Naval Air Station Whiting Field is named for and dedicated to the pioneering spirit of Capt. Kenneth Whiting, who was a leader in the early days of both naval aviation, submarine warfare and aircraft carrier development.
Capt. Whiting was born in Massachusetts in 1881, but was raised in Larchmont, New York, which he would call home for the rest of his life. He began his military career as a midshipman at the U.S Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, in 1901, graduating in 1905 and receiving his commission as an ensign in 1905.
His early career saw service aboard the gunboats USS West Virginia and USS Concord, but he accepted for service in the burgeoning submarine fleet. Whiting assumed command of the submarine USS Porpoise on Nov. 20, 1908, in the Philippines, and continued submarine service for six years. Whiting is best remembered for his groundbreaking work in submarine emergency egress. Whiting conceived the idea that Sailors could escape from a disabled submarine using the torpedo tubes, and in April 1909, he put his theory to the test. Squeezing into the 18-inch tube, Whiting asked for the torpedo tube to be sealed and flooded. Holding fast to a support brace, the pressure of the tube being flooded allowed Whiting to swim free from the submarine, and he appeared safe on the surface of the water in just 77 seconds.
In 1911, Whiting applied for service in naval aviation but was not selected until 1914. He reported to the Wright Aviation company for pilot training and was personally trained by the legendary aviation pioneer Orville Wright, the very last Navy aviator to do so. Upon completion of pilot training, he was appointed as officer-in-charge of the Naval Aeronautic Station, Pensacola, Florida. While there, Whiting played a pivotal role in the development of early “hydroplane” design, the earliest models of seagoing military aircraft.
Upon the United States’ entry into World War I, Whiting was selected to lead the 1st Naval Air Unit, the first American detachment to debark for combat in the European Theater. He established a U.S. Navy Air Base at Dunkirk, France, from which he conducted military aviation missions and trained members of the French Air Force. Later in the war, he established yet another Air Base at Killinghome, England. For his World War I service, Whiting was awarded the Navy Cross “for exceptionally meritorious service in a duty of great responsibility,” and France awarded him the Legion of Honor (Chevalier).
Following the war, Capt. Whiting played a pivotal role in the future of naval aviation while serving at the Chief of Naval Operation’s Office of Naval Aviation. He was a fierce advocate for the importance of naval aviation, particularly aircraft carrier-based operations. Whiting pioneered carrier development, operational tactics, and both ship and aircraft design, culminating with the commissioning of the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, on which Whiting served as its first commanding officer. The “pilot’s ready room,” Landing Signal Officer (LSO) position, and pilot certification for aircraft carrier commanders were all conceived by Whiting and are still part of Naval Aviation.
Whiting went on to many more senior leadership and command positions through the U.S. Navy and remained on active duty in the Navy until his death in 1943 due to an acute heart illness. To honor his service, Whiting was inducted into the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor, Naval Air Station Pensacola, in 1984. He was further honored with the naming of a seaplane tender, the USS Kenneth Whiting (AV14).
On July 16, 1943, the U.S. Navy commissioned Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Whiting Field, near Milton, Florida. A plaque there reads: “Whiting Field, named in honor of Capt. Kenneth Whiting, U.S. Navy, Pioneer in Submarines and Aviation, Naval Aviator No. 16, Father of the Aircraft Carrier in our Navy, Died on Active Duty on April 24, 1943.”
NAVAL AIR STATION WHITING FIELD
Construction was begun on the largest of Pensacola’s auxiliary fields in early 1943, and Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Whiting Field was not completed until November. The new field, located 35 miles northeast of Pensacola and 6 miles north of Milton, was planned to incorporate two individual fields about a mile from one another with base facilities located between the two. Both Whiting’s North and South Fields featured four 6,000-foot runways, a large parking ramp and two big red-brick hangars.
Despite the fact that construction was not yet complete and assigned personnel were temporarily living in tents, the field was officially dedicated by RADM George D. Murray, commandant of the Naval Air Training Center, Pensacola, on July 16, 1943. In attendance at the South Field ceremony was the recent widow of Capt. Kenneth Whiting, Naval Aviator No. 16, for whom the field was named.
Fifteen days earlier, SNJs of VN-3A and VN-3B from Chevalier and Saufley fields had arrived at their new South Field home to inaugurate operations in basic and radio instrument instruction as part of the intermediate phase of the World War II training program.
With the two fields completed, VN-8C and its large fleet of SNBs arrived at North Field from NAAS Corry in November 1943 to conduct intermediate multi-engine landplane (VB-2) instruction. The squadron moved back to Corry in December 1944 and was replaced by operational training squadron VB4 OTU #4, flying Consolidated PB4Y-1 Liberators. With all the multi-engine and basic instrument instruction conducted at the base, a large building was constructed to house the numerous Link trainers and six big Link celestial navigation trainers manned by WAVES (women accepted for volunteer emergency service).
