Naval Air Station Jacksonville History
Naval Air Station Jacksonville (NAS Jax) was officially commissioned Oct. 15, 1940, when Capt. Charles Mason raised his pennant as NAS Jacksonville’s first commanding officer.
Prior to the commissioning, on Sept. 7, 1940, Cmdr. Jimmy Grant became the first pilot to land on the still-unfinished runway in his N3N-3 biplane. More than 10,000 pilots and 11,000 aircrew members followed his lead to earn the wings of gold at the station during World War II. Yellow Water Naval Air Gunnery School trained about 30,000 gunners.
The pace of training and construction increased as America entered World War II, and NAS Jax was soon operating three runways more than 6,000 feet long as well as seaplane ramps. Overhaul and Repair facilities (later called Naval Aviation Depot and now Fleet Readiness Center Southeast) reworked the station’s planes. NAS Jax comprised more than 700 buildings before V-J (Victory over Japan) Day, including an 80-acre hospital and a prisoner-of-war compound, which housed more than 1,500 German prisoners of war.
Archbishop (later Cardinal) Francis Spellman dedicated St. Edward’s Catholic Chapel at its Birmingham Avenue location Jan. 17, 1943. The chapel, intended for a life of only 20 years, is still in use today.
The Navy led the dawning jet age in the 1940s. In 1948, the first jet carrier air groups and squadrons came to Jacksonville. In 1946, Lt. Cmdr. Butch Voris, a World War II ace, formed the Navy’s first Flight Demonstration Team, which would be better known by the color of its aircraft: the Blue Angels.
By April 1949, Jacksonville was the East Coast’s plane capital with more aircraft stationed here than at any other base from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean. NAS Jax wielded 60 percent of the fleet air striking force in the Atlantic area from pole to pole.
As in the 1940s, the nation was at war during the early years of the decade. The growing NAS Jacksonville supported the war effort in many ways. Fleet Air Wing 11 moved on base, bringing with it VP-3 from Coco Solo, Panama, and VP-5 from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Blue Angels, who had moved to NAS Corpus Christi in the late 1940s, performed a last air show at the station April 29, 1950, before forming a nucleus of an operational squadron (Satan’s Kittens), which was assigned to combat in Korea. The “Blues” would not return to the station for more than two years. The Naval Air Technical Training Center was reactivated and included nine schools.
With the signing of the Korean Armistice in 1953, NAS Jacksonville again converted to peacetime operations.
The quiet of peace, however, did not diminish the activity on board the station. The following year, the last F4U Corsair, which had earned a superb reputation throughout World War II and Korea, departed the station forever. It was replaced by the state-of-the-art FH-2 Banshee jet.
Long a frontrunner in naval aviation, NAS Jacksonville’s Overhaul and Repair Department outfitted the R4D transport airplane and H04S-3 helicopter to withstand the cold weather they would encounter on a historic mission: the 1955 Byrd expedition to the South Pole.
In the mid-’50s, the field expanded. An air traffic control center for joint use by the Navy, Air Force and Civil Aeronautics Administration was completed at a cost of $325,000; parking ramps were added to the land plane hangars; and a 1,231-foot-long taxiway was built. The station now had more than 11,000 military assigned along with 5,000 civilians and a payroll of more than $35 million. The growth of NAS Jax had a tremendous economic impact on the local area.
In February 1958, America entered the Space Age and launched the first satellite. Communication workers on NAS Jax were responsible for tracking this satellite, named Explorer. The station joined the space race once again when VP-18 was the first to spot and track the nose cone from the Army’s test firing of the first Jupiter rocket. In May 1959, VP-18 continued its support of the space program, spotting and tracking the world’s first astronauts, the space monkeys Able and Baker. After vectoring two destroyers and a Navy seagoing tug to the landing site, the mission was successfully completed as the monkeys were recovered.
NAS Jacksonville ended the 1950s with an event that would be important for decades to come. On Oct. 1, 1959, NAS Jacksonville received its first P-3 Orion, a plane that would be the workhorse of VP community for the next 40-plus years.
Unlike the previous two decades, the 1960s opened upon a relatively calm world.
A young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy (who was a resident for a short time at Naval Hospital Jacksonville in WWII) narrowly defeated Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election.
The next year, VP-7 was transferred here and assisted in the Project Mercury Space Program.
