The Navy officially dates the beginning of its aviation element to 8 May 1911, when the service’s first aircraft were requisitioned. Marine Corps Aviation dates its birth to 22 May of the following year, when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported for duty as the first Marine Corps aviator. Even before these dates, however, the feasibility of launching and recovering aircraft at sea already had been proven, and the first naval aviators already were being trained. Although naval aircraft served faithfully in World War I, it would be a generation before U.S. Naval Aviation would truly prove itself in battle. When it did, it did so in spectacular fashion.
In one of history’s most decisive engagements, the Battle of Midway, three squadrons of SBD Dauntless dive bombers led by Commander Max Leslie and Lieutenant Commander C. Wade McClusky mortally damaged or sank three Japanese fleet carriers in an attack lasting only a few minutes on the morning of 4 June 1942. A fourth carrier was sunk several hours later. Naval air power had, in one fell swoop, broken the back of a combatant’s striking capacity and simultaneously captured the strategic initiative-and never relinquished it.
In the decades since World War II, Naval Aviation has been expanding its range to influence events, increasing its lethality, and diversifying the kinds of “battlefields” on which it can fight. In November 2001, in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, Marine helicopters from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit launched the longest “amphibious” assault in history, transporting ground units nearly 400 nautical miles from the Arabian Sea to southern Afghanistan. Today, from putting boots on the ground to placing precision munitions on target, there are few places on the planet beyond the reach of Naval Aviation.
Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, the tactics and missions of Naval Aviation also have changed over time. Scouting for the battlefleet was the primary mission of the first naval aircraft, whether they were float planes such as the OS2U Kingfisher launched from battleships, or airships such as USS Macon (ZRS 5). Not until the completion of the first fleet carriers, USS Lexington (CV 2) and USS Saratoga (CV 3), in 1927 was it readily apparent that the employment of aircraft at sea would be focused on strike warfare. Torpedoes and dive bombing would be the primary weapons of the World War II era, used for attacking ships at sea and land targets near shore.
After 1945, Naval Aviation would influence battles ever farther afield and specialize in missions as diverse as search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare, and electronic warfare, and even would be asked, during the 1950s, to provide a nuclear strike capability. Since World War II, Navy and Marine aircraft have conducted countless peacetime patrols during the Cold War, supported troops on the ground in numerous conflicts, and participated in strategic air campaigns in five major wars from Korea to Iraq and Afghanistan. In all these endeavors and through all these changes, Navy and Marine Corps
aviation personnel have excelled in everything that has been asked of them and much more.
Like their counterparts in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations before them, young men and women continue to undergo rigorous training to become naval aviators and flight officers, to serve at sea and on land, at home and abroad, to support Navy and Marine Corps missions whenever and wherever they are needed. The Naval Aviation of the future will continue the same tradition of excellence into the next 100 years.
Like so many technologies in history, the airplane – and its application at sea – was an invention waiting to happen. From Eugene Ely’s first flight from the deck of USS Birmingham (CL 2), the machines of Naval Aviation have undergone tremendous change in a remarkably brief period. The very first aircraft purchased by the Navy, a Curtiss A-1 seaplane acquired in 1911, was powered by a 75-horsepower engine, allowing it to hurtle through the air at 60 miles per hour. Today, the Navy and Marine Corps’ newest fighter aircraft, the F-35B/C Lightning II. is powered by an engine that generates up to 40,000
pounds of thrust and is capable of speeds in excess of 1,200 miles per hour. For more than two decades, naval aircraft were built primarily of wood and fabric before all-metal construction began in the 1930s. Today, aircraft are made from revolutionary composite materials that are lighter and stronger than steel. In the early years, aviators measured maximum altitude in a few thousand feet. Today, naval astronauts regularly pilot or crew spacecraft into orbit around the Earth-and beyond.