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Bill Thayer

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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 2

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p1  Chapter I

Chambers Makes a Start with Curtiss

Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, sat at his desk in the Navy Department. His calendar marked the date as March 25, 1898, and none knew better than he that war with Spain might come at any moment. Seizing a pencil, he addressed his chief, Secretary Long, in a memorandum that would become historic: "The machine has worked. It seems to me worthwhile for this government to try whether it will not work on a large enough scale to be of use in the event of war."

Beside him at that moment was Charles D. Walcott, director of the Geological Survey and, as was just then of greater importance, a firm believer in Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley. From Walcott had come an enthusiastic account of Langley's "aerodrome" with its 13‑foot wingspread, its tiny steam-driven engine, and its total weight of 30 pounds. On May 6, 1896, that model had actually risen into the air and stayed up for about a minute and a half, to cover a distance of 3,000 feet in the first of all flights by a heavier-than‑air machine. Listening to Walcott's account Roosevelt, with characteristic perception and vigor, had instantly grasped the possibilities of a full-sized aeroplane, able to carry human beings. Might it become the Big Stick?

Continuing his memorandum, he presently proposed that Comdr. C. H. Davis, head of the Naval Observatory, and some other naval officer of similar scientific attainments be ordered to form a board with two qualified army officers. Let that board call in civilian authorities as Professor R. H. Thurston of Cornell and Octave Chanute, the expert on gliders who was then president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. After thorough study, let the board make recommendations as to practicability and submit estimates of cost. For this, said Roosevelt, "is well worth doing."

Within the next week Commander Davis and Professor of Mathematics Stimson J. Brown of the Naval Academy held their  p2 first meeting with the army representatives, Col. G. W. Davis, Maj. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Robert Craig, and Capt. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William Crozier. Together they delved into all the records of man's effort to fly, paying particular attention to the reports of such men as Hiram Maxim, Thurston, Chanute, and Alexander Graham Bell, but also listening to many others. They learned that Langley models, with an astonishingly light yet efficient engine, had flown, not once but many times, the distance of a full mile in no more than two minutes. Little by little, they reached "reasonable ground" for believing that a full-sized machine could be built, not only able to carry a grown man for several hours, but also with "carrying capacity so far in excess" of this that it could be used to transport light explosives "to be dropped from an elevation into an enemy's camp or fleet." Summed up, the utility of an aeroplane should fall under three heads: (1) as a means of reconnaissance, or scouting, with capacity to carry an observer; (2) as a means of communication between stations isolated from each other by ordinary means of land and water; and (3) as an engine of offense with the capacity of dropping, from a great height, high explosives into a camp or fortification.

The board did not expect Langley's machine to be a "complete and instant success." Modifications and improvements would inevitably be necessary but, even allowing for these, Langley's estimate of $50,000 for experiments appeared reasonable and, by inference at least, the board recommended making that amount available to him. After describing what European nations were already doing at the same time, Commander Davis, transmitting the board's report, wrote: "In view of the great importance which, if success­ful, it would have in military operations, I do not hesitate to express . . . the general sentiment of the Board in favor of the advisability of continuing the experiments of Professor Langley."

Secretary Long sent the report to the Board of Construction, where sudden death awaited it in this verdict:

The Board has the honor to report that it has considered the within subject, and is of the opinion that such an apparatus as is referred to pertains strictly to the land service and not to the Navy. The question is too intricate for this Board to do justice to, and it respect­fully asks to be excused from further consideration of the subject, but believes that it is not expedient at this time for the Navy Department to carry on experiments or furnish money for the purpose.

 p3  Could any words better express how little was generally known or even imagined about aviation at the end of that nineteenth century? All military eyes were more than half closed but, in November of this year, after the war with Spain was over, the Army did give Langley $25,000 and, when the Navy declined to match that sum, another $25,000 during the next year. Langley spent $25,000 more of his own, the whole amount going into that series of experiments which ended so spectacularly on December 8, 1903. Maj. Montgomery M. McComb, the War Department's observer, described the events of that day as taking place at the junction of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, not far from Washington. "The launching car," he reported,

was released at 4:45 P.M. . . . The car was set in motion and the propellers revolved rapidly, the engine working perfectly, but there was something wrong . . . The rear guy‑post seemed to drag, bringing the rudder down on the launching ways, and a crashing, rending sound, followed by the collapse of the rear wings, showed that the machine had been wrecked . . . before [it] was clear of the ways. [This] deprived the machine of its support in the rear, and it consequently reared up in the front under the action of the motor, assumed a vertical position, and then toppled over . . . falling into the water a few feet in front of the boat. Mr. Manly [the pilot] was pulled out of the wreck uninjured and the wrecked machine was subsequently placed upon the house-boat, and the whole brought back to Washington. From what has been said it will be seen that . . . unfortunate accidents have prevented any test of the apparatus in free flight, and the claim that an engine-driven, man‑carrying aerodrome has been constructed lacks the proof which actual flight alone can give.

Since the Navy's sole contribution to that occasion had been an anchor and a chain, it escaped the ridicule heaped upon the Army by press and public. It also "escaped" a place in the front rank of aviation development. This was little more than a week before Orville Wright rose into history over the lonely sands of Kittyhawk, the first human being to fly in a motor-driven, heavier-than‑air machine.

During the next few years many inventors, of whom the great majority often had little more than vague ideas, approached the Navy Department. Almost invariably, their most earnest plea was for funds to complete experiments with various types of flying machines, ranging from balloons to gliders and back again. Whenever  p4 any of these applications got as far as the General Board, that group of high-ranking officers appointed to advise the Secretary of the Navy on all matters of policy, the most frequent comment was to the effect that aviation had "not yet reached sufficient importance to warrant" doing anything definite about it. Sometimes, the ideas submitted received no kinder notice than "Plans and descriptions returned this date."

By 1908, however, the Wrights were no longer the only claimants to success­ful flight in heavier-than‑air machines. Secret trials of other designs, both here and abroad, had been followed by public demonstrations of practicability. The foresight of the so‑called "Langley Board" ten years before was proven by the increasing ability of aeroplanes to carry out at least some of the missions suggested by that board. With completed planes available, it remained to be seen whether the Navy would be prepared to spend money upon their possibilities.

On September 17, 1908, observers from the Navy and the Army joined the crowd of civilians on the parade ground at Fort Myer, Virginia, waiting for the Wrights' official trial. For the Navy, the two best-informed observers were Lieut. George C. Sweet, a pioneer in wireless telegraphy who had taken up the study of flying machines, and Naval Constructor William McEntee. Sweet, scheduled to be a passenger on that day's exhibition, had persuaded the Secretary of the Navy, Victor H. Metcalf, to be present to see the flight, but luckily for himself, did not fly. At the last moment his place was taken by Lt. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thomas E. Selfridge, earliest of the Army's flyers and already experienced through participation in civilian tests at Hammondsport, New York, and Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Because Selfridge, under orders to go to St. Joseph, Missouri, to test the Army's first dirigible, would have only that one opportunity to go up with Wright, Sweet at the urging of Alexander Graham Bell and others yielded his turn. Since Sweet was relatively heavy, extra-sized propellers had been fitted for the occasion and as the plane rose these propellers fouled wires landing to the rudder. In the tragic crash that followed, Selfridge was killed, while Sweet lived to become, a year later, the first naval officer in the United States — perhaps in the world — to fly. For the moment, however, the Fort Myer disaster served only to convince the Secretary of the Navy that the day of Naval Aviation was not yet. Nevertheless Sweet, backed by Rear Adm. William S. Cowles, brother-in‑law of Theodore Roosevelt and then Chief of the Bureau  p5 of Equipment, pushed his recommendation that the Navy begin planning, buying, building, and testing.

What Sweet wanted was a plane, capable of carrying more than one man, so designed that it could be stowed aboard ship and launched from a deck as an air scout. It should make "at least 40 miles an hour, with the possibility of hovering, if such could be accomplished," and be able to rise from or land upon the water. It must carry a "wireless telegraph installation." In Sweet's opinion, all these things were entirely practicable in the existing state of what he termed "aeroitation"; their achievement by adding greatly to the scouting powers of the Fleet and to its means of communication, would materially increase protection against enemy attack. Moreover, said Sweet, since underwater mine fields in Europe had been detected from the air, why might not approaching submarines be discovered in the same way?

Sweet suggested that the Navy buy planes that fulfilled the requirements and place them in the hands of its own personnel, trained as rapidly as might be. At the end of his very important letter, he wrote what would often be recalled:

Attention is invited to the great encouragement being given to inventors of like apparatus abroad, particularly in Germany and France. It is believed that the Department should not be behind in this, as the most practicable flying-machine at present is the invention of a citizen of the United States, and it would seem advisable to lead other navies in this as in the past has been done in other features.

These recommendations were approved by Cowles but conservatism was the naval order of the day, and there is no record of any final action taken upon Sweet's letter. European nations might encourage aviation with men and money; the United States Navy appeared to be willing to await proof of military capabilities and significance. Sweet, still supported by Rear Admiral Cowles and also by Lieut. (later Rear Adm.) Percy W. Foote, nevertheless persisted with his requests and recommendations, especially after the Wrights, in August, 1909, met all the Army's requirements and sold the War Department a plane. The Navy Department's attitude was unshaken by this, by the rise of civilian aero clubs and societies in the United States, by European enthusiasm for the demonstrations of Santos Dumont and the cross-Channel flight of Bleriot, and by the plans for an international "aviation meet" at  p6 Rheims in this same August. The department did, however, consent to send a representative to that meet.

The officer sent was the naval attaché in Paris, Comdr. F. L. Chapin, and there was much of profound interest and importance in the report he submitted. He saw the aeroplane as an established commercial fact, with military possibilities not yet definable but unquestionably great. He proposed that a battle­ship of the Connecticut class be modified to take on her deck one of the Wrights' new launching catapults and that auxiliary vessels be constructed with "a floor over the deck-houses" — the first suggestion of a flight deck. Expressing great faith in planes, he thought their value would be particularly high in night attacks upon ships because in the darkness, even at low altitudes, they would not have the vulnerability to rifle fire certain to threaten them in the daytime.

Chapin's report, however, made no strong impression, and in the spring of 1910 Glenn Curtiss got much wider publicity in his speech at a banquet in New York City. The occasion was his success­ful flight from Albany to New York, to win the New York World's $10,000 prize. "The battles of the future," cried Curtiss, "will be fought in the air! The aeroplane will decide the destiny of nations!"

The World promptly put Curtiss to the test of "bombing" targets erected near Hammondsport on Lake Keuka. Flying above floats simulating a battle­ship 500′ × 90′, he launched eight‑inch pieces of inch-and‑a‑half lead pipe, and on his second day he scored hits from heights averaging 300 feet. To some military observers the tests suggested the possibilities of aircraft as weapons of attack; others were more impressed by the mechanical shortcomings of the plane. Commenting upon these Rear Adm. William W. Kimball, one of the observers, wrote: "These are the aeroplane's present defects for war purposes: lack of ability to operate in average weather at sea; signalling approach by noise made by motor and propeller; impossibility of controlling heights and speed so as to predict approximate range; difficulty of hitting when working at a height great enough to give the aeroplane a fighting chance of reaching effective range."

Press reports of the Curtiss effort were more enthusiastic. The World talked of an aeroplane costing a few thousands but able to destroy a battle­ship costing many millions, while the Times acknowledged a new "menace to the armored fleets of war," comments  p7 indicating that the press had started the battleship-aircraft controversy even before the Navy owned a single plane.

Soon after this a plane designed by Congressman Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Butler Ames of Massachusetts was put aboard the destroyer Bagley and given a ten‑day test before a naval board. This rather cumbersome design did have lifting power but, as was true in many other experimental types of the period, that power was not great enough to lift a frame sufficiently strong to take the shock of its motor. Such tests, while they gradually increased the Navy Department's interest in aeronautical experiments, left it still unconvinced. Newspaper reports upon the results of civilian "meets" continued enthusiastic; comment by high naval authority remained noncommittal.

This does not mean that all officers were indifferent; on the contrary, many were interested. In this respect aircraft exactly fitted the general pattern of technological advances in the United States, begun about the time of the Civil War in science and in industry, and making their force felt by the Navy about 1880 as steam-driven vessels replaced the picturesque old sailing ships. It is the history of every new weapon that it has first been scorned, then eagerly embraced, and so it was destined to be with aircraft. Their usefulness was doubted by the conservatives, while the liberals at once began to think of them as a new element of sea power. It was fortunate for aviation in the United States at this moment, the end of September, 1910, a newcomer appeared upon its stage — Capt. Washington Irving Chambers of the Navy.

