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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 14

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 16

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p164  Chapter XV

The Navy Flies the Atlantic

In enthusiasm for aircraft and aviation generally, Rear Adm. David Taylor yielded to no man. During the first weeks of war, when he had to red the depressing reports of scores being rolled up against Allied shaping by the U‑boats, he pondered the capabilities and disabilities of aircraft as a weapon against submarines. Such phrase a "maximum range of flight" and "greatest possible bomb load" were constantly in his mind, because he was well aware that a major factor in the current design of American aircraft was the recognized necessity of stowing such craft aboard ship for transportation overseas. As a result of his studies of the situation he wrote, for circulation in his own Bureau of Construction and Repair, a highly significant memorandum. In this he suggested what was needed was a flying boat not only able to make the long flight to Europe but also stout enough, if it should be forced down, to "keep the sea in any weather." Discussing this with those three stars among his subordinates, Richardson, Westervelt, and Hunsaker, he said to them, in effect: "Gentlemen, give us something that will cross the Atlantic, nonstop, and be able to take on a U‑boat on arrival!" So great was his confidence that he remained undisturbed when, later, the Bolling Commission reported it to be the "all but unanimous" belief of "practical and experienced men" that flying boats large enough to be effective against submarines could not be built. Being himself a practical and experienced man, his comment was something like "We shall see about that!"

When it came to design, those three constructors, working together, probably could have made Jules Verne appear a dull, unimaginative clod. If they had any doubt of being able to meet Admiral Taylor's requirement, they did not show it as their ideas took form on paper. By September, 1917, even before formal approval had been obtained from the Secretary of the Navy, they called in Glenn Curtiss. Within two days of that conference  p165 Curtiss was back with alternative designs: one with four engines developing 1,700 horsepower, the other with three engines and 1,000 horsepower. Otherwise, the two designs were in general identical, new features being a hull considerably shorter than those then in use, and a method of supporting the tail by outriggers from the upper wings and from the after end of the hull. Curtiss claimed that the outriggers provided stronger tail support and also permitted giving the rear gunner a clear field of vision, without which the earlier flying boats were particularly vulnerable to fire from enemies they could not see. After long discussion the smaller of the two designs was chosen; Curtiss was told to go ahead, and, to compliment both the sponsor and the builder, Navy-Curtiss or NC was the identification assigned. Curtiss, undaunted by the unprecedented size of the new type, set to work at his Buffalo plant, continued at Garden City, and by January, 1918, had his detailed plans completed.

The earliest proposal had been to prepare for a nonstop crossing from Newfoundland to Ireland, but closer study of what might be expected in the way of wind led to fixing 1,300 miles as the maximum for one flight. On the question of wind resistance, Richardson was given the job of redesigning the hull to make this resistance as low as possible without sacrifi­cing the ability to carry a crew of five, with equipment, spares, short guns, ammunition, and five tons of gasoline. When his modifications had been approved Curtiss made one hull, contracts for two others being given to Lawley and Sons, yacht builders of Neponset, Massachusetts, while the fourth went to the famous Herreshoffs at Bristol, Rhode Island. Constructor McEntee was then called in to supervise, at the Navy's Model Basin, innumerable trials of the models for these hulls.

Considering the novel design and remembering what was then known about the building of aircraft, progress was rapid. By October, 1918, the first NC was ready at the Rockaway Naval Air Station, standing 68 feet three inches long, with what was then the largest known wing spread — 126 feet. On the first tests it lifted nearly 25,000 pounds, its only fault being a tail heaviness which was readily corrected by relocating the horizontal stabilizer. Its three Liberty engines were efficient but the consensus was that the design ought to have four engines; a correct decision because NC‑2's, thus equipped, easily lifted 28,000 pounds or over 6000 pounds more than its required load. Had not hostilities ended so  p166 suddenly, the type, with improvements suggested by war experience, would materially have hastened progress in aviation during the succeeding 20 years.

After success­ful tests, NC‑1 was also equipped with four engines and then sent up in an effort to break the record established by the new British Handley Page — 40 passengers carried in actual flight. On November 25 at Rockaway 50 men were loaded aboard and taken into the air without difficulty. After a short flight NC‑1 came down with the new record and proceeded to unload 51. For an hour and a half Machinist's Mate, Second Hand, Harry D. Moulton had been the Navy's first aerial stowaway.

A little later a disastrous fire and a bad gale combined to rip the tail of NC‑4 and one wing of NC‑1, with the result that these two were repaired by dismantling NC‑2, leaving only three ready for that unprecedented ceremony, their commissioning on May 2, 1919, as Seaplane Division One. In selecting the pilots of the squadron first consideration was given to those who had been kept in important posts in the United States and so missed their chance to go overseas during the war. Towers was named division commander and with him in NC‑3 was Richardson as copilot. Bellinger, with Mitscher, took NC‑1, while Read, with Elmer Stone of the Coast Guard, got NC‑4. By this time it had been decided that even though the war had ended the Navy should have its chance to be the first to cross the Atlantic by air, and the words of Read are a good expression of the general naval view of such an enterprise:

If the flight were success­ful, not only would an immense amount of valuable . . . information be obtained concerning long-distance oversea flying, but Naval Aviation, the Navy Department, and the whole country would receive the plaudits of the entire world for accomplishing a notable feat in the progress of the science; the mass of the people would be made to realize the importance of aviation as a valuable arm of the naval service and the way would be blazed for others to follow and thus act to promote a commercial transatlantic service.

Since good flying weather might be expected in May, all plans were pushed toward making May 6 the day to start the boats from Rockaway for Trepassey in Newfoundland, whence they would leave, as soon as might be, along the chosen route via the Azores and Lisbon to London. Another good reason for hurrying lay in  p167 the fact that three teams of both aviators were already up at St. John's, Newfoundland, getting ready to compete for the prize of $50,000 offered by the London Daily Mail for the first men to make the crossing. Finally, that intrepid pair, Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Brown, was reported en route for Newfoundland with their Vickers-Vimy bomber. Even the Navy's own lighter-than‑air men were not to give up the Atlantic crown without a struggle, for the nonrigid C‑3, under Lieutenant Commander Coil, later to be lost with the ZR‑2, had sailed up from Montauk Point in the record flight of 1,050 miles in 25 hours and 10 minutes. No one could guess, then, that a gale would tear C‑3 from her moorings and wreck her.

As soon as the three NC's had taken off, on May 8, for Trepassey, NC‑4 began having trouble with her oil pressure and had to reduce speed. This was followed by the breaking of a connecting rod, which drove her down to the sea off Cape Cod and involved a long "taxi ride" to the air station at Chatham. There the work of repla­cing one engine, added to several days of bad weather, brought the delay up to six days during which the other two boats, already at Trepassey, were impatiently awaiting the signal to go and watching their British rivals, also weather bound. On the morning of the 14th the NC‑4 was nearing Trepassey when her radio reported that NC‑1 and NC‑3 would start east that afternoon. The harbor proved too rough, however, driving the two back to their moorings and thus allowing NC‑4 to get into port and to be, on the afternoon of the 16th, the first to take the air. With Read and Stone were Lt. Walter Hinton as relief pilot, Ens. H. C. Rodd, radio operator, Lt. James Breese, pilot engineer, and Ch. Mach. E. C. Rhoads, reserve engineer.

Sixty-eight destroyers had been strung across the ocean as "marker buoys," supported at 400‑mile intervals by five battle­ships to act as weather stations. All these ships were to use smoke by day and searchlights by night, and as the planes passed overhead star shells were to be fired until a radio check‑in from each plane had been received. Against the possibility of having to make forced landings on the sea, the flying boats were provided with bow flares to illuminate the surface. Among their special instruments they had not only a new type of bubble sextant designed by Byrd but also the drift and speed indicator which he and C. B. Truscott had developed, as well as a course and distance indicator. The flight would show that these aids to navigating in the air were  p168 more reliable than most of the pilots, at the outset, believed them to be. At the first nightfall, after a rough day, the running lights of the flagship, NC‑3, failed, making it difficult for the other two to keep touch with her and introdu­cing the danger of collision in the air. The NC‑4, however, with a reversal of the bad luck that had at first followed her, gathered speed and left the others behind.

As the visibility had been good she had sighted the first 16 destroyers, but shortly after dawn on the 17th, fog banks loomed ahead. Sharing the plane's control in half-hour hitches, Hinton and Stone managed to lift their big craft over one bank but only to plunge her into another. They could no longer see the ocean, and though they had the "needle and ball" instrument, installation had been too recent to allow for training in its use for flying. Once the plane got in a tight spin, threatening disaster, but it came into the clear just in time to permit the pilots to orient themselves and retain control. On they went, under an overcast and above a fog that "broke" just often enough to let them get an estimate of their drift and change course accordingly. They had been 15 hours in the air and were between two layers of fog when Read, peering down through a thin spot, saw a rugged coastline which he concluded must be Flores in the Azores. At once, he spiraled down close to the sea, where visibility proved to be excellent. He resumed course, and although he hit more fog even at a low level, it cleared enough for him to make a landing at Horta, the end of a 1200‑mile flight at an estimated speed of 78 knots.

If Read "got the breaks" he had earned them; for one reason because he had shown greater confidence in his navigational instruments. NC‑1, after going through the same fog, was doubtful of her compass and decided to come down to the sea to take bearings. This was unfortunate, because when she landed in the 30‑foot seas that met her she was so damaged as to be unable to get up again. She was about 100 miles from Flores as she began to "taxi" toward that island. Before long she met the Greek steamer Ionia to which she transferred the crew in the ship's boats. The attempt to take the plane in tow failed when the hawser parted, with the result that NC‑1 capsized and presently sank.

NC‑3, the flagship, lived through an epic of her own. Forty-five miles from Flores she came down to get her bearings because of doubt about the bubble sextant, landing in even rougher water with heavy damage all around. Through her receiving set she  p169 could hear the destroyer searching for her west of Flores but her efforts to report that she was south of the island did not get through. For two days and two nights her crew kept going under a jury-rigged sail, improvising sea anchors, pouring oil on the sea, and shifting their places from one wing to the other to keep from capsizing. Then, seven miles from Ponta Delgada, they sighted the destroyer Harding, promptly hauled down their distress signals and hoisted their colors to show that they were determined to make port under their own power. Sailing stern first, they had almost reached the breakwater when the right float let go, to drag by two wires and be cut loose just in time to keep the plane above water. With three men running from wing to wing to meet each ground swell, she reached the mooring buoy, finishing what Read of the NC‑4 called "a triumphant demonstration of courage, expert seaman­ship and the seagoing qualities of the hulls." Since Read himself was still held at Horta by weather, he did not reach Ponta Delgada until a day later, when he flew in, to find the shipping dressed for the occasion, a hundred whistles blowing, the governor and the entire population on the waterfront, and a small mountain of congratulatory cables.

Since nothing was heard of the British planes after their start from Newfoundland, suspense in the Azores ran high. Even on May 27, when the NC‑4 finally got away for Lisbon, she still did not know whether she was truly the pioneer. In the original plans it had been provided that Towers, if any boat were damaged, might shift his flag to another. Under the circumstances, however, it was decided that he would go on by ship, as was certainly fair to Read.

After leaving Lisbon, an unexplained oil leak necessitated a landing on the Mondego River, near Figueira in Portugal. In getting up again after repairs she had a brief grounding on a sand bar, fortunately without damage, and after getting into the air again she had to make an overnight stop at Ferrol, Spain. Thus it was not until May 31 that Read landed at Plymouth, England, to be received by the Lord Mayor at the slab commemorating the sailing of the Pilgrims 300 years earlier. He had beaten the British because Hawker and Grieve had made a forced landing 1,200 miles from Newfoundland and it was not until June 14 that Alcock and Brown flew nonstop from that place to Ireland.

From this first transatlantic flight the Navy got valuable data on long-distance flying and on the possibility of wide reconnaissance through the air. Much, too, was learned about ship-to‑plane  p170 radio communication, the radio direction finder, the sextant, the drift indicator, the new zenithal-projection chart and the need for far more exhaustive surely of weather in the upper air. Altogether this proof of Admiral Taylor's clear vision of the quality of American designs marked a tremendous step forward in the art and science of flying.

Brought home with her crew by ship, the NC‑4 was soon launched upon a recruiting flight. In the four months from September through December, 1919, she visited 43 cities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and flew up the Mississippi as far as Cairo, Illinois. Hundreds of thousands of American citizens saw and cheered her before she finally reached the Smithsonian Institution, but the record does not show that these citizens made any concerted effort to influence the deliberations of Congress upon the future of flying in the Navy.

It was the future that deeply concerned Craven, who had taken office as director on July 7, 1919, four days before the passage of the act for the fiscal year 1920. Not content with all the slashes that the Navy itself had made in its estimates for aviation, Congress cut the amount still further and hit upon a final figure of $25,000,000. As some few had foreseen, this would establish a long-lasting precedent, and through the next three administrations the cry of "economize" would drown out any other.

As though this alone were not discouraging enough for Craven, it was shortly followed by action of the Chief of Naval Operations on the various recommendations for reorganizing the internal administration of Naval Aviation. On August 1, 1919, Admiral Benson reduced the director to the level of a head of a section in Naval Operations, leaving him what had now become a meaningless title. Next, many of the duties and functions which had been the director's during the war were returned to the various bureaus, while others were distributed among the other sections of the Office of Naval Operations.

