Naval aviation history, brought to life


The skies over the Hampton Roads, Va., region are daily crisscrossed by some of the most modern jets in the U.S. military’s inventory, from Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets to Air Force F-22s. But at Norfolk Naval Station on Friday, nothing — nothing — could top the ultra-retro replica Curtiss pusher biplane piloted by the builder, retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Coolbaugh, who flew over Chambers Field as part of the Navy’s commemoration of the first flight off a warship, 100 years ago.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Coolbaugh pilots his replica Curtiss pusher aircraft over Norfolk Naval Station's Chambers Field Friday as part of a ceremony commemorating 100 years of naval aviation. // Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Richard J. Stevens

On Nov. 14, 1910, at 3:16 p.m., civilian aviator Eugene Ely, seated in his Curtiss on a temporary wooden deck built atop the scout cruiser Birmingham, saw a brief opening in the threatening rain and wind and took off over the waters of Hampton Roads, marking the birth of naval aviation. Though it was clear over Norfolk Friday, the winds were a bit stiff. But Coolbaugh stepped to the plate.

Other vintage airplanes flew over the crowd of officials and dignitaries who attended the private event, as well as modern-day Navy aircraft. The replica Curtiss, however, had them all beat. And Coolbaugh, a former naval aviator, didn’t miss the opportunity to display a familiar recruiting pitch:

Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Coolbaugh shows his true colors before boarding his replica Curtiss pusher to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the historic flight by civilian flier Eugene Ely on Nov. 14, 1910, that marked the beginning of naval aviation. // Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Richard J. Stevens


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