Just eight years after the Wright brothers’ historic first flight, the U.S. Navy began its foray into aviation when the first aircraft were ordered for service on May 8, 1911.
A short six years after that, Naval Air Station Key West was born.
During World War I, the Navy established seaplane patrol bases along the East Coast of the United States, and Key West was one of the chosen points.
The Navy broke ground on land rented from the East Coast Railway Company on Key West’s Trumbo Point in July 1917 and on Sept. 22, the base’s log book recorded the first naval flight ever made from Key West – a Curtiss N-9 seaplane flown by Coast Guard Lt. Stanley Parker.
On Dec. 18, 1917, Naval Air Base Key West was commissioned and Lt. Parker became the first Commanding Officer.
Ensign Harold Jobes, Naval Aviator 1,966, was stationed in Key West in 1918 and before he passed away in 1988, gave the Monroe County Library copies of his letters to his father.
“This is certainly a wonderful station and the Gobs [Sailors] are great so it is like one big family,” Jobes wrote. “It sure is a great life and the flying is fine. This station is better in many ways than Pensacola and I am glad I came here as I will get the very best of training and when I get my wings I will have plenty of hours to my credit so I will feel confident of doing any kind of flying.”
After WWI, the seaplane mission continued but at a diminished rate. However, during World War II, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Naval air mission in Key West was revived and expanded to include Meachum and Boca Chica Fields.
During the attack on Pearl Harbor 76 years ago, the three Pacific-based American aircraft carriers were away from Pearl Harbor. Under Adm. Raymond Spruance, those three carriers helped turn the tide at Midway just six months later. In fact, the U.S. Navy commissioned the second USS Spruance (DDG 111) here at NAS Key West during the Naval Aviation Centennial in 2011 – a truly fitting way to start the life of a warship – named after a master of the power of Naval aviation, as evidenced by his leadership of the aircraft carriers at the victorious Battle of Midway 75 years ago.
By March 1945, all Naval aviation activities in the Florida Keys were combined under one designation of U.S. Naval Air Station Key West.
Aircraft of every type continued to train in Key West, and in 1962 NAS Key West became a key staging point during the Cuban Missile Crisis as it became home to reconnaissance, and operational flights began in support of the U.S. blockade around Cuba.
In 1974, the Naval Station in Key West, home to submarines and patrol squadrons, decommissioned and all that remained was the air station, which continued to train aviators from all services, as it does today.
World War I, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, the Cuban Missile Crisis, 9/11 and events occurring around the world today highlight the continued need for superior Naval Aviation, which Naval Air Station Key West has played a major role in for a century.
Today I fly with adversary squadron Fighter Squadron Composite (VFC) 111 “Sun Downers,” training today’s Naval Aviators in the very skies those first aviators flew 100 years ago. It is an honor to be a part of such a historic milestone and it’s an honor to be a part of its future to come.
Remembering our history and the evolution of Naval aviation, as well as the many men and women who sacrificed all to get us where we are today, is important. We learn from our history, and here in Key West we have 100 years of experience to learn from.