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NAS Patuxent River Menu


History of the Naval Air Station

PDF: History of Pax River


Naval Aviation's Early Years

The U.S. Navy began flying aircraft in 1911, followed by the United States Marine Corps in 1912, and there have never been as many aviation functions at one facility as there are now at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. Why is there a naval air station at Patuxent 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 or 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 known as 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 Built to Centralize Facilities

Naval Air Station Patuxent River was built to centralize widely dispersed air testing facilities established during the pre-World War II years. Spurred by events of World War II, the consolidation effort was swift, and the farms 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 NAS Patuxent River “the most needed station” in the Navy. 

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 on June 16, 1945, organizationally dividing the test and support functions.

During World War II, 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 NAS Patuxent 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 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.

Anti-Submarine Warfare 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 Built

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.

Since the early 90s, relocated employees from NAWCAD sites at Warminster, Pa., Trenton, N.J., and the Naval Air Systems Command Headquarters in Crystal City, Va., have called NAS Patuxent River home.

Growth Continues

Pax River continues to evolve to meet the needs of its employees and mission requirements for today and the future with millions of dollars invested in construction and improvements around the air station.

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.

A $15 million renovation project for Hangar 110, one of the most recognizable structures at the base, was completed in 2013 which extends the life and serviceability of this history faciility.

Also in 2013, a newly constructed $13.1 milllion Child Development Center (CDC) opened its doors. At 38,000 square feet, this CDC is one of the largetst in the Navy and increases the support of the military and civilian workforce at the air station by offering the space to care for more children on base.

Looking to the increased reliance on unmanned aircraft, construction of a new facility to support the Triton program was completed July 2013 - the first of its kind. At over 70,000 square feet, the $33 million hangar now houses three MQ-4C Tritons that are currently undergoing tests and evaluation to ensure the unmanned asset will meet the Navy's specifications, bringing the UAS one step closer to the fleet.

In the coming years, the air station's airfield, known as Trapnell Field, will undergo a multi-million dollar facelift to rehabilitate runway pavements as well as support infrastructure and facilities. Additionally, the project will repair the airfield's electrical infrastructure.

Also on the horizon is a $40 million construction project for a 110,000-square-foot, multi-story facility to house unaccompanied junior enlisted service members. This modern, market-style apartment complex will boast modules comprising sleeping and living areas, a kitchen, bathrooms, closets and in-module laundry facilities.


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