On the morning of January 20, 1914, the battleship Mississippi and the coal ship Orion steamed through Pensacola Pass toward the Pensacola Navy Yard, which the navy had abandoned three years before. Aboard the Mississippi was the Navy’s entire aviation apparatus at that point — nine officers, less than a dozen enlisted men, and a handful of wood and fabric seaplanes, or “flying boats.”
Their mission: to establish the Navy’s first aeronautical station on the site of the former yard.
The men arrived to less-than-ideal conditions, as Lieutenant Commander Henry Mustin of the Mississippi noted in a letter to his wife.
“We have done some hustling since arrival for the yard is a wreck and the beach we have to use for hangars is full of drift wood and all kinds of junk,” wrote Mustin. “The whole place is in scandalous condition, and I surely have a job on my hands.”
Despite Mustin’s initial concerns, the beach was quickly cleared and hangars and ramps were erected. With no permanent facilities in adequate condition, however, pilots and other personnel continued to live on the Mississippi.
The first flight at the new station was logged on February 2, a 20-minute cruise over the station and Bayou Grande by Lieutenant John Towers and Ensign Godfrey Chevalier. Two additional flights were made the same day, as the Pensacola Journal reported:
“The machines in the air look like gigantic buzzards and make a noise plainly audible on the ground as the airmen pass over,” said the Journal. “The speed attained is remarkable, being much greater than that of a buzzard or hawk in flight.”
Training was soon interrupted, though, as relations with Mexico worsened and Pensacola was ordered to deploy two aviation units to Mexican waters. Two groups of pilots and five aircraft embarked aboard the Mississippi and Birmingham en route to Veracruz, where U.S. forces had occupied the city amidst the ongoing Mexican Revolution.
Over the next month, pilots from the detachment would conduct numerous surveillance flights over the city. “This expedition,” Mustin wrote in a report, “has been very valuable in supplying information as to future requirements of Naval aeroplanes and their accessories required for maintenance on board ship and in the field with advance base outfits.”
On May 6, 1914, during a flight over Veracruz, the plane carrying Lt. Patrick Bellinger and Lt. Richard Saufley was fired at by Mexicans on the ground, becoming the first U.S. aircraft to be struck by hostile gunfire.
During World War I, flight operations rapidly expanded at Pensacola. By the end of the war, NAS Pensacola had grown to host 438 officers and 5,538 enlisted men, and had trained 1,000 naval aviators. Other air stations began to be established elsewhere, but Pensacola established itself as “The Cradle of Naval Aviation.”
Today, NAS Pensacola is home to more than 17,000 military personnel and a civilian workforce of more than 5,000. On-base attractions such as the National Naval Aviation Museum and the historic Pensacola Lighthouse attract more than one million visitors each year, and the base has an estimated annual impact of more than $1.2 billion on the region.
Happy birthday, NAS Pensacola!