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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of
United States Naval Aviation

Archibald D. Turnbull
and Clifford L. Lord

published by
Yale University Press
New Haven

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p106  Chapter X

Procurement in Wartime

If the wartime increase in their personnel staggered those who had been the founders of Naval Aviation, the huge expansion of their material should have floored them. Where the Navy had not been ready with stations, schools, and training equipment to handle large additions of men, it was equally unprepared to embark upon what was nothing less than big business. Yet embark it did, with results which, all things considered, were to prove markedly effective.

The National Defense Act of June 3, 1916, had provided for a census of American industry, with the purpose of determining just what plants could be converted, either immediately or within a reasonable time, to the manufacture of arms and munitions in enormous quantities. This census had collected a great deal of valuable information, but much of this was worth more to other branches of the Armed Services than it was to Naval Aviation. What had been sought was priority for government orders at all existing plants, but the fact was that the plants then building aircraft were already working almost exclusively on government orders. As far as they were concerned, priority was fully established and therefore the gain to aviation from the survey lay chiefly in learning what other plants might be converted to build aircraft.

In September, 1916, under the Army Appropriation Act of August 29, a Council of National Defense was created. This council was established as the result of the work of the Civilian Industrial Preparedness Committee, made up of prominent citizens who had long recognized the certainty of entry into the war and who had realized that such dreams as that of Mr. Bryan, with have "million men springing to arms," would amount to no more than dreams if there were no arms to which these gallant patriots could spring. The Preparedness Committee, after making nationwide surveys and musters of its own, brought impressive statistics to the  p107 attention of Congress, which responded by establishing the council in this act. Under the law no directing authority was allowed the council but it was given a position from which it could strongly advise those who did have authority. Made up of highly qualified experts from all industries, its collective voice was well worth hearing and heeding when it declared that, as between the two Services, "priority should be given to such needs of the Navy as are intended to be completed within one year." G. B. Clarkson, in his book, Industrial America in the World War, attributed this decision to the "hypothesis that, as the Navy was on a near war‑footing . . . it should be allowed to complete the comparatively small effort that would effect the transition and get into action at an early date." This was a sound enough hypothesis upon the assumption that the Navy would be required to fight a conventional war of fleet actions, because for this its already established supply system appeared adequate if given priority. Actually, however, what followed was a war of small craft, surface and air, against submarines, an unforeseen development which involved many changes in material requirements. In aviation especially, the priority plan did not solve all the problems because that branch had so little advance information as to its probable needs. Moreover, it had to overcome such obstacles in the path of rapid procurement as those which arose from the forehandedness of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Squier in pre‑empting, for the Army, a very large proportion of the nation's existent aircraft-building facilities.

To carry out any procurement problem proposed by the National Council or by any one else, money was the first essential and happily this was forthcoming. The Appropriations Act of April 17, 1917, added $3,000,000 for Naval Aviation to the $3,500,000 provided August 24, 1916; the Deficiency Act of June 15 added another $11,000,000, and this was further increased by $45,000,000 on October 6, 1917. The sum allotted in April was to be spent at the discretion of the President, the June sum at that of the Secretary of the Navy, but the purpose of both provisions was the same. The earlier amounts were appropriated shortly before President Wilson drew upon the Council of National Defense to form the War Industries Board, at the head of which he put the shrewd and forceful Bernard J. Baruch. This board would prove able to hold a reasonably even balance between industry and government, accomplishing its essential purpose of expediting the production of all the thousands of things needed  p108 immediately to fight the war. Under circumstances which were certain to make materials scarcer, to use up the limited supply of machine tools, and to restrict the labor market, the delays that actually slowed the war machine would have been far more serious if the "Baruch Board," as it was soon familiarly known, had not been on hand to shorten those delays by prompt decisions and vigorous pronouncements.

