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Naval Aviation's Early Years

The Navy and Marine Corps began flying aircraft in 1911 and 1912, and there has never been as many aviation functions at one facility as there are now at Pax River. Why is there a naval air station at Pax River and what is so much of naval aviation doing there? A look at history shows that the size and location of naval aeronautics infrastructure has always been a function of technological development and defense requirements.

For as long as the Navy and Marine Corps have flown aircraft, some organization has been charged with developing, procuring and maintaining the platforms. During the first 10 years of naval flight, from 1911 to 1921, this responsibility was split among several Navy bureaus. For example, the Bureau of Construction and Repair was responsible for airframes, the Bureau of Steam Engineering for engines, the Bureau of Navigation for instruments and the Bureau of Ordnance for air-launched weapons. Navy offices in the Washington, D.C. area where located at the Washington Navy Yard in Anacostia and in the Army-Navy State Building which is now the Old Executive Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Naval aviation was a small-time affair and required only small quarters. Each bureau devoted scarcely more than one desk to aviation, and for some officers aviation was collateral duty. The first director of Naval Aeronautics, Capt. W.I. Chambers, was assigned by the Secretary of the Navy to the Bureau of Navigation. After reporting for work the new director listened to the chief of the bureau explain that office space was extremely tight and suggested he do some of his work at home.

Naval aeronautics remained a small operation until April 1917 when the United States declared war on Germany. During the next 19 months the requirements of war and the vast defense expenditures swelled the Navy's aircraft inventory from 54 to 2,107. Many air stations were established, most of them capable of at least some level of maintenance. In Washington, D.C., Congress appropriated money for a temporary building to house the Navy Department offices that were rapidly expanding beyond the capacity of the crowded Army-Navy State Building. The new structure was built on the south side of Constitution Avenue west of 17th Street and was known simply as the ‘Main Navy Building.' In Pennsylvania, on the property of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the Navy built a facility dedicated to the design and construction of aircraft, the ‘Naval Aircraft Factory.' The first aircraft built there made its first flight in March 1918.

When the war ended, defense spending declined to its pre-war levels but the temporary building on Constitution Avenue gained permanence. Naval aeronautics had demonstrated enough value in war to gain its own mantle of dignity and was so recognized by Congress in 1921 with the establishment of the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer). BuAer took control of all aspects of Navy and Marine Corps aviation research, development, test and evaluation, engineering, maintenance and supply. The only item remaining outside BuAer's cognizance was air-launched weaponry which stayed in the hands of the Bureau of Ordnance.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Naval Aircraft Factory was the central element of BuAer. Bureau headquarters was in the Main Navy Building in Washington, D.C., but naval aeronautics began at the aircraft factory in Philadelphia. It conducted all elements of research and development, engineering, and what today would be called depot level maintenance. It also compiled cost accounting data to compare with industry bids. It had the capacity to actually build a third of the Navy's and Marine Corps' peacetime aircraft requirements, but in fact never exercised more than a small fraction of its construction capacity. Rear Adm. William Moffett, chief of BuAer from 1921 to 1933, believed he had a responsibility to maintain a healthy aviation industry in the United States and accordingly opposed large production runs at the factory. This decision was understandably hailed by the aviation industry.

In addition to the work done at the factory, aircraft test and evaluation was conducted at Naval Air Station Anacostia, now Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, in Washington, D.C. Air-launched weapons were tested by the Bureau of Ordnance at Dahlgren, Va.

While money was scarce in the years between the wars, BuAer achieved some major technological advancements. Examples include the air-cooled engine, the monoplane, the all-metal monoqoque airframe, improved catapults for carriers, oil shock absorbers, low pressure tires, metal propellers of variable pitch and the dive bomber all adapted to the unique nature of naval aviation.