Widely known as a keen-minded engineer, the captain had been concerned in most of the developments that were remaking the Navy. For the last year, as assistant to the Secretary of the Navy's Aid for Material, his duty had brought him into close association with Rear Admiral Cowles, Lieutenant Sweet, and the handful of other officers who were interested in the possibilities of aircraft; and across his desk flowed a stream of letters from more or less hopeful civilian inventors and enthusiasts. When the head of the United States Aeronautic Reserve, an unofficial organization including inventors, engineers, pilots, journalists, and nonprofessional citizens, wrote to the Navy Department requesting the name of an officer with whom it might correspond, it was natural that Captain Chambers should be directed to keep in touch with the group and to inform himself generally upon progress in aviation outside government circles.

In that autumn of 1910 events were also moving faster inside  p8 those circles. Under the direction of Admiral Dewey, whose interest in aeronautics already dated back several years, the General Board of the Navy suggested that the Bureaus of Construction and Repair and of Steam Engineering consider the problem of providing space for aircraft in the plans for the new scouting vessels; a proposal which led to the establishment of an elementary aeronautic organization in the Navy Department. On October 13, 1910, Beekman Winthrop, as Acting Secretary of the Navy, noting Chambers' assignment to the duty of following all developments, directed that each of the two bureaus appoint an officer to study technical questions and to work with the captain. A few days later Naval Constructor William McEntee of Construction and Repair and Lieut. Nathaniel H. Wright of Steam Engineering were duly assigned. Years later, when speaking of this advance, Lieutenant Sweet remarked of Chambers: "Knowing his reputation as a go‑getter, I felt that Naval Aviation was underway at last!"

Unfortunately, the captain's appointment had not established him properly. He was not put into a position where he could make any decisions but was merely authorized to offer recommendations to the department, a situation which of necessity made him very cautious. He was not assigned space commensurate with the work upon which he was embarking but found himself, instead, in a dusty room in the old State‑War-Navy Building, hidden away among filing cabinets, without clerical help, and not expected to demand greater recognition. Perhaps this explains why he appears not to have "thrown his weight about," as might have been expected of an officer relatively far up the list. From his cubbyhole he wrote many letters to interested civilians, made numerous recommendations to the various bureaus and offices of the department, and talked aviation all day long, but he may have lacked the aggressiveness which might have secured him a more adequate attention. That he did not immediately make a deep impression was not, however, wholly because his work was considered unimportant; it was partly because his own strongest interest was in the scientific, technical elements. More and more he came to devote his time to whatever might help to perfect the machine, leading younger men associated with him to believe that he was not forceful enough in administrative details of practical importance to them, such as arranging for official orders that would cover their expenses in journeying about the country to see new planes or attend exhibitions of civilian flying. This is understandable, but at that early  p9 stage of aviation he was right enough in believing that the first essential was a safe, practicable flying machine and that the production of such a machine must precede consideration of what it might be able to accomplish in a naval war. If there are old‑timers today who hold that he played the part of hesitant midwife at the birth of the infant, they do not give him due credit for what he did to assist that infant's growth. He was a great help in obtaining the first congressional appropriation, actively interested in the early organization of training and of air operations with the Fleet, and instrumental in establishing the first flying field and aeronautic center. His accomplishments may be summed up under two heads: (1) awakening the general interest of the Navy in flying; (2) constantly stimulating research into the science of aerodynamics, that field in which the Navy's eventual achievements have been so great.

Chambers did get early encouragement from some quarters. The Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering, Capt. (later Rear Adm.) Hutch I. Cone, on a hint from Admiral Dewey and that intrepid progressive, Capt. (later Rear Adm.) Bradley A. Fiske, proposed that an aeroplane be bought for the new cruiser Chester. Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer immediately referred this suggestion to the General Board, thus affording that body the opportunity to reaffirm its belief that the adaptability of aviation to war upon the sea should be thoroughly investigated. With this backing came that of other naval figures such as Rear Adm. Colby M. Chester, Ret., one of the few who had actually "taken a hop," the principal speaker on the subject of military aviation at the Jamestown Exposition in 1907, and later to make a trip to Europe as delegate of the New York Aero Club. All this resulted in the sending of McEntee and Wright to Belmont Park, New York, in October, 1910, to be present at the first American air meet big enough to attract European representatives. A few days later they went to Halethorpe, Maryland, where they met Glenn Curtiss and his star pilot, Eugene Ely. At both places they studied the latest technical advances in structure as well as in motors, and watched men fly through fog, through rain, and through winds of 20‑mile velocity. They saw numerous "bombings," and returned to Washington profoundly impressed.

