Story by Barbara Elizabeth Graf and Photography Courtesy of U.S. Navy
Today as the U.S. Navy prepares for the upcoming Centennial of Naval Aviation, which will begin in January 2011, the story of how Southern Maryland's once fertile farmlands and homesteads gave rise to Naval Air Station Patuxent River-the nation's primary center for naval air technology research, development, testing, evaluation and support, as well as the site of the preeminent Navy Test Pilot School-is one in which we can all take pride.
During the decade following the world's first controlled, sustained, powered flight, a feat performed by the Wright brothers on Dec 17, 1903, America gave birth to the Aerial Age.
Americans and Europeans alike embraced the vast possibilities of aviation and shortly after the Wright brothers received the first airplane patent in 1906, military branches advanced their preliminary explorations into the power of manned flight.
The U.S. Army Signal Corps established an Aeronautical Division on August 1, 1907, to "take charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects." Two years later, in 1909, this division procured the first military airplane-800 pounds of bamboo, wire and cloth and a 30 horse-power engine connected to propellers by bicycle chains-from the Wright brothers at a cost to the government of $30,000, which included training and certification of the first U.S. military officers as pilots.
A year later the U.S. Navy advanced aviation to the sea on Nov. 14, 1910, when civilian pilot, Eugene Ely, became the first person to successfully take off in a plane from the deck of a ship. The following January, the Navy and Ely surpassed their previous achievement when Ely became the first person to land an airplane aboard a ship.
A few months after the successful landing by Ely on the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, U.S. Navy officer in charge of aviation, prepared a requisition for the Navy's first aircraft, two biplanes manufactured by Wright competitor Glenn H. Curtiss on May 8, 1911 marking the official beginning of naval aviation.
Naval aviation remained a small pursuit until April 1917 when the U.S. declared war on Germany. During the ensuing months, the Navy responded to the requirements of war by expanding aircraft inventory from 54 to more than 2000. As the Navy's aircraft inventory grew so did the Navy's air stations and bureaus of development, procurement and maintenance.
These naval air stations and aviation bureaus, which were established during the 1920s and 30s in Anacostia, D.C. and Philadelphia as well as an ordnance facility in Dahlgren, provided adequate infrastructure for naval aviation up until WWII.
Growing aviation demands during WWII brought the U.S. Navy to Southern Maryland. As early as 1937 a Navy panel had determined the need to consolidate geographically scattered naval air testing and evaluation operations, and that need became urgent with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. subsequent involvement in WWII.
During this time the Navy identified Cedar Point, a small St. Mary's County peninsula located on the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay, as a prime location for the consolidation of air testing and evaluation because of its vast acreage and remote coastline location, which provided adequate distance from air traffic congestion and isolation for classified testing-all in proximity to Washington, D.C. The federal government purchased the land at Cedar Point-6412 acres for $712,287-and began construction on April 4, 1942.
What was once the small community of Pearson, which was home to a few residents, a store, a post office, Bell Motor Company and Cedar Point Methodist Church and was surrounded by some of Southern Maryland's most fertile farmland, was at once transformed into a dusty construction site that would not only change the landscape of Southern Maryland forever, but would also change lives.
As the first year of construction drew to a close, on April 1, 1943, Naval Air Station Patuxent River was commissioned. This new base brought about consolidation for testing experimental aircraft, equipment and material, and became the East Coast Naval Air Transport Service base. A few months later the regions' flight squadrons transferred operations to NAS Patuxent River and a few years later in 1945, the Navy formally established the Naval Air Test Center and the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. In the year 2010, Southern Marylanders are proud to claim this distinguished neighbor as their own.
Patuxent River Naval Air Museum exhibits the history of the U.S. Naval Aviation research, development, test and evaluation focusing on the past 70 years. Among the 21 aircraft on display are the following: the Joint Strike Fighter concept demonstrators, the Lockheed Martin X-35C and the Boeing X-32B. Interior exhibits feature rare test instruments, sonobuoys and radar, turboprop and jet engines, and crew system ejection seats. Hours: Tues.-Sun, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; 22156 Three Notch Road, Lexington Park, wheelchair accessible, free. Visit: http://www.history.navy.mil/museums/paxmuseum/; 301-863-7418.