Navy pilots, U.S. Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Aviators who are part of the United States Navy, who fly combat as well as search and rescue missions around the world.

U.S. Naval Test Pilot School

At the end of World War II, aviation entered a period of rapid change. The development of new technology required extensive evaluation of experimental aircraft involving test flights. Although Navy pilots participated in the testing process, the military offered no formal training program. In 1945, Commander Thomas F. Connolly, assistant flight test officer at the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Maryland, and Commander Sydney Sherby, his chief project engineer, recognized the need for additional pilot training and recommended a curriculum. Navy pilots would receive instruction in aerodynamics, procedures for aircraft performance testing, evaluation of aircraft stability and control characteristics, miscellaneous tests and trials, actual in-flight performance testing, and standardized flight test reporting during thirty-seven hours of classroom instruction. Commander C. E. Giese, the flight test officer, approved the proposed training and appointed Sherby as the officer-in-charge of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. Sherby conducted several classes during the next two years, and by 1947 the Chief of Naval Operations approved a request to establish a nine-month school. Funding appropriations allowed for the purchase of seven aircraft used for training purposes including a PB4Y-2 Privateer, an F6F-5 Hellcat, an XNQ-1, an F7F-3 Tigercat, an F8F-1 Bearcat, a PBY-6A, and an SNB-1. In 1948, Sherby and Connolly compiled the lecture material into a textbook, Airplane Aerodynamics, which the U.S. Navy continues to use in its training program. Since 1950, advances in technology have resulted in the addition of curriculum in three separate areas: Fixed Wing, Rotary Wing, and Airborne Systems. Due to increased course content, the length of the school has been increased from nine to eleven months. Alan Shepard and John Glenn are two of the most famous graduates of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School.

Civilians seeking a career as a Navy pilot must have a B.A. or B.S. degree, pass the Aviation Selection Test Battery exam, and have twenty-twenty vision and normal depth and color perception. Only U.S. citizens between the ages of 19 and 26 qualify for a commission. Once candidates are accepted, they attend a thirteen-week course at Officer Candidate School (OCS) at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. An additional six-week indoctrination program completes the training program. Pilots are then promoted to the rank of ensign and receive basic and advanced pilot training. The service obligation for Navy pilots is eight years of active duty if designated for Naval Aviation (Jets) and seven years if designated Naval Aviation (Props/Helos). All pilots must then remain on Ready Reserve status.

Blue Angels

At the end of World War II, interest in all military activity declined dramatically. In an effort to garner public support for the continuation of naval aviation, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the chief of naval operations, formed a flight demonstration team that became known as the Blue Angels. The first flight demonstration, lead by Commander Tony Less, occurred in 1946 at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, with the pilots flying Grumman F-6F Hellcats. The following year the Blue Angels flew the Grumman F-8F Bearcat and adopted the famous diamond formation that became the trademark of the precision flying team. When war broke out again in 1950, the Blue Angels, flying Grumman F-9F Panther jets, joined United Nations forces in Korea. In 1951, the squadron returned to the United States and reported to the naval air station at Corpus Christi, Texas, where new Panther F-9F5’s awaited them. After spending three years in Texas, the Blue Angels made one final move to their new headquarters at the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Florida. Since 1954, the Blue Angels have flown in the swept-wing Grumman F-9F9 Cougar, the F-11F Tiger, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, and the McDonnell Douglas A-4F Skyhawk II. After 1986, the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron has flown McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets, a plane that functions as both a fighter and an attack aircraft. Each year, the Blue Angels perform at air shows around the country and since 1946, over 260 million Americans have witnessed the precision flying of these naval aviators.

World War II Navy Aces

The era of flight for the U.S. Navy began in 1910, but combat missions remained under the direction of the United States Air Service during World War I. Navy pilots did not fly combat missions during this war so none of them qualified as an ace. During World War II, the importance of naval aviation increased dramatically. As the United States recovered from the loss at Pearl Harbor, naval ships sailed toward the South Pacific equipped with F-4F Wildcats. In 1942, the Navy pilots experienced difficulty against the Japanese Zeros, but even though they remained outnumbered, several Navy pilots scored an impressive number of kills. Edward “Butch” O’Hare received a Medal of Honor after shooting down seven Japanese aircraft in his F-4F. Stanley W. “Swede” Vejtasa, during the Battle of Santa Cruz, destroyed two Japanese Vals headed for the USS Enterprise. He also downed five more low-flying torpedo planes before running out of ammunition. Although the Enterprise sustained two hits by Japanese bombs, the ship remained afloat. Navy pilots destroyed over 150 Japanese planes in this one battle. Some Navy pilots flew both F-4F Wildcats and F-6F Hellcats after the new planes arrived in the Pacific during the last part of 1943. Lieutenant Elbert McCuskey, a Navy Cross recipient, scored thirteen confirmed kills flying the Hellcat and the Wildcat planes. Once the Hellcats arrived, Navy pilots gained a technological advantage over the Japanese fliers and the number of kills increased as the United States military fought battles for the Marshall and Marianas Islands.

