Evolution of Naval Aviation and RDT&E Museum
The establishment of Naval Air Station Patuxent River at Cedar Point in 1942 forever changed Saint Mary's County, Maryland. This once rural, insular community had, in many ways, remained unchanged since the 17th century when it was under the proprietorship of Lord Baltimore. Cedar Point's evolution from a sleepy farm community to a bustling naval air station began in 1937, when the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics saw the need for a base where testing aircraft could be consolidated. Prior to then, Navy aircraft testing had been conducted at several stations, including sites at Dahlgren and Norfolk, Virginia, the Washington Navy Yard and NAS Anacostia, both in Washington, D.C., and Naval Aircraft factor, Philadelphia, PA. A Navy panel selected Cedar Point based on its remote location on the coastline; the distance from air traffic congestion; adequate isolation for classified testing; and its size, large enough for weapons testing.
The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent United States involvement in WWII brought a new urgency to the need for another naval air station. The Japanese had proved the offensive power of the aircraft carrier; and America would need to harness all its military and industrial might to win the battle for the pacific. The outbreak of war prompted Rear Admiral John Towers, Chief of Bureau of Aeronautics, to request approval and authorization to begin construction on 22 December 1941. Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, approved construction on 7 January 1942, and construction began on 4 April 1942. (insert photo HIST BK PHOTOS-cpt rd aerial 1942. Caption: Cedar Point Road, 1942 Aerial at the new Naval Air Station Pax River).
On October 20, 1942, the first Marines arrived and took over security to help with the more than 7,000 construction workers eventually employed. The Navy built housing for workers and their families in the area, renamed Lexington Park.
To help meet transportation needs, the Navy took on the task of revamping, and building, a viable railroad line through the County, known as the U.S. Government Railroad because the line was for exclusive government use south of Brandywine, Maryland.
Less than one year after construction began, Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River was formally commissioned on 1 April 1943.
Navy officials had already determined that the station would serve for testing experimental aircraft, equipment and material, and as the east coast Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) base. NATS was responsible for transporting personnel, supplies and equipment by air and was now headquartered at Patuxent River.
In the summer of 1943, the region's flight squadrons transferred operations to NAS Patuxent River; and the consolidation of these activities was the genesis of the Naval Air Test Center (NATC). On 16 June 1945, the Navy formally established the Naval Air Test Center.
Among its numerous war effort contributions, NATC tested the first American all-jet powered aircraft, the XP59-A, in 1944, as well as testing the Fireball (FR-1) and the Phantom (HF-1). The Navy conducted radio, armament, catapult and arresting gear testing as well as equipment tactical and service testing. insert photo HIST BK PHOTOS-conference. Caption: Planes being fueled on the flight line, October 1944.)
World War II saw explosive growth in aircraft numbers and variety, a problem for pilots and engineers at the Flight Test Division, who ensured all new aircraft met Naval stability and handling specifications. insert photo HIST BK PHOTOS-tps class. Caption: Early Test Pilot School Class). The solution was a formal program teaching pilots and engineers about aircraft performance and in-flight testing techniques. The program began in 1945 with a class of 14 pilots and engineers graduating. Ten years later, the division became the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. In April 1959, four of the TPS graduates were among the first astronauts selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Today, the Test Pilot School continues to turn out gifted and talented graduates.
Aviation technology in the late 1940s and 1950s focused on faster, higher flying and better performing jets. In 1949, Commander Turner F. Caldwell became the first naval aviator to fly faster than the speed of sound. New aviation records were continually set and broken, creating the knowledge base needed for the next generation of high performance aircraft. In 1949, a specially shielded test lab was build at NAS Patuxent River for electronic testing. Insert photo HIST BK PHOTOS-elec tests. Caption: Electronics testing at NAS Pax River.)
Post-World War II brought tremendous technological and scientific advances, including jet engines, helicopters, guided missiles, and nuclear weapons, each posing different challenges for naval aviation. In addition, nighttime and all-weather operations were becoming integral to the naval aviation mission. The expertise found at NAS Patuxent River played a critical role in developing new techniques and equipment to transform carrier aviation. The steam catapult, angled carrier deck, and mirror landing system, adapted from Great Britain, were major innovations in the 1950s.
The 1950s and 1960s saw an abundance of new aircraft, and every type underwent the rigors of testing at Patuxent River. This era marked important milestones:
- New amphibious assault ships, among others, joined the Fleet to exploit the unique capabilities of helicopters in vertical assault and replenishment.
- Advances in ordnance, navigational equipment and electronics changed tactical doctrine.
