Henry C. Mustin was also a Navy pilot. In fact, he was the third Navy pilot—ever.
In the early 1900s, shortly after the invention of the airplane, the Navy started taking an interest in flight. The need for a training facility was recognized and the planning commenced. Originally, Annapolis was slated to be the site for the new flight school, but Pensacola was chosen because of a climate that allowed for year-round flight. On Jan. 20, 1914, the first ever Naval aviation unit came to town. Nine officers, 24 enlisted men and seven planes were sent to turn the defunct Navy yard into the new Naval Aeronautics Station. Mustin became the first commanding officer.
After his arrival, Mustin wrote to his wife that the facility was in terrible condition. His observations were that it had been abandoned for more than 50 years and since then used as a dump. He noted that a lot of work was needed to get the air school in commission for students. Mustin projected that it would take two weeks before the flying school could commence, as they needed to build runways and to clear the beach in front of the runways.
Besides flight training, the Navy’s initial focus was on integrating airplanes into its marine defenses. With the recent inventions of aircraft carriers and seaplanes, the connection came naturally. But it was Mustin who helped solidify the marriage of air and water. He was the first man ever to launch an airplane off a moving carrier with the use of a catapult. On Nov. 5, 1915, Mustin successfully flew an AB-2 flying boat from the deck of the USS North Carolina.
Early versions of the catapult involved a truck on rails that would draw the plane back using ropes, springs and pulleys. The only problem was that when the tension on the line was released, the truck would fall into the ocean. Eventually a braking system was established, but an even better method came about through the use of air pressure. Mustin used the pressure system to establish the process for launching planes at sea.
Mustin continued his aeronautical legacy in 1920 with another first. He commanded 14 planes in the first ever round-trip flight to Panama. The total flying time for the 7,000-mile trip was 109 hours. The formation made the trip flying at an average speed of 60 miles per hour.
In 1921, Mustin was promoted to the position of Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. Not long after, he was admitted to the Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C. while suffering from chest pains. After an illness lasting several months, he died on Aug. 23, 1923. He is remembered as the Father of Naval Aviation.