Pensacola’s claim as the Cradle of Naval Aviation links back more than 100 years ago to the early days of flight in 1914 – when brave aviation pioneers flocked to the first naval air station.
Since then naval aviation and Pensacola have been flying a tight formation, from the pioneering era of flight to now, where Pensacola serves as the hub of naval aviation training and houses a program that sets children on a flight deck to the skies.
NAS Pensacola is one of the largest training operations in the Navy, with nearly 60,000 students graduating from training programs every year. Students from every branch of the military, other agencies and foreign allies come here to learn.
You can get a real sense of this history – along with sights and sounds – at the National Naval Aviation Museum on board Naval Air Station Pensacola. I included some notes below to whet your appetite.
1914: The Early Pioneers and their Namesake Airfields
A young naval aviator, Lt. j.g. Richard Caswell Saufley, aka Naval Aviator No. 14, was a key figure in developing naval flight training at then-Naval Aeronautical Station Pensacola in 1914. Saufley had set the altitude record of 16,072 feet and an endurance record of 8 hours, 43 minutes of continuous flight.
He was trying to break his own flight endurance record later that year when his Curtis seaplane crashed onto then-desolate Santa Rosa Island. Named in his honor, Saufley Field in Pensacola opened in 1940 as a Naval Auxiliary Air Station. It still serves today as the Naval Education and Training Professional Development Center.
NAS Pensacola’s Corry Station was named after Lt. Cmdr. William Corry, another of the early naval aviators (No. 23). The WWI hero was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after he died in post-war 1920, trying to rescue a comrade from a burning aircraft.
NAS Pensacola’s Forrest Sherman Field was opened in 1954 to herald the jet age, ushering the F9F-6 Cougars and the TV2 Seastar. Named after Forrest Percival Sherman, an admiral in the United States Navy and, at the time, the youngest person to serve as Chief of Naval Operations, it is currently the home of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Team Blue Angels and Training Air Wing SIX. These training squadrons serve Naval Flight Officers, Air Force Student Navigators and international flight students.
1917: America’s First European Deployment – the War to End, um, World War I
Yes, we locals claim that Pensacola was the first settlement in America (1559! – in your face, St. Augustine!) But did you know the first US military and naval deployment unit to land in Europe for service was launched from our little berg?
Rewind, 1917. The War to End All Wars was raging (oops! Hey, 1900’s war moniker mongers, you needed an asterisk there). France requested so the Navy created the First Aeronautic Detachment. Its seven officers and 122 enlisted men, led by Lt. Kenneth Whiting, sailed for France aboard the USS Jupiter and USS Neptune, arriving in France in early June 1917 and serving in Europe.
Between 1916 and the Armistice in 1918, Pensacola, the only naval air station, swelled from 38 naval aviators and 163 enlisted to a corps of 438 officers and 5,538 enlisted -- with 1,000 naval aviators completing the training. They called Pensacola the "Annapolis of the Air.”
1955: The Blue Angels Come Home to Nest
The Navy’s Flight Demonstration Team, the Blue Angels, had numerous home bases after they started by the order of Admiral Chester Nimitz in 1946. They were briefly stationed at Whiting Field in nearby Milton, but set their roots at Sherman Field on NAS Pensacola in 1955 — and have nested here ever since.
The Blues, as we call them, first flew in F-6 Hellcats, part of the backbone of the Navy’s carrier warfare in the Pacific. Early shows featured reenacted dogfights with Japanese Zeroes.
- 1947 - The Blues flew their first Diamond Formation.
- 1954 — The Blues progressed from the F-9 Panther to the swept-wing Grumman F9F-8 Cougar.
- 1954-74 – Before taking off in the A-4 Skyhawk II in 1974, the Blue Angels flew F11F-1 Tiger (1957) and the brick-like F-4J Phantom II (1969).
- 1986 – Blue Angels unveiled their present aircraft, the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.