Thus Craven, Whiting, Read, and a small staff became part of the Planning Division; Maxfield and Bellinger were transferred to the Material Division; Chevalier became a member of the Division of Operating Forces; aviation gunnery went to the Division of Gunnery Exercise and Engineering Performance; and radio went to the Communications Division. From half a dozen different divisions those essentially concerned with flying would be able to signal to one another across the corridors of the Navy Department  p171 or, if they had official business with flying schools, air stations, or depots, they would be permitted to write to the commandant of the naval district under whom that particular activity was placed by the new order. Captain Craven described his own planes as that of "the so‑called Director of Aviation, ever responsible for failures . . . with the directional authority of a weathercock on the roof of a New England farm." He was expected to be fully cognizant of every aviation activity in every bureau, whether or not he had even seen the plan before it was put into operation. On top of the other obstacles, he also found the files of Naval Aviation distributed in a dozen places because their contents bore upon something no longer under his direct supervision. He may have hoped that his position was likely to become less anomalous when, within a few weeks of this reorganization, Admiral Benson was relieved by Adm. R. E. Coontz. That hope, however, must have been dashed when Rear Admiral McKean, in presenting him to the new chief, remarked that "Craven has numerous assistants and too many office rooms. A single room is all that he requires." Craven was not the type to be consoled for lesser administrative powers by the thought that there would be less to administer.

That this would be true was easy to forecast from a study of the act of July 11, 1919, governing the fiscal year 1920. With the limited funds provided, it would soon become impossible to have on hand enough planes to train even the personnel that would be available; impossible to keep what planes there were in proper condition to fly. The act further limited the number of heavier-than‑air stations to six, and the Navy chose Rockaway, Hampton Roads, Anacostia, Pensacola, Key West, and San Diego. Although lighter-than‑air craft was not so specifically restricted, there were no funds for such important bases as Chatham and Cape May. The so‑called Parks-McKean Board, appointed by Secretary Daniels for the purpose, was even then recommending new West coast stations at Ediz Point, Tongue Point, and Seattle, with Dutch Flats at San Diego for the Marines, but that board might as well never have met. Although Lakehurst, about to be evacuated by the Army, could be secured as a base for the Navy's lighter-than‑air work through the years to come, the act in general took a view far too short-sighted to detect the 1940's, when naval air stations would sprout like dandelions in the meadows of the United States.

Some helpful provisions had been made by the act, and under these Craven had already started activity even before Coontz came  p172 into office. For one thing, the act authorized the conversion of a collier into a carrier, and since it had specifically named the Jupiter Craven had lost no time in getting the technical bureaus to start upon conversion. To be sure, they had barely gotten underway upon this when he found the orders countermanded by Admiral Benson, an embarrassing situation from which he extricated himself only by direct appeal to the Secretary of the Navy. On this occasion Mr. Daniels reversed his Chief of Naval Operations, directing that the conversion proceed and himself allocating to the bureaus the necessary funds. At the same time he authorized the equipping of eight battle­ships with turret platforms and the purchase of small planes, chiefly of the British Sopwith type, for use from the platforms. These were landplanes for which the original recommendation by the General Board had been that 75 scouts and the same number of fighters be obtained either from the Army or from foreign sources. The Chief of Naval Operations, however, was of the opinion that the use of landplanes from ships was not practicable, and the board's figure was accordingly reduced to a total of ten. These nevertheless proved enough to arouse considerable enthusiasm for "a plane on every ship," and led to numerous experiments with destroyers notwithstanding Captain King's caustic prophecy that "the first bad weather will settle that question."

Work when forward slowly on the Jupiter and nothing was done on two merchant ships whose conversion into tenders had also been authorized by the act of 1919. So slow would be the progress that it would be March, 1922, before the Jupiter emerged as the carrier Langley, soon familiarly called the "Old Covered Wagon," first of a long line of illustrious sisters and half-sisters. Much water would roll past all the Navy's bridges before, by the outbreak of World War II, the strength of that line would reach eight carriers of various types and sizes.

Some progress in lighter-than‑air work was also authorized by the act of 1919, in that it provided for the purchase of one rigid dirigible abroad and the building of another at home. These provisions were timely because interest in dirigibles had received considerable impetus from the visit to the United States of the British R‑34, first airship to make a success­ful crossing. She helped smooth the way to an agreement with the British under which their uncompleted R‑38, representing the newest and supposedly best type, was to be finished and turned over to the United States at a cost of $2,000,000. At the same time arrangements were  p173 made for the training in England of American personnel for the new ship, which was given the American designation ZR‑2. It took two more years to build her and then, on August 24, 1921, when she was making her fourth trial flight, she fell into the Humber River, burst into flames, and killed Comdr. Lewis H. Maxfield and all but five of her crew of 49.

