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Chapter 24

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

by
Archibald D. Turnbull
and Clifford L. Lord


published by
Yale University Press
New Haven
1949

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,
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Chapter 26
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p270  Chapter XXV

Aviation in the Fleet Exercises

Quite apart from the growing enthusiasm among the midshipmen, many of the Navy's best older minds were becoming more occupied by aircraft and carriers. In the Fleet exercises of 1927 and 1928 the good use made of the Langley and her planes again demonstrated the vulnerability of the Panama Canal to air attack and also showed the vital importance of providing air cover for all convoys as well as for the battle line. Little by little the progress of the 1,000‑plane building program was making it possible to supply, to ships of the various types, up‑to‑date aircraft with which war conditions could be more closely simulated. Finally, in January, 1929, came the moment when the Lexington and Saratoga, after "shakedown" cruises in which each had given an excellent performance, were ready to join the Fleet, to replace "constructive" carriers and make it possible to prove or disprove what had so long been mere hypothesis.

As the war games of 1929 began, it was assumed that hostilities had been in progress for some months. Adm. William V. Pratt was in the Pacific in command of the Black, or attacking force, which consisted of the battle fleet, a group of submarines, a supply train and, as originally planned, the Saratoga and the Langley. When it appeared that the latter ship would not complete her overhaul in time, the Aroostook was substituted, her one plane representing the Langley's squadron of 24. This force was about to attack the Canal, defended by the Blue Fleet under Vice Adm. Montgomery Taylor. Blue, concentrated in the Atlantic, was the Scouting Force, its submarines and supply train, and the Lexington, with the support of the army forces at the Canal, including 37 planes, and the naval defense force of the 15th Naval District with 12 more planes. Some of Blue's sea force was beginning the westward transit of the Canal at the instant when the game began.

Admiral Pratt had 116 aircraft, while Admiral Taylor had 145, the total representing by far the largest assembly of aircraft in  p271 any exercise up to that time. As the inferior in planes, Pratt based his plan upon avoiding air attack on his carriers and upon the probability that the Canal's defense against air attack would not be very effective. Accordingly he ordered the Aroostook's "squadron" to attack the Atlantic end of the Canal while the Saratoga, sweeping south of the main body, was to launch her planes against the Pacific end in time to make the two attacks simultaneous. He was of course aware that the Aroostook's squadron would be so far from its mother ship that it would not have enough fuel to return to her, but he counted upon that very fact as a reason for the attack being a surprise one and gave orders that the "squadron" should push home its bombing, then land on the beach and surrender.

On the morning of January 24 the main force of Blue, made up of a battleship division, the Lexington, and a squadron of destroyers, was 280 miles out from Panama when its scouts located Black. As the Lexington began launching her planes, the clearing weather revealed a Black battleship division within 30,000 yards, which meant that the carrier was under fire until the range closed to 16,000, when a squall obscured her. Very probably actual shooting would have sunk her but the umpire ruled her authorized to proceed at the reduced speed of 18 knots and permitted her to launch two air attacks against Black.

Meanwhile the Saratoga, with the cruiser Omaha, had continued south to reach position for her planned attack next day. On her way she disposed of a Blue destroyer but the Blue cruiser Detroit tracked her through the night and reported her position. The Lexington, dispatched by Admiral Taylor to the attack, found her prescribed slow speed such a handicap that she could not make contact. By next morning the Saratoga was in position to send in flights of 17 dive bombers, 17 torpedo bombers, 32 fighters, and three planes especially equipped for communications, all of which arrived over their target without interference. The lone Sikorsky launched from the Aroostook, perhaps because it was one plane and not the squadron Blue might be hunting, reached the Atlantic end of the Canal and carried out its orders exactly. Theoretically, the simultaneous bombings blew up the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel lock and damaged the air fields at Fort Clayton and Albright. Nine defending army fighters came up from these fields but they were hopelessly outnumbered and the Saratoga's planes returned to her with only one technical loss. As they were landing on her  p272 deck, however, Blue bombers from the Lexington came in, and the returning planes were unable to make adequate counterattack. Later the Saratoga and Omaha, while attempting to join their main body, instead met Blue's battleship division and came under heavy fire. The record indicates that the Saratoga was not sunk, however, for the next day saw her planes covering those of the main body, which were spotting a bombardment of the Canal. Her fighters went inland and had a brush with land-based Blue bombers just as the latter took off for what they thought was a bombing run over the Saratoga but which turned out to be over their own ship, the Lexington. Meanwhile the Saratoga, by that time defended only by her own guns, came under heavy attack by army bombers but was saved by the official ending of the exercises.