- Vertical and short take-off/landing aircraft were developed, and helicopters gradually replaced seaplanes.
In 1955, Development Squadron VX-6 was established at NAS Patuxent River working jointly with Task Force 43 on Operation Deep Freeze ' scientific operations in Antarctica' to provide services for shore-based parties and for courier flights between Antarctica and New Zealand. In 1960, the test center at NAS Patuxent River successfully completed test launchings of Bullpup air-to-surface missiles from a Marine Corps HUS-1 helicopter.
By 1965, reconnaissance Squadron VQ-4, based at NAS Patuxent River, began using Lockheed C-130s equipped with special communications equipment to perform their around-the-clock Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO) mission. VQ-4 provided long-range, very-low-frequency communications relay between the National Command Center and the ballistic missile submarine fleet. Two A-7A Corsair II aircraft made the transatlantic crossing from NAS Patuxent River to Evereux, France, in 1967, racking up 3,327 nautical miles in just over seven hours, an unofficial long distance, non-refueled flight by light attack jet aircraft. Insert photo-Other Pics F.1994.64 LTV A-7A (Caption: LTV A-7A Corsair in flight.)
Research and development at NAS Patuxent River forged ahead in the 1970s. The Harrier, Tomcat, and Orion were just a few of the major aircraft programs undergoing the rigorous test and evaluation process at NAS Patuxent River. Helicopter programs also achieved major milestones during the 1970's. The Naval Air Test Center (NATC) at NAS Patuxent River took part in helicopter development and testing for new roles, such as minesweeping. The final flight of the service acceptance trials for the AH-1T Cobra helicopter gunship was made at NATC Patuxent River.Insert photo-Other Pics F.1999.117 Bell AH-IT Cobra…(Caption: Bell AH-1T Cobra in flight firing a TOW missile)
The Navy's new air superiority fighter, the F-13 Tomcat headed for the Naval Air Test Center (NATC) at NAS Patuxent River the first week in April 1972. The swing-wing, twin-engine Grumman aircraft arrived for a series of catapult launches, automatic carrier landing system checks, airspeed system calibrations and weight and balance checks to determine its suitability for naval operations.Insert photo Other Pics: F.1994.127 GRUMMAN F-14 TOMCAT. Caption: Grumman F-14 Tomcat on Catapult at NAS Pax River)
In March of 1977, initial service acceptance trials for the CH-53E Super Stallion were completed at NATC. The growth version of the Super Stallion had three turbines instead of two. The Super Stallion carried mission loads of 16 tons, compared to nine tons for the previous version. And it had seven rotor blades instead of six, and could accommodate 56 troops.Insert photo Other Pics: F.1999.107 SUPER STALLION. Caption: Super Stallion Lifting a Twin Float Device.)
NATC conducted 416 flights in the F/A-18 for a total of 555 hours testing the new fighter/attack plane in 1979. Insert photo Other Pics: F.2000.88. (Caption: McDonnell Douglas F-18A Hornet Parked On Ramp Behind Ordnance Display Layout.) Testing included in-flight refueling, land-based catapult launchings and arrested landings, and speed tests. At-sea carrier take-offs and traps were carried out from the USS America. By the end of the year, NATC had completed a successful live firing of a Sidewinder missile from the F/A-18. The first F/A-18 Hornets entered operational service in January 1983. Not until the end of 1998 did the Navy accept the first new production of the replacement F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The decade of the 1990s was filled with reorganizations and streamlining. NAS Patuxent River not only continued to prove its importance in the aviation research, test and development arenas but also underwent major expansions as naval aircraft development functions were consolidated at the Station. In 1992, the Naval Air Warfare Center-Aircraft Division (NAWC-AD) joined the Station. The Flight Test Engineering group was established under NAWC-AD, and the Naval Air Test Center (NATC) was disestablished. Also in 1992, the last Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO) EC-130 began its final deployment.
Ground was broken for the new Aircraft Technology Laboratory in 1993. At the end of this year, the V-22 Osprey returned to NAS Patuxent River to begin full engineering development testing. Insert photo Other Pics: F.1995.4. (Caption: Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey.)
The new program also ushered in a new integrated test team concept of test and evaluation. These included:
- sensor systems
- electronic warfare and electro-optical
- acoustic/non-acoustic anti-submarine warfare sensors
- no-echo testing environment simulating free-space flight
- microwave techniques, and
- other stimulation and simulation environment for aircraft and systems closely resembling actual combat
NAS Patuxent River's parent command, the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) relocated its headquarters to the Station in 1997.
The technology and capability contained within its gates and embodies in its people make NAS Patuxent River an irreplaceable national asset.