The next forward step in aircraft procurement came in May, 1917, with the establishment of the Aircraft Production Board. This was done at the instigation of Charles D. Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a group whose great services to the nation have already been suggested in these pages. Mr. Walcott proposed that the board be formed to "consider the quantity production of aircraft . . . and to cooperate with the officers of the Army and Navy and of other Departments," and also suggested that there be a "Joint Technical Board of the Army and Navy . . . for determining specifications and methods of inspection for all aircraft . . . for the two services." In approving the Aircraft Production Board, to be headed by Howard E. Coffin, the Council of National Defense stipulated that it should have no powers beyond those of conferring and advising. As time passed, however, and as the Baruch Board absorbed the general functions of the Council of National Defense, the Aircraft Production Board was invested with more of the color of authority. Because it was given strong backing by Baruch, it could stimulate progress in the building program by clearing away such complications as that which loomed up when a horde of agents descended upon Washington to sell foreign planes and motors to the United States, an effort which many considered deliberately designed to slow up building in this country. In all matters of aircraft production the Aircraft Production Board soon had what amounted to "the last word."

On this board the Navy was most ably represented by Rear Adm. David Taylor, whose profound knowledge, great personal charm, and infinite tact were very potent factors in securing what the Navy wanted. Even General Squier, certainly a highly efficient representative of the Army on the board, never got "across the hawse" of Admiral Taylor to monopolize the ears of the four civilians who made up the balance of the board's original membership! An excellent example of the admiral's success was in the  p109 very early matter of allocating plants to build aircraft and parts for the Services. Under his steering the board decided that the Navy would get a part of the Standard Aircraft plant at Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the full output of the following: Aeromarine Plane and Motor Co., Keyport, New Jersey; Boeing Airplane Co., Seattle, Washington; Burgess Co., Marblehead, Massachusetts; Canadian Aeroplanes, Ltd., Toronto, Canada; Curtiss Engineering Corp., Garden City, New York; Gallaudet Aircraft Corp., East Greenwich, Rhode Island; L. W. F. Engineering Corp., College Point, New York; Victor Talking Machine Co., Camden, New Jersey.

Beyond such recommendations as this, which had almost the force of an order, the board acted as mediator and conciliator rather than as an actual procurement agency; that is, it studied programs and policies and then gave almost "compulsory" advice, but it left the actual making of contracts to the Services themselves. In the Navy, negotiations for building were made almost wholly with experienced, well-equipped contractors, under the deliberate policy of not draining scarce material and skilled labor away from firms hard pressed to make deliveries. In this the Navy followed the advice of the Aircraft Production Board and worked closely with it.

By the end of the first summer of war the board's authoritative position was impaired by the creation, in the Army Signal Corps, of a special unit known as the Aircraft Equipment Division. Three civilians, already members of the Production Board, were commissioned as army colonels and were assigned additional duty in this new division, with the inevitable result that confusion as to their exact status resulted. Were they working with the Aircraft Production Board, for all Services, or were they working only in the interests of the Army?

When Congress, by the act of October 1, 1917, gave the Aircraft Production Board legislative standing, it nevertheless empowered it only "to supervise and direct . . . the purchase, production, and manufacture of aircraft, engines . . . ordnance and instruments used . . . including purchase, lease, acquisition or construction of plants . . . Provided, that the Board may make recommendations as to contracts and their distribution . . . but every contract shall be made by the already constituted authorities of the respective departments." Under this law, the board was redesignated the Aircraft Board and was reorganized by adding  p110 two more civilians as members, taking out one of the three new colonels and adding Captain Irwin and Lt. Comdr. A. K. Atkins to support Rear Admiral Taylor. Before long, moreover, under an interpretation of the new law by the Judge Advocate General of the Navy and through an order approved by both the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy, the board officially reverted to the status of a "clearing house," acting in little more than its advisory capacity. As the chairman said in a letter to Senator Chamberlain, its functions were "entirely industrial, having no relation to [those] of military and naval authorities controlling . . . personnel, maintenance, service, and repair." The chairman added that "the officers of the War and Navy Departments . . . skilled in the service side . . . cannot be expected to have intimate knowledge of . . . manufacture . . . or of industrial organization . . ." Nevertheless, its recommendations still had very great weight.

