Ground was broken on August 10, 1917, for the Naval Aircraft Factory at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. This was the only government-owned and operated aircraft production facility in U.S. history. The following text is adapted from 40th Anniversary, NAF 1917, NAEF 1957, at 5-8. (This booklet, which served as a program for a banquet held in October 24, 1957, includes a history of the Naval Aircraft Factory.)
The then-Secretary of the Navy authorized establishment of the Naval Aircraft Factory at the Philadelphia Naval Yard in July of 1917 to enable the U.S. Navy to manufacture airplanes sorely needed in World War I. This act first brought aviation to the Delaware Valley, and gave to naval aviation the first solid base on which it might grow.
Less than eight months after ground was broken on August 10, the first airplane produced by the Naval Aircraft Factory flew off to war. By the end of World War I, the NAF had grown to include several major buildings, a hangar, and a working force of almost 3,600 people.
These employees lost no time in setting the first record for the list of proud achievements that were to mark the next 40 years of operation. The workers produced aircraft at the miraculous rate of two airplanes per day, and by the end of the war had produced 150 twin-engine 11-16 flying boats, and 33 F5L patrol planes.
With the need for airplane production ended at the close of WWI, the skill and facilities of the factory were directed toward experimental research and development of airplanes for the U.S. Navy. Thus, many "firsts" in air flight were accomplished at the Naval Aircraft Factory in the 1920s. Among these, the successful use of light metal alloys in the airship Shenandoah paved the way for the use of aluminum alloys in airplanes. A whole series of flying boats were firsts for NAF, and they set the basis for today's seaplane designs.
The NAF found new fields to conquer when carrier aviation was born. Catapults were first designed by the factory for installation on naval vessels, as naval aviation furnished new eyes for the fleet. The NAF also designed and manufactured the Navy's first carrier based dive bomber. Arresting gear for aircraft carriers was designed by the factory, and the basic features of carrier aviation were established there.
With the signing of the Vinson Trammel Act in 1934, Naval Aircraft Factory efforts were again redirected to production of both airplanes and engines. The law required the Navy to build 1/10 of all its planes and engines, and another "first" was born: the NAF is the only establishment in the aircraft industry ever to build the engines for its own airplanes. The famous N3N trainer, known to thousands of Naval aviators as the "Yellow Peril," is possibly one of the factory's most outstanding products. The NAF ended aircraft production in early 1945.
During this same period, the Navy's first radio-controlled drones and missiles were designed and built by the Naval Aircraft Factory, thus providing the first generation for today's pilotless aircraft and guided missiles.
The existence of the Naval Aircraft Factory was controversial at times, as it put a federally funded industrial activity in direct competition with civilian industry. This was one reason why it was disestablished after WWII. The NAF's aircraft test functions were then passed to the newly formed Naval Air Test Center at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.