Although there were some unfortunate breaks in radio communication between planes, and several instances in which friend and foe had been mistaken for one another, the essential lesson was plain enough. Admiral Pratt's bold gamble had given carrier aircraft their first real opportunity and good advantage of this had been taken. The fast carrier for which Mustin, Whiting, and others had pleaded now occupied so definite a place that all existing plans for future war at sea must be revised to provide for it. Even those who still regarded the battleship as the chief factor of Fleet actions could not but admit the striking power of a properly handled air force, both offensively and defensively; and the report of Adm. Henry Wiley, Commander in Chief, emphasized the impossibility of beating off air attacks, either upon ships or upon the coastlines, with anything but stronger aircraft. The admiral also stressed the Fleet's need for numerous small carriers to replace the cruisers as scouts, a need made apparent by the difficulty with which the cruisers, during the exercises, recovered their returning planes. If any further argument was necessary, this was furnished by the exercises of 1930 in which the Lexington's planes, this time numbered with the "attackers," scored heavily against the defending battleships to show how suddenly command of the air might be seized and how much this command must affect the outcome of an action.

These 1930 exercises brought up for particular study the "carrier group," then for the first time defined as a complete tactical unit consisting, for example, of one carrier, four cruisers, and two destroyer squadrons. Vice Adm. Carey Cole, commanding the defending ships in the game, raised several questions. Even with its  p273 great mobility, he asked, could such a group avoid attack by surface ships? Could it, especially at night, escape its enemy's torpedoes? What were its full possibilities as a means of reducing enemy strength before a major engagement, or as a means of holding control of the air long enough for its support to arrive and make that control complete? To all these questions Rear Adm. Frank Brumby, commander of the attacking aircraft, gave answers wholly in favor of the air arm, and he urged the formation of numerous carrier groups, to be trained for independent but simultaneous attacks ahead of their supporting Battle Fleet.

In 1931 the games began with the assumption that "a Pacific power" was attacking both the Panama Canal and a hypothetical Nicaragua Canal at a moment when the United States was doubtful about the neutrality of "a European power." This made it necessary to keep part of the United States Fleet off New England but it left the two big carriers with the defenders in the south. The conditions and the course of the game were such that both carriers almost exhausted their fuel and thus became only 50 per cent effective against attackers who were able to land in two places and establish air fields. Rear Admiral Reeves, commanding the striking force, was moved to comment that "the air force cannot stop the advance of battleships and prevent them from . . . landing," but he did add that ships and planes were "mutually dependent," and he admitted that the planes would "directly affect battleship design in the matter of maximum gun‑range . . . by means of airplane spotting." Admiral Pratt, by this time ashore as Chief of Naval Operations, found it "the consensus . . . that air attack as a means of defense against approaching fleets is of less value than had been expected," while Adm. F. H. Schofield, commenting strongly upon the lack of effective methods of refueling carriers at sea, was also inclined to doubt the effectiveness of planes. The latter, however, when assignment as chief umpire of a later exercise gave him the opportunity to witness what he described as a "beautifully coordinated attack" upon the Saratoga by planes from the Lexington, modified his earlier views and called air operations "a demonstration of efficient training and of excellent material."