Soon, the calm world situation shattered when Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba in response to a massive Soviet missile buildup. NAS Jacksonville had sent an attack squadron to Guantanamo Bay, had patrol squadrons monitoring Soviet ship movements and processed daily spy plane film that was then immediately flown to Washington. The world stood ready for war until the Soviet Union backed down and agreed to remove and dismantle its missiles a mere 90 miles from the shores of America.
But another crisis on the other side of the world was building. For the first time, Kennedy authorized the ever-increasing number of military advisers in South Vietnam to return fire against aggression from the north.
In 1965, when NAS Jacksonville celebrated its 25th anniversary and the “Happy Days” of the 1950s and 1960s gasped their last breath, President Johnson ordered more than 100,000 troops into Vietnam. For the third decade in a row, America was sending its sons and daughters (nurses) into combat, and NAS Jacksonville continued its proud tradition of supporting our Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen and Marines.
The conflict hit close to home when in 1967, a young pilot named John McCain, attached to VA-76 at Cecil Field, was shot down over North Vietnam while flying a combat mission from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. He would be a prisoner of war for the next five and a half years.
In 1968, NAS Jacksonville-based VA-176 became the last Navy squadron to retire the A-1 Skyraider. The piston-driven plane had shot down three of four attacking Soviet MiG jets in one air fight in the skies over Vietnam, the only such time a propeller-driven aircraft shot down a jet.
In February 1969, HM2 E. Scott Hancock, a Jacksonville native who attended Robert E. Lee High School, was killed just 11 days after reporting to Vietnam. He died assisting wounded Marines and for his valor was awarded the nation’s second-highest award, the Navy Cross.
The new enlisted dining facility at NAS Jacksonville built later that year was dedicated in his honor. Also in 1969, the Barnett First National Bank on base (no longer aboard NAS Jacksonville) was burglarized. The perpetrators were later caught in San Antonio, Texas, and two-thirds of the $363,000 was recovered.
NAS Jacksonville continued to support the Vietnam conflict. Though the fixed wing anti-submarine community had the only personnel directly involved, thousands of Sailors and civilian personnel supported combat operations.
In 1973, the first prisoner of war to be released from North Vietnam entered the naval hospital at NAS Jacksonville for a thorough examination and debriefing.
The 1970s were a decade of change and growth for the air station; new airframes arrived and old ones were retired. In 1970, the last two seaplanes left NAS Jacksonville for the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Also in 1970, Fleet Air Jacksonville Band disbanded. For the first time, NAS Jacksonville would have to depend on other service bands to meet musical commitments. Also disestablished were the Hurricane Hunters. Their NC121 Super Constellations had long been a familiar sight in the skies over Jacksonville, as well as playing a key role for the National Weather Service in tracking ravaging Atlantic storms.
Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 2, the oldest helicopter squadron in the Navy, was disestablished. The squadron had recorded more than 2,000 rescues. Fleet Air Jacksonville, established aboard the air station in 1948, was decommissioned in June 1974. New units and missions replaced the old. The first of four HH-1K helicopters arrived, and the aging H-34s used for search and rescue were retired.
CBU-410 was organized and began station operations. VP-56 arrived from NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, and was soon followed by VP-49 and VP-24.
The station’s popularity grew, and it became the most requested duty station throughout the Navy. In 1973, with the assignment of Helicopter Antisubmarine Wing 1, the station’s primary mission became anti-submarine warfare. The five helicopter squadrons accompanying the wing are still here today. The new helo assets created opportunities for sea and shore assignment to NAS Jacksonville.
In 1974, Fleet Air Wing 11, composed of six patrol squadrons with 2,100 personnel and 54 P-3 Orions, changed their name to Patrol Wing 11. NAS Jacksonville had now become an anti-submarine force with which to be reckoned. Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 58, flying C-9 Skytrains, was established at NAS Jacksonville Nov. 1, 1977.
During the mid-’70s, the Navy Campus for Achievement Program was begun. The Navy Campus Network (now the Navy College Office) consisted of a worldwide system of professional education specialists whose mission was to establish, promote and manage all base civilian education programs.
In the late 1970s, the Jacksonville Operating Area Coordination Center was disestablished, and the Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility assumed the duties of controlling airspace for military aircraft.
On June 27, 1978, the Jacksonville City Council passed an Air Installation Compatible Use Zone (AICUZ) ordinance that proved to be a landmark piece of legislation. The AICUZ ordinance ultimately limited building around the three installations (NS Mayport, NAS Cecil Field and NAS Jacksonville) and the civilian airport. The last station-based jet squadron, Attack Squadron 203, transferred to NAS Cecil Field. From that point, jets had additional restrictions they followed when using NAS Jacksonville’s runways for landings and takeoffs.
