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Echoes from Aviation Field Yorktown: reflect on naval aviation history.

Located just outside of Naval Weapons Station (WPNSTA) Yorktown, along Old Williamsburg Road, Route 238, near Lebanon Church and Endview Plantation, stands a Virginia highway historical marker -- a constant reminder of an almost forgotten air field.

In 1919, Aviation Field Yorktown was established within the perimeter of present day WPNSTA Yorktown.

In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy spoke about a "New Frontier," a new beginning. At the time, he said America was standing on the edge of a great new era, filled with both opportunities and challenges. Of course, it would be an era characterized by great achievements that even reached into outer space.

The early years of naval aviation can be described much the same way as the space program was in the 1960s, a time of pathfinders and pioneers.


In the summer of 1919, the Navy awarded a government contract to level an old farm field located on the Navy Mine Depot to S.R. Curtis, a local businessman. Only a year earlier, the government had acquired much of the property that is known today as WPNSTA Yorktown. The area the Navy cleared and leveled was roughly 35 acres in size and was located adjacent to the York River at the mouth of Felgate's Creek. Soon the outline of an "L"-shaped runway had taken form, measuring 1,000 feet in length.


Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., then-Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels was directing various government bureaus in support of establishing what would soon become the Navy's first advanced aviation training facility. At Yorktown, Navy pilots would receive advanced training, both in the classroom and in the air, in the areas of bombing, gunnery and torpedo operations.

First though, buildings had to be built; a source of fresh water had to be found; and electricity was needed. In fact, the aviation field was located in an area that was considered almost inaccessible. The dirt paths that led to the aviation field could not be used by motor trucks, so all the building materials received at the nearby railroad depot at Lee Hall had to be loaded onto wagons and brought in by horse teams.

Within a few months, all of these problems were overcome and the Navy's first advanced aviation training school was established. But an underlying problem existed--thousands of undetonated underwater mines that were returned after World War I were located all around the Navy Mine Depot. Although Yorktown provided an excellent location for an aviation field, the mines stored nearby presented problems.

In 1921, when routine flight operations began at Yorktown, the facilities were described as the best in the country. It boasted four aircraft hangers and facilities were built that met the support requirements for seaplanes that landed in the York River or Felgate's Creek.

The commanding officer of Aviation Field Yorktown was Lt. Cmdr. Harold T. Bartlett. As a veteran naval aviator of World War I, Bartlett was highly qualified and considered by many to be the right person for the job.

In early 1921, it was at Yorktown where Bartlett and his men first conducted a series of tests using torpedoes installed on modified land planes.


Later that same year, on June 21, 1921, airplanes from Yorktown joined those flying out of other air fields in the area to bomb an unmanned, obsolete submarine that was surrendered during World War I and was used as a target. This was the first demonstration that aerial bombs could be effectively used to sink enemy vessels. It should be noted that these tests were conducted before the much-publicized sinking of obsolete battleships. And when those obsolete battleships were sunk, Navy airplanes flying from Aviation Field Yorktown also participated in those tests.


The Navy later tested the first high-altitude bombsight at Yorktown. For generations this device would be known as the Norden Bombsight.

In August 1921, after having established itself as the Navy's first advance aviation training school, the Navy began to downsize from World War I era structure and a memorandum was issued that directed Aviation Field Yorktown closed. Officially, the reason was related to the budget. Actually, the problem was related to operating an aviation field near where thousands of pounds of ordnance and underwater mines were stored.

Fourteen months later, the Navy needed an airfield located near a deep-water channel. Such a location was required to conduct experimental work in connection with the first United States aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV 1). Within days, Aviation Field Yorktown reopened. On October 17, 1922, with Langley anchored in the York River, Lt. Virgil Griffin flew the first airplane off the flight deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Later, on May 8, 1925, the first commercial airline flight landed at Aviation Field Yorktown. This marked the first overland airline passenger service scheduled in the United States. On board were passengers who had begun their flight from Roosevelt Field, N.Y. The flight was met at Yorktown by an official party that included the governor of Virginia. He was presented with a letter written only a day earlier by the governor of New York. After landing at Yorktown, radio operators immediately sent out details of the historic flight.

Today, as pilots take off from a carrier they are flying in the shadow of Lt. Virgil Griffin and the first flight made from USS Langley when she was anchored just offshore of Aviation Field Yorktown.

The name Virgil Griffin brings to mind another Virgil who made a name for himself some 40 years later - Virgil Grissom - the astronaut. Just a few miles away from Aviation Field Yorktown, Virgil Grissom was part of another generation of aviators who also came to this area to make history, as they took the first steps into outer space.

The pilots and air crewmen assigned to Aviation Field Yorktown were pioneers and true pathfinders. And in many ways, these individuals, whom we remember today, were the early astronauts who reached for the stars.

Forrest is a mechanical engineer at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, and a lifelong resident of Poquoson, Va.

Story by Leo C. Forrest Jr.
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Author:Forrest, Leo C., Jr.
Publication:All Hands
Date:May 1, 2011
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