23 November 2011

Centennial of Naval Aviation

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Naval aviation. There have been many events (air shows, Fleet weeks, ceremonies, and expositions) over the past year across our nation to celebrate this historic milestone and showcase the talent, capabilities and contributions of Naval aviation over the years.

The first aircraft was launched at sea from the deck of the cruiser USS BIRMINGHAM (in Hampton Roads!) on 14 November 1910. This achievement would be topped a few months later on 18 January 2011, when, in partnership with the Navy, the cycle was completed as the first landing occurred aboard the USS PENNSYLVANIA in San Francisco Bay. Four months later, on 8 May 1911, Captain Washington I. Chambers, unofficially designated the first officer in charge of Naval aviation, issued requisitions for two Curtiss biplanes, and officially gave birth to Naval aviation.

Now, as with the rest of our Navy, Naval aviation is very rich in history and heritage and full of remarkable stories of men and women who pushed the aviation envelope and gave us the amazing force we have today. Our early aviators literally wrote the book on Naval aviation and paved the way for the rest of the world to follow. But as compelling as our history is, I find it even more interesting that the foundation of Naval aviation – tactics, aircraft and aircraft carriers – was built during one of the worst economic periods in the history of our nation. In fact, during the period of 1920-1940 our defense spending averaged just 1.99% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and was among the lowest of the 20th century. In comparison, we spent an average of 4.6% of GDP on defense over the last two decades…a period which includes the post-Cold war downsizing and the post-9/11 build-up.

Despite the hardships and low funding (by modern standards), after WWI and during the Depression we experienced one of our greatest periods of innovation in Naval aviation’s history. We commissioned our first aircraft carrier, USS LANGLEY (CV-1) in 1920 (we would have three by the end of the decade), developed a robust pilot training program to learn about instrument flight and dive-bombing tactics, and fielded the BT-1 (in 1935) which served as the basis for the Douglas SBD Dauntless (the aircraft that would later take out all four of the Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway in 1942). Although our funding was low, each year we pushed ourselves and thought of new ways to overcome technological and tactical barriers.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, there was no time to prepare; we went to war with what we had and just five months later fought the first ever carrier-to-carrier battle against the Japanese at the Battle of Coral Sea. This battle was fought completely in the air at sea and was the first naval engagement in which ships of the opposing forces were not within sight of each other (and never fired a direct shot). The Battle of Coral Sea marked a new era in Naval warfare, one in which Naval air power would play the decisive role in delivering our combat capability. Although Coral Sea was a tactical victory for the Japanese, it set the stage for the rest of the war in the Pacific. Our carriers would face off again the following month at Midway (where we achieved a decisive victory) and later in the Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz Islands, and finally at the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

We’ve certainly come a long way since the Fleet experiments in the early 20th century and the great battles of World War II. We’ve evolved our technology and developed and employed capabilities in ways our early aviators never thought possible. And although we have again entered a period of great fiscal uncertainty, I truly do believe our best days for Naval aviation are ahead of us. Indeed, we have done some of our best work in Naval aviation in our times of greatest challenge.

This past year has been a great one for Naval aviation and I look forward to the upcoming year when we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway – two historic battles that laid the foundation for not only how we deploy and fight today, but how we THINK, INNOVATE and DELIVER when the stakes couldn’t be higher.
All the best, JCHjr

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