After the war, Whiting became a naval air station under control of the new Naval Air Advanced Training Command, Jacksonville, Florida. Based at Whiting from 1946 to almost the end of 1947 were VB-2 and VB-4 advanced training units flying Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateers and Lockheed PV-2 Venturas; the advanced carrier qualification and LSO training unit flying F6F Hellcats, SB2C Helldivers, TBM Avengers and SNJ-3/5Cs; and two photo training units flying the PB4Y-1P and F6F-5P.
During a Training Command reorganization in 1947, the Basic Training Command and its SNJs moved to the Pensacola area and advanced multi-engine instruction transferred to NAS Corpus Christi. Whiting was redesignated in spring 1948 as an auxiliary air station. The same year, Basic Training Unit One moved from Corry Field, split into BTU-1A at North Field and -1B at South Field, and began conducting 50 hours of primary instruction for the nearly 300 SNJ-4, -5 and -6s assigned to the two squadrons.
Owing to the base’s newer facilities and longer runways, the first jets assigned to the Training Command were sent to Whiting Field in July 1948. Fifteen single-seat Lockheed TO-1s (Air Force F-80 Shooting Stars) arrived at North Field to form Jet Training Unit One after being transferred from VF-52 at NAS San Diego. Once in business, the squadron conducted a four-week syllabus of jet transition instruction for newly winged Navy and Marine Corps VF students. In September, JTU-1 was joined by the Blue Angels and their F9F-2 Panthers. With the outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950, the Blue Angels went into combat, and in July 1951, JTU-1 transferred to newly opened NAAS Kingsville.
From 1951 to 1956, Whiting devoted its total efforts to primary instruction. It was during this period that the Training Command introduced new aircraft, consolidated bases and made major syllabus changes to respond to the Navy’s predominantly jet-equipped air wings and squadrons.
Beginning in late 1955, the T-34B Mentor replaced the SNJ Texan in the primary phase at Whiting while the T-28 Trojan supplanted the venerable “J bird” in basic. Primary was moved to NAS Saufley in late 1956 while Saufley’s BTG-3 T-28s moved to Whiting to train prop students in the basic instrument/tactics phase. BTG-2, the Training Command’s remaining basic T-28 squadron, transferred to Whiting from Corry in July 1958. In December 1959, the multi-engine training group (METG), the pre-helicopter instrument phase, moved its operations to Whiting from Forrest Sherman (NAS Pensacola).
By the end of the decade, prop students reported from primary at Saufley to BTG-2 at North Field for T-28 fam/precision/aerobatics and basic instruments. Students then progressed to BTG-3 at South Field for radio instruments, two-and-four plane formation and air-to-air gunnery before carrier qualification. Those selected for the helicopter pipeline returned to South Field after CQ, reporting to the METG for advanced instrument training in the Beechcraft SNB-5.
On May 1, 1960, BTG-2, -3 and the METG were redesignated as separate squadrons and formally established as VT-2, VT-3 and VT-6, respectively.
During the 1960s, Whiting concentrated on T-28 basic prop training. The eagerly anticipated air-to-air gunnery phase was eliminated in VT-3 in mid-1963, and in January 1965, VT-2 and VT-3 began parallel T-28 basic instructional programs due to the increased number of students required to meet the augmented pilot training rate prompted by the Vietnam War. At the same time, VT-6’s ancient SNBs were replaced by T-28s and in July 1966 the squadron returned to Sherman Field. In 1965 the field underwent a major facelift as new living spaces replaced old World War II-era “splintervilles,” together with a new training building and upgrades to both fields’ runways and ramp areas.
As a result of a major reorganization of the Training Command, Whiting Field in January 1972 became the home of Training Wing FIVE. After 30 years of working with fixed-wing aviators, Whiting began rotary-wing activities when HT-8, the primary helicopter training squadron, and HT-18, the advanced squadron, moved to South Field after Ellyson Field was closed.
January 1974 began with the sounds of snarling T-28 engines mixed with the whine of turboshaft engines and the “whop-whop” of the rotor blades of TH-57 and TH-1L helicopters. In November 1977, the first of the new T-34C Turbo Mentors arrived at TRAWING 5 to replace the primary-phase T-34B and the basic-phase T-28. By 1983 the last T-28 had been retired and all three North Field squadrons conducted primary and intermediate prop training. Two years later, HT-8began parallel primary and advanced rotary-wing instruction.
In the 1990s, VT-3’s Red Knights were designated as the first joint primary training squadron. The era of joint USAF/Navy flight training had begun.
