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Naval Aviation

From makeshift gliders and the first shipboard landing to supersonic jets and unmanned aerial vehicles, naval aviation has come a long way in its more than 100 years of existence. U.S. naval aviation began when pioneer Glenn Curtiss contracted with the U.S. Navy to demonstrate that airplanes could take off from and land aboard ships at sea. From those successful flights, the Navy Department began prevailing upon Congress to include a provision for aeronautical development in the Naval Appropriation Act enacted in 1911–1912. Upon entry into World War I, Pensacola—the only naval air station at the time—had 38 naval aviators, 163 enlisted trained in aviation, and 54 airplanes. By the end of the war, the air station boasted 438 officers, 5,548 enlisted, and had trained about 1,000 naval aviators.


As World War II emerged, naval aviation became the decisive element in the war at sea. Seaborne aircraft were used in fleet actions at sea, strikes against naval units in port, ground forces support, anti-submarine warfare and a host of other actions. Naval aviation exploded during the war with more than 1,100 cadets trained a month. Naval battles such as the Battle of the Coral Sea and Midway were conducted largely or entirely by aircraft. Naval aviation became a cornerstone of American global military power.


After World War II, the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States collapsed which marked the beginnings of the Cold War. The superpowers were divided by the Western alliance, led by the U.S. and the Eastern Bloc, led by the Soviets. Their struggle for world dominance would overshadow the second half of the century. In June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea marking the beginnings of the Korean War which lasted until an Armistice was signed in 1953. Although a truce had been called, global peace remained unsteady. The U.S. and the Soviets expanded their nuclear arsenals while technological advances marked the late 1950s through the early 1960s. 


On Oct. 1, 1958, naval aviation produced the first astronauts. Approximately half of NASA astronauts, including the first American in space and the first to orbit earth, were naval aviators. Of the 12 men who walked on the moon, seven were naval aviators, including the first and the last.


In 1965, the first Marines landed in Danang marking the beginning of the Vietnam War. U.S. naval aviation would be involved in the war until it ended in 1973. The 1980s would be marked by the massive buildup of naval aviation and the fall of the former Soviet Union. Naval aviation would see combat action in the 1990s with Desert Storm, and peacekeeping operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the New York City Twin Towers and the Pentagon. A failed attempt to cause more destruction was evaded by the heroism of United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The Global War on Terrorism would dominate the world stage for more than a decade afterwards. 


In 1973, eight women were selected as the first female candidates to attend the U.S. Navy’s flight school, ushering in a new era of women in naval aviation


This Naval Aviation webpage is a collection of information the Naval History and Heritage Command has on the more than 100 years of naval aviation history. This page is not all inclusive. Information will be added as it becomes available.