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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 18

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 20
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p205  Chapter XIX

Technical Developments

Looking back 25 years, it is easy to recognize certain effects, in the early twenties, of the vociferous argument over the bombing tests or of the heated debates on whether or not the United States should have a separate department of the air. For one thing, it appears clear that the extremists of that moment were inclined to simplify the points at issue until the question became that of the airplane against the battleship. Ultraconservatives, seeing only the limitations of contemporary planes in radius of action and in bomb-carrying capacity, would not admit that advance in aerial weapons could ever make them a decisive factor against great fleets. Ultraliberals believed just as firmly that the capital ship was already eliminated. Neither could see reason in the other's arguments.

This is not said in condemnation of the conservatives in the Navy, for these included many officers whose professional abilities are not to be questioned. Having lived through many periods of competition between the weapons of offense and the weapons of defense, during which first one and then the other had been in the ascendant, their view that the guns of the Fleet were still at the core of each power was not unlike that of many army officers of equal rank and experience, who held that trench warfare as it was carried on in World War I had demonstrated that no future war could be won by weapons of offense. Similarly, the men who took the ultraliberal view are not to be condemned, especially since much of what they foresaw eventually came to be. In the long run, ways were found to combine the views of both factions and retain the best points of each.

Between those who held the extreme views stood a large group of the more moderate. Naval aviators were outspoken in their insistence that aircraft were still only in infancy and that every effort must be made to make them adult. Since the view was shared by many  p206 army fliers, it became possible for those in the lower grades to come together with less friction than was evident between the upper grades. This put Moffett "in the middle" because, while he was certainly a progressive as to aircraft, he had been raised a seaman, with 30 years in ships, and he was able to understand the language of brother flag officers. More than once it took all his suavity and tact to preserve peace between the two factions, but while he sometimes made concessions to each, these were never of the kind to delay real progress in the practice of flying. On the contrary, he seized every opportunity to promote, through inter-Service cooperation at lower levels, the all‑important technical advances that resulted from every sort of experiment.

Although somewhat obscured by the publicity given the quarrel, there were many such advances during these years. For the Navy 1922 was notable because, on March 20 of that year, the Langley went into commission and began her very useful life as an aquatic guinea pig. Her flight deck, 534′ × 64′ was only about the size of the decks on the "baby flat tops" of World War II but it was big for the day and there were dozens anxious to test it. On October 17, 1922, Lt. Comdr. V. C. Griffin was the first to take off from that deck, in a VE‑7‑SF. Nine days later, with the Langley under way, Lieutenant Commander Chevalier, perhaps in recognition of the fact that no one had worked harder than he in perfecting the arresting gear, made the first landing in an Aeromarine. First to be catapulted from the deck, on November 18, was Commander Whiting, at the controls of a PT.

All these planes were types already in use because the Navy had not yet decided upon a design specifically for service aboard a carrier. Study of such designs had been started when the conversion of the collier Jupiter into the Langley was first authorized, but convincing experiments could not be carried on until the flight deck was actually available. In 1920, hoping to use Martin bombers on the Langley, the Navy had bought ten of these, but even when fitted with folding wings that made stowage aboard ship easier they proved to be too large. Moreover, since arresting gear was still in the experimental stage, the Bureau of Aeronautics concluded it would be wiser to perfect this gear and then design planes that met its requirements. Consequently, the first regular assignments to the Langley were conventional landplanes, built by Aeromarine and by Vought, modified only by strengthening their landing gear and by installing arresting hooks.