The 1980s would be characterized by two conflicts: the ever-present tension of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and occasional flare-ups of fighting in unstable areas around the globe. NAS Jacksonville’s anti-submarine warfare mission continued to be of vital importance to the defense of the nation.
NAS Jacksonville grew, changed and reorganized throughout the ’80s. A new Child Development Center and Navy Lodge were built, and HS-17 was established. In 1989, Capt. Kevin Delaney assumed command of the station.
Under his command, improvements were made to the existing Child Development Center; a comprehensive recycling program that continues today was begun; a new park, Manatee Point, was built; a new recreational vehicle park was started; and a new fitness center was established.
Also opened in 1989 were new Navy Exchange and commissary stores.
The NAS Supply Department reorganized into the Naval Supply Center Oct. 1, 1982. Consolidated from three supply centers on station, it would become the supply point for the southeastern United States, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal Zone and Puerto Rico. About the same time, a new helicopter training facility was dedicated and named the Paul Nelson Helicopter Training Facility after the former commanding officer of HS-3 who had died the year before while flying from USS Nimitz.
The Civilian Personnel Office became the Consolidated Civilian Personnel Office and assumed control of civilian personnel actions for all of NAS Jacksonville and NAS Cecil Field (now closed). The Birmingham and Main gates underwent major changes, including the fly-in and placement of a PBY at the main gate in 1986. In October 1986, the evolution of the station’s only flag command continued as Commander, Sea-based Antisubmarine Warfare Wings was reorganized and became Commander, Helicopter Wings Atlantic.
The early 1980s proved disastrous for the Naval Investigative Service. During the early part of the decade, a fire destroyed the Naval Investigative Service building. Two Sailors were charged. Investigators found evidence that the Sailors had set the fire in an attempt to destroy evidence in an ongoing investigation. A second fire later destroyed not only the NIS but the offices of the Navy Absentee Collection Unit, some Naval Air Rework Facility offices and some Naval Regional Data Automation equipment. This time a faulty boiler was to blame.
In April 1988, USS Bonefish caught fire while operating off the North Florida coast and made newspaper headlines as station search and rescue helicopters, including HS-1 and HS-7, transported 67 injured crewmen to Naval Hospital Jacksonville.
NAS Jax continued to be a mainstay of the Jacksonville community. In 1981, the first Armed Forces Day/Scout World (later called Scout Blast) was held on base. The event grew from a first-year attendance of only 6,000 to crowds in excess of 15,000 in 2000, but it was moved to Cecil Field after 9/11 due to security concerns.
A piece of history was lost in 1986 when the last unit of Marines left the base. Marine Barracks Jacksonville had been one of the first groups to arrive at the base in 1940 but left due to mission realignments and a reduction in authorized troops in the Corps.
NAS Jacksonville celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1990. However, the golden anniversary was offset by a concern over the pending downsizing of the military and trouble brewing in the Middle East. Tensions mounted between Iraq and Kuwait. The station would eventually take part in another foreign conflict as NAS Jacksonville squadron aircraft launched from aircraft carriers in support of Operation Desert Storm.
To mark its golden anniversary, the air station held many events, including dedications of the Pelicans Perch Child Care Center (making NAS Jacksonville’s Child Development Center the largest in the Navy at that time), a flag memorial at the main gate, a veterans memorial in front of the administration building and the placement of new static display aircraft near the front gate. The final commemorative event was an air show featuring the Blue Angels and a luncheon honoring the first class of naval aviators who received their wings of gold at NAS Jacksonville. Another important anniversary occurred in 1996. The first Blue Angel, Butch Voris, was the honored guest for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Blue Angels, which he formed at NAS Jacksonville in 1946. During this anniversary year, the Naval Air Depot (formerly the Naval Air Rework Facility) finished the last standard level depot maintenance on the A-7 Corsair, which the tenant activity had reworked continuously since 1967.
HS-17 was disestablished July 2, 1991, right before the Soviet navy made a historic visit to the base. Also in 1991, the station received numerous awards for recycling, safety and environmental programs. That year, the station won the commander in chief’s installation excellence award as the best base in the Navy. HS-9 was disestablished April 23, 1993. In April 1995, VP-24 was disestablished. The chief petty officer’s club closed in July and relocated to a section of the enlisted club.
