Jr., U.S. Navy
    Proceedings, December 2003


    In recognition of the Centennial of Flight observations planned for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, this month, a retired aviator and aviation historian takes us through the history of naval aviation. Here, Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson (left) sits aboard the Navy's first aircraft, the A-1 Triad, with Glenn Curtiss in August 1911.

    As the nation begins its celebration of the Wright Brothers' first flight, we are afforded an opportunity to reflect on their enormous accomplishment and particularly on the profound effect it had on the future of the U.S. Navy. In December 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright ventured to the windswept sand dunes of Kitty Hawk to prove what hundreds of glider flights and four years of aeronautical experiments had demonstrated—that they had the basis for a machine capable of practical, powered flight. On the morning of the 17th, Orville launched into a gusty, 27-mile-per-hour wind and managed to fly just more than 120 feet from the point at which the flyer had risen into the air. It was, in his words, "exceedingly erratic . . . but it was nevertheless the first [flight] in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started."

    A few hours spent in a photo archive such as the one at the U.S. Naval Institute's Beach Hall is a perfect way to reacquaint oneself with the progress of aviation in general and naval aviation in particular since 17 December 1903. Vintage black-and-white images evoke memories of the early years of naval aviation, World War I, the "golden age" between the wars, and World War II into the 1950s, while vivid color photographs predominate the jet age of the second half of the 20th century. It can be extremely worthwhile, a trip back in time that is educational and nostalgic and at the same time hugely entertaining.

    Naval aviation's birthday came some years after the Wright Brothers' feat, on 8 May 1911. On that date, Captain Washington Irving Chambers, the Navy's first officer in charge of aviation, ordered the Navy's first airplane, the Curtiss A-1 Triad. The occasion had been preceded by a number of historic events that demonstrated in convincing fashion the practicality of taking aviation to sea. On 14 November 1910, civilian pilot Eugene Ely flew a Curtiss pusher airplane from a wooden platform on the bow of the USS Birmingham (CL-2) at anchor in Hampton Roads, Virginia. He followed that performance on 18 January 1911 with the world's first arrested landing on a specially built platform on the USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) in San Francisco Bay. On 17 February, Glenn Curtiss provided the final, convincing demonstration. Ably assisted by the officer who would become Naval Aviator Number One, Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, Curtiss landed alongside the Pennsylvania, was hoisted aboard and subsequently lowered back into the water, and then flew away. All of this delighted and astonished the ship's crew, which had manned the rails to witness the historic event.

    The years leading to the entry of the United States into World War I were ones of experimentation, testing, gradual expansion, and hard work by a small but dedicated band of Navy and Marine Corps aviators. Though ill prepared to fight a war, aviation units were formed and deployed overseas, the first arriving in France in June 1917 under the command of Navy Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting. Meanwhile, unprecedented expansion occurred at home and abroad, with the number of planes, pilots, and air stations growing at a steady rate. The long-distance flying boat emerged as the major technical advance for the Navy, with aircrews flying patrols in Curtiss-built boats from England, Ireland, and France. Lieutenant (junior grade) David S. Ingalls became the Navy's only ace during the war, with five victories.

    Following the war, the Navy's success with flying boats led to the design of the Navy-Curtiss NC boats, one of which, the NC-4, commanded by Lieutenant Commander A. C. Read, completed the first transatlantic crossing in May 1919. In the years to come, air racers and record breakers also grabbed the headlines, with the Navy and Marine Corps having their share of crowd pleasers. Led by perennial favorite Major Al Williams—known for his record-breaking performances in Curtiss-designed racers—Navy pilots David Rittenhouse, Rutledge Irvine, George Cuddihy, and Ralph Ofstie, as well as Marine First Lieutenant Christian F. Schilt, Medal of Honor recipient for heroism in Nicaragua, upheld their services' honor in annual competitions with Army pilots in the Curtiss Marine, Pulitzer, and Schneider Cup races.

    The races of the 1920s resulted in considerable technological fallout for the Navy, as engine horsepower increased dramatically, and airframe designs by Dayton-Wright, Verville-Sperry, and Curtiss became more streamlined and sophisticated. Wood, fabric, and wire biplanes gave way to streamlined, all-metal, elegant aircraft powered by massive, in-line 500-horsepower engines. They were difficult and demanding to fly, and Navy and Marine pilots often found themselves in uncharted territory, flying with courage and intuition in a regime that eventually became the province of specially trained, experienced test pilots.

    Less glamorous than air racing but essential to the future expansion of naval aviation were the Navy's long-distance flights and aerial expeditions by pioneers such as Richard E. Byrd. In May 1926, Lieutenant Commander Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett made the first flight over the North Pole in the Fokker Trimotor Josephine Ford, a feat repeated by Byrd and pilot Bernt Balchen over the South Pole in 1929. Commander John Rogers and the crew of the PN-9 flying boat distinguished themselves in 1925 by attempting a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Hawaii. They went down in the Pacific short of their objective but, undaunted, pressed on the rest of the way under the power of sails made from wing fabric. In June 1926, the Alaskan Aerial Survey Expedition, under the command of Lieutenant B. H. Wyatt, undertook an extensive survey of unexplored regions of southeastern Alaska.

