For many of Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola’s one hundred years, an aircraft carrier moored at Allegheny Pier was visible across the bay, the result of the Navy’s decision to base a flattop at the “Cradle of Naval Aviation” to carrier qualifying student naval aviators. Because of the nearly three decades she spent here, the venerable Lexington (AVT 16) is the training carrier most identified with Pensacola, but she was just one of many to serve here.
The first flattop to visit was also the Navy’s first carrier, Langley (CV 1), which was commissioned in March 1922, and arrived in the Florida panhandle for a port visit the following year. Nicknamed the “Covered Wagon” because of her appearance and pioneering role in naval aviation, she operated in the waters off Pensacola for a period of a few weeks, reports from the ship at the time indicating that “landings and take-offs from the flying deck are made so frequently that it is becoming a routine matter.”
Of course nothing about operating an airplane from a moving ship is routine, and the thousands of student naval aviators who recorded their first landings and launches on the carriers based at Pensacola would attest to that fact. The first of these ships was Ranger (CV 4), which when she was commissioned in 1934, was the first ship in the history of the U.S. Navy constructed from the keel up as an aircraft carrier. Ranger stayed for a short period of time in late 1945, the next training carrier to arrive making her way through Pensacola Pass in September 1946. Saipan(CVL 48), one of a series of wartime “small aircraft carriers” converted from cruiser hulls, was the only training carrier to serve in Pensacola on two separate occasions (1946-1947 and 1955-1957), the ships filling the training role between these two assignments including Wright (CVL 49), Cabot (CVL 28), and Monterey (CVL 26), the latter’s crew during World War II including future President of the United States Gerald R. Ford.
Arriving in 1957, Antietam (CVS 36) was the first training carrier to carrier qualify student naval aviators in jet aircraft, her time here including a break from training duties on May 4, 1961, when she was the platform for the launch of a record-setting stratospheric balloon flight that reached an altitude of 113.739.9 feet over the Gulf of Mexico. Lexington replaced Antietam in 1962, serving as the training carrier until her decommissioning in 1991, at which time Forrestal (AVT 59), the U.S. Navy’s first super carrier, reported for duty. It would prove a short tour of less than a year when the decision was made to carrier qualify flight students on fleet carriers and not retain a flattop for that sole purpose.
Following Forrestal’s departure, while carriers were not permanent fixtures at the air station, Enterprise (CVN 65), the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier, and John F. Kennedy (CV 67) made port calls in Pensacola. The time they were here, though fleeting, rekindled memories of long ago days when flattops were a part of Pensacola’s skyline.