 p207  Before the Langley joined the Fleet, a landing platform was erected at Hampton Roads, simulating a flight deck and on a turntable in order that it might be trained into the wind. Upon this numerous tests, chiefly under the supervision of Lieut. A. M. Pride, a reserve officer of World War I who had joined the regular Navy and who is, at this writing, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, were made with gear modeled upon the British type, using fore-and‑aft wires about ten inches above the deck level. Pride soon learned that these wires served only as guides, and added thwartship wires in a modification of those used by Eugene Ely on the Pennsylvania in 1911. Many more experiments followed, both on the platform and aboard the Langley, the various ideas including converging wires, shuttle gear, and the so‑called "slipper," which used a slot in the deck rather than a wire. A major difficulty was the tendency of this gear to make the plane, as it moved along the deck, exaggerate any angle of the landing wheels into a sharp turn toward the ship's side, and since heavier planes were constantly being produced, the problem appeared a never ending one. Bit by bit, however, there were advances, and by 1923 the captain of the Langley reported that he could handle with reasonable safety three heavy planes in seven minutes, a record offering an interesting comparison with the days of World War II, when three such landings in one minute were not uncommon. All through this decade the Navy called in many civilian consultants, including two much better known for their work on bomb sights, Norden and Barth, to assist in the evolution of such gear. Although the Lexington and Saratoga were fitted with both longitudinal and thwartship wires, the former were already falling into disrepute and by 1929 they were removed altogether. With hydraulic cylinders replacing the weights formerly hung on the ends of the thwartship wires, the type coming into use was the forebear of the efficient one of World War II. To keep pace with this, there were numerous modifications of existing plane types, such as the DH‑4, the DT, and the UO‑1, until, in March, 1925, the Bureau of Aeronautics called upon four manufacturers for new models to fit carriers. The United States Martin produced an all‑metal variety of the SC, Curtiss produced a number of F6C types, Vought the O2U, and Douglas the T2D. All these became the ancestors of carrier planes prominent years later in the Pacific.

During the same period there was considerable progress in catapults. Compressed air types, in use before World War I, were  p208 fitted to turntables, one of these being installed on the battleship Maryland in 1922, with a modified form on the cruisers of the Omaha class. Two years later powder replaced air as the propulsion courage, and a catapult of this type was erected on a turret of the battleship Mississippi, the turret acting as turntable. In 1927 a further modification in which the turntable was independent of the turret was tried on the battleship Colorado with such success that it was approved for her sister ships and for the 10,000‑ton cruisers. As to carriers, the Langley had the old compressed air catapult and, although not much used in actual aircraft operations, this tested the launching of various types of planes with good results in education. When the Saratoga and Lexington joined the Fleet they were equipped with a fly‑wheel type but this was later removed and it would not be until the advent in 1934 of a flush-deck design powered by compressed air that the catapult became a dependable and much-used means of carrier launching.

Returning to 1922, it appears that the proposals made for that year by the Bureau of Aeronautics for aircraft in the Fleet followed the general outline prepared by Mustin a year earlier. Indeed these proposals were quite in line with what he had said as early as 1916 in an address to the Navy League, when he called for "high-speed fighting aeroplanes, the medium-sized torpedo-carrying aeroplane and the slow-speed scouting aeroplane." Thus, for 1922, it was planned that every battleship and cruiser should have two fighter planes and two observation planes, while each destroyer leader, each first‑class destroyer, and each submarine of cruising size was to have one plane of each type. On aircraft tenders there were to be four observation planes and 12 patrol planes, and the complement for expected carriers was established at 30 fighters and as many observers, 15 scouts and 15 torpedo planes. This was the plan and, as a part of it, the Bureau of Aeronautics also urged pushing work on all shore stations for aircraft, including the installation of mooring masts for airships at San Diego, Pearl Harbor, Guam, and the Philippines. Originally this was offered as a four-year program, but when Moffett was unable to get approval, either from the General Board or in the Fleet, he modified the time to five years.

To all of this there were various objections, such as those of the Bureau of Ordnance to the effect that any planes on battleships must interfere with range finding and shooting. In a final recommendation to the Secretary of the Navy, made on November 19,  p209 1922, the General Board came down to the figures of one observer and two fighters for each of 18 battleships, two observers for each of ten cruisers, one fighter for each of 18 destroyers, one observer for each of nine submarines, and a few of each type distributed through the ships of the supporting train. When the budget, as ultimately approved, did not provide for even this relatively modest program, Moffett concentrated upon urging that the battleships, at least, be equipped, but it would be some years before this was accomplished. The so‑called five-year program did not come before Congress until 1926, after the Morrow Board as will be seen had made its exhaustive study of the whole state of aviation. In the meantime Fleet and shore stations continued to be handicapped, and such comprehensive plans as that for "Aeronautical Organization of the Naval Districts," drawn up during this period, had to be abandoned for the time being.

