Presidents and Naval Aviation
See artifacts and archival items in the museum collection relating to Presidents of the United States, from signed letters to a Medal of Honor awarded by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
View aircraft in the collection in which Presidents have flown:
- N2S-3 Kaydet - piloted by President George H.W. Bush during his World War II flight training
- S-3B Viking - in which President George W. Bush trapped on board the carrier Abraham Lincoln
- VH-3A Sea King - helicopter that once flew as “Marine One”
A Short History
When the framers of the Constitution of the United States met in the sweltering heat of Philadelphia to draft the documents that are the framework of American democracy, they defined the specific powers of the respective branches of government. The first duty of the President of the United States was as Commander in Chief of the armed forces (at that time the Army and Navy), and over two centuries later that remains one of the most honored and sacred obligations of the American Presidency.
With the airplane a twentieth century invention, the direct connection between the nation’s chief executives and naval aviation has been relatively recent, perhaps the first significant involvement coming with men named Roosevelt before they even entered the White House. In addition to sharing a last name, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt both possessed an affinity for the naval service, which manifested itself in their service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It was while in this post that Theodore Roosevelt expressed the Navy’s first official interest in flight, on 24 March 1898, recommending to the Secretary of the Navy that he appoint two officers of “scientific attainments and practical ability” to examine Professor Samuel P. Langley’s aerodrome. Two decades later, his cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt confronted the increasing pressure for a unified air force by defending the uniqueness of naval aviation. “It will readily be seen,” he wrote in 1919, “that only men whose training must be controlled by the Navy can be depended upon to carry out the work of naval aviation and expect any measure of success.”
President Calvin Coolidge, in a bit of sarcastic wit, once responded to the pleas of the military for more training planes with the words, “Why can’t we buy one plane and let the aviators take turns flying it?” Yet, it was his administration that convened the famous “Morrow Board” in 1925, that established the post-World War I foundation for naval aviation’s growth, which continued even during the trying times of the Great Depression. Among the programs of now-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, shipbuilding under the provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act included the construction of the famed aircraft carriers Yorktown (CV 5) and Enterprise (CV 6)).
FDR served as Commander in Chief during World War II, in which naval air power came of age and supplanted the battleship as the primary offensive weapon of the Navy. Among the thousands of personnel who filled the ranks of naval aviation during that time were future presidents Gerald Ford, who served as a member of ship’s company in the light carrier Monterey (CVL 26), and George H.W. Bush, who flew combat missions from the deck of the light carrier San Jacinto (CVL 31). Ashore, future president Richard M. Nixon served at Naval Reserve Aviation Base (NRAB) Ottumwa, Iowa, with South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command in the Solomon Islands, and later assigned to Fleet Air Wing Eight and the Bureau of Aeronautics.
Following Roosevelt’s death in office in April 1945, his successor, President Harry S. Truman, ordered that the aircraft carrier already christened Coral Sea be renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first of ten flattops to have been named after presidents of the United States. And in an era in which a world crisis prompts a president to ask for the location of the nearest aircraft carrier, Truman’s appearance on board Franklin D. Roosevelt proved momentous. Aside from President Gerald Ford, every U.S. chief executive since Truman has paid at least one visit to a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier while in office.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower witnessed operations on board Saratoga (CVA 60) in 1957, his visit ironically coinciding with the anniversary of the D-Day landings. On the D-Day anniversary six years later, Navy veteran John F. Kennedy visited two carriers in one day, Oriskany (CVA 34) and Kitty Hawk (CVA 63), his stay on the latter necessitating that sailors cut a piece of plywood to place under his mattress in an effort to alleviate the pain in his back. After the Commander in Chief departed, Warrant Officer Bob Schulz, a Kitty Hawk, plankowner, had a cruise box made from the plywood as a memento of the Presidential visit.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, who presided over the escalation of the war in Vietnam, made visits to two carriers from whose decks launched aircraft on combat missions over Southeast Asia—Enterprise (CVAN 65) and Constellation (CVA 64). His overnight stay on board the latter on 17–18 February 1968, included a humorous moment when a testing device came on over the 1MC during Sunday worship services attended by the president, sending personnel running to put a stop to the loud noise. The following year, President Richard M. Nixon went aboard Hornet (CVS 12) and on 24 July 1969, had the opportunity to do what no president before or since has done by welcoming the first men to walk on the moon back to Earth.
President Jimmy Carter, the only Naval Academy graduate to serve as President, visited Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), an ironic choice given the fact that he opposed further construction of nuclear-powered flattops. During a visit to Constellation (CV 64) in 1981, recently inaugurated President Ronald Reagan called the ship “America’s Flagship” in a speech, unwittingly bestowing a nickname that lasted until her decommissioning in 2003. Ironically, Constellation’s replacement in the fleet was none other than Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush, made one of his first policy speeches on board the carrier America (CV 66), stating on 31 January 1989, “I’m pleased to be on one of the greatest ships in the world, with a crew that knows the meaning of the words, ‘my ship, my country,’ the crew of the America.” Nearly all of President Bill Clinton’s exposure to the Navy was on board carriers; he visited five different flattops during his time in the White House. This included observing the fiftieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion on 6 June 1994, on board George Washington (CVN 73). Yet, no Commander in Chief has made a more dramatic visit to a carrier than President George W. Bush, who on 1 May 2003 logged a trap on board Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) while a passenger in an S-3 Viking.
Presidents have also visited naval aviation installations and shipyards during the course of their duties in times of peace and war. When President Harry S. Truman desired to visit his “Little White House” in Key West, Florida, the presidential transport plane carried him to Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West, Florida, or its surrounding fields, from which he was transported by car to the house. President John F. Kennedy made a stop at NAS Jacksonville, Florida, in 1962 to award the Presidential Unit Citation to personnel of Photograph Reconnaissance Squadron (VFP) 62 for their missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Campaign stops, diplomatic trips, and visits in the wakes of natural disasters have also brought the familiar site of “Air Force One” to naval air stations and naval air facilities around the nation and the world.
Though it is U.S. Air Force aircraft that transport the Commander in Chief great distances, shorter trips around Washington D.C. and to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, are carried out by helicopters of the HMX-1’s Executive Flight Detachment. The squadron first flew the Commander in Chief in 1957, when President Eisenhower hopped a ride to the airport while vacationing in Newport, Rhode Island. Soon HMX-1 helicopters were landing on the South Lawn of the White House in a familiar scene that is still the subject for news cameras today. Initially sharing helicopter transport duties with the Army, HMX-1 took sole responsibility of providing helicopter support to the President in 1966. Their meticulously painted and maintained VH-3 Sea King helicopters have served as a backdrop for truly momentous events in American history, including President Nixon’s final wave to White House staff following his resignation and President Bush’s return to the mansion following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Since the time of the founding fathers, Americans and their leaders have understood and appreciated the importance of the navy to a country surrounded on two sides by vast oceans, one of its most potent modern weapons marrying the airplane to operations at sea in defense of the nation and guarding freedom around the world.