NAS Pensacola, The Cradle of Naval Aviation

The following story I wrote was published in Chinese during Operation Desert Storm, specifically on January 27, 1991 as a feature in the Sunday edition of the World Journal.


  1.      On Nov. 14, 1910 the autumn air in Virginia was a bit nippy.  But the adrenalin rush in stunt pilot Eugene Ely was causing his body temperature to rise.  At dawn Ely anxiously opened the throttle of his Curtiss pusher biplane, and soared into the sky from a makeshift, 80-foot ramp on the Navy cruiser USS Birmingham.

         Prior to the flight, skeptics told Ely that attempting such a death-defying stunt would surely cost him his life, yet he survived without a scratch on his body.  Two months later, Ely performed a stunt that had twice the audacity as the shipboard take-off.  He successfully landed a biplane on the Navy cruiser USS Pennsylvania, anchored in San Francisco Bay.

         Ely became the first pilot to take-off from a ship, land on a ship, and lived to tell about it.  His prodigious achievement led the San Francisco Examiner to proclaim that he revised world naval tactics.  In one stroke, stunt pilot Eugene Ely demonstrated the feasibility of what in time would become the most powerful weapon a navy could possess: an aircraft carrier.  The day he landed on top of a ship in San Francisco Bay consequently marked the birth of U.S. Naval Aviation.

  2.      One of Ely's friends and a strong advocate of carrier aviation was Navy Captain Washington Chambers.  In 1913 Capt. Chambers headed a board of Navy officers to draft a comprehensive plan for the organization of a Naval Aeronautic Service.  Among other things, this plan called for the establishment of the first Naval Aeronautic Center in Pensacola, FL.  Thus, Pensacola became the site of the Navy’s first air base.  Naval Aeronautic Center Pensacola was built in 1914 and renamed Naval Air Station Pensacola before World War II.

         With a splash of Spanish culture and a population of 58,000, Pensacola represents one of the most beautiful coastal cities in Florida.  It’s a port of entry on Pensacola Bay, Florida’s largest natural landlocked harbor.  Part of Pensacola’s economy is based on its position as a trade and distribution center of northwestern Florida and southern Alabama.  However, its economy relies most heavily on the U.S. Navy.  Naval Air Station Pensacola provides a combined military and civilian payroll in excess of a half-billion dollars annually going into the city’s economy.

         Naval Air Station Pensacola is a part of the city that aviation history buffs, and tourists in general, would not want to miss.  It’s been affectionately called, “The Cradle of Naval Aviation” because every Navy, Marine Corp, and Coast Guard aviator begins his or her training here.  The Cradle turned fledgling flyers into professional aviators through two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam.  It holds a major role in nurturing Naval Aviation to its present-day prominence.

  3. Pressure Point (1990)
  4.      The Cradle could make it difficult for tourists to complete their visits in one day.  It’s the homeport of the World War II aircraft carrier USS Lexington; its present mission is to qualify naval aviators in catapult-launches and landings aboard all other aircraft carriers.  The Cradle is also the winter home of the Blue Angels (the Navy’s renowned flight demonstration squadron), the site of the National Museum of Naval Aviation, and the future homeport of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

         Next to the Officers’ Club in The Cradle is an old brick building with opaque windows that seem impervious to sunlight.  It’s Building 671, commonly referred to as Training Tank 1 by naval personnel.  Training Tank 1 is where the Navy holds an important phase of aviators’ ocean survival training program.  Inside this building are two escape-training devices such that each simulates a type of aircraft ditching at sea: the Dilbert Dunker and the Helo Dunker.

         During World War II and the Korean War many naval aviators drowned because they weren’t adequately trained to survive in the ocean, after ditching their battle-damaged airplanes.  The Dunkers were conceptualized, not only to give naval aviators the vital skills to deal with a relentless Mother Nature, but also to boost the level of self-confidence among trainees.

         The Dilbert Dunker is a cockpit simulator that simulates the ditching of a single-seat airplane, by dunking its occupant into a pool through a 60-degree gradient.  Once in the pool, Dilbert will flip upside down below six feet of water.  To successfully perform an emergency egress exercise, an occupant may release his safety harness only after Dilbert comes to a screeching halt; he would then push himself out of Dilbert while arching his body backwards.  The act of pushing out and arching his body would provide the proper momentum for a trainee to be in a near upright position, and then swim to the surface.

