Naval Academy’s impact on Pensacola is enormous. Give them a nod.

Capt. Tim Kinsella

Guest columnist

Young men and women enter into military service for a host of reasons. Some personal, some altruistic, some selfish, and some even perhaps to escape a place, memory or person and pursue a future of hope and potential. My reasons for joining were mostly tied up in a desire for adventure and a pathway to a good education.

I couldn’t afford college, so I enlisted with the idea of earning my education through military service, and what better place than the Navy to find adventure. And so during my first few years I applied to every program available, and finally, after countless interviews, applications, and disappointments, on the afternoon of my 21st birthday I received a thin white envelope addressed to Radioman 2nd Class (SS) Kinsella from the Secretary of the Navy.

In it was a letter congratulating me for being one of a select few to receive a Secretary of the Navy nomination to attend the United States Naval Academy with the Class of 1996. It was a birthday present I’ll never forget. A few months later, however, I received another letter, this one from the Academy Admissions Office, informing me that I had not been accepted and thanking me for my interest.

Capt. Tim Kinsella

I was deflated and frustrated. All my hopes, dreams, and aspirations blew out of me like air from a burst balloon. I was too old to apply again, so that was it. Dream finished. Until my division officer, Lt. Brooks Clark, said to me, “Listen, what if I can get you an interview at the Academy, will you drive up for it?” At the time I was stationed on the USS KENTUCKY, a submarine in Kings Bay, Georgia. “No way,” I replied. “The Academy doesn’t do interviews.” I thought he was crazy, because from everything I knew, the Academy never allowed interviews during the application process. Everything was based on the applicant’s record. We went back and forth for a little bit until he finally told me, “I don’t care what the Academy says or what you think, you deserve to go there, so consider this an order. You’re going up there for an interview, like it or not.”

A week later Lt. Brooks told me that I was to report to Leahy Hall at the United States Naval Academy and meet with Captain Smith, the Admissions Officer. I had just wrecked my car, so I rented a beautiful teal green Ford Mustang convertible and drove up there in my dress blues all the way from Kings Bay, Georgia. I met with Captain Smith, we sat on a bench in the hallway, and we had a chat. He saw something he liked in me, and immediately offered me a place in the Class of ’96. I walked out of Leahy Hall in a daze, hopped into my Mustang and drove down Route 50 with the top down, grinning like a Cheshire cat with my neckerchief flapping in the brisk April breeze. I was to be the first in my family to go to college. I will always cherish the memory of the phone call I made to my parents that morning. It was a conversation of fulfilled promises and hope for the future. I think of Lt. Clark often. I have tried to repay his belief in me by encouraging and mentoring young Sailors and High Schoolers who need that little extra boost to fulfill their dreams. Because he helped me, there’s a lot of young men and women I was able help on their path to a commission, either through the Academy or elsewhere. It is my hope that each one of them will do the same in turn, thus creating several generations of Naval Officers, all stemming from Lt. Clark’s belief and kindness towards me.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account

I share this story for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the Naval Academy is an institution very close to my heart. It gave me a future, and allowed me to grow beyond what I thought I was capable of. I will always feel a debt of gratitude to that great institution for the opportunities it presented to me and for the friendships I garnered during my four years there. And while the Naval Academy is important to my personal story, it is also integral to the story of NAS Pensacola. You may not think of it, but the Naval Academy has been an integral part of the Pensacola story since its first graduates joined the Fleet prior to the Civil War. For a continuous period from the mid-1870s until well after WWII, every commanding officer of the Navy Yard and subsequently the Naval Air Station, was a Naval Academy Graduate. This also holds true for the vast majority of Naval Aviators who earned their wings of gold at NAS Pensacola from 1914 up until the beginning of WWII, because until the introduction of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and conscription, the Naval Academy was, for all intents and purposes, the sole producer of Naval Officers.

The names of Naval Academy graduates still linger in the air around this old base. It was Henry Mustin, USNA Class of 1896, who arrived at the abandoned Pensacola Navy Yard in 1914, with orders from Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, to establish the Navy’s first Naval Aeronautical Station. The Mustin Beach Officer’s Club is named for him. Incidentally, it was Mustin’s wife, Corinne, who invited Wallis Simpson, for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the throne of Great Britain, to live with them in their house on the Air Station. She ended up marrying Naval Aviator Lt. Earl Winfield Spencer and a house on base still bears the marks of her home additions. If you have watched the Netflix series, “The Throne,” you know the rest of the story!

Chevalier Field, the first paved airfield at NAS Pensacola and now the home of the Naval Air Technical Training Center, is named for Lieutenant Commander Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier, USNA class of 1910, and designated as Naval Aviator No. 7. Following the Naval Academy, Chevalier trained here in Pensacola as a student and taught as one of the first instructor pilots. Whiting Field in Milton is named for Capt. Kenneth Whiting, USNA Class of 1905, who was a guiding hand in the early days of Naval Aviation. He led the first American military detachment to land in France during WWII, departing with a sea plane detachment from Pensacola in 1917. As the executive officer on board the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the USS LANGLEY, he noticed the pilots having difficulty judging the roll of the ship as they were attempting to land. As the story goes, Whiting grabbed a couple of “dixie cups” (nickname for a Sailor’s white hat), put one in each outstretched hand, and used them as “paddles” to “wave” the incoming pilots aboard, using his arms to guide them on the correct attitude of their wings. And so was born the invaluable position of “paddles” that remains to this day, a winged aviator who stands on the edge of the flight deck to guide incoming pilots to a safe landing, in all weather, day or night.

In the 176 years since the Naval Academy’s founding, more than 50 of the Pensacola Navy Yard and NAS Pensacola commanding officers have been graduates of that venerable institution. So strong are the ties between the two, that for many years the words “Annapolis of the Air” were emblazoned across the Air Operations building, there for all incoming personnel to see. The Academy is the spiritual home for many of us, but for those of us who are lucky enough to wear wings of gold, Pensacola has been a welcome physical home. A place where every Naval Aviator holds close to their heart as it is where their love of aviation began. Academy graduates continue to return to Pensacola either for military duty, to raise their family, or to retire, and as long as the Naval Air Station remains, those links will continue to grow.

Now, I know most of you reading this consider yourselves Alabama, Auburn, Seminole or Gator stalwarts, but I would offer to you that the Naval Academy has probably had more impact on Pensacola than any other educational institution. So, while I’d never ask you to forsake your alma mater or lifelong love affair with orange or blue, I humbly ask that you give a nod to the strong links between Annapolis and Pensacola, and for just one Saturday in December, you turn on the TV to watch the Blue and the Grey battle it out on the gridiron, and you join the thousands of Navy faithful at the end of the national anthem as we collectively yell, “GO NAVY!! BEAT ARMY!!!”

Capt. Tim “Lucky” Kinsella is commanding officer of NAS Pensacola.