Thursday, January 11, 2024

Naval Aviation Pilots (NAPs): Unsung Heroes of the Skies

By Mark Freeman
HRNM Ceremonies/Special Events Coordinator

Enlisted Naval Aviators (NAPs) have played a crucial yet often overlooked role in shaping the history of naval aviation. To learn more about the Naval Aviation Pilot, please see our previous blog. This article seeks to shed light on several of the most famous NAPs, spanning the period from 1911 to 1981. The journey begins with the humble origins of enlisted aviation training, exploring the challenges and triumphs that these men faced in their quest to take to the skies.

In the nascent days of naval aviation, the distinction of being NAP No. 1 fell upon Chief Quartermaster (Aviation) Harold H. “Kiddy” Karr. Karr was trained as a biplane pilot in France to support World War I aviation efforts. An illustrious member of the original 1919 class, Kiddy Karr's legacy set the stage for future generations of enlisted aviators. Karr is identified as NAP No. 1 because he was trained before the program was established.

Chief Machinist’s Mate (A) Floyd Bennett, NAP No. 9, soared to fame as a pilot for polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd. In 1926, Bennett became the first enlisted pilot to fly over the North Pole. He received the Medal of Honor for his Arctic flight. Bennett continued flying experimental planes and died in 1928 from pneumonia following a crash in Canada. Famed pilot Charles Lindbergh was enroute to the hospital with a serum to save Chief Bennett but arrived after he had already died.

CMM Floyd Bennett (NHHC)

The post-World War I era saw remarkable feats, with Chief Machinist’s Mate (A) Eugene “Smokey” Rhoads (NAP No. 27) standing out. Shoveling coal on trains before joining the Navy, Rhoads became a transatlantic flight pioneer and, in 1919, he was a member of the crew that completed the first transatlantic flight flying the NC-4 Flying Boat.

NC-4 Flying Boat Crew, with CMM Rhoads on left (This Day in Aviation)

NC-4 Flying Boat (NHHC)

Chief Machinist’s Mate (A) Francis E. Ormsbee, Jr., NAP No. 25, the first NAP to receive the Medal of Honor, demonstrated extraordinary heroism in a 1918 rescue mission. Chief Ormsbee rescued a gunner from a downed aircraft off the coast of NAS Pensacola. He landed nearby and jumped in, holding the gunner’s head above water until assistance could arrive. Once assistance arrived, he continued to dive to try and save others aboard the aircraft, to no avail.

CMM Ormsbee (US Navy)

The golden era of NAPs unfolded during World War II, as they transitioned from utility roles to frontline combat. Notable figures like Chief Boatswain Patrick J. “Pappy” Byrne, with an astonishing 23,000 flight hours in 140 aircraft types in his 40-year career, exemplified the versatility of NAPs.

The heroic exploits of Chief Petty Officer Wilbur B. “Spider” Webb, who continued flying despite losing a leg during the Pearl Harbor attack, highlighted the indomitable spirit of these aviators. Flying with Fighting Squadron 2 (VF-2) attached to USS Hornet (CV 12), Webb earned the Navy Cross for his heroics defending the Marianas Islands, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, becoming a Navy ace by shooting down seven enemy aircraft in aerial combat.

Chief Webb (The Hall of Valor Project)

During the Korean War, the Navy needed additional NAPs. NAPs such as Aviation Machinist Mate First Class (AD1) William Longley flew helicopter missions. These missions were mainly in support as combat rescue and medical evacuation. Longley flew 27 different types of aircraft with over 11,000 hours as a pilot. He once recorded flying over 600,000 miles in 414 days without incident, which was a record at the time.

AD1 Longley aboard USS St. Paul (Naval Helicopter Association Historical Society)

When the Vietnam War concluded, the era of Naval Aviation Pilots drew to a close. In 1973, four of the last five enlisted pilots, Master Gunnery Sergeants Robert Lurie, Leslie T. Ericson, Joseph A. Conroy, and Patrick J. O'Neill, retired after 30 years of service. Their retirement marked the end of an era that spanned two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. In 1981, Master Chief Air Controlman (NAP) Robert K. Jones retired. His retirement marked the end of an era, as he was the final NAP to retire.

From the icy expanses of the North Pole to the intense battles in the Pacific, NAPs exemplified dedication and heroism. In their 65 years of distinguished service, these 5,000 unsung heroes left an enduring legacy. Their story is not just one of flying machines but a testament to the indelible spirit of those who served their country with unwavering commitment and valor.

No comments: