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Chapter 2

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 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p24  Chapter III

The Chambers Board

During 1912 more "makey-learn" aviators had reported, most of them bearing names that would be long remembered. Ens. William D. Billingsley made a good start, only to meet early death in a flying accident. Ens. Godfrey deC. Chevalier was to have ten years of great accomplishment before he too lost his life. Lieut. Patrick N. L. Bellinger began what became a distinguished career that eventually made him the vice admiral commanding the Air Force, Atlantic Fleet, in World War II. In this year, too, the marines were represented when 1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham was assigned to aviation, closely followed by 1st Lt. B. L. Smith. Both were destined to make fine records.

As these new men learned to fly and as the older ones gained more experience, they tested the possibility of detecting submarines from the air. In average weather they found it not difficult to spot a submarine running awash or at periscope depth, but to pick up the same craft only a few feet submerged was quite another matter, even at a height of a mere 850 feet. Towers, who made the most complete reports, held that the muddy waters of the Chesapeake were an abnormal handicap and that the bay's bottom made the poorest of backgrounds for a silhouette. He advocated more tests in clearer waters such as those to be expected in Guantánamo. In the midst of these tests and reports, however, Towers found time, on October 6, 1912, to set a new world's record for endurance — six hours, ten minutes, and 35 seconds of continuous flight. Such were the records 37 years ago.

Another young officer who proved very helpful, though not strictly as an aviator, was Ens. Charles H. Maddox, a keen radio enthusiast, who designed and built a new set for planes. Replacing the clumsy early arrangement of dangling wires, cut off when a message had been sent, the Maddox set enabled John Rodgers to lift the range of successful communication up to 12 miles! Captain  p25 Chambers began to hope for 50 miles and to talk of "no more homing pigeons."

Many of these experiments were carried out because of the General Board's interest in possible air tactics. While the board still believed that these tactics were likely to be limited to coastal patrol and scouting from ships at sea, it had in June, 1912, asked some further questions. What was the present plan for carrying planes aboard battleships and cruisers? Could they be got away readily and easily recovered? Could they serve as pilots for friendly submarines and as protection against enemy ones? How far could they withstand unfavorable conditions of wind and sea? For up‑to-the‑minute answers to these and similar questions the board recommended that the flying arm join the Fleet in Guantánamo as soon as possible.

Most of the aviators heartily endorsed this proposal. Motors might be unreliable and inaccurate, air compasses might restrict flights to within sight of the ships. No matter, the best path to knowledge was along the wake of the Fleet. Even though men and machines were too few in number and would be kept too short of gasoline to provide the air screen just then suggested by Comdr. S. S. Robison, later to be an admiral and commander in chief, they could simulate that screen. Learning how to maneuver to provide screens would make the problem that much simpler when there were enough planes and pilots, when better stowage made it possible for ships to carry large amounts of dangerous plane fuel. Moreover, being with the Fleet in Guantánamo would provide chances to practice locating an "enemy's" bases, destroying his shore batteries, mine fields, and submarines, or bombing his shipyards and his arsenals. Much of this was achieved after the aviation camp arrived in Guantánamo in January, 1913. The fliers proved that they could locate submarines moving under the surface and that they could detect "enemy" surface vessels without themselves being seen. They acquired some practice in dropping missiles and in taking aerial photographs from as high as 1,000 feet. They also seized their opportunity to stimulate general interest by taking more than 150 officers up as passengers and by actually teaching a few to handle the planes.

All this was closely followed by the General Board, which continued to be interested in air tactics and had proposed, in December, 1912, the building of a new weapon of offense, the "aeroplane destroyer," with a speed of 80 miles an hour, a machine gun,  p26 and small bombs. Such a craft, said the board, would protect powder plants, bases, other vital shore stations from attack and should be very effective against dirigibles whose hydrogen content made them particularly vulnerable. At this the plane builders pricked up their ears and began to press for specifications which Captain Chambers and Constructor Richardson, with the advice of all the aviators, presently prepared. A two‑seater flying boat was called for, with an enclosed body that gave a wide field of vision not hampered by "tractor" propellers, with dual controls, and a climbing rate of 100 feet a minute. In addition to its crew of two, the load capacity must be sufficient to carry gas and oil for four hours at the average speed of 50 miles. Either air‑cooled or water-cooled motors were admissible but the former were preferred because of their lighter weight and lower fuel consumption. Floats of such metals as duralumin were recommended and, to permit amphibious use, wheels should also be fitted. Strength and stiffness were to be measured by the ability to withstand being blown across open water, with the motor cut, by a 20‑knot breeze. Maximum speed was to be 55 miles an hour.

In approving this design Captain Chambers was looking for practicability and for safety, both of which he still held to be essential requisites of all planes. Admitting that high speed might sometimes be necessary, and recognizing that "worth-while" risks must be run, he nevertheless sternly forbade the naval pilots to "stunt for headlines" or to do anything to confirm public belief in the great hazards of flying. For this reason he would not allow participation in public meets which might turn into Roman holidays and perhaps decimate the small group of naval men and machines.

To emphasize these restrictions and to guard, as far as possible, against accidents in the proposed wider scope of test flights and experiments with the Fleet, the physical requirements for aviators came in for more strict regulation. Since eyes, ears, lung, and hearts, fully able to endure any strains on the deck of a ship, might have hidden weaknesses that would mean failure when 1,000 feet in the air, only the very best men must be allowed to take that risk. Accordingly, a special examination and a series of exhaustive physical tests were put together by army and naval medical officers, not to discourage those whose imaginations leaped at the thought of flying but to make sure that their qualifications as men could match the almost daily advances in the machine, thus permitting  p27 them to push American flying to a place beside, if not above, the European standard.

On the technical side Chambers continued to emphasize to all who would listen a lack through which aviators were "seriously handicapped." He declared that a laboratory was indispensable and further delay might contribute to humiliation in war. To support this, he wrote in an article prepared for the December, 1912, issue of the magazine Flying:

The work done by Prof. Langley at the Smithsonian Institution, in a brief period, over sixteen years ago, with meager resources and little encouragement, by means of an appropriation under the Chief of Engineers, U. S. Army, was such a valuable contribution to the science of aeronautics that the U. S., even today, is credited abroad with possessing a real aerodynamic laboratory. I fancy there are people in this country who believe that the work inaugurated by Langley is still proceeding in a systematic way, but it is unfortunate that his work was not permitted to expand and to develop into one of the first national institutions of this kind.

As another step toward all‑around progress he had already proposed to the President the appointment of an aeronautical commission. Accordingly, in that same month of December Mr. Taft invited to the White House a group of nine men, including army and naval officers, civilian physicists, doctors, and engineers. Subsequently the group met at the Carnegie Institution, formed a board with Dr. R. S. Woodward as chairman, and immediately recommended that an aerodynamical laboratory be established under the Smithsonian. When it was realized that such a commission, appointed by the President without the "advice and consent of the Senate," could not legally be allowed even the traveling expenses of it members, Senator J. A. Reed of Missouri and Representative Richmond P. Hobson of Alabama, the Merrimac celebrity, introduced the necessary legislation. Unfortunately, Representatives Mann and Foster, both from Illinois, would not consent to a unanimous vote; the bill was stillborn. Not even $581.66, the niggardly sum already spent by the commission, was ever appropriated.

In the following May the Smithsonian itself came forward with a vote of its executive committee to reopen the "Langley Laboratory." Secretary Walcott of the Smithsonian named the civilian member of a committee to undertake this and a few days later  p28 President Wilson, now in office, approved the appointment of Chambers and Richardson as members. After several meetings of the group had been held the Comptroller of the Treasury decided that the two, as military men, could not legally hold official membership, but they continued to sit unofficially for the next two years.

By far the majority of the officers of the Navy thought of aviation as an element of sea power and this conviction was only strengthened by the first debate in Congress, during its winter session of 1912, over the question whether the administration of aviation should be separated from that of the Navy in general. Officers were against separation because the belief that "only a sailor can fly successfully with ships" was solidly established, but the debate did give Chambers a chance to draw the attention of Congress to other ideas of his. He proposed that appropriations provided for prizes for "better planes and better motors." Noting that Lawrence Sperry had already designed a gyroscopic stabilizer, he urged Congress to encourage competition in this field as in other developments, and requested a total of $150,000 for these purposes. Since he failed to get the money, such experiments as can be made were not very profitable. In the summer of 1913, for example, a few tests made with gyroscopes, usually with Bellinger at the plane controls and Sperry lying on his stomach on the cockpit floor, accomplished little more than the discovery that the invention had two major faults. The first of these was its weight and the second was the tendency of the gyro to "precess"; that is, to have its axis pushed out of the line in which it had started spinning, by frictional forces on its bearings. The practical effect of precession was the turning of the plane into position in which a crash was likely to be fatal and this was not overcome by installing two gyroscopes, designed to balance one another's errors, a change which had the further disadvantage of adding still more weight. It would be many years after these early efforts before technicians were able to compensate the errors of the gyro well enough to provide the automatic pilot.

News of such instruments or, indeed, any news of aviation, always drew the interest of Rear Admiral Fiske, since February, 1913, the Secretary's Aid for Operations. His interest was more than merely scientific, it was strategic. Where Chambers was constantly searching the horizon for safer aircraft of improved performance, Fiske had his eye peeled for hostile aircraft bursting through war clouds. To him, the immediate vital need of the  p29 United States was more planes and more pilots. If there were great risks in the air, then let the planes and pilots face those risks for what they might nevertheless accomplish in the interest of national security.

Recalling his earlier idea of defending the Philippines by aircraft, the admiral spoke openly of hostile planes as a menace to United States security. Moreover, he declared that the use of airships abroad had "reached a state of development that our Navy cannot ignore," and recommended that the General Board be asked to express an opinion upon the advisability of acquiring airships to carry on experiments in scouting and countermining. As a result of this request certain figures were laid before the board which offer a good idea of where United States Naval Aviation stood just a year before Great Britain and Germany went to war.

There were in commission eight planes: three Curtiss hydroaeroplanes, two Wright hydroaeroplanes, one Burgess and two Curtiss flying boats. There was the station at Annapolis and the reserve base at Greenbury Point. All told, there were 13 officers who held pilot's licenses, with a record of 2,118 flights on which 1,470 passengers had been carried — flights that represented just over 500 hours in the air and just under 28,000 miles covered. Across the years, that score would compare with, say 1946, when naval pilots flew 3,500,000 hours, or roughly 500,000,000 miles.

The figures for 1913 came from Captain Chambers' report to the General Board, in which he went on to say that while the United States still led other nations in "specific development" of some features of aviation, he believed "the best inventors in this country have about reached the limit of their designing ability due to lack of scientific information." Neither Curtiss nor Burgess, he said, had a really outstanding aeronautical engineer; it was too early to gauge the possibilities of a young man just hired by the Wrights, Grover C. Loening.

What the British had accomplished was noted in the same report, as was the fact that France, where geography directed efforts at defense more toward the Army than toward the Navy, was still in the lead in the air. Due note was taken of Germany's superiority in dirigibles, with her seven Zeppelins, each able to carry 14,000 pounds, two one‑pounder guns and four Maxims, with fuel for 30 hours at the top speed of 45.7 miles per hour. To these would soon be added four more airships, all to be supported by 13 mine-laying  p30 scout planes and, as a most important adjunct, enough sheds and berths for all German aircraft. She was being closely watched and copied by Italy, which had just announced the creation of an air corps with 11,500,000 lire to spend on several dirigibles, ten squadrons of "water-planes," and five squadrons of landplanes, with seven sheds and a program for training many more than her present eight pilots.

The board must have found all these comparisons odious, because it was not optimistic in its report of August 31, 1913. The United States Army, the board found, had only eight training planes, nine scout planes scattered through Texas, California, Hawaii, and the Philippines, no dirigibles, and but five pilots with eight in training; yet the Navy was in "an even more embryonic and chaotic state." Its equipment was scant and its men were all too few. As for direction and supervision, the board especially commented upon an officer under the Bureau of Navigation, with "undefined duties and responsibilities and no powers," with collateral relations with the Bureaus of Construction and Repair and Steam Engineering, in a kind of general charge. Such a situation gave the board great concern over the possibility of an attack with nonrigids and planes transportable across the ocean by an enemy whose seizure of a Caribbean base might give him easy access to substantial portions of a vulnerable United States Coast and leave this nation with the unhappy prospect of trying to carry an attack against an enemy in control of the air. Altogether, the board's picture was a sorry one, yet it was no sorrier than that often painted by Chambers and the handful of devoted associates who had been carrying the whole burden. To brighten the colors the board proposed removing one dark shadow, "the supineness with which we have viewed the progress of aerial war preparation," by immediately organizing "an efficient naval air service."

Congress, said the board, should forthwith be asked to furnish funds for shore stations, equipment, training schools, and an adequate air fleet, which should include hydroaeroplanes and flying boats for short scouting, dirigibles for distant scouting or mine laying and, eventually, "the largest class of rigid battle-airships, with sheds and harbors located at strategic points." All these plans should be "immediately taken in hand and pushed to fulfillment" under an officer with full authority and the rank of captain, at least.

The General Board's pronouncement met varying reactions.  p31 The Bureau of Steam Engineering, noting that no exact limit had been placed by Congress upon how much of the bureau's money might be spent in that year on aviation, held that if the money could be spared from other purposes, the Navy was "in a position to accumulate considerable amounts of apparatus." It proposed that the cruiser Columbia be made available as an "aeroplane ship" for all training and experimental purposes.

The Bureau of Construction and Repair was less enthusiastic. Clinging to its empire, it was "in full sympathy with the objects" sought, but contended that progress would be faster if use were made of "the present machinery of the Department instead of attempting to establish a new office or virtual bureau"; the latter innovation would "probably meet strong opposition in the present Congress and fail to pass." The bureau was willing to buy planes but thought dirigibles too hazardous to buy without specific congressional approval. When the state of the nation and the state of the world called hourly for speed in the development of United States flying, Construction and Repair favored "slow ahead."

Chambers, regardless of his personal future prospects, insisted that enough experimenting had been done, enough data on dirigibles assembled, fully to warrant proceeding with the whole program, especially including the separate administrative office. He wanted planes put upon existing ships, with carriers to come "only when we are satisfied we cannot get along without them." As a step toward "first things first," he drafted an order creating an office of naval aeronautics, but he was never able to get that order promulgated. It would have meant a drastic modification of the Secretary of the Navy's General Order No. 41, issued on June 23, 1913, two months before the General Board brought out its report. This order laid down responsibilities for aviation along the lines of similar responsibilities for ships; that is, Construction and Repair had supervision of the building of aircraft, including such details as hulls, landing gear, mooring gear, launching gear, and all buildings for storage, including hangars; Steam Engineering had supervision over motors, generators, lighting, signal systems, and the radio equipment. The Bureau of Navigation controlled the procurement and supply of precision instruments, as well as all personnel problems. The order had many loose ends but, in spite of its leaving much to be desired, a rather better understanding and cooperation were slowly becoming possible.

There was some evidence of this greater cooperation when Constructors  p32 Richardson and McEntee, at about this time, brought out their new design for hulls of flying boats, incorporating the "V‑bottom, with step," which would become, after some modification, the standard type for the Navy. There was also a readier agreement following investigation of the aviation group's first fatal accident, which had occurred on June 20, 1913.

On that day Ens. William D. Billingsley was in the air at the controls of a Navy-built Wright type hydroaeroplane carrying Towers as his passenger. A downdraft, a sudden squall, or some never-explained mechanical defect made the plane "nose down." Billingsley pitched forward, completely losing control and the plane capsized. Since there were, in those perilous days, not even the elementary safety belts, Billingsley fell instantly to his death. Towers, with an amazing coolness that may have been due, in part, to his being an expert gymnast, clung to the strut beside which he had been sitting. As the plane whirled and spun through its wild plunge, he held on, to fall some 1,600 feet into the water. He was picked up badly injured but undaunted, and after four months in the hospital back to the air he came.

At about this time it was decided that naval aviators should be qualified in the various available plane types. "Wright men" were given instruction in the Curtiss and vice versa. This requirement was emphasized in the plan made at this time for the issue of naval air pilot certificates, to be awarded only after thorough tests of mechanical knowledge, powers of observation, and the ability to execute maneuvers in the air. The relatively simpler tests prepared by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and administered in America by the Aero Club would no longer be sufficient to meet the stiffening naval standards. Through 1915 the title of naval aviator would be given to all who passed these tests but in the following year this term was restricted to those who had qualified in preliminary training. Those who had satisfactorily completed advanced training in the type of duty to be expected in flying at sea were designated naval air pilots to indicate that they were qualified to command aircraft.

More attention was also given to the enlisted personnel, who had been rather unfairly handicapped when assigned to aviation. Under existing regulations highly deserving men could not be advanced in the mechanical ratings unless they had been found duly qualified by service aboard ship and by passing sea‑going examinations. By allowing for recognition of the special services  p33 involved in aviation, the new order offered encouragement to others. Although a complete list providing for many highly specialized ratings did not become part of the definite policy for some years, the move in that direction at least brought good results.