- 2020/2021 - The Blue Angels are slated to move to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
1974: Women Aviators Earn Wings of Gold
After Secretary of the Navy John Warner announced a test program to train female Navy Aviators, Barbara Ann Allen (later Rainey) and seven other women reported for flight training at NAS Pensacola on March 2, 1973.
She was designated the first female naval aviator in history at ceremonies in 1974. She went on to become the first jet-qualified naval aviator.
She returned to serve as a flight instructor to nearby Whiting Field in 1981. Sadly, she was killed along with her student in 1982 when their T-34 crashed in Evergreen, Ala.
Lt. Cmdr. Brenda Robinson is recognized as the first African American female naval aviator. Training in Pensacola and Corpus Christi, she earned her wings of gold on June 6, 1980. As call sign “Raven,” she made 115 carrier landings and went on to firsts as flight instructor, evaluator, and VIP transport pilot.
Vernice Armour, who was born in 1973, became the first African American female naval aviator in the Marine Corps in 2001 – and the first female combat pilot in the Armed Forces. She flew SuperCobra attack helicopter in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and served two tours supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.
2004: Near Death for NAS and a 450-year-old discovery
Hurricane Ivan devastated the Pensacola Bay Area in September of 2004, delivering a crippling blow to NAS Pensacola. It was just about the same time that the government was reviewing which bases to realign and close. Nervousness ensued. Would the Cradle of Naval Aviation become “Formerly Known As …?”
But NAS Pensacola was spared when the list was released in 2005. Rebuilding ensued!
As construction crews were rebuilding the Rescue Swimmer School in 2006, they unearthed the ruins of a Spanish ship dating back to the mid-16th Century.
Today, all naval aviation training has been consolidated here, which means the Cradle of Naval Aviation is now The Hub… And the rest, is making history. Speaking of history… Read this, but go there!
National Naval Aviation Museum Gets New Warbirds
Two new, um, gently warred, FA-18 Hornets landed at the National Naval Aviation Museum in June of 2019. They both will have stories to tell once they are restored and set for display (soon!).
The pair of Hornets, flown by LCDR Mark “MRT” Fox and LT Nick “Mongo” Mongillo, took part in a historic mission over Iraq during Operation Desert Storm on Jan. 17, 1991. Each of these F/A-18C Hornets shot down an Iraqi MiG-21 Fishbed.
It’s the kind of acquisition that has made the museum a vivid, living hotbed of aviation history since it opened on June 8, 1963. The early years saw eight aircraft rotated through the 8,500-square-foot museum.
Now with more than 350,000 square feet of exhibit space and 37 acres, it is the world’s largest Naval Aviation museum and one of the most-visited museums in Florida. More than 150 restored aircraft representing Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aviation are on display – including a full-size replica of the aircraft carrier USS Cabot’s island and flight deck.
See these historic aircraft:
- NC-4 flying boat— the first plane to fly across the Atlantic
- An SBD Dauntless that flew at the Battle of Midway
- Two MiG-killers from the Vietnam War
- An A-7 Corsair II that flew combat over Iraq during Operation Desert Storm
- And the last F-14 Tomcat to fly a combat mission
While the static displays are mesmerizing, the interactive flight simulators, massive theater screens and other displays and tech bring aviation to life.
The National Flight Academy: Inspiring the Future
A modern-day mission for the museum’s Foundation was launched in 2012 with the National Flight Academy’s first classes. Designed to revitalize the plummeting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) skills and standards, the academy immerses students into STEM.
The NFA offers 6-day, 3-day and 1-Day experiences for 7th to 12th graders. In the Aviation eXperimental Pilots program, the students live aboard Ambition, a landlocked, 102,000 square-foot virtual aircraft carrier.
The innovative STEM curriculum and other core lessons were developed by the University of West Florida. Students get a taste of aircraft carrier aviation life while also learning leadership development, cooperative learning, communication and public speaking. It’s part theme park, part advanced technology with vivid Virtual Reality that sets children on a flight deck to the skies.