2011 marked the Centennial of US Naval Aviation, a service that started very humbly with only 2 Curtiss Pusher Biplanes in 1911. The first take off from a warship was completed by Eugene Ely on November 14th, 1910 in Virginia from the cruiser USS Birmingham which had a temporary platform erected over the bow. A few months later he completed the first landing of an aircraft on a warship on January 18th, 1911 in San Francisco, California on the cruiser USS Pennsylvania which was fitted with a temporary wooden landing deck. Sadly he died in an plane crash in Georgia in October 1911. For his contribution to Naval Aviation he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight).
US Naval Aviation expanded greatly during WW2 with the advent of aircraft carriers and has evolved into a large modern fleet of Super Carrier and land based aircraft today. The roles of US Navy aircraft include: fighter/attack, maritime patrol, airborne early warning command and control, electronic warfare, helicopters (anti-submarine, Search and Rescue and transport), training and transport. The US Navy currently has 3700+ operational aircraft and 11 Super Carriers (with 2 more under construction) that many of them operate from. The US Marine Corps aircraft also operate off 9 Amphibious Assault Ships (plus 1 more under construction).
So it was fitting that in May 2011, I went to Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida to see the US Navy Blue Angels demonstration team and other naval aircraft perform 2 days of practice airshow displays as part of Naval Aviation Week and in preparation for the Centennial celebrations and airshows around the US. It was fantastic and all for free! The Blue Angels never disappoint but to see them practicing all the different types of maneuvers and their full repertoire of high and low altitude displays was brilliant as at any normal air show they would only do some of these displays. I was fortunate to see them perform over a few days again in 2011 during the Seafair Festival in Seattle Washington, but nothing compares to seeing them at their home base where they can fly lower and closer to the crowdline and have plenty of room to do their full demonstration.
There was one other major draw card at Pensacola on this trip though, the National Naval Aviation Museum. There is no better place to take in the full-scale of US naval aircraft development over the last 100 years than at this museum with over 150 aircraft and 4000 artifacts representing Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviation (along with some captured enemy aircraft from WW2). It is a world-class museum with immaculately restored aircraft displayed in a huge indoor area and an outdoor air park. The following photos provide an overview of the sheer number and diversity of aircraft at the museum. Well worth a visit.