"The Cradle of Naval Aviation" took a big hit from Hurricane Ivan, but two months later the Navy's first air station is going full tilt training pilots and technicians, and making plans to celebrate its 90th anniversary.
Some of Pensacola Naval Air Station's most historic buildings may have to be demolished because they were so badly damaged, but there is little worry among boosters of the base that it will be closed or downsized.
"We feel very confident that the base is going to be rebuilt," said retired Navy Capt. Vann Goodloe, military consultant to the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's going to be bigger and stronger and better than ever."
The air station received a vote of confidence last month when Navy Secretary Gordon R. England said storm damage would not be a factor in the 2005 base realignment process, and that the government is committed to spending about $600 million to repair and improve the base.
"That's got to be a good sign for the area," England said, "that we're actually rebuilding the base."
Buildings and other infrastructure damaged by the Sept. 16 storm are less important than the unrestricted air space that is available over the Florida Panhandle, southern Alabama and the Gulf of Mexico, Goodloe said. It would be difficult to duplicate elsewhere.
The air station is the hub of a four-base Pensacola area Navy complex with 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 Officer Candidate School, Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, Blue Angels precision flying team and the National Museum of Naval Aviation.
The Blue Angels' bright blue F/A-18 Hornet jets are very different from the seven wood, fabric and wire flying boats and floatplanes that were unloaded 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."
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.
Lt. j.g. Pat Bellinger's plane was hit by rifle fire near Veracruz on May 6, 1914, but neither he nor his observer was injured.
"He wanted to get back at the enemy somehow, but the aircraft didn't carry ordnance," Goodspeed said. "So he grabbed a big bar of yellow soap and on his final flight threw it down at the enemy. That was the first piece of ordnance dropped by naval aviation."
Back in Pensacola, the aviators maintained their headquarters aboard a ship until Nov. 16, 1914, when they moved their headquarters ashore and the base officially became the Pensacola Naval Aeronautic Station.
It 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.
Retired Cmdr. Joe Engel, 92, trained as an aircraft mechanic at the base in 1935 and as a pilot in 1938. He recalled being unable to get his seaplane into the air before learning that calm water was to blame.
"You had to go around and make a circle and make waves so it would break the suction on the hull," Engel said.
Several outlying fields were opened in the Panhandle and southern Alabama to help with the World War II training.
One of those bases, Whiting Field near Milton, Fla., today conducts most of the Navy's primary flight training and all of its helicopter training. Saufley Field and Corry Station, both in Pensacola, remain in use for non-flight training activities.
"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."
Keller had a close call while watching his instruments and talking with a student pilot who was in the back seat of his bright yellow SNJ Texan trainer.
"All of a sudden, I looked and saw another SNJ bearing right down on me," Keller said.
He put his plane into a dive and turned to the right. Luckily, the other pilot climbed.
"I don't think we missed more than 30 or 40 feet," Keller said. "All four of us would have been killed."