The other body, created in May, 1917, by the two Secretaries at Walcott's suggestion, was the "Joint Technical Board on Aircraft, except Zeppelins." Its tasks were to advise upon types of planes and of motors, to "standardize, as far as possible, the designs and general specifications of aircraft except Zeppelins," and to decide other technical questions referred to it by either Service. This board, too, lacked the authority to enforce its views, but much attention was accorded the programs for the Army and Navy which it promptly issued and similar attention was given the recommendations on technical matters which it made frequently thereafter.

Pending definite understanding of exactly what was needed by the Allies in the way of planes, it was impossible to lay down a schedule of manufacture which would specify actual numbers. In the middle of May, 1917, there was talk of 5,000 planes for all purposes, but by the end of the month the Joint Technical Board had raised that figure to 7,775 of which 7,050 were to be service types. These figures had hardly been mentioned when France asked for a United States program which would put 4,500 planes at the French front by the spring of 1918, a request that brought from the Technical Board the comment that it would involve building a total of 10,000 training planes and 12,000 service planes. The making of such widely different estimates within one month is a clear indication of the generally confused state of planning for either United States Service, for the two together, or for the Allies.

 p111  A typical problem demanding quick solution was that of motors. Should the United States adopt its own motors for mass production or should the best of the European motors be built in American plants? If the latter course were taken, machinery in the United States would have to be adapted before it could turn out foreign models in quantity. Might it not therefore be better to rely upon American engineers to design something mechanically as good as anything built in Europe and, from the standpoint of those who must soon be rolling countless motors off the assembly lines, much better?

A British technical mission was in the United States, with blueprints and a few mechanics to build Rolls-Royce motors, the most powerful and generally most reliable of the foreign types. Much handwork was necessary in their construction and the mission's estimate of an 18‑month output reached only 2,000, whereas the requirements of the United States were already being put at ten times that many. With this in mind the Aircraft Production Board at the end of May decided that a new American design was needed, and on the suggestion of a member, E. A. Deeds, called in J. G. Vinson of the Packard Company and E. J. Hall of Hall-Scott Motors, both of whom had had much experience but neither of whom had yet produced a wholly satisfactory motor. On a morning late in the month of May these two men, with a small group of other engineers and draftsmen, disappeared into the Willard Hotel in Washington, to emerge five days later carrying fresh blueprints. Specialists all over the country were given a hurried opportunity to criticize what was a new departure in 8‑cylinder and 12‑cylinder design, and when none condemned the drawings the Aircraft Precaution Board boldly decided to authorize mass production orally and by telegrams to various manufacturers. On July 3, just 35 days after the original rough sketches had been made, Packard delivered in Washington the first completed motor. The 8‑cylinder, 225‑horsepower design was christened by Rear Admiral Taylor the Liberty.

Early reports on performance were so enthusiastic that plans to build the Rolls-Royce at the Pierce Arrow plant in Buffalo could be dropped. A little later, when it was decided that 12‑cylinder Liberties would do even better, there followed a reshuffling of the orders which had already been placed for 22,500 of the 8‑cylinder models. Since mass production was really underway by that time, even the delays caused by this change were not so long  p112 that the deliveries hoped for by the beginning of 1918 could not very nearly be achieved — a great tribute to American manufacturers.

In June of 1917, before the success of the Liberty was assured, a joint Army and Navy commission had been sent abroad to study Allied progress in the design and building of aircraft and to recommend a complementary program for the United States. Headed by Maj. R. C. Bolling of the Army, the commission bore his name but it included Capts. V. E. Clark, E. S. Correll, and H. Marmon for the Army; Naval Constructor Westervelt and Lieut. W. G. Child for the Navy; and Mr. Herbert Hughes, of the Packard Motor Company, as civilian expert. It was hoped to perfect immediate plans under which factories in Europe could meet the requirements of United States forces in service planes, carrying this load until the American factories were adapted to take over. As it turned out, however, this commission's report was not made until September, by which date the plans drawn in the Bureau of Construction and Repair for flying boats had been completed and actual building had begun. Time was of such importance that the American program was launched as soon as assembly lines could be fitted to handle the Liberty motor.