An important feature of this efficient training had been demonstrated by the dive bombers in attacks against the radio-controlled Stoddert and the destroyers Marcus and Sloat. The vulnerability of such small craft became particularly plain when they were  p274 raked from close overhead with 50‑caliber machine guns, whose shots penetrated decks and bulkheads; when 30‑pound demolition bombs smashed searchlights, boats, and torpedo tubes. The conclusion was that bomber attacks, delivered with the viciousness of which the Navy's pilots were now capable, could be stopped only by much better shooting from many more antiaircraft guns than were then mounted by small or even by larger ships. Along similar lines, the effect of aircraft upon the operations of submarines was also made apparent when the subs, necessarily surfacing when they had scouting information to report by radio, found themselves promptly set upon by planes diving as falcons stoop to sparrows. Here were more problems on the relation of planes to ships.

Rear Admiral Yarnell, whose opinion gained weight as advancing rank broadened his responsibility and emphasized his professional standing, took an active part in the study of the use of aircraft. After he had commanded the Blue aircraft in the 1932 games, he urged the importance to the Fleet of more carriers. He estimated that any plan to operate across the Pacific would necessitate the Fleet's having at least six, if not eight carriers of the large type, in order to launch, from far out at sea, air attacks upon an enemy's shore bases of such severity as would force his ships out into a decisive action. Against his view was that of others who favored building many small carriers because the loss of one or two would have less effect upon command of the air, and these differing opinions led to further discussions of the best way to protect carriers, large or small.

The cruisers built at this time under the Washington Treaty requirements were certainly stronger guards than any destroyers could be but they were not at all satisfactory in their means for handling their own planes. In 1930, when Moffett had arrived in London as one of the delegates to the conference called at the end of the first ten years of "disarmament," he had found great interest displayed in the flight-deck cruiser, and the agreement finally reached had permitted the United States to build eight of these, at 10,000 tons each, provided none was adapted "exclusively as an aircraft carrier." It was the consensus that carriers were fully provided for in the 135,000 tons which the United States, after some argument no doubt based largely upon the ground that it had utterly failed to build up to the old treaty strength, was permitted to keep as its allowance. This restriction on cruiser-carriers was particularly disappointing to the Bureau of Aeronautics because Moffett  p275 at that very moment had in his desk the plans for a 30‑knot cruiser, armed with half a dozen six‑inch guns and eight five‑inch antiaircraft guns, and fitted to carry from 30 to 50 planes. Even if there were some delicacy about describing such ships as "cruisers" rather than as "carriers," Moffett wanted seven of them included in the building program; but the General Board would agree to no more than one flight-deck cruiser, recommending that the rest be as originally designed under the treaty of 1922 and demanding, instead, the building of another small carrier. Since even this recommendation came to nothing, the Ranger, as finally laid down in 1931 and commissioned three years later, remained the only carrier of her size in the Fleet.

Few though they were, the carriers afforded the pilots considerable experience, some of it of the most practical kind. For example, in 1931 the Lexington had been on hand for the Nicaragua earthquake, to fly doctors, nurses, medical supplies, and food into the devastated areas. This was very necessary support for the effort of the Marine Corps, whose experience during four years of operations, from a dozen fields in Nicaragua built by themselves, ranged from the battle of Ocotal, July 17, 1927, said to be the first occasion when dive bombers were used against troops, to the carrying of mails, money, and wounded. This cooperation between the marines and the carriers led, within the year, to the regular assignment of Marine squadrons VS‑14M and VS‑15M to the Lexington and Saratoga, flying the O2U‑1 plane, first of the Corsair series.

Progress of this kind was the cause of favorable comment like Schofield's, and the advent of the P2Y, forerunner of the famous "Catalina" flying boat, was similarly hailed. So, too, was the improvement of the turntable catapult which made it possible to launch different types of planes in succession, without changing gear for each type. On the other hand, too many planes, such as the patrol types that could make only 75 knots, were fast becoming obsolete without any provision for replacing them by newer types in sufficient numbers. This, however, was not a sudden development; in fact the Bureau of Aeronautics had become acutely aware of it as early as the period immediately following the business crash of 1929.