In addition to technical improvements, made in spite of the lack of enough money to carry out all the Bureau of Aeronautics' plans, this period produced evidence of advances in general thinking in the Navy. Shortly after aircraft had been introduced into the "games" played at the Naval War College that institution reported to the General Board that, while these games had not "proved . . . aircraft will entirely dominate . . . they have brought out the fact that, as much as any other auxiliary . . . perhaps more . . . aircraft can exercise a decisive influence." Capt. (later Vice Adm.) Harris Laning of the college staff noted with satisfaction that officers coming in as students often showed very little or no enthusiasm for aircraft and then, as the games progressed, displayed great interest in the possibilities of air attack and defense. It appeared obvious to Laning that such officers, when they returned to the Fleet after their courses, would have convincing arguments to offer any remaining doubters, and this would mean progress.

Another very important step of that day was in the direction of large carriers. The Washington Disarmament Treaties, signed in February, 1922, set the limit for United States carrier tonnage at 135,000 and, under the capital ship limits, prohibited the completion of two great battle cruisers already laid down under the so‑called 1916 program, ships whose engines and armament would have made them the most powerful units afloat. While these two hulls lay on the buildingways, the General Board first had under consideration two possible carriers: a 30‑knotter for the Scouting  p210 Force and a 24‑knotter for the Battle Force; then moved to consideration of three alternatives: a 10,000‑ton 15‑knotter, a 20,000‑ton ship of 29.5 knots, and, finally, a 35,000‑ton class to reach 33 or 34 knots, depending on whether or not their hulls were given "blister" protection against torpedos. As was to be expected, the board's studies soon swung toward the possibility of converting the two unfinished battle cruisers.

Such a conversion was possible under the treaties because, while any new carrier was limited to 27,000 tons, there had been international agreement that any hull already under construction and otherwise due to be scrapped could be converted into a carrier of as much as 33,000 tons. Moreover, this agreement further provided for an additional 3,000 tons, if blister protection and certain specified deck armor were to be added. Since the Langley, defined as an "experimental" ship, was not counted against the allowance of the United States, it would be possible to complete the two proposed conversions, even at a total of 36,000 tons each, and still leave 63,000 tons of permissible construction in carriers. Moffett, foreseeing that Congress would scale down its appropriations made for classes of ships in which the United States was already at or above treaty strength, saw in it an opportunity to divert money to aviation and immediately came out for the proposed conversion. He drew fresh attention to the need for equaling Great Britain in carriers, in aircraft, and in flying personnel; a need all the greater because Japan was known to be planning to build up to her full "Three" of the Five-Five-Three treaty ratio if not, indeed, beyond it. For the United States to fail in this, he insisted, would be to invite ultimate disaster; a view in which he was naturally supported by Mustin, Johnson, Whiting, and others. They all emphasized the importance of size and speed in carriers, but because the tactical unit today connoted by the term "Fast Carrier Task Force" had not yet taken shape in naval minds, they laid chief stress upon aerial scouting and upon overhead protection of the battleline.

Thus the limitations of the treaties were turned to the advantage of aviation; an advantage all the more important when it became clear that the Japanese, by succeeding in their effort to get Article XIX into the treaty after their own island bases were nearly completed, had restricted United States bases in the Pacific to a most unsatisfactory status quo. The plan for converting the big hull would provide, in the two tremendous carriers Lexington and  p211 Saratoga, actually completed at 33,000 tons each, mobile bases with flight decks 800 feet long and more than 100 feet wide, almost unhampered because their "control islands" were set far over to starboard while their funnels were designed to keep as much smoke as possible away from their planes. When these two joined the Fleet, great possibilities would eventuate.