As Base Closure and Realignment Commission meetings convened, funding was reduced and new ways to operate were formulated. Reorganizations continued in 1992 as the Public Works Center was established and Commander, Naval Aviation Activities Jacksonville replaced Commander, Helicopter Wings Atlantic as the installation’s flag command.
A new bike patrol, formed in Security, was started near the end of the year. The Fleet and Industrial Supply Center replaced the Naval Supply Center in 1993.
Changes in names and missions continued in June, as the station’s flag command, Commander, Naval Aviation Activities Jacksonville, changed its name to Commander, Naval Base Jacksonville. Helicopter Antisubmarine Wing 1 also changed its name to Helicopter Wing Atlantic. Groundbreaking ceremonies took place for a new five-story BOQ in July, followed by groundbreaking for a new hangar to house VP-30 in October.
In May 1993, NAS Jacksonville made email available to the station. In August, the Family Service Center dedicated a new building, and a P2V Neptune was added to the static display park. The Naval Oceanography Command changed their name to Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Jacksonville Facility Atlantic in November.
Major changes in workload began at the Naval Aviation Depot in 1994, as the first two F-14 Tomcats arrived for rework in January. This aircraft rework program, along with the EA-6 and 2,000 additional employees, came as a result of the closure of NADEP Norfolk.
Just a few days after this, VP-49 was disestablished. 1996 saw a U-2 conducting special operations from the station as construction was started on a new U.S. Customs hangar. Patriots Grove, honoring 80 U.S. Navy Medal of Honor recipients since from World War II to date, was dedicated in April. As the station received another secretary of the Navy safety award, VP-30 moved into its new hangar in July. A new BOQ was dedicated along with a new aircraft acoustical enclosure for testing the F-14 Tomcat at NADEP. HS-1 said farewell to the last SH-3 Sea King helicopter in October.
HS-1 was formally disestablished in June 1997.
The new BEQ was dedicated, along with a newly renovated galley.
Commander, Sea Control Wing Atlantic and the first of the VS squadrons arrived in October as VS-24 flew in to their new home at Hangar 1000. This move would eventually encompass 48 aircraft and approximately 1,800 personnel who would call NAS Jacksonville home. With the closing of NAS Cecil Field, the Sea Control Wing and their complement of S-3 Viking squadrons, VS-22, VS-24, VS-30, VS-31, VS-32 and VQ-6 (VQ-6 was decommissioned in 1999), relocated to NAS Jacksonville.
In 1998, a TBM Avenger was added to the Aircraft Heritage Park, followed by an S2F and an S-3 Viking, to represent the new community.
In February 1999, Commander, Naval Base Jacksonville changed its name to Commander, Navy Region Southeast, as part the Navy’s regionalization program, assuming responsibility for the eight southeastern states and the Caribbean. In March, NAS Jacksonville hosted its first Area V Special Olympics Spring Games.
Even with all of the funding reductions, reorganizations, and Base Closure and Realignment actions taken during the 1990s, NAS Jacksonville was able to grow, increasing the number of commands and activities and personnel who worked on the base.
The stability and continued growth illustrated NAS Jacksonville’s importance to the Navy and the local community.
2000 and Beyond
NAS Jax is a three-time Navy Installation Excellence Award winner, a U.N. Earth Society Environmental Leadership Award recipient, and an Occupational Safety and Health Administration Voluntary Protection Program “Star” status installation. Together with 110 tenant commands, it directly supports the chief of naval operations global maritime strategy. The base also focuses on energy conservation, environmental stewardship, reducing excess capacity and working with local, state and federal agencies to ensure compatible land use. Epitomizing the joint “One Team, One Fight” spirit, NAS Jax personnel work safely around the clock supporting the 14 squadrons that are home based here. They also support numerous visiting detachments representing all services and allied forces.
For 73 years, the citizens of northeast Florida have heard the hum, drone and thunder of the Navy’s full array of strike, reconnaissance, logistics and training aircraft. Focused directly on support of operational units, NAS Jax personnel work 24/7 providing services to USS George H.W. Bush, USS Eisenhower, USS George Washington, USS Enterprise and USS Harry S. Truman strike groups. They also support the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division Helicopter Brigade during their deployments, allied forces and various other detachments.