When President Hoover, on November 12 of that disastrous year, proposed that government funds might relieve some of the nationwide unemployment if applied to building for the Navy, Moffett had been extremely optimistic. He had immediately submitted  p276 a plan calling for $54,000,000 for Aeronautics, not to be used for carriers but for helium tanks and cars, radio equipment, navigational instruments, general supplies, and, particularly, for an airship base on the West coast. At the same time he had urged larger appropriations for planes for the Ranger and for a sister ship not even authorized. As plans, these were good, but they ran bow on into the difficulties of securing sufficient funds during those first three years of depression. An estimate submitted by the Bureau of Aeronautics in May, 1930, was promptly cut by the Navy's budget officer from $53,000,000 to $35,000,000 and it was only after the most vigorous protest from Moffett that $3,000,000 was finally added to the reduced figure. Much the same fate met numerous requests from Aeronautics that the new aircraft, which would be needed when the Ranger and eight new cruisers joined the Fleet but which had not been covered in the original five-year program, be separately provided. In the end these planes were found only by reducing the patrol plane quotas assigned to the Fleet air bases at Coco Solo and Pearl Harbor, as well as those assigned the Asiatic Fleet. The smaller size of the planes consequently purchased had the effect of making a very considerable saving in the cost of the five-year program, but this, too, tended to underline the question as to what Congress had originally intended by the 1,000‑plane figure. Was it to be the upper limit of the naval air arm or was it merely a figure from which the size of that arm could be determined as more ships went into commission and as new uses for planes appeared? This was a question not to be fully answered for years.

Appropriations for the next fiscal year offered proof of the want of a real answer. Under a change in the procedure for making preliminary estimates, providing that the Navy's budget officer allocate specific sums to each of the several bureaus, Aeronautics was asked to keep its figures inside $32,000,000. Moffett was quick to point out that this would give him, for 1932, less than had been appropriated for 1931, even though more planes were expected to be in commission. It would also mean further cuts in experimental work, already so seriously restricted by reducing funds that once represented 15 per cent of Aeronautics' total to a mere 6 per cent. Describing the way in which such a reduction was causing the United States to lose ground internationally, David Ingalls, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air since March, 1929, compared the progress of a few years earlier, when American planes capable of 265 miles an hour were the fastest in the world, with the current  p277 moment when British and Italian planes, reaching speeds as high as 330 miles, were making United States fighters obsolete. To the previous adequacy of funds for invention, experiment, and improvement he properly attributed the advances made in a long list of devices and types of equipment, such as air‑cooled motors, superchargers, reduction gears, magnetos, and spark plugs; telephones, radio and steering compasses, direction indicators, and drift computers; safety belts, life jackets, and parachutes; machine‑gun sights, bomb racks, and gear for smoke screens; and, most important, arresting gear for flight decks. Without proper appropriations, he insisted, there could be no real advances in these or in a dozen other elements of aviation in the Navy.

Notwithstanding such protests, appropriations continued to be too small to cover all that Moffett had hoped to accomplish. For example, the air stations, none too generously treated in the best of times, now lagged far behind in what was needed if they were to handle technical advances and to provide landing fields, hangars, and barracks in proper ratio to the total number of planes. Under the Employment Stabilization Act of February 10, 1931, the Navy's Board for Development of Navy Yard Plans had prepared a new schedule for improving these stations, but the humble beginnings made were blocked by reductions in regular appropriations during the Hoover administration and the first months of the Roosevelt administration. The two bases, at St. Louis and at Opalocka, Florida, added during this period were financed principally by their local municipalities and not by federal funds. Only the work at the new coast airship base at Sunnyvale, California, selected long before by a board headed by Moffett himself, made real progress.