When the commission's report was finally made, it recommended that the air power of the Navy might most quickly and effectively be applied through kite balloons on destroyers, with flying boats for patrol or for antisubmarine attacks. The commission also reported upon its efforts to secure examples of foreign planes and motors to serve as models from which mass production might be developed in the United States. Among these was a De Havilland light bomber which actually was put into production by the Army without, however, any provision for producing its motor, armament, or other accessory equipment. In the outcome, the winter of 1917 would be over before all the types thus obtained by the commission had been received, and this would be too late to make them of any great use. Much the same result applied to the commission's recommendations as to foreign motors, such as its comment that the Rolls-Royce, most powerful of those in use abroad, "required very skillful mechanics to keep it in commission at the front," and its suggestion that the United States begin production of the Hispano-Suiza, Gnome, and Rhone, while carrying on experiments with the new Bugatti and Lorraine-Dietrich, and waste no time on the Renault, Fiat, or Isotta-Fraschini because these were considered  p113 too heavy per horsepower generated. By the time these recommendations had been received it had already been decided that the Liberty should go into mass production. One thing the commission did effect was an arrangement for the concentration of European plants on the building of theoretically up‑to-the‑minute fighters, while the United States should build training planes, heavy bombers, and flying boats.

The commission described French manufacturers as confident that they could not only supply the needs of their own air service but also furnish the United States with 8,000 combat planes, 8,500 motors, and about 1,000 training planes; all these, however, contingent upon the delivery from the United States of the necessary raw material. The theory was that the manufacture in France in such quantity as these would make it possible for American naval aviators to get into action overseas before any substantial number of flying boats could be delivered by the United States. Bolling reported that he had placed orders, for delivery by June 1, 1918, of the following: 725 Nieuports for training; 150 Spads; 1,500 Breguets; 200 Spads for service; 1,500 Nieuports for service operation; 1,500 Renault motors; 4,000 Hispanos; 3,000 Gnomes; 500 S.I.A.‑6B reconnaissance and day bombing planes; 200 to 300 Caproni biplanes. Eventually, the French proved that they had been far too optimistic in estimating their own building capacity. Of the total numbers called for by their contract with the United States, signed August 30, 1917, only one third, including those for both the Army and the Navy, had been delivered by May, 1918, whereas all were to have been delivered by June 1.

Technical members of the Bolling Commission, including representatives of both Services, made a supplementary report covering several recommendations. Because almost daily improvements in Allied designs were being made as the result of practical experience in combat, and also because of the long distance between United States factories and the front, great stress was laid upon rapid delivery of materials for plane building. Such materials occupied relatively less cargo space than was needed for finished planes, and they would be an important help to production overseas because, in the words of the report, it was certain that "it is not going to be possible to produce or battlefront airplanes than there will be use for."

If, however, the decision should be made to carry out an extensive program of manufacture in the United States, shipping the  p114 assembled planes abroad, then, said the report, very large stowage, repair, and assembly plants would be required, near Paris for the Army and on the seacoasts of France and Great Britain for the Navy. Since Allied facilities were already strained to the limit, the United States would have to build and man the additional stations, an undertaking which would involve the organization and training of "mechanical regiments."

The commission also recommended the establishment of a new joint Army and Navy technical board to provide a special technical intelligence organization with very broad authority over aircraft supply and operation. In England and in Italy, where such organizations existed, they had been very effective; in France, where there was nothing of the kind, conditions were described as "closely approximating unfriendliness between the air departments of the two services, which had resulted in marked differences in the developments of these two air departments." Further, if great numbers of planes were to be bought in Europe by the United States, the commission considered that there should be established, say in France, a special industrial organization in which was vested high authority to supervise the program. It was suggested that this organization might be made a branch of the existing Aircraft Production Board.