The first decade of the 21st century brought unparalleled growth for NAS Jax, culminating in the execution of nearly $600 million in facility service contracts, including the largest utilities energy savings contract in Commander, Navy Region Southeast (CNRSE) history at $17.2 million and the opening of the largest P-3C Orion hangar project ever undertaken by the Navy. The $127 million, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) compliant P-3 Hangar now provides the infrastructure for P-8A Poseidon and P-3C squadrons.
Also, a $77 million LEED-compliant hangar project was completed to house five Helicopter Maritime Strike Wing U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Detachment Jacksonville squadrons with the MH-60 Romeo helicopters. Currently, helicopter maritime strike squadrons HSM-70, HSM-72, HSM-74 and Royal Australian Navy 725 Squadron occupy spaces in the hangar.
A new LEED-compliant headquarters building for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command also opened its doors.
NAS Jax partnered with the Northeast Florida Navy League to establish semiannual individual augmentee recognition luncheons, which have now spread Navywide. Additionally, the air station set the standard in supporting Sailors and their families through unprecedented Single Sailor, Captain’s Cup, and Information, Tickets and Travel programs and its first summer concert series with live bands.
NAS Jax Sailors serve as community volunteers and goodwill ambassadors throughout northeast Florida, promoting the Navy’s “can do” spirit and diverse cultures.
Today, NAS Jax and its 110 tenant commands are a primary instrument of national security. As one team, they play a vital role in providing strategic shore support that enables the U.S. Navy to meet its objectives.
The unique and diverse missions of the NAS Jax Team give the Navy a decisive edge in achieving its tenets of “warfighting first, operate forward and be ready,” while demonstrating its resolve to peace and stability at home and around the world. The naval aviation stewardship and accomplishments of the air station’s 20,000 military, civilian and contractor personnel who call NAS Jax home is second to none. With its mission of supporting the fleet, fighter and family, the NAS Jax Team is the best at delivering effective and sustained shore readiness. Focused directly on supporting operational units, the military and civilian team provides services to 15 home-based squadrons, carrier strike groups, detachments, joint commands, allies and government agencies. The NAS Jax team wrote a new chapter in naval aviation history when the first maritime patrol and reconnaissance force P-8A Poseidon squadron flawlessly completed its certification and departed from our flight line on its inaugural deployment to the western Pacific in November 2013.
Despite the many challenges facing the Department of the Navy, the NAS Jax workforce remains flexible while adapting to a rapidly changing fiscal environment. They understand the complexities and, without missing a beat, play a prominent role in executing every core capability of the Navy maritime strategy. The team is constantly aligning requirements, resources and acquisition processes to provide unmatched support to the ongoing transition from P-3C to P-8A and HSL to HSM and the establishment of VUP-19 Triton squadron.
Additionally, they support logistic and reserve squadrons, joint services and allied forces. The NAS Jax Public Works Department manages millions of dollars in annual construction and maintenance projects, including the MQ-4C Triton broad area maritime surveillance unmanned aircraft system and the P-8A Poseidon ordnance load training facilities. Energy conservation initiatives continue as the workforce transforms its energy culture and continues to seek new technical solutions for reducing energy, resulting in an estimated annual savings of more than $300,000 in 2013. The many initiatives earned the air station the Secretary of the Navy Gold Level of Achievement Award, as well as the U.S. Department of Energy Federal Energy and Water Conservation Award, which solidified NAS Jax as a leader in energy and water efficiency.
The Environmental Department has a strong educational outreach and environmental partnerships with local elected officials, planning and environmental staffs, community schools and nonprofit conservation organizations. Also, the department works closely with federal, state and nonprofit wildlife organizations and provides environmental conservation programs to more than 1,000 elementary and high school youths throughout the year at the NAS Jax Nature Center and trails.
The Air Operations Department handles thousands of flight operations and supports numerous detachments consisting of hundreds of personnel and a variety of aircraft. It also supports the Pinecastle Range Complex, the only Navy target range on the East Coast where warfighters can deliver live ordnance. The base also expertly managed the Outlying Landing Field Whitehouse near Jacksonville. This is a critical asset for aircrews to train day and night to replicate the exact landing patterns used on aircraft carriers.
The station’s Safety Department oversees many of its basewide programs and with an unmatched record of excellence in safety stewardship. It was nationally recognized and recertified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2013 for having and maintaining a world-class safety program and Voluntary Protection Program “Star” worksite. Additionally, station personnel continue their unprecedented accident-free record and in 2013, exceeded the chief of naval operations’ mandated mishap reduction goal. Most importantly, mishap rates continue to be 36 percent below industry guidelines.