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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

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 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p12  Chapter II

Ellyson, Towers, Richardson, and Hunsaker

Chambers wanted money and he let his needs be widely known among civilian enthusiasts. Particularly he wrote his friend Glenn Curtiss, just then planning to build a flying school and an experimental station in southern California. Possibly at Chambers' suggestion, but more probably under his own inspiration, Curtiss, in a fine letter dated November 29, 1910, offered to train an officer in the Curtiss plane at no cost to the Navy Department, an offer which was promptly accepted. This arrangement resulted in the Navy's at last having one officer actually recognized as a student flier, and the man chosen was one whose name appropriately heads the list of sailors who have carried flying to its present high place — Lieut. Theodore G. Ellyson, a Naval Academy classmate of Fleet Admiral Nimitz.

Going out to San Diego, Ellyson immediately began absorbing all that he could from Eugene Ely, who had rejoined Curtiss after an earlier disagreement. Ellyson thus had his part in a whole series of experiments aimed at determining whether planes that were to operate with ships could be fitted with pontoons, to land alongside and be hoisted aboard, or whether they should have wheels and land directly on deck. If the latter, how were they to be prevented from crashing head on into the ship's superstructure? In January, 1911, the attempt was made to answer this last question.

Flying out from the beach on January 18, 1911, Ely landed down-wind on the armored cruiser Pennsylvania, to try out the first "arresting gear," a complicated arrangement of 22 lines stretched across a platform on the deck and all fitted at each end with a 50‑pound sandbag, added at Ellyson's suggestion. A group of hooks on Ely's plane caught each line in succession, checking his plane and finally bringing it to a halt before it hit the canvas screen erected as an emergency stop across the platform's end.  p13 Taking off from the same platform, Ely flew back ashore, the whole test being so success­ful that Capt. C. F. Pond, commanding the ship, reported to the department: "I desire to place myself on record as positively assured of the importance of the aeroplane in future naval warfare."

Even though landplanes had been used in the Birmingham and Pennsylvania tests, Captain Chambers was not yet ready to accept the idea that such planes should be put aboard a new type of ship, the carrier. Not greatly impressed by the experiments in France with the Foudre, converted into a seaplane tender, he opposed the suggestion that similar experiments be conducted on this side of the Atlantic. Characterizing the new types of vessels as "platform-ships" which were practically "floating garages," he concentrated upon the seaplane itself, particularly the "tractor" type hydroaeroplane with which Curtiss and Ellyson were experimenting at North Island, California, and which he hoped could be placed aboard already existing types of men‑o'‑war. He was elated when Curtiss, on February 17, 1911, took such a machine off the water, flew it out to the Pennsylvania to land alongside and be hoisted in and out again, then rose from the surface and flew back to the base. Here, in Chambers' opinion, was clear proof that a hydroaeroplane, launched from a ship and landed, for any reason, upon the water, would not be helpless, even if such a landing were made far offshore.

Meanwhile, valuable information on this matter of flying out of sight of land, as well as on the type of plane to use for that work, came as the result of McCurdy's attempt to fly a landplane from Key West to Cuba on January 30. He was underrun by a division of destroyers, led by the Paulding under Comdr. (later Rear Adm.) Yates Stirling.​a This was the first of many history-making flights to be similarly supported by naval vessels. Fourteen miles northeast of Havana, the original goal, a break in the plane's oil system forced McCurdy down upon tee, to be picked up by the waiting Paulding. He was unhurt, but when the plane was hoisted aboard it was found to be too badly damaged for further flight. This was a disappointment because, in preparation for just such a possible forced landing on the water and a relaunching from the ship, a special platform had been built on the Paulding. Nevertheless Stirling, impressed by the whole performance, made an enthusiastic report upon it. He noted McCurdy's having been uninjured by the landing and particularly emphasized the point that "Mr. McCurdy could and did steer a compass course" for 100 miles.  p14 This the commander considered to be of great significance to "the future progress of flights across water," and he was right. To fly that far, by compass, for the first time in history was to pass, as it were, another vitally important buoy on the course of Naval Aviation.

