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Naval Aviation: 5 Surprising Facts

Naval aviation has been around for a long time and despite being a part of a maritime branch of service, it gets a lot of attention. In recent history it has been glamorized and made popular by movies like Top Gun, Officer and a Gentleman, Flight of the Intruder and Behind Enemy Lines.

What’s not to like about naval aviation? Pilots and their aircraft get sling-shotted off of their aircraft carriers, afterburners aglow as they fiercely fly off the deck. When they return to their carriers, they are landing on a moving object that is rocking all over the place—up and down—side-to-side; their goal, to hit a wire with their plane’s tailhook that will stop their aircraft all while they are thrusting power to their engines. It is a controlled crash but it makes naval aviation badass.

But pop culture tends to only scratch the surface on things, so USAMM is offering the top five surprising facts about naval aviation. While you might know some of these fun facts, we bet at least one of these will surprise you.

US Navy helicopter flying American flag with jets in the background

1. The U.S. Navy Is The Second Largest Air Force
With a little more than 4,000 aircraft, according to the U.S. Department of the Navy’s 2020 budget, the Navy ranked second in the world as the largest air force. It placed behind the U.S. Air Force which has around 5,500 aircraft as of 2021.

Russia and China have the third and fourth largest air forces in the world, respectively after the U.S. Navy. The fact that the U.S. Navy has so many aircraft should illustrate the importance the United States puts on naval aviation and the role naval aviation plays in power projection overseas.

The U.S. Navy flies dozens of aircraft models all with varying roles. In fact, they have eight different types of helicopters in their inventory and dozens upon dozens of different airplanes.

2. Naval Aviation First Across Atlantic
Charles Lindbergh is an icon in the annals of aviation history, but eight years before Lindbergh famously flew from New York to Paris, a crew of U.S. naval aviation pilots had already crossed the Atlantic Ocean in an aircraft.

On May 8, 1919, three Curtiss NC-4 flying boats, each with a crew of six, departed from Rockaway Beach, New York, and flew towards Plymouth, England. It was the first time an aircraft had ever circumnavigated over an ocean. Only one aircraft successfully completed the journey.

1919 Curtiss NC-4 biplane landing in ocean

Lindbergh flew nonstop, an enormous milestone at that time, but naval aviation personnel journey took 24 days and included stops in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Azores, Portugal and Spain before they reached their destination and became naval aviation giants, cementing their place in aviation history as the first aircrews to perform a transatlantic journey by air.

As an aside, did you know that Lindbergh received the Medal of Honor for crossing the Atlantic Ocean nonstop on his own? He was also an officer in the Army’s Air Corps and eventually made the rank of brigadier general in the reserve.

3. The Blue Angels Were First
Naval aviation saw the establishment of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration team in 1946. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Chester Nimitz created the team to raise the public's interest in naval aviation and boost Navy morale, according to the Blue Angels’ website.

The team was created one year before the birth of the U.S. Air Force which was founded in 1947 with the National Security Act of 1947. The U.S. Air Force would not organize their flight demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, until 1953.

In the 1940s, The Blue Angels flew the F6 Hellcat, the F8 Bearcat and the F9 Panther. During the 1950s, they transitioned to the F9 Cougar and F-11 Tiger and introduced the first six-plane delta formation, still flown to this day.

By the end of the 1960s, the Angels flew the F-4 Phantom and in 1974, they transitioned to the A-4 Skyhawk, one of the most maneuverable aircraft in fighter jet history. The airplane was also flown by Sen. John McCain during the Vietnam War.

Blue Angels F/A-18 Super Hornet breaking sound barrier

In 1986, the Blue Angels celebrated their 40th anniversary by unveiling the F/A-18 Hornet. In 2021, they transitioned to the current aircraft the F/A-18 Super Hornet which they flew for their 75th anniversary. The team also flies the C-130-J Super Hercules known as “Fat Albert,” to ferry supplies and personnel to performances all over the world.  

Naval aviation is credited with having the first flight demonstration team in the U.S. military. It should be noted that U.S. Marine pilots can also serve in the Blue Angels.

4. Naval Aviator First To Walk On Moon
If there is one name synonymous with naval aviation it is Neil Armstrong. He was not only a naval aviator, but of course human history knows him as the first man to ever step onto the moon.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Armstrong's career in naval aviation started in 1949 when he reported to his first duty station: Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, where he learned to fly. Beginning in August 1951, Armstrong saw action in the Korean War, flying an F-9F Panther jet. While he was making a low bombing run, his jet became disabled and he safely parachuted out and was rescued.

As a naval aviator, Armstrong flew 78 combat missions over Korea. His final mission was March 5, 1952. He transitioned to the Navy Reserve and served eight years until resigning his commission in 1960. In 1969, he would walk on the moon.

It should be noted that of the 12 men who walked on the moon, seven were naval aviators, more than half, including the first and the last men to set foot on the moon’s surface. Since then and continuing today, naval aviation continues to feed the NASA program naval aviation professionals. Instead of crossing oceans, they are crossing space.

USN pilot Buzz Armstrong in space suit with helmet off and flag in background

5. First Airplane Ordered In 1911
On May 8, 1911, naval aviation prepared requisitions for two Curtiss biplanes. The first, the Triad, would be designed to land and takeoff in land or water. The aircraft was known as the Curtiss hydroaeroplane A-1 and it would become the first airplane of U.S. naval aviation.

The date of order would become the official birthday of naval aviation. Prior to 1911, the Army had acquired the Wright Military Flyer in 1909.  

Since 1911, naval aviation has made enormous strides. In its earliest days, naval aviation proved that technology and aviation could have a tremendous impact on the execution of warfare. Naval aviation has evolved not just as a critical offensive resource, but it is one of the primary tools in the defense of the United States of America.

Wright Military Flyer circa 1909

Fly Navy!

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