The Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) was the U.S. Navy's material-support organization for naval aviation from 1921 to 1959. The bureau had "cognizance" (i.e., responsibility) for the design, procurement, and support of naval aircraft and related systems. Aerial weapons, however, were under the cognizance of the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd).
The first test of an aircraft from naval vessel was in 1910 when a Curtiss Model D flown by Eugene Burton Ely took off from the USS Birmingham (CL-2) and again on USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) in early 1911. These test was enough for the USN to establish naval aviation units in the summer of 1911. The purchase of the first naval aircraft in May 1911 and passage of naval appropriations act in August 1916 lead to the establishment of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps, which would train and deploy air corps for World War I.
Congress established BuAer in 1921 in order to create a single organizational home for naval aviation. Prior to 1921, cognizance for aviation had been divided among various Navy bureaus and other organizations. The first Chief of BuAer was Rear Admiral William A. Moffett (1869–1933), a Medal of Honor recipient and battleship commander who had long supported the development of naval aviation. He served as bureau chief from 1921 until his death in 1933, in the crash of the airship USS Akron (ZRS-4). Working closely with RADM Moffett, CAPT Henry C. Mustin (1874–1923) served as BuAer's first Assistant Chief helping lead naval aviation to the forefront of American military strength.
A talented administrator, Moffett ensured the continued independence of naval aviation during the 1920s, when Army Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell and others sought to merge all U.S. military aviation into a single, independent air force. Upon Moffett's death, he was succeeded as Chief of the Bureau by Rear Admiral Ernest J. King, a future Fleet Admiral and Chief of Naval Operations during World War II. Other important bureau chiefs included Rear Admiral John S. McCain Sr., the grandfather of U.S. Senator John S. McCain III (R-Ariz.).
During the 1930s, BuAer presided over rapid technological change in naval aircraft. The bureau's policy was to limit its own production, in order to support the civilian aircraft industry. BuAer used the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a facility for building small numbers of prototype aircraft.
World War II brought immense changes as well. BuAer was forced to expand rapidly in order to comply with the nation's defense needs. By the war's end, the bureau had developed an administrative structure that oversaw thousands of personnel, and the procurement and maintenance of tens of thousands of aircraft. In 1943, the Navy established the position of Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air, or DCNO(Air), a move which relieved some of BuAer's responsibility for Fleet operations. RADM McCain, now promoted to vice admiral, was the first to fill the position.
BuAer downsized after the war, but continued its focus on aeronautical research and development. But as naval technology became increasingly complex, it became clear that the Navy's material organization was insufficient. In particular, the Navy needed better integration of aerial weapons with naval aircraft. There was also the question of "pilotless aircraft" (the ancestors of the late 20th century's Unmanned Aerial Vehicles); BuAer considered these to be aircraft, while BuOrd saw them as guided missiles.
To fix the problem, in 1959 the Navy merged BuAer and BuOrd to create the Bureau of Naval Weapons (BuWeps). This was only a temporary solution, however, and in 1966 the Navy undertook a wholesale revision of its material organization. The bureau system, which had existed since the 1840s, was replaced with the "Systems Commands" (SYSCOMs). BuWeps was replaced with the current Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).
|Rear Admiral William A. Moffett||July 26, 1921 – April 4, 1933|
|Rear Admiral Ernest J. King||May 3, 1933 – June 12, 1936|
|Rear Admiral Arthur B. Cook||June 12, 1936 – June 1, 1939|
|Rear Admiral John H. Towers||June 1, 1939 – October 6, 1942|
|Rear Admiral John S. McCain Sr.||October 9, 1942 – August 7, 1943|
|Rear Admiral DeWitt C. Ramsey||August 7, 1943 – June 1, 1945|
|Rear Admiral Harold B. Sallada||June 1, 1945 – May 1, 1947|
|Rear Admiral Alfred M. Pride||May 1, 1947 – May 1, 1951|
|Rear Admiral Thomas S. Combs||May 1, 1951 – June 30, 1953|
|Rear Admiral Apollo Soucek||June 30, 1953 – March 4, 1955|
|Rear Admiral James S. Russell||March 4, 1955 – July 15, 1957|
|Rear Admiral Robert E. Dixon||July 15, 1957 – December 1, 1959|