By Capt. Paul Bowdich, Commanding Officer, NAS Whiting Field
During World War II, in the rural fields of Milton, Florida, a small outlying field named Naval Auxiliary Air Station Whiting Field began its primary mission—producing the military’s best-trained aviation warfighters. The value of aviation to the war and to the nation was never more evident than during the Battle of Midway, when aircraft and aircraft carriers essentially turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. In July, Whiting Field celebrates 75 years of training the world’s best Naval, Coast Guard and Marine Corps aviators, following a legacy that began during the war.
Construction on the field commenced in early 1943 as Pensacola’s largest auxiliary air field, approximately 35 miles northeast of the town, and eight miles north of Milton. As the war churned on, the need for aviators increased and the Navy selected Whiting Field to fulfill a significant piece of the aviation training mission.
Two individual airfields, about a mile from one another, connected by base facilities between the two, supported the increased demand of pilots. Dedicated in a July 16, 1943 ceremony, the field was named after innovator, submarine and aviation pioneer, Captain Kenneth Whiting, following his death on active duty in April 1943. Whiting is known for his unparalleled contributions to naval aviation, submarine emergency egress and for being a fierce advocate for the importance of aviation, especially aircraft carrier-based operations. He was inducted into the National Naval Aviation Museum’s Naval Aviation Hall of Honor in 1984.
From its early beginnings through the 1970s, the focus of Whiting Field training was on fixed wing aircraft training. The first platform to arrive at the station was the SNJ Texan, quickly followed by the SNB Navigator, and the PB4Y Liberator bomber. As the war drew down, there was rumor that the base would be closed due to the reduced need for pilots. But a new mission with heavy bombers, the PB4Y- 1 and 2 models, soon graced the skies over Santa Rosa County. In 1949, the Navy’s first jet training unit was established at Whiting, and the TO-1 Shooting Star took over North Field. After Korea, the base welcomed a new primary trainer, the T-34B Mentor, for a short time, until the T-28 Trojan became the longest serving fixed wing trainer at Whiting from 1956 to 1983. The T34C Turbomentor phased out the T-28, and was the primary platform until 2009, when the T-6B Texan came on the scene as the primary aircraft training system. The Texan is still the fixed wing platform flown at North Field and will be in service for the foreseeable future.
A new era in Whiting’s history was established in 1973 with the introduction of advanced helicopter training to South Field. UH-1 Hueys and TH-57 Sea Rangers were flown to Whiting Field on the same day, with some in the community remembering a spectacular sight of more than 100 rotary airframes flying down Highway 90 and over Milton to South Field. Today, the TH-57 is the primary airframe used to train Navy, Marine, Coast Guard and international students in helicopter aviation. Currently, three fixed wing squadrons and three rotary wing squadrons are hard at work bringing prospective pilots the best training in the U.S. military.
Kenneth Whiting’s innovative spirit still lives on at Whiting Field as the Nation’s future aviators study, train and fly to become the next Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard pilots. Instructors lead more than 1,200 students per year through a rigorous training regimen that produces the world’s best pilots. NAS Whiting Field is responsible for 100 percent of all helicopter training, graduating helicopter pilots to advanced training in their assigned platforms.
Today, NAS Whiting Field averages more than one million flight operations a year and is the busiest aviation complex in the world. That comprises a staggering average of 11 percent of all Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard flight hours, and more than 52 percent of the Navy’s outlying field footprint. So though a relatively small installation in stature, the station’s reach and impact with 12 Naval outlying fields, more than 4.4 million square yards of airfield pavement and 131,000 flight hours flown in 2017, is greater than most large installations today.
As a former helicopter squadron commanding officer, and now the commanding officer of NAS Whiting Field, I know the future for NAS Whiting Field will be exciting and innovative as we continue to provide the U.S. military with the finest aviators in the world. With the new North Air Traffic Control tower construction beginning in the next few years, the acquisition of a new helicopter training system, coupled with our tremendous base and community partnerships, the aviation training mission at NAS Whiting Field will remain strong well into the future. We will continue providing the Nation’s most professional aviators who will defend our freedoms for decades to come.