Current plans for future plane building were further complicated by a revival of the old questions dealing with the legality of various methods of procurement, and the whole matter of competitive bidding as opposed to negotiated contracts was again discussed from every viewpoint. In an effort to end the arguments, Moffett made a statement deliberately designed to be a little ambiguous, in which he suggested that the act of 1926, upon the whole satisfactory to all concerned, should not be amended while economic conditions continued to be unsatisfactory, particularly because relations between Aeronautics and the aircraft industry were too good to risk upsetting them by new legislation. Thus the status quo was preserved for several years, permitting the completion of the  p278 1,000‑plane program ahead of the scheduled date. The final cost was less, by about $26,000,000, than had been estimated but, as was suggested earlier in this chapter, much of this saving should be attributed to the substitution of smaller, less costly, carrier-type planes for the patrol planes originally planned. No doubt industry could have used those additional millions because, as Moffett pointed out in his report for 1931, the building program for the Army and the Navy had been designed, in part, to keep industry on its feet until civilian demand for aircraft increased, and this increase had not come.

In addition to all the problems of building aircraft during this period, there remained the problem of how they were to be used; that is, how the Army and the Navy were to divide air responsibilities in national defense. The Joint Board, already described in these pages as composed of high-ranking officers of both Army and Navy assembled as policy makers, and considered of such importance that it was referred to in official documents as The Joint Board, had reviewed this distribution of responsibility during its study of the recommendations of the Morrow Board. In 1927 this board had issued a publication entitled Joint Action of the Army and the Navy, which made it the first task of the Army's air arm to operate with mobile ground forces while the Navy's air arm operated with the Fleet. In the coastal area, this paper left it to the Navy's aircraft to "support . . . local naval defense forces operating for the protection of lines of sea communication and coastal zones against attacks by hostile submarines or surface raiders," and left it to the Army's aircraft to defend cities, harbors, and munition plants in United States territory. It was also specified that in emergency either arm was required to act "in support of or in lieu of" the other. This appeared a reasonable division but there was still contention between the Army and the Navy as to the latter's use of land-based torpedo planes, the Army claiming that such use was not in strict accordance with the "Joint Action" paper, the Navy holding that it was. This naturally led to arguments over the type of planes being built and The Joint Board took more than a year, from May, 1927, to October, 1928, to decide that there was no duplication of building in the two five-year programs.

The decision did not satisfy either Army or Navy and further arguments followed on the legality of earlier legislation. Specifically, there was long discussion of the Army Appropriation Act of 1920 which had given the Army control of land-based planes  p279 while the Navy, operating its planes with the Fleet, was to limit its shore bases to those needed for experimentation, construction, training, maintenance and repair, or support of Fleet operations. The Attorney General, asked to rule upon the legality of this act, spent six months in correspondence with the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy and finally, in January, 1930, concluded that he had no jurisdiction. This was unfortunate, especially because the Navy's announcement in November, 1929, that it would base torpedo planes ashore at Coco Solo and Pearl Harbor had sent the Secretary of War hurrying to the White House. He wanted the President to issue an executive order limiting the Navy's land-based aircraft so severely that it would have made it impossible for the Navy to get any additional land-based types, and also to stop further expansion of the Marine Corps air arm. Strong language appeared in the resulting letters from both sides, with neither proposing anything agreeable to the other. The Navy wanted to follow the assignment of missions first proposed in 1917, amended in 1920, and again amended in the "Joint Action" just cited, while the Army still wanted an order changing these assignments to something in closer accord with what it believed were the traditional missions of the Army in coast defense. Neither side would give way, but in the autumn of 1930 the normal course of rotation brought to the high commands other officers who had new points of view.

Admiral Pratt, relieved as Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet, succeeded Adm. Charles F. Hughes as Chief of Naval Operations. In addition to the coastal defense controversy, he was immediately confronted with the problem of reducing the Navy, in accord with the recent London treaty, without sacrificing national security. Concluding that reduced strength made mobility vital, he began reorganizing the Fleet to put all its components, including aircraft wherever based, under the direct control of its commander in chief. In reorganization he saw a possibility of solving the coastal defense question and, with this in view, issued the Naval Air Operating Policy, to become effective on April 1, 1931. While he admitted that many of the Navy's aviators might disagree, he used the military man's belief that "if you can take the offensive and keep it, it is far wiser than to assume the defensive at once," and declared it to be undesirable to keep any part of the Fleet waiting for the enemy to approach; that is, in defending the coast. Seeking a fleet "able to move quickly . . . with all its forces intact," he  p280 considered that the air arm, as part of these forces, must be organized with the Fleet.