Westervelt and Child, representing the Navy among the technical members, noted that "Great Britain and France . . . have not realized until lately the importance of [aerial] measures [against submarines]. The time which will be required for them to establish sufficient stations . . . will be many months, and the United States can extend the availability of these stations by establishing and operating as many as possible." The two concurred in a recommendation made abroad that the United States expand its air patrols on the coast of Ireland, on the coast of France, and, if possible, on the coast of Portugal. They also expressed their "settled conviction that the importance of bombing operations with direct military ends in view cannot be exaggerated." Quite possibly it was what these two said that most influenced Rear Admiral Taylor and Rear Admiral Griffin to endorse the recommendation that air offensives against U‑boats take precedence over all other aviation measures, a definite policy established by the Aircraft Board on November 8, 1917.

When it came to building under this policy, it was the Liberty motor which marked the great advance in the flying boat program.  p115 The largest of the older boats, the H‑12, of limited cruising radius and small bomb-carrying capacity, had been replaced by the HS‑1, but the latter proved disappointing because the motor built for it lacked power. At the end of October, 1917, however, an HS‑1 equipped with a Liberty rose so easily and quickly from the waters of Lake Erie that observers telegraphed the Navy Department: "This is our patrol ship!" From that moment, as far as motors were concerned, Whiting would be quite right when he said "our eggs are certainly in one basket." Fortunately the Liberty proved to be just the stout, strong basket that the hour demanded. Even when the still larger H‑16 flying boat came to be built it could get all the necessary power from the Liberty.

Originally it was proposed that three of the H‑16 boats, with ten of the HS‑1 and seven of the small R‑6 training planes, should be sent to each United States naval air base established overseas. Since the estimates called for full replacement every three months, and since other planes of all three types would be needed in the United States, this allocation implied the delivery during 1918 of 2,630 HS‑1, 788 H‑16, and 4,478 R‑6, a building program which almost no one believed possible of achievement. These figures had hardly been worked out before they were modified by the discovery that the Liberty was "too much motor for the R‑6," a plane already unpopular with aviators overseas. This led to replacing it, for the European program, by the flying boats, and also led to a general recalculation of requirements. After considerable slashing of the figures submitted, those finally adopted in October, 1917, constituted what was known as the "Seventeen Hundred Program": 235 H‑16, 825 HS‑1, and, for home training, 640 R‑6. Motors, allowing for estimated replacement, included 2,289 Liberties and 200 of the Curtiss V‑2 type. Kite balloons to the number of 600, mostly of the Cagnot‑M type, were included on the recommendation of the Bolling Commission that, launched either from land or from ships, they would be useful in spotting submerged submarines.

For training purposes, in addition to the R‑6, the Army's JN and the latter's half sister in the Navy, the N‑9, were accepted, and plants already operating could produce these types fast enough to meet the needs of student pilot taking the six months' course. Contracts for most of this production could therefore be made with Curtiss, the balance being distributed between Burgess, Boeing, and the Aeromarine Company, always provided that a  p116 solution could be found for the problems arising from the patent laws and the royalties they prescribed. As early as February, 1917, the War and Navy Departments, alive to these problems, urged the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to appoint a special subcommittee to find a solution. By July that subcommittee, of which Towers was a member, had succeeded, with the assistance of various other boards, in getting the producers organized into a Manufacturers Aircraft Association, pooling the basic Curtiss patents and the basic Wright patents with enough others to make the rather astonishing total of 192. A "cross-license" argument was drawn, under which all concerned would be satisfied with royalties and so general was the satisfaction that some 50 companies in all joined the association before the end of the war.