The expansion of the armed forces during World War II brought major changes to naval aviation's infrastructure. The test and evaluation facilities at NAS Anacostia quickly became inadequate due to the growing complexity, size and number of aircraft, in addition to the area's swelling population. A new location became essential. It was to be in the general Washington, D.C. area but large enough and sufficiently isolated, to allow for exhaustive aircraft test and evaluation. A site at Cedar Point, Md., was identified, and on April 1, 1943, it was commissioned as Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

The Pax River Story: Station Born to Centralize Facilities

Naval Air Station Patuxent River was born to centralize widely dispersed air testing facilities established during the pre-World War II years.

Spurred by events of WWII, the consolidation effort was swift, and the farming operations at Cedar Point, Md., were replaced by flight test operations within a year after ground was broken in 1942.

During the commissioning ceremony April 1, 1943 Rear Adm. John S. McCain, then chief of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics, called Pax River the most needed station in the Navy during the commissioning ceremony April 1, 1943.

By mid-August 1943, flight test, radio test, aircraft armament and the aircraft experimental and development squadrons were in place at Pax River. By the end of 1944, the station had formed the service test, electronics test, flight test and tactical test divisions.

Test and Support Functions Divided

The Naval Air Test Center was established as a separate entity June 16, 1945, organizationally dividing the test and support functions.

During WWII, hundreds of combat experienced pilots arrived at Pax River to test airplanes. The evolution of the Navy test pilot began with rainy day discussions between seasoned veterans and aeronautical engineers. Formalized classroom instruction began in 1948 with the establishment of a Test Pilot Training Division.

The test pilots not only flew the proliferation of U.S airplanes built for the war effort, but were given

opportunities to examine enemy aircraft as well. Captured airplanes such as a German Focke-Wulf 190 and Doring DO 335A and Japanese Kate and Tony were test-flown, with findings on their vulnerabilities passed on to fleet pilots. Pax River's history is studded with milestones.

Radar fire control, radar tracking, airfield lighting and instrument landing techniques were developed and refined at Pax River. The first U.S. all jet-powered airplane, the XP-59A, was flight tested here in 1944.

The FR-1 Fireball, a carrier-based fighter which combined a conventional engine and a General Electric jet engine, and the FD-1 Phantom, the first Navy all-jet airplane to operate from a carrier, were tested at Pax River in 1945-1946.

The first U.S. test of the adaptability of jet aircraft to shipboard operations was conducted by the Naval Air Test Center in 1946 when Lt. Cmdr. James Davidson flew a Phantom aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Test pilots were exposed to ejection seats in 1949, barrier engagements in 1951 and a simulated angled deck aboard USS Midway in 1952.

'50s-'60s See Test Programs Expand

The Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, intensified efforts at Pax River. The air station was faced with developing jet aircraft and at the same time improving existing conventional weapons for the war effort. The challenge grew as jet aircraft routinely eclipsed the speed of sound and airplane cannons were supplemented with guided missiles.

Several airborne early warning squadrons operated from Pax River in the 1950s. Among them were VW-2, VW-11 and VW-15. The squadrons patrolled the Atlantic Ocean along the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line until their disestablishment in the 1960s.

NATC's increased responsibility for development as well as pure testing was acknowledged as early as 1951. Rapidly advancing technology forced changes in test techniques and in the organizational structure.

In 1953, the Tactical Test Division was merged with the Service Test Division. The U.S. Naval Test Pilot School was established in 1958. The Weapons Systems Test Division was established in 1960 through the consolidation of the Armament Test and Electronics Test divisions. This nation's great space adventure started with the selection of the original seven astronauts in 1959. Four of the seven were TPS graduates. In 1961, former Navy test pilot Alan Shepard became the first American in space. A year later, three test pilots from Pax River became the first Americans to orbit the earth.

Hostilities in Southeast Asia in the 1960s brought a sense of urgency to test programs at Pax River, particularly those dealing with ordnance. The unorthodox nature of the action in Vietnam turned the focus at Pax River from technological advancements to further refinement of more conventional weapons.