Admitting that situations developing in war might require special assignments of the air arm, the admiral said his was a peacetime measure, making it the primary task of Naval Aviation to develop the offensive power of the Fleet and of advanced base forces, with the secondary task of providing for the defense of important areas "if and when required." Mobility for aircraft was to be achieved through carriers and tenders, such craft as might be assigned to Pearl Harbor and Coco Solo to be patrol types with long ranges, attached to the Fleet and respectively under the commanders of Minecraft, Battle Force and Aircraft, Scouting Force. Continental air stations were to be operated under the limitations just noted as provided by the Army Appropriations Act of 1920. Permanent overseas bases were to be for these purposes and for any required cooperation with the Army in local defense, while overseas stations of "advance" type would be built only to meet actual war requirements. Procurement of heavier-than‑air types would be limited to the needs of Fleet operations and of Marine Expeditionary Forces; of lighter-than‑air types to what might be required to determine military value to the Fleet and for training.

All this appeared to make many concessions to the War Department's views, but Pratt considered this of little importance when compared with what the new plan provided in the way of a fleet that would meet its responsibilities. In January, 1931, he met Gen. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff since October, and reached an agreement under which the Navy's air arm no longer had any burden of coast defense but operated only on its own side of a line dividing it from the activities of the Army's air arm by respective mission rather than by geography. The General Board, while it supported Pratt's plan to make the air arm a part of the Fleet's offensive strength, strongly disapproved leaving any feature of coast defense open to further decision after actual war began. It also held that to relinquish the Navy's claim to coastal defense might have the effect of losing congressional support of the Navy's shore stations and that Pratt's announced policy should be revised to claim the coastal areas for the Navy. As far as the Army Air Corps' continued aggression was concerned, the General Board was right; the corps continued to seek control of all air stations ashore even though the Navy stubbornly insisted that many of these, performing naval functions, should remain under the Navy. This continuing  p281 controversy led to the introduction into Congress of numerous new bills designed either to merge the two air arms or to create a wholly separate department of the air under its own Cabinet officer. During 1932, an effort to add a rider to the appropriation bill, creating a central department of defense to include all military and naval branches, was very nearly passed.

Moffett had naturally played an active part in all these controversies but he had still found time to devote to airships, a field in which most of the contemporary progress had been made by the Los Angeles. During her comparatively long life she did well, making more than 300 flights and "keeping the air" for well over 5,000 hours in all. In 1931 she established a record for endurance by staying away from Lakehurst for 625 consecutive hours, maintaining herself at mooring masts scattered throughout the country. Almost everywhere in the United States she was a familiar sight in the sky, but when she went to the Caribbean for Fleet maneuvers she was not so successful. Although, as a part of the defending forces, she made numerous scouting flights and succeeded in picking up the enemy, she was herself discovered and almost immediately "destroyed by enemy planes." Vice Adm. A. L. Willard, under whom she served as a scout, commended her work and reported that rigid airships, when further improved, should be the source of much valuable information at the risk of relatively few lives, but his view was not generally supported. Schofield, for one, was strongly in "opposition to the proposed development of rigid dirigibles," finding their cost "out of proportion" and their "appeal to the imagination . . . not sustained by their military usefulness"; in substance, the more general opinion. After eight years of service, at least four more than had been expected, the Los Angeles was decommissioned at Lakehurst in 1932. Even then — although this was not suspected at the time — her retirement was to be only temporary.

