Wednesday, May 17, 2017

One Century Ago: The Birthplace of Aviation Training in Hampton Roads

A photograph is a mechanically and chemically-produced reflection of a fleeting moment in time.  However imperfect and impermanent it might be, a photograph is sometimes our best window upon the past, particularly when its subject no longer exists.  In commemoration of a contract signed with the Navy one century ago, we reveal a panoramic image of the first facility that trained naval aviators in Hampton Roads.  Despite its appearance and its name, the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station, it was not a government facility, and naval aviators were actually among the last military pilots to learn to fly there.  In fact, many of the prospective pilots who trained there weren't even Americans.

Based upon other pictures made by Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company photographer Frank Conway, this panoramic image of the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station in Newport News, Virginia, was probably taken in 1916. The words, "Curtiss Aviation Field, Newport News, Virginia," are barely legible in the upper-center of the photograph. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
One century ago, much of the nation's attention regarding the Navy was focused upon events overseas, considering that the first contingent of American destroyers reached Ireland to join with their Royal Navy compatriots on May 4, 1917.  They were the first of dozens sent to help ameliorate the submarine threat plaguing the British.  While the submarine was arguably the most consequential new naval weapon of the First World War, the men who would lead in the development of air warfare, which would decisively shape the course of the Second World War, were just getting their feet wet at this time.  Specifically, many of them literally got their feet wet at the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station, near Newport News Point, directly east of the municipal boat harbor, on the opposite side of where the northern end of the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge Tunnel lies today.

Although most of the military students who trained at the station were Canadian, on May 17, 1917, a contract to train 20 men of the Naval Reserve Flying Force at the facility was awarded to Glenn Curtiss, who had established the aviation school in December 1915. They were not the first students from the U.S. Navy trained by Curtiss. Two weeks after a young pilot working for his exhibition company, Eugene Ely, had proven just off Old Point Comfort on November 14, 1910, that Curtiss aircraft could launch from American warships, Curtiss offered to train one naval officer in the construction and operation of his airplanes.  Lieutenant Theodore Gordon "Spuds" Ellyson, a native Virginian who until his selection for aviation training had commanded a submarine, became Naval Aviator No. 1 the following year.

The location of Glenn Curtiss's aviation school and experimentation facility, the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station, is superimposed here on this 1916 chart of the area. The red square denotes the spot where the main hangar to the far right in the panoramic photo once stood. (Courtesy of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum)
In the fall of 1915, years before the Army and the Navy had established aviation facilities in Hampton Roads, Curtiss purchased 20 acres of land in Newport News for a facility in which both training and experimentation could take place.  It was officially declared open for business on December 10 of that year.  In June 1917, funding would be appropriated by Congress to purchase 474 acres of the former Jamestown Exposition grounds and nearby Pine Beach across the roadstead for use as a naval training station and operating base, but construction would not begin until July, and Naval Air Station Norfolk would not officially be established there until the following year.  In December 1916, the Army had purchased over 1,600 acres from six plantations along the Back River on the eastern side of the Virginia Peninsula for a large aviation school and experimental station, but preliminary work did not begin until April on what in August would officially be named Langley Field. Meanwhile, America was already at war.  There was an immediate need for pilots to fight the Germans in Europe, so the Navy turned to Curtiss, who had been providing training to allied military pilots since the beginning of the war.

Based in Hammondsport, New York, the former motorcycle manufacturer had run an aviation training school at North Island in San Diego from 1912 to 1914, and had also established schools in Toronto, Buffalo, and Hammondsport before he opened the station in Newport News.  Like his competitors at the American Wright Company in Dayton, Ohio, most of Curtiss's first students at the Newport News facility were Canadians hoping to join in the war in Europe with the British Royal Flying Corps.   

Within this segment of a panoramic photograph taken of the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station near Newport News Point, Virginia, a Curtiss Model F flying boat rests near Building Five of the station, where instructors and visitors relaxed between flights.  Canadian military aviators as well as American Army and National Guard pilots trained at the school before the first cohort of American naval aviators arrived.  The scene is only part of a panoramic image made by Curtiss company photographer Frank Conway in 1916.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection) 
The battered, yet sharp panoramic image of the facility came to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in 2015 within a plain cardboard box, with no indication of what it contained.  It had been a minor miracle that it even arrived in the first place, considering that it was addressed to the original location of the museum, Pennsylvania House, from which it had relocated in the early-1990s.  There is no telling how long it had been in transit. 
It is unknown whether the figure standing near the front of this rather sleek-looking Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" is company founder Glenn Curtiss, but it is a definite possibility.  Frank Conway had photographed the aviation pioneer in an almost identical outfit during a visit to the station in 1916. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection) 
Prospective pilots usually underwent about 50 hours of flight instruction during the six to eight weeks they spent at the aeronautical station. The last of the naval aviators finished their initial flight training there on August 28, 1917.

In her book Flyboys Over Hampton Roads (2010), local historian Amy Waters Yarsinske wrote that the U.S. Army's business dwarfed that of the Navy at the station, pointing out that over 1,000 Army officers and enlisted members of the Signal Corps, including Major William "Billy" Mitchell, trained there.  She also discovered that two early female aviation pioneers, Ruth Law and Mary Anita "Neta" Snook also trained at the school.  Snook would later become Amelia Earhart's flying instructor.

While a number of early naval aviators received their initial flight training at the station over the summer of 1917, one of its most notable Navy alumni was a former instructor there.  A decade after becoming an instructor at the school, Bertrand Blanchard "Bert" Acosta would attain fame as Rear Admiral Richard Byrd's copilot during his 1927 Atlantic crossing.

After Langley Field and Naval Air Station Norfolk became operational in 1917 and 1918, respectively, the aeronautical station's days were numbered.  Unable to expand and starved of military contracts after the end of the war, the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station closed in 1922.



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