The site now occupied by Naval Air Station Pensacola has a colorful historical background dating back to the 16th century when Spanish explorer Don Tristan de Luna founded a colony here on the bluff where Fort Barrancas is now situated.
Realizing the advantages of the Pensacola harbor and the large timber reserves nearby for shipbuilding, President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard, in 1825, made arrangements to build a Navy yard on the Southern tip of Escambia County, where the air station is today. Navy Captains William Bainbridge, Lewis Warrington, and James Biddle selected the site on Pensacola Bay.
Construction began in April 1826, and the Pensacola Navy Yard became one of the best equipped naval stations in the country. In its early years the base dealt mainly with the suppression of slave trade and piracy in the Gulf and Caribbean.
When New Orleans was captured by Union forces in 1862, Confederate troops, fearing attack from the west, retreated from the Navy Yard and reduced most of the facilities to rubble. After the war, the ruins at the yard were cleared away and work was begun to rebuild the base. Many of the present structures on the air station were built during this period, including the stately two and three-story houses on North Avenue. In 1906, many of these newly rebuilt structures were destroyed by a great hurricane and tidal wave.
Meanwhile, great strides were being made in aviation. The Wright Brothers and especially Glenn Curtiss were trying to prove to the Navy that the airplane had a place in the fleet. The first aircraft carrier was built in January 1911, and a few weeks later, the seaplane made its first appearance. Then, civilian pilot Eugene Ely landed a frail craft aboard USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay, and the value of the airplane to the Navy had been demonstrated.
The Navy Dept., now awakened to the possibilities of Naval Aviation through the efforts of Capt. W. I. Chambers, prevailed upon congress to include in the Naval Appropriation Act enacted in 1911-12 a provision for aeronautical development. Chambers was ordered to devote all of his time to naval aviation.
In October 1913, Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, appointed a board, with Capt. Chambers as chairman, to make a survey of aeronautical needs and to establish a policy to guide future development. One of the board’s most important recommendations was the establishment of an aviation training station in Pensacola.
Upon entry into World War I, Pensacola, still the only naval air station, had 38 naval aviators, 163 enlisted men trained in aviation, and 54 airplanes. Two years later, by the signing of the armistice in November 1918, the air station, with 438 officers and 5538 enlisted men, had trained 1,000 naval aviators. At war’s end, seaplanes, dirigibles, and free kite balloons were housed in steel and wooden hangars stretching a mile down the air station beach.
In the years following World War I, aviation training slowed down. From the 12-month flight course, an average of 100 pilots were graduating yearly. This was before the day of aviation cadets, and the majority of the students included in the flight training program were Annapolis graduates. A few enlisted men also graduated. Thus, Naval Air Station Pensacola became known as the "Annapolis of the Air."
With the inauguration of 1935 of the cadet training program, activity at Pensacola again expanded. When Pensacola’s training facilities could no longer accommodate the ever increasing number of cadets accepted by the Navy, two more naval air stations were created - one in Jacksonville, Florida, and the other in Corpus Christi, Texas. In August 1940, a larger auxiliary base, Saufley Field, named for LT R. C. Saufley, Naval Aviator 14, was added to Pensacola’s activities. In October 1941, a third field, named after LT T.G. Ellyson, was commissioned.
As the nations of the world moved toward World War II, NAS Pensacola once again became the hub of air training activities. NAS expanded again, training 1,100 cadets a month, 11 times the amount trained annually in the ‘20s. The growth of NAS from 10 tents to the world’s greatest naval aviation center was emphasized by then Senator Owen Brewster’s statement:: "The growth of naval aviation during World War II is one of the wonders of the modern world."
War in Korea presented problems as the military was caught in the midst of transition from propellers to jets, and the air station revised its courses and training techniques. Nonetheless, NAS produced 6,000 aviators from 1950 to 1953.
Pilot training requirements shifted upward to meet the demands for the Vietnam War which occupied much of the 1960s and 1970s. Pilot production was as high as 2,552 (1968) and as low as 1,413 (1962).
In 1971, NAS was picked as the headquarters site for CNET, a new command which combined direction and control of all Navy education and training. The Naval Air Basic Training Command was absorbed by the Naval Air Training Command, which moved to Corpus Christi.
Today, the Pensacola Naval Complex in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties employs more than 16,000 military and 7,400 civilian personnel.