In this same year 1919 the ZR‑1, afterward known as the Shenandoah, was begun. It had at first been contemplated that her construction would be by automobile manufacturers, perhaps Ford or Packard, but this plan was abandoned in favor of the Navy's doing its own building, the parts to be made at the Philadelphia factory, their assembly to be at Lakehurst. The final structural design was a combination of the British and the German types, with modification of the fins, strengthening of the longitudinals, and a special nose to permit mooring by the bow. The Maybach motors built by the Germans proved best and the designers returned to them after trying both Liberty and Packards. Built of duralumin furnished by private aluminum firms, the airship would need the largest hangar in the world and this would not be completed at Lakehurst until 1922. It would then serve, after the Shenandoah's tragic end, to house the very success­ful Los Angeles, built by the Germans at Friedrichshafen under the terms of the Versailles Treaty and originally known simply as ZR‑3. For all these ships helium would be unquestionably the best inflating gas, and work upon Texas plants to manufacture it, begun in 1917, was still being pushed in 1919. Within another year 200,000 cubic feet of helium were produced, at a cost indicating that a government plant for this purpose would be a good investment even at a building cost of $7,000,000.

Toward the end of 1919 and in early 1920 Captain Craven was hoping for some progress through using the six airships procured from various European countries under authority of the same Act of 1919. From France came an Astra-Torres, a Vedette-Zodiac, and a Chalais-Meudon, but on their arrival it was discovered that no hangar in the United States was big enough to handle them. This meant that they had to be put into storage, and before any use of them for training purpose could be made their fabrics became so rotten that they had to be destroyed. The "O" type nonrigid, bought from Italy at a cost of $84,000 plus the salaries of two special technicians imported with it, did not reach the United States until the early autumn of 1919, when it carried out  p174 a few interesting, instructive tests, especially of radio communications and target gliders, before it crashed and became a total loss. From England came one nonrigid of the "North Sea" type.

Three new classes were designed in the United States. The so‑called "G" class, practically a counterpart of the "North Sea," was planned to have a capacity of 400,000 cubic feet, an anchored car with sleeping quarters for the crew, a three-inch antisubmarine gun, and a heavy bomb load; but it never got beyond the plan stage. The "H" was a self-propelled kite balloon, which could be inflated aboard ship, and it was stout enough to be towed in a strong wind. Because it had an engine it could handle itself in weather much too strong for the ordinary balloon, but its effectiveness otherwise did not prove great enough to warrant building more than one of the type. Third was the "J," a twin-motored affair, not unlike its "C" and "G" predecessors, but fitted with only one ballonet and a simple gondola. With all of these an impressive series of training exercises was planned, but as might be expected from the scanty funds available not all of them could be carried out. Led by McCrary and Lansdowne the lighter-than‑air men wanted to learn all there was to know about refueling dirigibles from surface craft or from one another; about mooring devices, instruments, and possible new fabrics; about mine laying and bombing; and particularly all about helium gas and the possibility of such static discharges as, in the future, would destroy the famous Hindenburg. Attempts at least were made at all these training experiments and exercises.

It was these exercises that brought the "H" kite balloon into disfavor. As Admiral Mayo had expressed it, the observer in such a balloon found it "an unhappy place" when a battle­ship's salvo was fired below his basket, while even without that a merely "fresh" breeze would give him so much to do to "stay put" that he could accomplish little else. Most of the ships could see no use for the balloons that would compensate for the time and labor spent in caring for and handling them, a view supported by Adm. Henry B. Wilson, the new Commander in Chief in the Atlantic, in his conclusion that "the results of trials condemn the balloon as neither practical nor useful . . . on board the fighting units." Hence although the Pacific Fleet continued for some time to make experiments  p175 it was inevitable that the "dishing in" of balloons from the Florida and Nevada in the winter of 1920 — accidents in which losses of life were but narrowly averted — should virtually end their use aboard ships.

All these postwar efforts at integrating Naval Aviation with the Fleet were subject to the same drawback, lack of sufficient personnel. The act of July 11, 1919, took very little account of such naval recommendations as those of Admiral Mayo for building up the air arm. It called for immediately redu­cing the enlisted personnel and set the limit for the Navy at 170,000, which must be reached by July 1, 1920. The allowance of commissioned officers was 4 per cent of the enlisted strength and there was no clause which permitted the transfer of reserve officers to the regular Navy. It was plain that when all ships, navy yards, and stations had been manned, aviation must come off a bad last.

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