McCurdy had hardly made his flight when Curtiss showed more progress in developing a plane that would be restricted neither to the water nor to land. With Ellyson riding on a pontoon, Curtiss made the first passenger-carrying amphibious flight, on February 23, using the same hydroaeroplane in which he had made his earlier fight to the Pennsylvania. Almost on the same date Samuel F. Perkins, the kite expert, after succeeding in lifting sandbags, followed this by actually towing human beings through the air, in the persons of two naval officers, Lieut. John Rodgers and Ens. Alexander M. Charlton. Considering all these events, it is understandable that Captain Chambers, in his report of March, 1911, should be enthusiastic:

Ely has proved that an aeroplane can leave a ship and return to it, even with crude preparations. Others have demonstrated that an aeroplane can remain in flight for a long time, from five to eight hours or more, that observations can be made from great altitudes, that photographs can be taken, that reconnaissance can be made, that messages can be sent and received by wireless telegraph, that passengers can be carried, that the aeroplane may be stowed on board in suitably dimensioned crates or boxes and readily assembled for use in less than one hour, and that it is possible to hoist an aeroplane out and in, as you would a ship's boat, to exercise it over smooth water. Mr. Curtiss has also recently demonstrated that it is not necessary for the water to be smooth.

This has all been done within a year and, mostly in a few months since the date on which the Navy first began to take serious notice of the possibilities in aviation.

These remarks emphasized aeroplanes, but the kites had caught the imagination of many officers, including Rear Adm. Chauncey Thomas, Commander in Chief in the Pacific. The possibilities for scouting, tracking, and spotting by kite-borne observers equipped with deck glasses and telephones led to a series of experiments culminating in the kite balloon. An essential feature of these experiments was the towing of targets simulating enemy planes, against which ships must develop proper guns, gun mounts, and  p15 shrapnel ammunition. Another feature was the study of observations from aloft as a possible means of detecting approaching torpedoes.

Representative Ernest W. Roberts of Massachusetts was an ardent congressional advocate of such tests and at his suggestion the Secretary of the Navy directed that more of them be held that spring in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Lack of time to spare from other Fleet exercises and maneuver, however, prevented more complete experiments with aerial targets and ships on opposite or on converging courses, to determine rates of approach, accuracy of the shooting, and the probability of destroying the attacking aircraft. After a study of such tests as were made, the Bureau of Ordnance designed a new antiaircraft one‑pounder which, on the one hand, induced among some officers a tendency to over­confidence in the Fleet's security and on the other prompted others to request further experiments.

Captain Chambers, closely watching these results, had used them to persuade Secretary Meyer to convince the House Committee on Naval Affairs that it should recommend $25,000 for the Navy's first planes. The act of March 4, 1911, appropriated that amount and, since it was given directly to the Bureau of Navigation, Chambers, after a few days in the General Board offices where Admiral Dewey gave him desk room, reported to that bureau on April 17, 1911. He was not, as he had hoped and suggested, made head of an independent office of aviation.

Inventors of every kind continued to bombard him with letters, collectively asking for far more money than had been made available. Aware that a real idea might lurk anywhere, he opened and read every letter, then wrote as encouraging an answer as he felt justified in making. Occasionally, however, even he could find no rational answer to "crackpot" letters suggesting such visionary mechanisms as "flying fish" or "ducks." All this correspondence was handled without proper clerical help and with an official support so slight that the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, on one occasion, actually suggested that Chambers "do the work at home." Instead, he stuck to his small room, crowding it with air‑minded visitors and explaining over and over again that any new plane must be more than a blueprint; it must be actually built and must pass all preliminary tests before the Navy could seriously consider buying it.

Most welcome to Chambers at this time was the support he received  p16 from Capt. Bradley Fiske. This distinguished officer, dismayed by the dangerous possibility of having to fight Japan for the Philippines with a Fleet far away from any United States base, suggested on April 12, 1911, that aircraft might solve this defense problem and proposed four air stations on Luzon, each to support at least 100 planes. Approaching enemy warships and troops could thus, he believed, be driven off if not wholly destroyed. Unfortunately this 30‑year look into the future, with Admiral Dewey and some other officers peering interestedly over Fiske's shoulder, was cut short by Rear Admiral Wainwright, who protested: "Why waste the time of the General Board on wildcat schemes?" Opportunity's tap on the door of the board had gone unheeded.

