Situated on a peninsula between the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay, NAS Patuxent River is located on 6,400 acres (26 km²) of what was once prime farmland, consisting of several large farms, Mattapany, Susquehanna, and Cedar Point, as well as numerous tenant and sharecropper properties and a few clusters of vacation homes. The Cedar Point community included several churches, a post office, and a gas station. Some of the old homes now serve as quarters for Navy personnel stationed there. In 1937, the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics sought to consolidate aviation test programs, previously being conducted at several stations, including Dahlgren and Norfolk, Virginia, the Washington Navy Yard, and Naval Air Station Anacostia in Washington, D.C., and the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cedar Point was selected due to its remote location on the coastline, well removed from air traffic congestion, with ample space for weapons testing.
The Pax River Story: Station Built to Centralize Facilities
Naval Air Station Patuxent River was built to centralize widely dispersed air testing facilities established during the pre-World War II years. Spurred by events of World War II, the consolidation effort was swift, and the farms at Cedar Point, Md., were replaced by flight test operations within a year after ground was broken in 1942.
During the commissioning ceremony April 1, 1943, Rear Adm. John S. McCain, then chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, called NAS Patuxent River “the most needed station” in the Navy.
By mid-August 1943, flight test, radio test, aircraft armament and the aircraft experimental and development squadrons were in place at Pax River. By the end of 1944, the station had formed the service test, electronics test, flight test and tactical test divisions.
Test and Support Functions Divided
The Naval Air Test Center was established as a separate entity on June 16, 1945, organizationally dividing the test and support functions.
During World War II, hundreds of combat experienced pilots arrived at Pax River to test airplanes. The evolution of the Navy test pilot began with rainy day discussions between seasoned veterans and aeronautical engineers. Formalized classroom instruction began in 1948 with the establishment of a Test Pilot Training Division.
The test pilots not only flew the proliferation of U.S airplanes built for the war effort, but were given opportunities to examine enemy aircraft as well. Captured airplanes such as a German Focke-Wulf 190 and Doring DO 335A and Japanese Kate and Tony were test-flown, with findings on their vulnerabilities passed on to fleet pilots.
Pax River’s History Is Studded With Milestones
Radar fire control, radar tracking, airfield lighting and instrument landing techniques were developed and refined at NAS Patuxent River. The first U.S. all jet-powered airplane, the XP-59A, was flight tested here in 1944.
The FR-1 Fireball, a carrier-based fighter which combined a conventional engine and a General Electric jet engine, and the FD-1 Phantom, the first Navy all-jet airplane to operate from a carrier, were tested at Pax River in 1945-1946.
The first U.S. test of the adaptability of jet aircraft to shipboard operations was conducted by the Naval Air Test Center in 1946 when Lt. Cmdr. James Davidson flew a Phantom aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Test pilots were exposed to ejection seats in 1949, barrier engagements in 1951 and a simulated angled deck aboard USS Midway in 1952.
’50s-’60s See Test Programs Expand
The Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, intensified efforts at Pax River. The air station was faced with developing jet aircraft and at the same time improving existing conventional weapons for the war effort. The challenge grew as jet aircraft routinely eclipsed the speed of sound and airplane cannons were supplemented with guided missiles.
Several airborne early warning squadrons operated from Pax River in the 1950s. Among them were VW-2, VW-11 and VW-15. The squadrons patrolled the Atlantic Ocean along the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line until their disestablishment in the 1960s.
NATC’s increased responsibility for development as well as pure testing was acknowledged as early as 1951. Rapidly advancing technology forced changes in test techniques and in the organizational structure.
In 1953, the Tactical Test Division was merged with the Service Test Division. The Weapons Systems Test Division was established in 1960 through the consolidation of the Armament Test and Electronics Test divisions. This nation’s great space adventure started with the selection of the original seven astronauts in 1959. Four of the seven were TPS graduates. In 1961, former Navy test pilot Alan Shepard became the first American in space. A year later, three test pilots from Pax River became the first Americans to orbit the earth.
Hostilities in Southeast Asia in the 1960s brought a sense of urgency to test programs at Pax River, particularly those dealing with ordnance. The unorthodox nature of the action in Vietnam turned the focus at Pax River from technological advancements to further refinement of more conventional weapons.
Anti-Submarine Warfare Buildup
At the same time, a buildup of fleet antisubmarine warfare squadrons was taking place at Pax. River Patrol Squadrons 8, 24, 44, 49 and 56 formed Fleet Air Patuxent and later Fleet Air Wing Five. A detachment from VP-30 was formed at Pax River in 1962; when the detachment was disestablished in 1966, VP-30 was relocated to the air station from Jacksonville, Fla.