ASW Buildup

At the same time, a buildup of fleet antisubmarine warfare squadrons was taking place at Pax. River Patrol Squadrons 8, 24, 44, 49 and 56 formed Fleet Air Patuxent and later Fleet Air Wing Five. A detachment from VP-30 was formed at Pax River in 1962; when the detachment was disestablished in 1966, VP-30 was relocated to the air station from Jacksonville, Fla.

Oceanographic Development Squadron Eight, then known as the Oceanographic Air Survey Unit, was home-ported here in 1965, and Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Four was established here in 1968 from a Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO) detachment left behind by Naval Air Transport Squadron One when that unit moved to Norfolk, Va.

Three divisions of the test center, Flight Test, Service Test and Weapons Systems Test, gave up assets to enable the Technical Support Division to form in 1967. Automation of NATC's data processing brought the Computer Services Division on line in 1968.

In the 1970s the ASW squadrons began leaving Pax River for NAS Brunswick, Maine, and NAS Jacksonville, Fla.

VP-30 was the last to go in 1975.

Helping offset the squadron departures, Air Test and Evaluation Squadron One moved here from Key West, Fla., in 1973 and the Naval Aviation Logistics Center was formed in 1977.

Principal Site Testing Born

A sweeping reorganization took place in 1975, preparing NATC for its role as the Naval Air Systems Command's principal site for development testing. Under the plan, Flight Test, Service Test and Weapons Systems Test divisions were disestablished and new directorates were formed to evaluate aircraft by type and mission.

The new NATC was comprised of Strike Aircraft, Antisubmarine Aircraft, Rotary Wing Aircraft and Systems Engineering test directorates. The Computer Services and Technical Support directorates and the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School remained intact.

Reliability and maintainability became the watchwords in the acquisition process and NATC adopted a reliability-by-design philosophy. Computers were having a profound effect on airplanes and their systems, and testing by simulation as well as by flight was becoming an economic necessity.

A major upgrading of test facilities began in the late 1970s with some of the largest construction appropriations in the history of the base. Reflecting changes spurred by this technological growth, the 1980s saw the Computer Services Directorate become the Computer Sciences Directorate, the Technical Support Directorate become the Range Directorate and the Antisubmarine Aircraft Test Directorate become the Force Warfare Aircraft Test Directorate.

Navy Realignment Brings NAWCAD

In 1991, the Navy began consolidating its technical capabilities to improve its products and services,

resulting in the creation of four large warfare centers. One of these, the Naval Air Warfare Center, located in Washington, D.C., has integrated sites and capabilities to improve services to the fleet and sponsors. NAWC

streamlined its resources into two divisions: the Aircraft Division located at Pax River and the Weapons Division at China Lake, Calif.

The standup of the NAWC Aircraft Division at Pax River took place Jan. 1, 1992; thus beginning its role as the Navy's full spectrum research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support center for air platforms. NAWCAD integrated the Naval Air Test Center along with the Naval Air Development Center, Warminster, Pa.; Naval Air Engineering Center, Lakehurst, N.J.; Naval Air Propulsion Center, Trenton, N.J.; and the Naval Avionics Center, Indianapolis.

Growth Continues

Major plant improvements have been made and new state-of-the-art laboratories have been added during the last two decades. Such new additions as the Manned Flight Simulator, the Aircraft Anechoic Test Facility, the Air Combat Environment Test and Evaluation Facility, the Aircraft Test and Evaluation Facility, the Capt. Steven A. Hazelrigg Flight Test Facility, the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School academic building and an Aviation Survival Training Center pool facility and a new Air Traffic Control Tower have

significantly improved aviation safety and enhanced simulation capabilities.

In recent years, construction has brought a Child Care Center, Family Services Center, new family housing, a Navy Lodge, and a multi-million dollar Commissary and Navy Exchange.

Improvements have been made to the air station's runways, hangars and bachelor quarters.

Relocated employees from NAWCAD sites at Warminster, Pa., Trenton, N.J., and the Naval Air Systems Command Headquarters in Crystal City, Va., now call Pax River home.