Notwithstanding that everything was being planned with civilian builders, it had for some time been evident that to provide a dependable source of flying boats and seaplanes there must be some form of government-owned factory. An argument having been reached with Congress, the Secretary of the Navy, on July 27, 1917, authorized $1,000,000 to build a Naval Aircraft Factory. Ground was broken at Philadelphia in August, the first mechanic was hired on October 1, and the manufacture of the first flying boat was begun on October 17. On November 14, just 114 days after the award of the contract for the building, the entire plant had been completed at a cost of about $3,750,000 under the supervision of Comdr. F. G. Coburn of the Construction Corps. At the end of March, 1918, the first H‑16 boat was finished and ready for testing. By June a production rate of one flying boat a day had been reached, while by comparison with the average cost of building the first ten boats the current average cost represented a reduction of one half, a figure comparing very favorably with costs at private plants. The main difficulty was the employment problem, a serious one because of the Navy's fixed policy of not attempting to lure good workmen away from private concerns. Certain exemptions were made in civil service requirements which had further complicated this problem, and ultimately about one quarter of the whole force employed was made up of women. Not only did the factory run at full speed in manufacturing but it also established a training course for enlisted mechanics to familiarize them with construction and with machinery which they would ultimately have to maintain in the field.

As combat operations by the naval air arm expanded and intensified,  p117 the building program was necessarily revised until at the end of 1917 it had grown to include 864 twin-motored H‑16's the latest flying boat. By January 1, 1919, Curtiss and the Naval Aircraft Factory together could produce 384 of these boats, but to provide the rest it became necessary to evolve a plan for subcontracts. Under this plan yacht builders, woodworking and metalworking plants of many kinds, and even piano makers, were called upon to produce various parts of the flying boats for assembly at the Naval Aircraft Factory. No sooner had this been effected than it became clear that the British F‑5 flying boat, with its double bomb-carrying capacity and its greater cruising radius, might to a considerable extent properly replace the H‑16; modified to permit using the Liberty motor, it could be produced in quantity in the United States. This change was made and, by April, 1918, the Naval Aircraft Factory was producing the type, renamed F‑5‑L, with numerous subcontracts similar to those just described. Within another few weeks the factory had become, to all intents and purpose, an assembly, rather than a manufacturing plant and for this reason had been considerably expanded in size.

Meantime, in lighter-than‑air craft, some difficulty was experienced in producing a durable fabric, until information upon researches conducted in England became available and was so well applied that American fabric eventually became the best used by the Allies. In May of 1917 Goodyear completed the first of the B‑class nonrigids ordered in February, and sent it upon a test flight from Akron to Chicago. Within ten miles of the latter city shortage of fuel forced the ship down into a meadow, but even so the flight was the longest on the nonrigid record up to that time, good evidence that Hunsaker had a sound design. At intervals during the succeeding months sister ships were delivered until by the end of the year six were operating from stations on the Atlantic coast. Each one showed a few improvements over its immediate predecessor, such as leaving off one vertical fin, simplifying car suspension to bring the car closer to the envelope, installing air pipes on the ballonets inside the envelope and, through better propeller, increasing speed from 40 to 48 mph. Before the war ended these ships trained about 170 lighter-than‑air pilots, of whom many went overseas to operate Allied dirigibles.

This building program, with its many successive modifications, obviously required huge sums and presented many problems that involved "carrying" contractors for considerable periods. Prices,  p118 too, were a continuous question of give and take. Although the War Credit Board and the War Finance Corporation, both established by President Wilson in April, 1918, eventually took over the whole financial problem, it was the Aircraft Board that hit upon what was known as the "bogey price" contract, under which any manufacturer was assured a 15 per cent profit on his work and might, if he saved on costs without skimping specification, add to this a bonus representing one quarter of the sum he saved. Solutions such as this were generally applied throughout the whole procurement program, as combined for both Services, but occasionally there arose a special case in which the Navy had to find for itself a particular procedure. One instance was the critical matter of the supply of spruce, the Navy finally going into the market to buy great quantities of the New England variety which, in the long run, proved quite as good as the Sitka spruce that had been almost wholly bought up by the Army.

When the results of the huge procurement program came to be added to the results of the wide-spread training program, the outstanding question was: given this material and these men, what could Naval Aviation do to help win the war?

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