On November 5, 1915, Lt. Commander Henry C. Mustin’s Curtiss AB-2 seaplane catapulted off the deck of the USS North Carolina and soared over Pensacola Bay and into the pages of history.
The flight was a watershed moment in the development of naval aviation. It was the first time anywhere in the world that a plane had been launched by catapult from a moving ship. At the time, the very concept of naval aviation — the idea that airplanes could be reliably launched from ships — was new and unproven. Mustin’s flight cemented Pensacola’s place as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation” and established the basic mechanism which, despite a century of technological innovation, is still in use on aircraft carriers today.
Pensacola has been a Navy town for nearly two centuries, since the Pensacola Navy Yard was opened in 1826. But the city’s Navy heritage nearly came to an abrupt end in the early years of the 20th century. Following a brutal yellow fever epidemic and a devastating hurricane in 1906, the federal government closed the Navy Yard in 1911. But three years later, the abandoned base got a new lease on life when officials chose Pensacola as the Navy’s first aeronautical training station, and it reopened as Naval Aeronautical Station Pensacola.
Henry Croskey Mustin was among the detachment which arrived at the base on January 20, 1914 aboard the USS Mississippi, tasked with establishing the new station. Mustin recorded his first impressions in a letter to his wife Corinne.
“We have done some hustling since arrival for the yard is a wreck and the beach we have to use for hangars is full of driftwood and all kinds of junk,” Mustin wrote. “The whole place is in scandalous condition, and I surely have a job on my hands. It looks as if it had been abandoned 50 years ago and since then had been used as a dump. However, there are fine possibilities in the place.”
“It will take two weeks hard work before we can start the flying school for we have to build runways and do a lot of grading,” Mustin continued. “I have 200 blue jackets on that kind of work and they seem to enjoy it. All officers and men are working hard with plenty of enthusiasm so we have made a good start.”
In April 1915, with flight training fully underway, Mustin — who by then had been designated Naval Aviator No. 11 — was named the base’s commanding officer. That September, the USS North Carolina arrived at the base.
The idea of launching planes from ships using catapults was only a few years old, conceived in 1911 by Capt. Washington I. Chambers, then in charge of the Navy’s aviation program. With the help of Lt. Theodore Gordon Ellyson — Naval Aviator No. 1 — several prototypes were designed and constructed at the Washington Navy Yard in the nation’s capital.
But Navy leadership wasn’t yet sold on the value of aviation, and it wasn’t until 1915 that officials approved testing the catapult at sea. A new, larger prototype was fabricated and installed on a barge in Pensacola Bay. After several successful tests, Mustin sought and received permission to install the catapult on the North Carolina. Around 11:30 a.m. on the morning of November 5, Mustin climbed into the seat of his Curtiss AB-2 and made history.
“An Aeroplane is Shot From Ship’s Deck,” read the headline in the next morning’s Pensacola Journal.
“For the first time in the history of the world an aeroplane has been shot from the deck of a battleship while the latter was underway,” the Journal wrote. “Pensacola can claim the honor of being the place, [Lt. Cmdr] H.C. Mustin the aviator and the United States battleship North Carolina the vessel.”
“Admiral Benson has been here on an unofficial visit and yesterday morning it was decided to try the catapult, the new device with which the North Carolina is fitted and which drives an aeroplane from the deck using compressed air,” the Journal continued. “Accordingly the North Carolina cast off from the deck at the aero station, where she has been moored, and pulled out into the bay. The machine, a Curtiss hydro-aeroplane, was lifted to the deck run-way, and when all was in readiness the compression device sent the flying machine down the run-way with its engine hooked up, and the ‘trick was turned’ successfully amid the cheers of all on board. Admiral Benson took off his hat and cheered with the rest.”
“Mustin described the sensation, as the enormous pressure behind shot him forward, as being something like the sensation one gets in the pit of the stomach when an elevator drops, only more so,” the Journal added.
In the decades which followed Mustin’s historic flight, the catapult has been continually refined, powered by gunpowder, then hydraulics, then steam. Today, the Navy is developing the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, to replace steam catapults on its next generation of aircraft carriers.
Mustin was transferred from Pensacola in 1917 and went on to command the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Air Detachment, during which he led a flight of a dozen airplanes on a record breaking 3,019-mile flight from San Diego, California, to Balboa, Panama in 1919. In 1921, he reported to Washington, D.C. to serve as Assistant Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, but he fell ill in January 1923 and was admitted to the hospital. After a protracted illness, Mustin died that August at just 49 years old.
Despite his untimely death, Mustin’s lasting contributions to the Navy have been well-honored. The destroyer USS Mustin (DD-413) was named for him, and the guided missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG-89) was named for the Mustin family, honoring him as well as his descendants, three of whom have served the Navy as flag officers. The Henry C. Mustin Naval Air Facility, in operation in Philadelphia from 1926 to 1967, also bore his name; and aboard NAS Pensacola, Mustin Beach and the nearby officer’s club are named for him.