Since this year had brought out so many divergent opinions as to policy, Secretary of the Navy Daniels, on October 7, 1913, established a special board to consider all views and "prepare a comprehensive plan for the organization of a Naval Aeronautic Service." Headed by Captain Chambers and therefore known by his name, the board had six other members. Towers, Richardson, and Cunningham were the "flyer-members," Comdt. Carlo B. Brittain represented the Bureau of Navigation, Comdr. S. S. Robison was from Steam Engineering, and Lieut. Manley H. Simons from the Bureau of Ordnance, all officers of recognized substance and standing.

After some 12 days' deliberation, this board recommended 50 planes for the Fleet with as many spares, and six more planes, with tents, to establish an advanced base ashore. The objective should be a mobile force, prepared for operations well offshore and, therefore, one plane with its necessary spare parts should be placed aboard each fighting vessel. Auxiliary vessels should be assigned to the specific task of carrying aviation fuel, oil, spare parts, tents, and the like, and these auxiliaries should be fitted to carry planes as "special ships." Dirigibles, notwithstanding their recognized stability and cruising range, were regarded as not essential until more imperative needs had been met. As an aeronautic station, Pensacola was favored for the flying school, the repair shops, and general training program. For scientific research, it was suggested that a staff of specialists be formed and given the use of the facilities of the Washington Navy Yard laboratory in cooperation with the Model Basin and the proposed national laboratory.

In details of training the board, basing its recommendations upon a plan by Ellyson, was explicit. Such training must produce practical ability in assembly, overhaul, and repair, supplemented by the study of available books on theory. Flight training should follow existing lines, with pilots who passed for air certificates considered eligible for an advanced sea section and graduates of the latter given duty in charge of planes aboard ship. In addition, some pilots should be assigned to laboratory research and some should be sent abroad to study foreign methods. Officers thus assigned — and this was to them a point of great importance — should  p34 be allowed to serve in flying duties without prejudice to other duty performed or to "sea service in grade."

Upon the proposal to establish a separate bureau within the department, the board followed its chairman and said "No!" Since, however, coordination between the various bureaus concerned must inevitably become more difficult, there should be created, under the Secretary of the Navy, an office of naval aeronautics as the absolute "essential to harmonious, rapid progress." Composition of the office should include, as a beginning, a director and his assistant, with one representative each from Navigation, Construction and Repair, Steam Engineering, Ordnance, and the Marine Corps.

Finally, the board offered some estimate of costs:

BuStEng BuC&R BuOrd BuY&D BuNav Total
50 aeroplanes $295,000 $190,000 $15,000 $500,000
Fleet dirigible 60,200 112,200 600 173,000
Hydrogen sets 9,000 8,000 17,000
Double floating shed 90,000 90,000
2 vedettes 24,000 60,000 1,000 85,000
Mooring mast 1,200 1,200
Balloon 800 800
Hangars $18,000 18,000
3 motor boats 20,000 11,000 31,000
2 tractors 8,000 8,000
Gas, storage 4,000 4,000
Maintenance 100,000 100,000
Advance base material $269,300 269,300
$408,200 $573,200 $269,300 $30,000 $16,600 $1,297,300

Here, at last, was the detailed outline of a real program and to Captain Chambers it appeared to justify his long effort to lay the foundation upon which others might build. For what it may have been worth to him, he had the consolation of that conviction when, in this same year of 1913, he had to take the hard personal blow of involuntary retirement from active duty. Although his long assignment ashore had been by official order, it was ruled that he had not had sufficient sea service in his grade of captain and that he was therefore not eligible for promotion. In the sense that he was never allowed to "hoist his flag" as rear admiral, he may fairly be called a martyr to Naval Aviation, and his invaluable  p35 services were but dimly recognized when Secretary Daniels directed that he remain on active duty "until a suitable relief could be found." Although this resulted in his staying in the department for another six years, it would no longer be as Number One in aviation.

The blow to his personal ambitions did not destroy the captain's enthusiasm, particularly in the direction of scientific and technical research. Very shortly he was absorbed in Hunsaker's highly illuminating reports of his visits to Europe during this year to study foreign research and the practical application that was being made of it. France and Italy, incidentally also using many Curtiss types, were moving well to the fore in seaplanes. Germany, while keeping up in these, was farther than ever ahead in lighter-than‑air craft. Britain, although she had not bought her first planes or started her flying school until 1911, was coming out with innovations such as the conversion of the old cruiser Hermes into the earliest of carriers, designed to transport ten planes and to join in fleet maneuvers. From all that Hunsaker had to tell, it was clear that the United States, first nation to fly, was now far behind in the international race to develop aviation.

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