    Such was the stuff of the "golden age." Navy and Marine aviators pushed the envelope and faced a world of unlimited opportunity, adventure, and challenge, unfettered by convention, regulations, and restrictions. Farsighted flag officers such as Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, first chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1921, provided vital support and encouragement. Admiral Moffett was a keen advocate of the Navy's rigid airships of the era—the USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), USS Los Angeles (ZR-2), USS Akron (ZRS-4), in which Admiral Moffett lost his life, and the USS Macon (ZRS-5). Rear Admiral Joseph M. "Billygoat" Reeves, Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, provided crucial leadership in development of tactics and doctrine for the aircraft carriers of the 1920s, the USS Langley (CV-1), USS Lexington (CV-2), and USS Saratoga (CV-3).

    At the foundation of the improvements in aircraft design and performance was a diverse group of exceptional design engineers, managers, and executives in the aircraft industry. Beginning with Glenn Curtiss, whose early seaplane designs and revolutionary racers gave naval aviation the impetus it needed in its formative years, U.S. naval aviation was fortunate to be the beneficiary of their foresight, determination, and genius. The Consolidated Aircraft Company, headed by early airmail pilot Reuben H. Fleet, produced a series of flying boats for the Navy in the 1930s, leading to the PBY Catalina of World War II fame. Glenn L. Martin, Donald Douglas Sr., William E. Boeing, Chance M. Vought, and LeRoy Randle Grumman were pioneers whose names, though not their original companies, endure to this day.

    More than 12,000 photographs are in the World War II collection of the U.S. Naval Institute, covering every conceivable aspect of Navy and Marine Corps operations in every theater of the war. Images of leaders such as Arleight Burke, Frank Jack Fletcher, William F. Halsey, John McCain, Marc Mitscher, and Raymond Spruance evoke memories of the battles across the Pacific. Leading Navy and Marine Corps aces pose by their Wildcat, Hellcat, and Corsair fighters. Commander David McCampbell (34 victories) and Marine aces Lieutenant Colonel Gregory "Pappy" Boyington (28 victories) and Major Joseph F. Foss (26 victories) head the list of some 520 naval aviator aces in the war. Heroes of another sort were PBY Catalina flying boat aircrews who braved abominable weather conditions to fly long-range patrols in the Aleutians and the Atlantic or made night attacks on Japanese warships in their "Black Cats." Countless naval aviators owe their lives to the battleship and cruiser OS2U seaplane pilots who pulled them out of the water, often within range of enemy gunfire from shore.


    Naval Aviator Number 33 and pilot of the NC-1 flying boat during its attempted transatlantic crossing in 1919 was future Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, commander of the Navy's Fast Carrier Task Force in the World War II Pacific.


    Marine Lieutenant General Thomas H. Miller Jr. set a world speed record in an F4H-1 in 1960 and became the first American to fly the AV-8 Harrier. He later became Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation, U.S. Marine Corps.

    Scarcely had the war ended when naval aviation found itself involved in a conflict of another sort. Gone was the island-hopping strategy of World War II. Carriers now steamed in a sanctuary off the coast of North Korea, supporting a land war in which generations of young carrier pilots and senior commanders learned the complexities of operating jets at sea under combat conditions. Aerial victories were hard to come by. Two naval aviators emerged as aces: Marine Major John F. Bolt, an ace in both World War II and Korea, and Navy Lieutenant Guy P. Bordelon, with five victories at night in a Corsair. An outstanding example of courage and chivalry was the attempted rescue of downed aviator Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the Navy's first African American aviator, by Lieutenant (junior grade) Thomas J. Hudner Jr., an act for which Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor.

    Following the Korean War, the 1950s were years of intensive flight-testing and fleet introduction of second and third generations of jet aircraft. Navy test pilots such as Alan Shepard, E. L. "Whitey" Feightner, Don Engen, and Larry Flint were busy with new airplanes with exotic names like Crusader, Fury, Tiger, Skyhawk, Skyray, and Skywarrior. The last three named were the product of the fertile mind and creative genius of Edward H. Heinemann, chief engineer of the El Segundo Division of Douglas Aircraft from 1936 to 1958. It was an exhilarating, exciting time for naval aviation, a time in which U.S. Navy aircraft became the equal of any in the world.

    The McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, founded in July 1939 by James S. McDonnell, had brought the Navy into the jet age in 1946 with its FH-1 Phantom, and in 1959 McDonnell produced what became the finest fighter of the era, the F4H-1 Phantom II. The arrival of the Phantom II, along with the North American A3J-1 Vigilante, sparked an all-out assault on practically every world performance record within reach. Speed, altitude, and time-to-climb records were broken on a regular basis by Navy pilot Commander Larry Flint, future astronauts Lieutenant Commander John W. Young and Lieutenant Richard F. Gordon, and future admiral and Commander-in-Chief Pacific Command, Lieutenant Huntington Hardisty, who passed away on 1 October 2003. Marine pilots included Lieutenant Colonel Thomas H. Miller Jr., who later became a determined and convincing advocate of the AV-8B Harrier aircraft for the Marine Corps.

