Wings of Gold: Exploring the Naval Air Station in Pensacola
At a young age, most kids know what they want to do when they grow up. Some kids dream of becoming astronauts, blasting off into outer space, and exploring the far reaches of the cosmos. Some want to be racecar drivers, careening around racetracks at death-defying speeds, overtaking their opponents, and flying across the finish line in first place.
Then there are kids who want to become pilots. For these kids, no dream holds more promise than a life in which they can break free of the bonds imposed by gravity, and enter the world of flight. Some of these kids will grow up and seek careers as airline, bush, or medevac pilots in the commercial world; but some will pursue careers as pilots serving various roles in the U.S. military.
Becoming a Naval Aviation Officer
The path to becoming a military pilot will not be easy; only the best and brightest are chosen to fly in service of the mighty U.S. armed forces. The dream of achieving this lofty goal is one that will require dedication, commitment, discipline and an unshakeable vision; but for those who pursue it, achieving this dream is worth it all.
Those who pursue this dream by following the path provided by the U.S. Navy will end up at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola FL. This decades-old airbase was until recently home to the famous Naval Officer Candidate School (OCS), where aspiring officers were put through the rigorous 12-week program that would prepare them for their first flight.
While the Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School has moved to the Newport Naval Air Station in Newport, New Hampshire, the airbase in Pensacola FL has a decades-old heritage that remains to this day. It was here that candidates learned the basics of flight and aircraft physics, as well as how to identify enemy aircraft.
History of Pensacola Naval Air Station
Before the Air Station was home to fighter trainee pilots and cutting edge hypersonic fighter aircraft, it served as a humble naval shipyard. In 1825, by special request from Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southward, Pensacola was selected as the site for the construction of a Naval Shipyard, due to its strategic location and ample supply of nearby timber.
Later, the base became instrumental in the development of technology and strategy for sea-based aerial aeronautics. By the time of the United States’. entrance into World War I, Pensacola remained the only U.S. naval airbase, with 54 fixed-wing aircraft, 38 naval aviators, and 163 enlisted men. By the end of the war, the airbase had grown significantly and trained over 1,000 naval aviators.
In 1935, the new Cadet Training Program ushered in a new era for the naval air station. With the introduction of the program, Pensacola once again saw a tremendous increase in the number of cadets trained annually, with more cadets trained per month than had been previously trained per year during the first world war.
By the outbreak of WWII, Pensacola had grown to become the most important naval air station in the world. More than 1,100 cadets were trained per month, many of whom participated in the most pivotal battles in the Pacific theatre. The Air Force pilots who took part in the famous Doolittle raid were trained for their mission by Pensacola graduate Lt. Henry Miller.
Operations on the naval station continued through the Korean and Vietnam wars, although these periods saw the number of annual graduates reduced significantly. Although the base is no longer home to the Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School, the tremendous contribution this air station has made to naval air combat will never be forgotten.
Pensacola Air Base today
Although AOCS has merged with OCS at the Newport Naval Base, Pensacola remains a critical strategic and tactical location for the United States Navy. A large contingent of airmen, officers, and enlisted men are stationed there to this day, and still go about the task of maintaining and operating this important asset.
On any given day, daily life on base looks very similar to what you might see in any part of suburban America. There are rows of tidy suburban-style houses for personnel and their families, a Navy Exchange supermarket, and even a McDonalds; after all, for many on base, this is home.
Despite these comforts, one can’t help but feel the immense importance of this place. The atmosphere that pervades the base is historic. Throughout the years, airmen trained in Pensacola have fought in air battles across the globe, shaping the course of history for all time to come.
It is here that the deepest and oldest traditions of Naval Aviation have been forged and tested. These airmen face rough seas and carrier landings the likes of which no Air Force pilot would dare attempt. As the old marching cadence goes: I don’t know, but I’ve heard it said, Air Force Wings are made of lead, I don’t know but I’ve been told Navy Wings are made of Gold.
Pensacola is a beautiful city, with volumes of interesting history to explore. Of all the fascinating things to see and do in this historic city, the Pensacola Naval Air Station is unquestionably one of the most interesting! If you visit Pensacola, you’ll probably have a packed schedule, but take our advice: do yourself a favor and make the Pensacola Naval Air Station a stop on your tour!
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