A Site Rich in History

The station location is closely associated with the early history of Maryland. The first settlers in the original Maryland colony landed at the mouth of the St. Mary's River in 1634 and established the settlement of St. Mary's City about seven miles from the station's Gate 2.

Before the Navy came, there was a small community called Pearson in the area of the former Navy Exchange gas station near taxiway Alpha and Cedar Point Road. Pearson consisted of a few residences, a post office, a store, an automobile dealer (Bell Motor Company) and Cedar Point Methodist Church.

The major farms in the area belonged to the Johnson, Young and Weschler families. These three farms included three 17th century plantations known as Eltonhead Manor (1648), Susquehanna (1649) and Mattapany-Sewall (1663).

The Johnson farm consisted of nearly 500 acres of prime farmland located along the Chesapeake Bay at Cedar Point. The Johnson farmhouse, an early 19th century dwelling that had replaced an earlier Johnson home destroyed by the British during the War of 1812, was located where the Cedar Point Officers' Club now stands.

The Young farm, an 800-acre tract, was located along the Patuxent River at Fishing Point. Prominently placed there was Susquehanna, home of Christopher Rousby, King Charles II's collector of customs.

The fate of Susquehanna was sealed by its owner, Samuel Davis Young, in 1942 after the death of his wife, a descendant of the Rousby and Carroll family of St. Mary's County. Honoring his wife's memory, Young gave the house to the Ford Foundation. Susquehanna was dismantled and moved to Dearborn, Mich., where it was restored and displayed in Greenfield Village as an example of tidewater Maryland architecture.

The Weschler farm was a 1,000-acre tract stretching from the Patuxent River to Route 235 and included almost all of the land formerly comprising the 17th century Mattapany-Sewall manor. Weschler was in the process of restoring Mattapany when the Navy came to southern Maryland. Part of Weschler's agreement to sell was that the Navy assume his restoration work and preserve Mattapany.

The Somerville House

The Somerville House (Quarters W) is a classic 18th century Maryland House. The original portion of Quarters W was built by Dr. George Clark Somerville c. 1780-1790. Somerville, born in 1757, served during the Revolutionary War under Benjamin Rush, George Washington's personal physician.

Somerville, a bachelor, was a member of the family of early settlers in Southern Maryland who founded the Mulberry Fields Plantation near Leonardtown. He willed his estate to his brothers, William and John, on the condition that all his slaves would be freed and that if either brother objected, he would forfeit his inheritance. Somerville died in 1791.

The original Somerville House was part of the manor of William Eltonhead. The Navy acquired the present house and surrounding territory in 1941 from Matt Trimble.

The house itself, remarkably preserved for its age, exhibits the classic early Maryland architecture with double fireplaces on both ends, gabled upstairs windows, central staircase and Maryland roofline canted over the porch. The original 3-foot-thick spread footings are visible in the basement. The framing is mostly of oak.

St. Nicholas Chapel

St. Nicholas Chapel is unique among DoD chapels.

It became a military chapel in April 1943; however, its roots go back to a Jesuit mission in the early days of Maryland's history, more than 350 years ago. Today's structure, constructed of cement blocks in 1916, is on the site of the original St. Nicholas parish constructed in 1795 by the Jesuit Superior, Father James Walton. The St. Nicholas Chapel is listed as a Maryland State Historic Landmark.

A marble tablet embedded in the chapel wall honors Father Sebastian DeRose, a chaplain for the French Navy during the American Revolutionary War. The tablet was part of the original 1795 wooden

building. DeRose was the first full-time pastor of the chapel and later was buried underneath the nave of the old church. There are almost 600 other graves surrounding the historic building of which about 200 stones were eventually laid down and covered by earth. The cemetery is slowly being restored to its pre-1943 appearance. Currently about 60 markers for known veterans from the American Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, and WWI have been reset, along with stones from other St. Mary's County families.