    The nation's preoccupation with a different breed of hero began with the selection of the seven Mercury astronauts in 1959, among them, four naval aviators—Marine Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn Jr., and Navy Lieutenant Commanders Walter M. Schirra and Alan B. Shepard Jr., and Lieutenant M. Scott Carpenter. Naval aviators were among the recipients of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor: Neil A. Armstrong, who took his "giant step for mankind" as the first man on the Moon, Charles Conrad Jr., Glenn, Shepard, John W. Young, whose space flight career spanned two decades, and James A. Lovell, of Apollo 13 fame. President Bill Clinton remarked at the presentation ceremony for Lovell that his performance on Apollo 13 demonstrated "the kind of resourcefulness, grit, and grace under pressure that is the province of heroes," words that best reflect the performance and dedication of all of the astronauts who have flown and given their lives for the space program.


    Navy Captain Wendy B. Lawrence, a veteran of three flights on board the Space Shuttle, is one of several U.S. Naval Academy graduates to become astronauts. Here, she pedals a bicycle ergometer in the Discovery during her last mission in 1998.


    Navy Captain Wendy B. Lawrence, a veteran of three flights on board the Space Shuttle, is one of several U.S. Naval Academy graduates to become astronauts. Here, she pedals a bicycle ergometer in the Discovery during her last mission in 1998.
    There was more to the 1960s than records and space flight. The Cold War persisted, naval aviation (including carrier forces, long-range patrol aircraft, and helicopters) contributed heavily to a naval blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis, and aircraft of the Seventh Fleet in the western Pacific were once again called on to carry the brunt of the air war against the enemy, this time North Vietnam. Like Korea, this was a war with restrictions and frustrating rules of engagements, which finally led to an uneasy truce and a U.S. disengagement in 1973. The harsh treatment of U.S. prisoners of war and their courageous resistance to their captors, led by Medal Of Honor recipient Navy Commander James B. Stockdale, earned them a hero's welcome on their release from captivity during Operation Homecoming, 27 January-1 April 1973.

    In retrospect, the events and circumstances of the first half-century of naval aviation afforded virtually unlimited opportunities for Navy and Marine aviators to become heroes in the eyes of the public, press, and Navy and Marine Corps officialdom. Medals, trophies, an entry in an official aviation record book, and public adulation were all there in abundance. To fly higher, farther, and faster than ever, to explore unknown regions, to risk one's life and be the first to accomplish the "impossible" brought accolades and recognition unique to the era. In time of war, becoming a ranking ace or sinking a capital ship or submarine usually elevated one's prestige and standing in the pantheon of heroes.

    By the time the astronauts had assumed center stage in the early 1960s, however, most of the opportunities for military aviators to be heroic, by past standards, had all but disappeared. There were few meaningful aviation records to break, and exploring whatever remained to be explored would be the province of satellites and high flyers such as the U-2 and the SR-71. Although unlimited air racing still exists today in the form of the annual Reno Air Races, active military pilots, sponsored by their services, no longer appear. The nature of the wars in which the United States has been involved, the enemy's order of battle, and the rules of engagement under which the wars have been conducted all combined to limit the "opportunities" for exceptional performance in aerial combat, as measured by World War II standards. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about fundamental changes in naval aviation and a rethinking of the nature of potential enemies in any future conflict and the strategy and tactics that would be involved.

    The "modern" era of naval aviation has become characterized by extraordinarily long and frequent deployments and combat operations in such diverse locales as Bosnia and Iraq, combat of a far different nature from that of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Aircraft weapon systems have grown extremely sophisticated, as have aerial munitions, providing aircrews with a quantum leap in capabilities, but at the same time taxing them both mentally and physically. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, carrier pilots, male and female, flew eight-hour missions at night, with multiple air refuelings, struck a variety of targets, often in an intense electronic warfare environment, and returned to the ship for night carrier landings in a sandstorm. In another extreme, P-3 Orion flight crews flew four-engine patrol aircraft, originally designed for antisubmarine warfare in a benign environment, unarmed through high-threat environments on missions in support of strike aircraft.

    By any definition, the men and women who make up modern naval aviation—flight crew and ground crew alike—have earned the right to be called heroes. They are out there, over the horizon, out of sight. They are just not as recognized or appreciated as were those in decades past.

    The primary source for names, places, and events for this article is United States Naval Aviation, 1910-1995, by Roy A. Grossnick (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1997), an indispensable reference work for any researcher of naval aviation history.

    Captain Wooldridge retired after 26 years of naval service and enjoyed a second career as a curator and as assistant director for museum operations at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. He is the author or editor of nine books, including the Naval Institute Press titles Into the Jet Age: Conflict and Change in Naval Aviation, 1945-1975 (1995), Night Fighters Over Korea (1998), and The Golden Age Remembered: U.S. Naval Aviation, 1919-1941 (1998). His survey, "Milestones in Naval Aviation: Flight from the Sea," appears in the December 2003 issue of Naval History magazine.

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