         Among the first flyers to use the Dilbert Dunker were the Mercury and Gemini astronauts in the 1960s.  The air base that got Naval Aviation off the ground was—fifty years later—helping American astronauts come back safely from outerspace.

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  6.      The Helo Dunker is a barrel-shaped helicopter simulator with seating arrangements for eight trainees.  It would first drop its occupants into a deep pool, and then roll sideways until it’s upside down.  The trainees may unbuckle their seat belts only after the simulator stops rolling under water; they would then swim out the doorway or windows one at a time.  To further complicate the experience, trainees must wear painted goggles during some of the emergency egress exercises.  The idea is to simulate darkness beneath the ocean’s surface. 
  7. Helo Dunker Egress training
  8.      Seasoned naval aviators must take a refresher course in the Dunkers every four years.  Besides the Dunkers, there are other ocean-survival training equipment at Training Tank 1 that prepare naval aviators to deal with various difficulties at sea.

         To ensure a mishap-free training environment, a lot of responsibilities are delegated to Chief Petty Officer Burgess, Navy Diver 1st Class.  Chief Burgess grew up in Orange Park, FL.  He has served the Coast Guard and Navy for more than 13 years.

         “I’ve seen the down side of Naval Aviation as a rescue swimmer for several years,” Chief Burgess said. 

         “So it’s quite a thrill for me to be a part of the deep-water survival training program.

         “What it does for prospective naval aviators is that it acclimates them to their future job environment, so it builds confidence.”

         “For those who complete [deep-water] survival training for the first time,” said Chief Burgess, “the difference in their level of self-confidence before and afterwards is like the difference between night and day.”

         Training Tank 1 is open to the public at designated hours every weekend.  Tourists who visit Training Tank 1 often leave with fond memories and a sense of awe for those who serve the Naval Aviation community.  Arguably, American naval aviators aren’t just the best pilots in the world; they’re the toughest survivors among military pilots. 

  9.      A half-mile east of Training Tank 1 is Sherman Field.  It’s the winter home of the Blue Angels that has thrilled crowds with precision aerobatics since 1946.  It’s also the home of Training Air Wing Six, Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Sixteen, Training Squadrons Four, Ten and Eighty Six.  Training Squadron Four specializes in providing intermediate training to student naval aviators who will fly carrier-based, turboprop airplanes.

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  11.      Near Sherman Field are two historical sites frequented by tourists.  One is Fort Barrancas, and the other is the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

         Fort Barrancas is a four-sided brick fortification built by Army engineers in 1844.  Some Floridians claim that the first shots of the Civil War were fired here on the evening of January 8, 1861.  Confederate troops seized Fort Barrancas at the outbreak of the Civil War.  They remained there until May of 1862 when the need to strengthen other installations forced them to pull out.  Federal troops then reclaimed this fortress and kept it for the duration of the war.  It’s open for guided tours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.

  12. Gulf Islands National Seashore - Fort Barancas Area
  13.      The National Museum of Naval Aviation collects, preserves, and displays memorabilia representing the historic heritage and development of Naval Aviation.  The history of Naval Aviation is presented in chronological order using pictures, charts, artifacts, models and actual aircrafts.  In this museum visitors will find American naval aircrafts of every era – from a replica of Eugene Ely’s Curtiss pusher biplane to a supersonic, $40 million F-14 Tom Cat.

         Although the National Museum of Naval Aviation is one of the best aviation museums in America, the Navy is striving to make it stand out above the rest.  It’s undergoing an expansion that will bring the total space to 220,000 sq. ft. with the addition of a west wing dedicated to carrier aviation. 

         A seven-story Blue Angels Atrium will have four A-4 Skyhawk suspended in diamond formation from a glass and steel ceiling.  Here the Navy’s goal is to help visitors journey into the history of Naval Aviation vicariously, for an indelible tour of “The Cradle of Naval Aviation.”