PENSACOLA, Fla. (NNS) -- The Centennial of Naval Aviation (CoNA) kicked off Jan. 20, aboard Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Fla., with the fly-by of a vintage-painted T-39 Saberliner.
More than 500 people gathered for the event in the Navy Yard to honor the arrival of the first naval aviators who would eventually lead the Navy toward a new direction - aviation.
"Today marks the exact day 97 years ago - Jan. 20 1914 -in the spot where Lt. John H. Towers and Lt. Cmdr. Henry C. Mustin landed in Pensacola," said NAS Pensacola Commanding Officer Capt. Christopher Plummer. "Towers was the officer-in-charge of an aviation unit from Annapolis, Md., consisting of nine officers and 23 Sailors who arrived on board the battleship USS Mississippi and USS Orion to setup a Navy flying school on these beautiful shores. Mustin was in command of the USS Mississippi and this new naval air station. This cadre of naval officers and Sailors erected what became known as the Cradle of Naval Aviation. The rest is history."
Plummer was joined by Rear Adm. Joseph Kilkenny, commander, Naval Education and Training Command (NETC), who said the opinions of the Navy have greatly changed in the years since Mustin and Towers arrived in Pensacola.
"In this year of 2011, we absolutely know how aviation positively impacts our maritime forces and is essential to the defense of our republic," Kilkenny said. "That was not always the case. In 1901, Rear Adm. George Melville wrote in the 'North American Review' that neither the dirigible airship nor the powered flying machine would ever prove of any use commercially, let alone in warfare."
Melville was proven wrong however, and the potential of naval aviation was truly recognized in World War II.
"At this time, Navy and Marine Corps battlefields came to include the skies over contested land and sea," Kilkenny said. "For the first time, naval engagements were fought entirely in the air. Today, more than 337,400 men and women have earned their wings as aviators or naval flight officers."
The first naval aviators are honored aboard NAS Pensacola today in the building and street names military personnel pass by on a daily business. These pioneers continue to live on through the formidable spirit of the Navy and the ambition of new aviation students.
The CoNA kickoff continued with a reading from Mustin's first letter to his wife after his arrival in Pensacola. He described the area as being "in a terrible state...in scandalous condition."
His observations were that it had been abandoned more than 50 years ago and since then used as a dump. A lot of work was needed to get the air school in commission for students.
Mustin projected that it would take two weeks before the flying school could commence, as they needed to build runways and to clear the beach in front of the runways for fear that broken off piles would damage the flying boat hulls.
Since then the Navy and NAS Pensacola have grown much larger than they were 100 years ago. Today, the Navy controls more than 3,700 operational aircraft - a far leap from Melville's original projection.
Following the ceremony all attendees were invited to a flight suit social at the Mustin Beach Officers' Club where authentic displays and timelines showed visitors the historical significance of the centennial. In addition to the displays, historians and speakers shared first-hand experiences about the Navy of the past and how it has evolved since then.
The Centennial of Naval Aviation is a year-long celebration honoring the challenges and triumphs the first naval aviators faced. Since its arrival in Pensacola 97 years ago, the Navy has made huge leaps in technology and equipment.
"Today, from putting boots on the ground to placing precision munitions on target, there are few places on the planet beyond the reach of naval aviation," said Kilkenny.
For more news from Naval Air Station Pensacola, visit www.navy.mil/local/naspensacola/.