Alexander Vraciu, a remarkable Navy pilot who ended World War II as the fourth highest ace, received his wings in August, 1942. Assigned to the USS Wolverine, Vraciu shot down his first plane over Wake Island in October, 1943. By January, he had shot down a total of five enemy aircraft. During the next six months, he destroyed seven additional Japanese planes and sank a Japanese merchant ship with a direct hit to the stern. On June 19, 1944, Vraciu joined other Navy pilots in a battle over the Marianas Islands. Twenty-five miles west of his home ship, the USS Lexington, Vraciu spotted twenty-five bombers. Although he managed to shoot down six planes within eight minutes, the remaining Japanese planes continued directly toward the ship. Vraciu destroyed another bomber, this time at a range of two hundred feet. While dodging the debris, he realized that to continue pursuing the Japanese required chasing them into the antiaircraft fire from his own ship. He downed several more bombers before chasing a bomber headed directly for the Lexington. Vraciu put his plane in a steep dive to catch the enemy and destroyed the plane just in time. Almost shot down by his own ship, Vraciu returned with six confirmed kills for that one mission, and by the following day, the number of enemy aircraft that he had destroyed totaled nineteen. After the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Vraciu transferred to the Patuxent River facility, where he spent the remainder of the war as a test pilot. After the war, Vraciu commanded the VF-51 squadron.

The list of Navy aces during World War II is lengthy. Commander David McCampbell, a native of Alabama, remained the Navy’s top ace, with thirty-four confirmed kills during one tour of duty, nine of them in one battle. He commanded a squadron off the USS Essex and participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea as well as Leyte Gulf. During his career, which lasted until 1964, McCampbell received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, the Silver Star medal, the Legion of Merit, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Cecil E. Harris maintains the position of the second highest-ranking Navy ace, with twenty-four confirmed kills. He served on the USS Intrepid in the South Pacific and fought against the dreaded Japanese kamikazes. A teacher from South Dakota, Harris returned to his former occupation after the war with the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Silver Star, and two Gold Stars.

Eugene Valencia earned the position of third highest-ranking Navy ace during World War II with twenty-three confirmed kills. Flying a Hellcat F-6F, Valencia and his squadron, commonly referred to as the Flying Circus, mowed down Japanese kamikaze pilots in record numbers. During one mission over the island of Okinawa, Valencia downed six Japanese planes, while his division returned to their ship that day with a total of fourteen kills. Other notable Navy aces are Comelius N. Nooy, Patrick D. Fleming, Douglas Baker, Ira Cassius Kepford, Charles R. Stimpson, Arthur R. Hawkins, John L. Wirth, George Duncan, Roy Rushing, John Strane, Wendell V. Twelves, James Shirley, Daniel A. Carmichael Jr., Roger Hedrick, William J. Masoner, Jr., Hamilton McWhorter III, and P. L. Kirkwood, who all had twelve or more kills. Navy aces with fewer kills, ranging from seven to eleven, include Frederick E. Bakutis, John T. Blackburn, James B. French, William A. Dean, Jr., Donald E. Runyon, Stanley W. “Swede” Vejtasa, Harris A. Mitchell, Whitney Feightner, Ralph E. Elliott, and Edward “Butch” O’Hare.

Navy Aces of Korea and Vietnam

Since the majority of battles in the South Pacific during World War II involved Navy aircraft, the number of Navy aces is the highest during this period. During the Korean War, most of the flying missions remained under the control of the U.S. Air Force. On occasion Navy pilots flew into combat situations but only one achieved the distinction of being called an ace. Lieutenant Guy Bordelon of the V-3 Squadron flew F4U’s over Korea and managed to down five planes, the minimum number of kills to qualify as an ace. Bordelon flew night missions over North Korea to destroy depots of aviation fuel and other supplies. Air Force jets flew too fast to harass the prop-driven North Korean planes, so Bordelon was assigned to a Marine base for that purpose. He managed to score five kills in three weeks and then rejoined his squadron on the USS Princeton as the Navy’s first prop ace in Korea.

As in Korea, Navy pilots saw limited combat action during the Vietnam conflict. Only two Navy pilots during this period achieved the status of ace. On May 10, 1972, Lieutenant Randy “Duke” Cunningham and Lieutenant Junior Grade Willy Driscoll engaged enemy MiGs, including one flown by Colonel Toon, North Vietnam’s deadliest pilot with thirteen confirmed kills. Cunningham and Driscoll managed to achieve a triple kill before returning, with heavy damage, to their base. The previous day, the two pilots had destroyed two MiGs.

As technology has advanced the number of Navy Aces has declined. Computer-guided missiles and armed, unmanned aerial vehicles account for many of the kills previously made by pilots. World War II will always remain the era of the Navy ace.

  • Morrison, Wilbur H. Pilots, Man Your Planes! The History of Naval Aviation. Central Point, Oreg.: Hellgate Press, 1999. The author outlines the history of naval aviation from 1910 to the present and offers insight into the resistance to the inclusion of aircraft in this branch of service by politicians, the Air Force, and elements within the Navy. Detailed accounts of naval air battles are also provided.
  • Veronico, Nicholas A., and Marga R. Fritze. Blue Angels: Fifty Years of Precision Flight. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks, International, 1996. This book describes the people, aircraft, and maneuvers of this elite U.S. Navy precision flying team from its inception.
  • Waller, Douglas C. Air Warriors: The Inside Story of the Making of a Navy Pilot. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Excellent source of information detailing the training of U.S. Navy pilots including split-second decisions, dogfights, landing procedures, and other exciting aspects of naval aviation.

Blue Angels


Kamikaze missions

Korean War

Military flight

Rescue aircraft

Test pilots

Vietnam War

World War II

Categories: History