Meanwhile Captain Chambers, studying such European progress as the experiments in Britain's National Laboratory, began advocating similar steps in the United States. Before long the American press announced that a research center, to help the inventor and the manufacturer of aircraft, would be established under the Smithsonian Institution and operated by the Bureau of Standards. Formal announcement was to be made on April 27, 1911, at the annual dinner of the Aeronautical Society of New York, to which President Taft had been invited. Interest among civilian enthusiasts ran high but the Bureau of Construction and Repair protested that any such new center would largely duplicate its own Model Basin. Because "the motion of water, effect of stream lines and the theory and mathematics are almost identical whether in water or in air," the bureau considered its own personnel fully competent to undertake the proposed research with its existing equipment. At the same time the Bureau of Steam Engineering drew attention to its own experimental station at Annapolis, "equipped to test all kinds of motors," with apparatus that could be "readily devised for testing propellers of aeroplanes." Submitted by the Secretary of the Navy to the President, these recommendations met the unhappy fate of falling into the hands of Mr. Taft's new Committee on Economy and Efficiency, which drafted an executive order giving the Model Basin the proposed assignment. Secretary Meyer advocated including the Annapolis experimental station and asked the Secretary of War for his suggestions on a plan to combine experimental work by the two departments. The Secretary of War replied that while duplication of effort would admittedly be unfortunate, still each department ought to carry on its separate experiments. He offered his own outline, which went with Secretary  p17 Meyer's to the Committee on Economy and never came back. No executive order was issued. No announcement was made at the New York dinner. For the next 18 months aviation research by the Navy would have to struggle along without what would have been most valuable help.

The Navy Department, however, ordered three planes, which were to be paid for from the $25,000 just appropriated and to be made available in July, 1911. Two were landplanes, one by the Wrights and one by Curtiss, while the third, also by Curtiss, was his new "Triad" amphibian. A clause in the agreements provided that the builder of each plane should train a pilot and a mechanic for it, and this brought new officers and men into Naval Aviation. One officer who reported to the Wrights at Dayton, Ohio, was Lieut. John Rodgers, scion of one of the most famous lines of American seamen and fighters. At the same time Lieut. John H. Towers went to Hammondsport, New York, to join Ellyson and begin the brilliant flying career which made him, in World War II, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics; today a four-star admiral and a leading naval figure. Hammondsport was the eastern center of aviation and there Curtiss was bringing together more and more enthusiasts, both military and civilian. Among the latter was John L. Callan, very soon a test pilot and eventually himself an officer, flying in two wars and contributing heavily to the Navy's record.

On the practical side, Chambers' plans for 1911 included the first effort to build an airfield. At Greenbury Point, opposite Annapolis, trees were felled, a swamp was filled in, and, on more solid ground, tent hangars were erected. Chambers proposed that the aviation group, in order to gain "experience in roughing it," should promptly move to the new field. This the group did, but it soon discovered that the cleared space was perilously small for landplanes, that the water near shore was too shallow for hydroaeroplanes, and that the whole establishment was uncomfortably close to the Naval Academy rifle range. These drawbacks resulted in moving the group, in the following year, over to a site nearer the experimental station.

Ellyson was full of enthusiasm and activity. For one thing, he was soon begging Chambers to find more enlisted men who would make electricians and mechanics, men such as those who would later head the list, like Saar, Daniels, Welsh, Wiegand, and Baker in the Curtiss types; like Bronson, Burdon, Rhodes, and Haynes in the Wright types; like Ericson, who "does all the carpenter work and  p18 is weeks behind"; like Knapp, who "is kept busy with the boat." As Ellyson saw it, "two good men could learn more here in two weeks . . . than they will pick up in Annapolis in as many months," and unless such men joined the group in advance he feared that the Annapolis authorities would "make us depend upon men detailed from the Hartford, and naturally they will not give us the best men." Little by little, as Chambers could get enlisted volunteers for aviation duties, he was meeting Ellyson's pleas.

Even while still at Hammondsport, before the move to Greenbury, lack of enlisted men had not kept Ellyson and Towers from driving ahead with new ideas. Together they designed a dual-control mechanism adapted from the French and, after later modification, destined to become standard for the Navy's training planes. Finding Curtiss ready to try anything, they joined him in innumerable attempts to find some way to launch a hydroaeroplane from a ship which would be better than making the plane take off from the water, a dangerous practice in a seaway. Since it was hardly to be expected that an enemy would agree to delay an action until the water should be smooth, here was a problem of first importance.