She had been responsible for numerous advances, among them the important discovery that cellophane would serve to make gas‑bags quite as reliable as the far more expensive one of goldbeater's skin. Handling her at her hangar had greatly improved the methods used by ground crews, and she had furnished many opportunities for experimenting with aerodynamic loads. Much that had been learned from her had been used in the development of the ZMC‑2, the only metal-clad blimp built for the Navy and actually a rigid but, because she operated on the "pressure principle," classified  p282 as nonrigid; a200,000‑cubic‑foot craft of aluminum-alloy sheets riveted together. Moffett described her as "purely experimental . . . intended to test the practicability of the novel type of construction," and she did show unusual durability. She lost no more gas than did the average fabric-covered ship but her directional control, especially in rough weather or at low speeds, was not all that had been hoped of it. As the result of these studies and conclusions, contracts for the design and engineering analysis of similar craft were subsequently made, but no other was ever actually built.

The other nonrigid of the period was the K‑class blimp, built as a training ship and important because she represented the first United States airship built to use gaseous instead of liquid fuel, an improvement adopted from experiments with the Graf Zeppelin. Gas was more efficient as a fuel and had the advantage of a density equal to that of air; hence gas consumption did not alter the ship's buoyancy, and the need to "valve" gas or to condense water from the exhaust was eliminated. Since the gas was carried in fuel cells inserted in the helium cells, there was no danger of fire. At the time of her first use she was considered to be too large for a nonrigid but she was actually smaller by a quarter than the K‑2 type which saw so much service during World War II. Like the Los Angeles, the K‑1 had about eight years of life.

These were matters of the greatest interest to Moffett; but a still more important event was just ahead. With the possible exception of Comdr. C. E. Rosendahl, survivor of the Shenandoah tragedy, passenger in the Graf Zeppelin on a world-tour, and destined to be the vice admiral commanding all lighter-than‑air services in World War II, no one was as impatient as Moffett for the arrival of October 27, 1931. This date marked not only the annual Navy Day but also the commissioning of the Akron, the very latest in huge airships. When completed she was some ten tons over her designed weight, but her early trials and the routine flights that followed were highly successful. Because of a few relatively small injuries she was not able to take her expected part in the Fleet exercises of her first year, but she did make a flight across the continent to moor at the new Sunnyvale base. By the end of March, 1933, she had made 73 flights totaling almost 1,700 air hours. The last 15 of these flights were under Comdr. Frank C. McCord, an experienced airship officer, with a seasoned crew. When she left Lakehurst, in the early evening of April 3, 1933, to assist in calibrating radio direction  p283 finders in the New England area, there was nothing to disturb her but a little fog.

Rising through the fog, in a very light breeze, she headed for Philadelphia and, nearing that city a little after eight o'clock, she turned down the Delaware River toward the sea. By ten o'clock, near Barnegat Light, she ran into heavy lightning, with flashes around and above her at an altitude of about 1,600 feet. Because of this storm she changed course a number of times but appeared to be acting normally until soon after midnight, when she began to fall rapidly. Prompt valving of ballast checked her and then she rose almost as fast, to level off again at 1,600 feet. A few minutes later a heavy gust struck her with stunning force, the lower rudder-control rope snapped, to be followed almost at once by the upper control rope. She could no longer be steered, but by speeding up her engines she was steadied for a moment, only to begin falling once more, this time entirely out of control and with her nose well up. Plunging into the sea tail first, she broke in half, sank, and took with her 18 officers and 55 men. Only one officer and two men lived to be rescued by the merchant steamer Phoebus.

The Navy could not afford to lose any of those lives, least of all that of the Akron's ranking passenger, Moffett himself. It was ironical that he who had done more than anyone else to bring about the continuation of the lighter-than‑air program should die in an airship, but there were stronger reasons than that for deploring his loss. For 12 years, under four different administrations, he had been Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, studying its problems, fighting for its advances, and accepting each gain merely as a step toward higher standards and greater accomplishments. To every effort to improve flying in the Navy he had given all his shrewd diplomacy, his energy, his keen sense of humor, and his unwearying youthfulness of spirit. All these were not easily to be spared by the Navy, but those who remember him will agree that he must have met death, as he had always met life, with a high heart.


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