Immediately Captain Chambers proposed that Congress appropriate money to cover "experimental investigation," which should include buying a two‑seater plane for each of the new scout cruisers, and also provide for training fields at Annapolis, Charleston,  p10 South Carolina, and San Diego. He did not say that aircraft would eliminate battle­ships but he did say that with this new element of sea power almost anything might happen in the years to come. In whatever did happen, he added, the United States Navy ought to lead the world, and therefore the Navy Department should at once establish a separate office of aeronautics with appropriate staff and adequate authority.

Inevitably, the strongest opposition to any such separate office developed immediately. The Navy Department in general was too accustomed to existing administrative methods and too little air minded to be ready for any radical departure. The bureaus were far too comfortable in their semiautonomy to look with any but the most jaundiced eye at anything that suggested diminution of authority or "cognizance." It would be years before any such office would be even possible and, in the meantime, there were other pressing questions.

Could aeroplanes actually accompany ships at sea? Could they be launched from a deck as well as from the ground or from the surface of the water? If they landed on the surface, how were they to be taken aboard? These were among Chambers' questions and, after unsuccess­ful approaching the Wrights, he turned again to Curtiss whom he found always ready to make experiments and as progressive as the Wrights were conservative.

Just at that time came the news that the Hamburg American Steamship Company, abetted by the New York World, was planning to have J. A. D. McCurdy, a former Curtiss pilot, attempt a flight from a platform on the liner Kaiserin Augusta Victoria. The date set was November 5, 1910, but when bad weather interfered with the preparations a postponement became necessary and it was announced that the liner Amerika would be substituted. It was given out that the experiment was designed to improve mail service, but there were not wanting those who suspected that the German Navy was behind the test. Not to be outdone, Chambers, with the active help of Capt. Frank Friday Fletcher, the Secretary's Aid for Material, obtained the use of the cruiser Birmingham at Norfolk and set McEntee to building a platform over her deck. Working night and day, McEntee and his men planned to be ready by the 19th of the month and this spurred the steamship men to new efforts. Presently, they announced that they would have the liner Pennsylvania ready for the test by the 12th, but through bad luck they met with an accident during their final preparations and  p11 thus McCurdy was robbed of his chance to be the first ship-to‑shore flier. McEntee had the Birmingham ready on the 14th and, although the weather was not favorable, Eugene Ely, whose services Chambers had secured, was not to be stopped. His machine ran down the Birmingham's platform, dipped so perilously low that the wheels actually touched the water, rose again — and flew safely to a landing on Willoughby Spit.

All over the world military men and civilians were aroused by this success, and Captain Chambers found a little greater support in the Navy Department for more experiments and for a real program in aeronautics. Suggestions came from several persons working for the Navy outside Washington, such as E. C. Keithley, a mechanic at the New York Navy Yard. He submitted plans for a launching platform to be built on a battle­ship turret and trained and elevated with the guns, in order that any wind direction might be met without necessitating a change in the ship's course. Rear Adm. E. H. C. Leutze, the color­ful commandant of the yard, forwarded the plans as "ingenious," but even Captain Chambers was not prepared to go ahead so rapidly. To him the cruisers, with their relatively longer, clearer quarter-decks, appeared ideal, especially since Ely had demonstrated that it was possible for a plane to take off down-wind. Using the quarter-deck for take‑off and for landing would also have the advantage that a pilot who failed to get up quickly or crashed into the water would find himself astern of the ship, rather than ahead of it and in danger of being cut down. Sticking to cruisers, Chambers filed the Keithley plans for future reference and, eventually, it was the British who first brought out the small, turret-borne plane.

Gradual widening of Navy Department interest, particularly such high-level interest as the announced intention of Capt. W. L. Capps, Chief of Construction and Repair, to study foreign progress in aviation during a world tour on which he was starting, encouraged Captain Chambers to repeat his requests that money be appropriated. It was at his suggestion that Lieut. N. H. Wright of the Bureau of Steam Engineering made his recommendations of November 17, 1910, that two planes of each existing American type be purchased; that a flying field be built either at Charleston, South Carolina, or at Pensacola, Florida, to which a station ship should be assigned for experiments; and that at least two officers be trained by experienced civilians to fly each type of plane.

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