By Hill Goodspeed, National Naval Aviation Museum
Before January 20, 1914, when the Navy’s aviation establishment arrived at a recently closed, hurricane ravaged navy yard in Pensacola, Florida, the small collection of men and assorted flying machines had lived a vagabond existence since Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson received orders to report for flight training under the tutelage of aircraft manufacturer Glenn Curtiss in December 1910.
They had flown from lake waters in Curtiss’ native Hammondsport, New York, the sandy landscape of North Island in San Diego, over the Caribbean waters off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and from an encampment at Greenbury Point across the Severn River from the U.S. Naval Academy. Such was the ad hoc nature of the latter location that it was located in proximity to the midshipman rifle range, forcing the aviators and mechanics to frequently vacate the premises lest they become an unwitting target for a fledgling marksman!
The members of the Chambers Board, which convened in Washington D.C. in late 1913, recognized that naval aviation, with the potential for employment on a wider scale in naval operations, required a permanent home, an aeronautic station not only for use in training, but more also to serve as a veritable laboratory for the study of naval aviation.
The record-altitude flights and experimental work lay in the future on that January day, the conditions that greeted the aviators as they arrived on board the battleship Mississippi and collier Orion proving disconcerting.
“We have done some hustling since arrival for the yard is a wreck and the beach we have to use for hangars [full of] drift wood…and all kinds of junk; the whole place is in scandalous condition, and I surely have a job on my hands,” Lieutenant Commander Henry C. Mustin wrote upon arriving. “It looks as if it had been abandoned 50 years ago and since then had been used as a dump. However, there are fine possibilities in the place.”
Once ashore, the aviation personnel assembled their aircraft and began erecting canvas tent hangars along the shore to protect them from the Florida sun. Less than two weeks after arriving, using the natural runway that the waters of Pensacola Bay provided, a prime reason for the location’s selection by the Chambers Board, Lieutenant John Towers, the officer-in-charge of the flight school, and Ensign Godfrey DeC. Chevalier took to the skies in two seaplanes.
A local newspaper likened the airplanes to “giant buzzards” as they made the first of hundreds of thousands of flights launched from what would become known as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.”