In one memorable experiment Ellyson got into a plane balanced by two wires beneath the lower wings and supported by another, heavily greased wire so erected that it inclined down the beach toward the water. He himself described this effort in a letter written to Captain Chambers from Hammondsport on September 7, 1911:

I enclose a rough sketch of the rig we used today in launching the machine from the wire. I am not making an official report of this experiment.

The only changes made in the standard rig of the machine was to fit a groove on the bottom of the boat, one inch wide and one and three quarter inches deep, lined at each end for a distance of three feet with tin, and on the bearing surfaces at each end reinforced with two strips of band iron one‑eighth inch thick, and to fit two braces on the after beams of the planes so that the balancing wires would bear on these braces and not on the planes.

The only doubts held as to the success of the experiment before it was tried out was that possibly it would be impossible to get control of the lateral balance of the machine, that is, that it would tip to one side or the other before the machine had gathered sufficient headway for the ailerons to become effective, and if it had started to tip, it  p19 would have been impossible to keep the machine from capsizing. This doubt was caused by the fact that once the machine started to tip the balancing wires would become ineffective, as we had found out by experiment. In order to overcome this, a lip rope was placed around each balancing brace and a man tended each line to run with the same after the engine was started to right the machine in case it did not balance. We figured the chances 25 to 1 that it would be success­ful, but Mr. Curtiss did not want to run the one chance of failure, as the results meant a bad smash or satisfactory results. . . .

[We waited until we had a wind that blew directly up the wire.] The engine was started and run at full speed and then I gave the signal to release the machine. The machine gained headway so rapidly that the people holding the slip rope could not have used them even if there had been any necessity, but the balance was under perfect control from the start. I held the machine on the wire as long as possible as I wanted to be sure that I had enough headway to rise and not run the risk of the machine partly rising and then falling on the wire outside of the groove. Everything happened so quickly and went off so smoothly that I hardly know what happened except that I did have to use the ailerons, and that the machine was sensitive to their action.

It was evident that so crude a device could not be used aboard ship, especially in rough weather, and that some form of catapult must be devised. This inspired Captain Chambers to seek the help of Lieut. St. Clair Smith from the Naval Gun Factory, and that of Naval Constructor Holden C. Richardson, already an interested observer of aircraft who would soon qualify as a pilot and whose very great scientific abilities would eventually carve a deep mark upon Naval Aviation. With these highly capable assistants, Chambers studied the catapults already tried by the Wrights, the devices used by Chanute for his gliders, and the coiled-spring type once built by Langley. Then with advice from Ellyson the three set to work together and for the next year spent considerable time on a catapult of their own.

Even under all the difficulties of launching, however, the planes of 1911, once they got into the air, were making a creditable showing. John Rodgers flew from Annapolis to Washington and back, with stops at Baltimore and Havre de Grace. On October 11 Towers and Ellyson, in Curtiss' first "convertible landplane-seaplane," left Annapolis for Old Point Comfort. Thirty miles on the way, they came down because the safety wire on the gas tank  p20 sped just behind their heads was carried away. When this had been repaired they went up again, only to be forced down after 20 minutes by the breaking of a bracket on the carburetor. Up again, they stayed up for a half hour, to reach Smith's Point, Virginia, and land with four burnt‑out bearings. This meant disassembling the machine and putting it aboard the destroyer Bailey. They had, in 85 minutes, flown 79 miles. Other flights at the Annapolis field were made by Ens. V. D. Herbster, recently back from a visit abroad to study French flying. His work was done largely in the Wrights' first hydroaeroplane, fitted with the new Burgess pontoons. Most spectacular, however, were the night landings made by Towers, coming down upon the Severn between marker buoys which were actually small boats holding buckets of flaming gasoline.

Meanwhile the Fleet, off the Chesapeake Capes and again off Cape Cod, was shooting both by daylight and by searchlight at huge Perkins box kites, sent up to simulate attacking enemy aircraft. At the very short ranges used, enough hits were scored to please the press and enough near-misses to give many naval men further mistaken notions of the Fleet's invulnerability.