As one way of preparing for these possibilities, the Bureau of Aeronautics at Hunsaker's suggestion decided to put an entry in the 1923 Schneider Cup races. These had originated in 1913, when the French enthusiast Jacques Schneider, sponsored by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, offered his "artistic trophy and three prizes of $5,000 each" for international competition. Early American entries, Weymann in 1913, Weymann and Thaw in 1914, had bad luck and were unable to finish, and a postponement of the races until after World War I had followed. On their resumption in 1919 there were four races without American entries, but at Cowes, England, on September 27 and 28, 1923, three officers of the United States Navy competed, Lieuts. R. Irvine, D. Rittenhouse, and A. W. Gorton, with a fourth, F. W. Wead, in charge of the team. Rittenhouse and Irvine, each flying a CR‑3, a Curtiss type built under contract with the Navy, finished well ahead of the field and brought the cup home on its first visit. Rittenhouse, the winner, reached an average speed of 177.38 miles an hour over the triangular course of 37.2 nautical miles with Irvine, at 173.46 miles an hour, not far behind. Gorton's plane, an NW‑2, had been expected to do even better than these figures but it was damaged before the race and did not compete. In general, the lessons learned from the performance of the various entries in the race included practical demonstration that aircraft were becoming to complex and costly to permit private builders to compete with governments, and the further demonstration that flying boats were not capable of the high speed needed to win such races. Otherwise, the obvious effect was an increased interest in air races, and after a postponement in 1924 Lieut. James Doolittle of the Army, flying another Curtiss racer, the R3C‑2, won the 1925 race at the hitherto unequaled speed of 232.57 miles an hour, while Lieutenants Oftsie and Cuddihy of the Navy, in similar planes, were unable to finish because of engine troubles. Thereafter the United States relaxed its effort to build racers and other nations beat Doolittle's record. Lieut. "Al" Williams of the Navy received official sanction in 1927 to fly a plane bought by  p212 private funds, but since that plane could not be tuned up in time for the race, it did not compete. In 1931 the British, with their third successive victory, retired the cup from competition. Proposals that a new one be offered when the Britain, agreeing with what Moffett had announced in 1930, declared that racing types consumed more money than could be spared from amounts available for the regular needs of aviation. Both nations, however, had learned more than they openly admitted, for the British winner in 1931 was the prototype of the famous Spitfires of 1941, and the Curtiss racer had a profound effect upon all later United States naval and military designs.

Other races, in which modified Curtiss types were flown by entrants from both the Army and the Navy, were those for the Pulitzer Trophy. Civilian pilots were frequent winners of the trophy but in 1923 the Navy's four entrants, headed by Williams in an improved Curtiss racer, the R2C‑1, finished one, two, three, and four. That year was the Navy's big one in such competitions for it then held 23 of 78 world records and 21 of 34 world records for seaplanes.

Service types, with no special features for racing, were nevertheless used in races during the twenties, notably in those for the Marine Trophy given by Glenn Curtiss before World War I. Competition for this had been held from 1915 to 1919, then suspended for two years, and resumed in 1922 when the Navy entered ten planes, most of them just as they had been finished for regular service, and when Gorton emerged the winner in a TR‑1. This was a modification of the TS‑1, its most important feature being a Lawrance engine, developed by its designer with naval funds and the Navy's backing. It was a radial type, noted, in the Aircraft Yearbook for 1923, for "faultless performance" and "freedom" (being air cooled) from radiation troubles." Hunsaker considered it a great advance and that he was right is indicated by its becoming the prototype of virtually all similar engines used by the Army and the Navy in World War II.

Lieut. H. A. Elliot, flying a Vought VE‑7H, with a Wright liquid-cooled engine, was the only other entrant to finish in this race, but 1st Lt. (later Brig. Gen.) L. H. Sanderson of the Marine Corps was making by far the best time of the three until his Navy‑Curtiss racer on the last lap was forced down by running out of fuel. In the seven subsequent years the race was flown five times,  p213 the winners being three lieutenants of the Navy, V. F. Grant, T. P. Jeter, and W. G. Tomlinson, and two marines, Maj. Charles Lutz and Capt. A. H. Page. Discontinued after 1930, the race left a lasting mark upon the design of service types because the speed required to win it had risen steadily from 112.6 miles from 112.6 to 164.08 miles an hour.

