Naval Air Station Pensacola is known as “The Cradle of Naval Aviation.” It is home to the Navy’s first flight school established in 1914. In keeping with the long tradition, all Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviators pass through Pensacola to receive their initial primary flight training. I went through primary here in 1981. NAS Pensacola is also home to the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron – more commonly known as the Blue Angels – and home to the incredibly awesome Naval Aviation Museum.
The areas military importance didn’t begin in 1914 with the establishment of a flight school. It goes back much further and is important to the early history of the nation.
Spanish explorers discovered the strategic importance of Pensacola in early 1500s and established the first colony here in 1559. By 1698, Spain had built fort San Carlos de Austria. The fort changed hands a few times over the hundred years. It was besieged by native Indians in 1707 but not taken. The French took it 1719, and then British colonists took over in 1763 as part of a property exchange with France.
Spain sided with the American rebels during the Revolutionary War and recaptured the area and fort in 1781. They planned to stay for a while and by 1797 had completed San Carlos de Barrancas, a brick fortification. The British took San Carlos de Barrancas in the War of 1812 after the Spanish left it defenseless.
Fort Barrancas on NAS Pensacola
The British subsequently abandoned the fortification. General Andrew Jackson found it in ruins in 1814 when he arrived with 4,000 troops. Jackson didn’t stay either. The Spanish returned to the site in 1817 and rebuilt Barrancas bigger and larger than it was before. That structure still stands today on NAS Pensacola property. Spain ceded the fort and all Western Florida to the United States in 1821. Jackson found himself in Pensacola again, this time as the territorial governor of Florida.
The area became a thriving shipbuilding community in 1825 with the opening of the Gulf Coast Navy Yard. This region is home to an abundance of live oaks that were used to build ships. This ultra-dense wood was used to build the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides. No iron was used on the sides of Old Ironsides. The wood is so strong that cannon balls bounced off. The Naval Live Oaks Reservation near Gulf Breeze is a testament to this phenomenal resource. The land was purchased in 1828 by the U.S. government and is the only federal tree farm in existence.
The Civil war put Pensacola back into play in January 1861. Florida did not initially secede from the Union and confederate forces were moving in from the west. Fort Pickens was now the center of military defense for the area. It’s a massive fortification on the barrier island at the mouth of Pensacola Bay. Short on troops, Lieutenant Adam Slemmer spiked the cannons at Fort Barrancas to make them inoperable and consolidated his forces at Fort Pickens. That same day Florida seceded from the Union and Commodore James Armstrong surrendered the Navy Yard to the Confederacy.
Lieutenant Slemmer did not give into the confederates. He instead bombarded the mainland rendering the Navy Yard useless. A truce was put in place for a while, but in October 1861, Confederate forces unsuccessfully attacked Fort Pickens. Union forces seized Pensacola in the spring of 1862 and reinforced the fort. They held it until the end of the war.
The Navy closed the shipyard in 1911. A hurricane in 1906 destroyed much of the shipyard and naval vessels in port as well as the nearby town of Woolsey where workers lived. Iron had also replaced live oak in shipbuilding by this time.
Pensacola had a resurrection in 1914 as the Pensacola Aeronautic Station. The navy recognized the importance of aircraft in naval warfare and established the base to train aviators. There were 38 naval aviators and 54 airplanes in Pensacola by the outbreak of WWI in 1916. Two years later, the base trained 1,000 aviators and housed hundreds of land based aircraft, seaplanes and balloons. During WWII, the based trained 1,100 aviators per month.
NAS Pensacola in the 1940s
In June 1981, I arrived in Pensacola as a young Marine 2nd Lieutenant ready for initial flight training. After 18 months and a lot of hard work, Daria pinned on my wings of gold. Nearly 30 years later, Daria and I were privileged to pin those same set of wings on our son, Marine Captain “Nick” Ferri. It’s an honor for our family to be part of the rich heritage surrounding historic NAS Pensacola.