Naval Air Station North Island: Past Reflections, Forward Projections

Story Number: NNS020204-02Release Date: 2/4/2002 12:35:00 PM
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By Journalist 3rd Class (SW) Christopher C. Fowler, Naval Air Force Pacific Fleet Public Affairs

CORONADO, Calif. (NNS) -- Naval Air Station North Island (NASNI) in San Diego is the true birthplace of naval aviation. It was here, in 1911, that a young lieutenant named Theodore "Spuds" Ellyson was trained to become the first naval aviator.

Considering the impact this region has had on naval aviation, one might think there would be more evidence of it locally. Now, after roughly 90 years, something is being done to salute the men and women who have made the choice to "Fly Navy."

The most prominent structure at NASNI is the headquarters building for Commander, Naval Air Force Pacific Fleet (COMNAVAIRPAC) -- the Tower and Administration Building, or more simply, Building 8.

Vice Adm. John B. Nathman, COMNAVAIRPAC, is spearheading the development and creation of a "historical spotlight" inside Building 8 to illuminate the significance of naval aviation's rich local heritage.

"When I relieved Vice Adm. Bowman as COMNAVAIRPAC, he spoke with me about the idea for this project," said Nathman. "Philosophically, the project resonated with me. Here was a headquarters that has had everything to do with the growth of naval aviation. But when I looked around, I saw little representation of aviation's rich lineage. I decided that this was an opportunity to not only upgrade the headquarters, but restore its historical value."

The AIRPAC Historical Foundation (AHF), a non-profit organization created to promote public awareness of West Coast naval aviation, is working closely with Nathman to renovate Building 8.

Serving as the historical spotlight project coordinator is Cmdr. Rich Dann. He said that the completed project is designed to present a well-rounded, artful representation of the rich aviation heritage of North Island and the San Diego area.

"As I discussed ideas for the project with the admiral, one thing became very clear, the project would have to be not only historically correct, but coordinated tastefully," explained Dann.

"I visited AIRPAC several times and had a pretty good idea of the building's layout," said Dann. "One of its unique qualities is the way it's designed. The building was designed to be a headquarters. It was designed by architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in a style known as 'Spanish Colonial Revival,' and it is similar to many of the missions that grace the West Coast."

Dann said that when he was younger he watched a movie called "Dive Bomber," starring Errol Flynn Fred and MacMurray. It was filmed in Technicolor back in 1940.

"Throughout the film, many of the original structures that were on North Island are visible," said Dann. "There is great scene where the character played by Errol Flynn earns his naval aviator wings. If you watch closely, the ceremony is held in the AIRPAC courtyard. I think when a lot of people think of history, their minds tend to envision a world in black and white. But history happened in color, and this building is a living piece of history."

The quarterdeck is the first place a visitor will see so it was decided that would be the best place to start. The floor plan for the quarterdeck is shaped like a large octagon with an offshoot to one side for watch standers.

Anyone entering the quarterdeck after the renovation should immediately recognize they have entered someplace special. Visitors will enter a room designed to impress.

"The entire wall to the right as someone enters the quarterdeck will showcase an eight-foot-wide by eight-foot-tall painting of USS Enterprise (CV 6) and three Grumman F3F fighter planes. Additionally, I have borrowed an idea from the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor in Pensacola, Fla.," said Dann. "The quarterdeck will also feature bronze plaques honoring some of the innovators in naval aviation, and finally, the whole presentation will be topped off by a scale replica of the Curtiss A-1 Triad, the Navy's first airplane, suspended above from the overhead."

The presentation will continue up the double stairway and down the main hallway toward the admiral's office with museum quality artwork displayed chronologically along the walls depicting various aircraft, people and significant events in the history of naval aviation.

Nathman said, "This is where naval aviation, particularly carrier aviation, was forged. I think it is important that anyone who comes into this headquarters gets a sense of the history and purpose that naval aviation brings -- knowing it's history and lineage is important.

"The historical spotlight's overall effect on visitors should be one of quiet dignity," explained Nathman. "Today's pilots should understand that the technological advances they enjoy were borne of the blood, determination and ingenuity of their predecessors.

"I think it's important to remind people of where they came from," Nathman explained. "If you don't know who you are, then how do you know where you are headed? It's important that those in naval aviation be cognizant of their history and have a strong sense of what it took to get to where they are."

The "historical upgrade," scheduled to be completed by the building's 82nd anniversary in June, will transform the headquarters into a living, fully operational showcase of some of the people and events that have played a prominent role in shaping naval aviation.

COMNAVAIRPAC's mission is to support the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the unified commands by providing and supporting combat-ready U.S. naval aviation forces. COMNAVAIRPAC's responsibility includes all Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers, naval aircraft and aviation activities.

For additional information on NAS North Island, go to

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