Over 100 years ago, the very first airplane launched off the deck of the USS North Carolina, flying over Pensacola Bay and leaving its mark on history. Lt. Commander Henry C. Mustin flew the AB-2 seaplane on November 5, 1915.
Mustin’s flight showed that it was possible to catapult an airplane off of a moving ship and be replicated. His flight made Pensacola the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” and it also created a rather basic way of launching a plane that is used to this day.
The Pensacola Navy Yard opened in 1826, cementing the town’s future as a base of Naval operations, but it closed in 1911 after a hurricane and a yellow fever outbreak.
New life was breathed into the abandoned base when it was picked as the first aeronautical training station site. Thus, it became the Naval Aeronautical Station Pensacola.
Mustin was stationed at the base in 1914, arriving from the USS Mississippi. He and the crew set to work rehabbing the old base and making it a functional flight school.
Finally, in April 1915, training began, and Mustin became the base’s commanding officer. Launching planes from ships using a catapult was a new idea introduced by Capt. Washington I. Chamber in 1911.
Prototypes were designed in Washington, but the Navy did not see the value of aviation just yet. Finally, in 1915, they okayed testing the new technology at sea, and a prototype was created and placed on a barge in Pensacola Bay.
Since the barge test was successful, Mustin got approval to get one installed on the USS North Carolina, and he tested it out on the 5th of November. The flight made the newspapers and history.
Even though the basic catapult mechanism has stayed the same, there have been some modern upgrades over the year. It went from running on gunpowder to hydraulics and finally steam.
The Navy began testing Electromagnetic Air Craft Launch System or EMALS to replace steam. It is more efficient, more reliable, and requires less manpower and maintenance.
In 1917, Mustin commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Air Detachment and broke the record leading a dozen planes on a 3,019 mile from San Diego to Balboa, Panama.
He became Assistant Chief of the Navy’s Burea of Aeronautics in 1921 but became ill in 1923, dying at the age of 49.