In 1945, Felix de Weldon, America's premier monument sculptor, created the most dominant feature in the chapel, a 3,000 pound Vermont marble crucifix. The larger-than-life-size sculpture overlooks the altar. De Weldon later sculpted the Iwo Jima Memorial, accomplishing both works of art while stationed at the naval air station as a Sailor during World War II.

The chapel also features 19 stained glass windows, eight of which depict the life of Christ, and a white colonial pulpit acquired from the U.S. Naval Academy chapel in 1943. The church's 300-pound bell was contributed by USS Attu, a World War II aircraft carrier. Recent changes include a digital organ and carillon.

Cedar Point Lighthouse

The Cedar Point Lighthouse was built in 1896 on a peninsula where the Patuxent River empties into the Chesapeake Bay. It was originally owned by the Coast Guard which sold all but a 10-by-10-foot parcel in 1928 to the Arundel Corporation. By the time the Navy purchased the lighthouse property in 1958, it had become an island. Due to the increasing soil erosion and storms, the lighthouse complex deteriorated rapidly. Funds to maintain its upkeep were not available. In 1981, the Department of Navy approved the demolition of the remaining lighthouse structure. In December of 1981, the cupola was removed using funds raised by the Friends of Cedar Point Lighthouse and placed on display at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum. Once the museum moved to its temporary location by Gate 1, the cupola was moved on station and was recently refurbished. In 1996, salvage efforts got under way to preserve what was left of the lighthouse. The remainder of the lighthouse structure was dismantled and donated to the Calvert Marine Museum and the St. Clements Island - Potomac River Museum. The bricks were used to build pavilions displaying pictures and the history of the lighthouse. The tiled roof with gabled ends was salvaged for display with the Calvert Marine Museum's maritime history exhibit.


The property on which the air station is located is the site of the famous estate, Mattapany. This elegantly constructed mansion is located on the northern boundary of the air station with an expansive lawn rolling to the shores of the Patuxent River junction of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the main road, the large white house appears distant because of the long lane approaching the main entrance. Shading its many windows are great trees, including tulip populars, oaks, black walnuts, magnolias and boxwoods, many of which date to the original old manor house.

Like all mansions built in that period, it has an unhurried air. Perhaps it is because the finely proportioned rooms entered through arches lined with wood paneling, revealing the thickness of the walls of at least 18 inches, give a sense of seclusion to the remoteness from the rest of the world. This famous country estate took its name from the Algonquian Indian word, “Mattapany” which means, “the meeting of waters,” or “where the path meets the waters.”

The present Mattapany estate is on the site of a Jesuit mission erected soon after the settlement of St. Mary's City. The land for the mission was a gift to Father Andrew White and the Jesuits from the Patuxent Indians. The mission property was subsequently confiscated by Lord Baltimore because the patents from the land had not come from him. In 1663 Henry Sewall, Secretary of the Maryland Province, was granted the land.

In 1666, following the death of Henry Sewall, Charles Calvert, third Lord Baltimore, married Sewall's widow and soon thereafter built a brick home on a point overlooking the Patuxent River, which was about 250 yards southeast of the present home.

Calvert's house was apparently fortified, for in 1682 the provincial council passed an act establishing a guard at Mattapany for the defense of the Right Honorable Lord Proprietary, and with him the magazine and military stores there.

Mattapany protected more than the Calverts. During the Protestant Revolution, the deputies were driven from the capital at St. Mary's City and took refuge there. It was at Mattapany Aug. 1, 1689, that the formal articles of surrender were signed and the province thereby turned over to the revolutionists.

No records have been located giving the exact date that the present Mattapany was built. Best available records indicate that the older part was constructed about 1740 using bricks from Lord Baltimore's house and the two parlors added about 1850, as was the storm porch. From 1840 until 1932, the Thomas family lived here. George Weschler then acquired Mattapany and was in the process of

restoring the house in 1942, when the Navy purchased it for the U.S. government as part of the site for the naval air station. Upon commissioning of the station April 1, 1943, the Secretary of the Navy designated Mattapany as the official quarters of the commanding officer of Naval Air Station Patuxent River.