Oceanographic Development Squadron Eight, then known as the Oceanographic Air Survey Unit, was home-ported here in 1965, and Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Four was established here in 1968 from a Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO) detachment left behind by Naval Air Transport Squadron One when that unit moved to Norfolk, Va.
Three divisions of the test center, Flight Test, Service Test and Weapons Systems Test, gave up assets to enable the Technical Support Division to form in 1967. Automation of NATC’s data processing brought the Computer Services Division on line in 1968.
In the 1970s the ASW squadrons began leaving Pax River for NAS Brunswick, Maine, and NAS Jacksonville, Fla. VP-30 was the last to go in 1975.
Helping offset the squadron departures, Air Test and Evaluation Squadron One moved here from Key West, Fla., in 1973 and the Naval Aviation Logistics Center was formed in 1977.
Principal Site Testing Built
A sweeping reorganization took place in 1975, preparing NATC for its role as the Naval Air Systems Command’s principal site for development testing. Under the plan, Flight Test, Service Test and Weapons Systems Test divisions were disestablished and new directorates were formed to evaluate aircraft by type and mission.
The new NATC was comprised of Strike Aircraft, Antisubmarine Aircraft, Rotary Wing Aircraft and Systems Engineering test directorates. The Computer Services and Technical Support directorates and the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School remained intact.
Reliability and maintainability became the watchwords in the acquisition process and NATC adopted a reliability-by-design philosophy. Computers were having a profound effect on airplanes and their systems, and testing by simulation as well as by flight was becoming an economic necessity.
A major upgrading of test facilities began in the late 1970s with some of the largest construction appropriations in the history of the base. Reflecting changes spurred by this technological growth, the 1980s saw the Computer Services Directorate become the Computer Sciences Directorate, the Technical Support Directorate become the Range Directorate and the Antisubmarine Aircraft Test Directorate become the Force Warfare Aircraft Test Directorate.
Navy Realignment Brings NAWCAD
In 1991, the Navy began consolidating its technical capabilities to improve its products and services, resulting in the creation of four large warfare centers. One of these, the Naval Air Warfare Center, located in Washington, D.C., has integrated sites and capabilities to improve services to the fleet and sponsors. NAWC streamlined its resources into two divisions: the Aircraft Division located at Pax River and the Weapons Division at China Lake, Calif.
The standup of the NAWC Aircraft Division at Pax River took place Jan. 1, 1992; thus beginning its role as the Navy’s full spectrum research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support center for air platforms. NAWCAD integrated the Naval Air Test Center along with the Naval Air Development Center, Warminster, Pa.; Naval Air Engineering Center, Lakehurst, N.J.; Naval Air Propulsion Center, Trenton, N.J.; and the Naval Avionics Center, Indianapolis.
Since the early 90s, relocated employees from NAWCAD sites at Warminster, Pa., Trenton, N.J., and the Naval Air Systems Command Headquarters in Crystal City, Va., have called NAS Patuxent River home.
Pax River continues to evolve to meet the needs of its employees and mission requirements for today and the future with millions of dollars invested in construction and improvements around the air station.
Major plant improvements have been made and new state-of-the-art laboratories have been added during the last two decades. Such new additions as the Manned Flight Simulator, the Aircraft Anechoic Test Facility, the Air Combat Environment Test and Evaluation Facility, the Aircraft Test and Evaluation Facility, the Capt. Steven A. Hazelrigg Flight Test Facility, the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School academic building and an Aviation Survival Training Center pool facility and a new Air Traffic Control Tower have significantly improved aviation safety and enhanced simulation capabilities.
A $15 million renovation project for Hangar 110, one of the most recognizable structures at the base, was completed in 2013 which extends the life and serviceability of this history faciility.
Also in 2013, a newly constructed $13.1 milllion Child Development Center (CDC) opened its doors. At 38,000 square feet, this CDC is one of the largetst in the Navy and increases the support of the military and civilian workforce at the air station by offering the space to care for more children on base.
Looking to the increased reliance on unmanned aircraft, construction of a new facility to support the Triton program was completed July 2013 - the first of its kind. At over 70,000 square feet, the $33 million hangar now houses three MQ-4C Tritons that are currently undergoing tests and evaluation to ensure the unmanned asset will meet the Navy's specifications, bringing the UAS one step closer to the fleet.
In the coming years, the air station's airfield, known as Trapnell Field, will undergo a multi-million dollar facelift to rehabilitate runway pavements as well as support infrastructure and facilities. Additionally, the project will repair the airfield's electrical infrastructure.
Also on the horizon is a $40 million construction project for a 110,000-square-foot, multi-story facility to house unaccompanied junior enlisted service members. This modern, market-style apartment complex will boast modules comprising sleeping and living areas, a kitchen, bathrooms, closets and in-module laundry facilities.