Besides what was learned from racing, these years saw an advance along the line of the torpedo plane. It will be recalled that Admiral Fiske had advocated such planes as early as 1912 but very little had been attempted until the first World War was well under way. In part the lack of progress had been due to the viewpoint of two groups, one favoring the development of a plane to handle the then accepted type of torpedo, the other holding that a special torpedo should be designed for the plane. During and after that year Fiske had kept the question alive and he was to a considerable extent responsible for the tests that had been carried out at the end of 1918 with an F‑5 flying boat carrying a 400‑pound dummy torpedo under its wing. These tests were held off the Naval Aircraft Factory at Philadelphia, where the narrowness of the Delaware River made it very difficult to handle the plane, and they were not as successful as those begun some months later at Hampton Roads. There, using an R‑6 which had been slightly modified in design and equipment, Chevalier, with Lieuts. T. Murphy, D. B. Murphy, and L. H. Lovelace, successfully launched both dummy and live torpedoes, continuing to experiment with this plane until 1920, when the new Martin torpedo bomber, known as the MBT, became the first plane specifically designed for this work.

By May of that same year a torpedo squadron was established at Yorktown, where it spent considerable time practicing for the bombing tests against the German ships which have already been discussed. This squadron was the one to bomb the U‑117 with light bombs, and in the offshore search for the Iowa it carried 1,000‑pound dummies. What it might have succeeded in doing against the Ostfriesland was never learned because before its scheduled attack that ship had been sunk. By 1922 this and similar squadrons had the designation "torpedo," but they were more often used for duties such as searching, spotting, laying smoke screens, and towing targets for aerial gunnery practice. A year later they were furnished with the newer PT planes, built at  p214 the Naval Aircraft Factory, and these were followed, 12 months later, by the Douglas Company's DT, a type which, incidentally, would be the first naval aircraft to be based in the Philippines. In March, 1924, the same Griffin who had made the first take‑off from the Langley was the first to land a torpedo bomber on her deck.

Less spectacular operations through which naval aviators gained experience during these years were photographic reconnaissances and surveys. These began with an air tour of the Palmyra Islands, about a thousand miles from Honolulu, while later extensive flights were made over the Florida Keys, the Navy's petroleum reserve fields in the western states, and numerous other areas. From these much was learned about two essential needs, better instruments and more training in their use for aerial navigation.

It was in the Fleet exercises of February, 1923, that aircraft were first included when, in that year's games, it was the task of the Black Fleet to attack the Panama Canal while the Blue Fleet and the Army defended it. As must so often happen in the history of the Navy in peacetime, lack of complete equipment made it necessary to designate the New York and the Oklahoma as "slow carriers" with the Black force, while single planes had to be rated as whole squadrons. Approaching the Canal, Black avoided interception and, more to the aviator's purpose, successfully launched its "squadron" over the Gatun spillway, to drop ten miniature bombs without being attacked either by defending planes or by antiaircraft guns. The value of even a slow carrier was shown when the Oklahoma, after very little maneuvering, catapulted her plane into the air without mechanical difficulty. Summing up these results, the commander in chief found solid ground for urging much stronger air defense of Panama and more catapults for his ships, two recommendations which were thus placed upon record although there were no funds with which to carry them into effect.

Similar lessons were to be learned from all the later exercises, such as those in which the Langley launched daily reconnaissance flights which proved how much more might be expected when more carriers were available. It became increasingly clear that continuous air protection would be vital to ships, that planes must be more durable and have a longer cruising radius, that both catapults and recovery gear needed further improvement and, tactically, that the officer commanding the Fleet's aircraft must be allowed considerable discretion in his operations. The conclusions drawn collectively  p215 proved how right Moffett had been in declaring, two weeks after the first landing on the Langley, that "the air fleet of an enemy will never get within striking distance of our coasts as long as our aircraft carriers are able to carry the preponderance of air power to sea."

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