Whiting Field’s South Tower revamped its air traffic control technology with STARS (Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System), April 22, 2005. The STARS is one component of the NASMOD (Navy National Airspace Modernization) program, which includes other updates such as VIDS (Visual Information Systems) and ETVS (Enhanced Terminal Voice Switch). The NASMOD program provides the controllers with centralized viewing consoles, multifunctional displays and touch screen systems. The system also provides a self-contained simulator to train junior controllers and maintain proficiencies of senior operators, greatly benefiting the future of the Navy. More importantly, removing equipment installed in the mid-1970s reduced maintenance requirements. Continuing to enhance the South Tower, roughly two years later, construction began on the new tower. This tower replaced the previous structure from 1972 at a cost of $3.8 million. The freestanding structure is six stories and approximately 80-feet-tall, nearly 20 feet taller than the old tower. It allows up to eight controllers to provide air traffic service with a 360 degree view. The tower also provides for a greater view of the traffic pattern which improves the situational awareness of the controllers.
Naval helicopter students fly missions at night toward the end of the training syllabus when they are introduced to the Night Vision Goggles. The environment at night to an inexperienced pilot can be extremely menacing and often task saturates the student. Efforts were made in 2005 to add ground school to the syllabus to help the students adapt to the new surroundings. The NITE (Night Imaging and Threat Evaluation) lab was, therefore, integrated into student training. The lab is designed to introduce flight students to the use of NVDs (Night Vision Devices). The terrain model trainer is used to teach students how varied illumination levels and different moon angles can change the appearance of terrain, both natural and man-made.
In early September 2004, a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico produced the tenth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. Hurricane Ivan wreaked havoc in the Pensacola area, causing major damage and destruction to NAS Whiting Field. Whole buildings were demolished or rendered useless to major parts of the base. On June 23, 2006, the groundbreaking ceremony was held for a $16 million project to build a new community support facility to replace those buildings. The facility included a gym with new equipment, a rebuilt base chapel and refurbished atrium for ceremonies and gatherings. Not only was the new facility designed and built from the ground up, but others were destroyed that were rendered uninhabitable from Hurricane Ivan. The support center consolidated similar facilities into a core area, while providing a place for tenants to eat, sleep, study and pray.
Today, NAS Whiting Field uses 12 outlying landing fields bearing familiar names: Pace, Spencer, Silverhill, Wolf, Barin, Choctaw, Site 8, Summerdale, Evergreen, Brewton, Harold and Santa Rosa to conduct its helicopter and turboprop flight operations.
Many helicopter students finish their training as student naval aviators every year at Whiting, deemed the most efficient naval air training complex in the world. To produce the amount of helicopter aviators needed for the Navy and to diversify the training environment, Whiting had to increase the number of helicopter training squadrons on base. Out of operational necessity, a third helicopter training squadron was formed in May 2007. The new squadron, HT-28, was formed alongside the two existing helicopter training squadrons. The Hellion’s first commanding officer was Cmdr. John McLain. The squadron took its name “Hellions” from a World War II Marine Corps Fighter Squadron, VMF-218. The increase in helicopter student aviators proved worthy as the 30,000th helicopter pilot was winged on July 1, 2009.
In an attempt to strengthen the relationship between the Santa Rosa county community and the base, an agreement was made on June 10, 2009, between the top officials at NASWF and Santa Rosa County to allow limited use of South Field’s runways for access to a new aviation commerce park. After six years of negotiations, the memorandums of agreement were signed. This venture was an outreach of the Joint Land Use Study, which promoted ways to develop and protect areas around the base and its Navy Outlying Landing Fields.
August 2009 marked the beginning of a new era in Naval Aviation as Whiting Field received the first T-6B Operational Flight Trainer simulators. The simulators provided student naval aviators with a dome surrounding the cockpit for a complete aerial view of the earth’s terrain and atmosphere. The multimillion dollar machines used satellite technology to bring the newest visual aids and avionics to Whiting. Not only did the simulators provide an extremely accurate view of the surroundings, but they allowed for the entire mission to be recorded, so the instructors could debrief the entire flight in real time. After the arrival of the simulators, the first T-6Bs landed at Whiting Field on Sept. 2 to replace the aging Turbomentors. The T-6B is radically advanced when compared to the outdated T-34C, with enhanced avionics, a heads-up display, and twice the amount of horsepower. Student training is initiated in the T-6B on April 28, 2010. The 14 students began a 26-week syllabus that was the first phase of student naval aviator training, and Student Naval Aviator Ensign Christopher D. Farkas was instructed by Capt. Michael Perkins to complete the Texan’s inaugural flight at NAS Whiting Field, May 26, 2010. TRAWING 5 had 18 T-6B aircraft at the beginning of its use in the student syllabus and completed its accumulation of 148 T-6Bs in June 2016. The Texan’s improved capabilities and the glass cockpit make it relevant for the next 30 years.