- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — The Pensacola Naval Air Station, some of its most historic buildings battered by Hurricane Ivan, has received a vote of confidence from Navy officials who say “The Cradle of Naval Aviation” will celebrate its 90th anniversary as planned and be rebuilt “bigger and stronger and better than ever.”

Some of the air station’s damaged buildings may be demolished because of Ivan’s wrath. But Navy Secretary Gordon R. England has said storm damage would not be a factor in the 2005 base realignment process. He also said that the government is committed to spending about $600 million to repair and improve the base.

The air station is the hub of a four-base Pensacola-area Navy complex, which has 16,000 military and 7,400 civilian personnel and serves as headquarters for all Navy training and education.

It also is home to the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School, Naval Aerospace Research Laboratory, Blue Angels precision flying team and the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

The museum’s fund-raising and public relations arm, the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, will salute the base’s anniversary at an invitation-only reception tonight. It will be part of a busy weekend that will include the Blue Angels’ annual homecoming air show, which is open to the public today and tomorrow.

The bright blue F/A-18 Hornet jets used by the Blue Angels are vastly different from the seven wood, fabric and wire flying boats and float planes that were unloaded on Jan. 10, 1914, at the former Pensacola Navy Yard.

Led by Lt. John Towers, nine officers and 23 enlisted men pitched tents to serve as hangars and built wooden ramps to launch the planes into Pensacola Bay.

“Almost every flight was a test flight,” said museum historian Hill Goodspeed. “While they were trying to learn to fly they were also evaluating or testing the limits of the aircraft they had. It was very dangerous work.”

Lt. j.g. James Murray was the first fatality. He drowned when his D-1 flying boat crashed into Pensacola Bay only a month after the aviators had arrived in Pensacola.

Within three months, some Pensacola aviators were flying combat missions, the first by any U.S. airmen. Three pilots, three planes and 12 maintenance personnel were dispatched to Mexico to conduct observation flights when the United States intervened in a revolution there.

The air station grew during World War I, then declined and expanded again during the years just before and during World War II. Training reached a peak of more than 6,000 aviators in 1942.

“The skies were full around here, let me tell you,” said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Keller, 84, a flight instructor from 1941 through 1943. “You had to be very careful not to have midair collisions, which we did have every now and then.”

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