When the old battle­ship Texas, renamed the San Marcos, had been converted into a target ship, the Bureau of Construction and Repair proposed that she be bombed by aircraft using live explosives, a suggestion that confronted Captain Chambers with a hard decision. He was well aware that planes, at their current stage of development, would have to approach the ship within what would be easy range for guns quite capable of blowing them to pieces. No existing plane could carry a bomb large enough to do serious damage, even in a direct hit. To make the proposed test under such handicaps might be to confirm opinions that ships were safe from air attack; to refuse would be to suggest that he was afraid of being ridiculed. In the end he chose to risk the second alternative and declined, remarking that such tests must wait until planes could carry 200‑pound bombs. If tests of structural strength were immediately desirable, he said they could be made by "dropping bombs from a kite-line." The principal was laid aside and it would be another ten years before plane bombing was tried against captured German warships, even then without fully conclusive results.

Back in California that winter the Curtiss group continued its "trials and errors," Curtiss himself designing a heavier flying  p21 boat that might be serviceable in rough water. With Constructor Richardson and the naval personnel, as well as with his own men, he worked out new ideas for hulls, boats, and pontoons, finally satisfying himself and others that the single pontoon would ultimately prove better than the double one. Hulls were more troublesome because, when one had been built big enough and heavy enough to afford the pilot something better in the way of a seat than an exposed spot on the leading edge of a lower wing, the problem was how to lift it off the sea, even with such improvements as a pump to free its hull of water.

During that same winter of 1911‑12 Lincoln Beachey, one of the outstanding early aviators, giving exhibitions off Los Angeles, raised more "ship-or‑plane" arguments when he invited the destroyers at San Pedro to spot him by searchlight during his sham night attack on a fort. No one should have been astonished when small destroyer searchlights failed to find Beachey in the darkness from a distance of seven miles, but the press, adroitly miscalling the destroyers "battle­ships," played up the incident as incontestable proof of the plane's superiority.

Chambers made good use of these developments to argue for more money. He was so far success­ful that Congress, in its second appropriation for aviation, gave the Bureau of Navigation $10,000 and also authorized the Bureau of Construction and Repair and of Steam Engineering to spend on aviation, respectively, $35,000 and $20,000 originally appropriated for other purposes. This was all in addition to $100,000 appropriated for the Army, but the grand total was still in very striking contrast to what was then being spent in Europe. France was prepared to spend $6,400,000, Russia $5,000,000, Britain $2,100,000, Italy $2,000,000 and Germany $1,500,000. Responsibility for this United States "go slow" policy of allowing so little for experiments and of buying nothing but tested improvements, thus keeping the nation an almost hopeless last in the race, was laid by Captain Chambers at the door of Congress, perhaps because he was not called to the hearings. The written record, however, shows that the Navy Department was actually not spending what money had been allotted, either for planes or for the flying instruments in which Chambers had become most deeply interested.

"Manufacturers and aviators," the captain wrote, "are beginning to realize that progress . . . is greatly dependent upon the perfection of instruments for safe guidance and automatic  p22 control; that there is something more than acrobatic skill required; . . . that the elimination of man as a factor of chief importance by . . . mechanism which will perform . . . the things he is prone to do indifferently, especially under the strain of fatigue, is a practical necessity." He wanted a robot pilot, a speed indicator, an electric stabilizer, and other instruments that would make navigation at night or in a fog as accurate in the air as on the surface. Optimistic over advances in planes and in motors, he insisted that only the best accessories would permit taking full advantage of these advances. To help such matters along, he submitted some designs of his own for stabilizers and indicators, but he got so little support from the technical bureaus that he felt like the proverbial prophet in his own country when on March 13, 1913, the Aeronautical Society awarded him its gold medal for achievement.

Some consolation came from the further active support of the imaginative, dynamic Fiske, now a rear admiral. For that officer the greatest value of aircraft lay in their possibilities as weapons, and at this early moment he began talking of torpedo planes. Thinking of "far‑sighted eyes for ships," he contemplated using planes with the radio-controlled torpedoes, then laboring under the disadvantage that such control was faulty because at a distance from the ship the torpedo could not be seen. Why not send a plane out over the torpedo, either to keep the ship informed of its course or to direct it with instruments in the plane itself? Both these ideas gave way to the thought that the plane might better carry the torpedo straight to the target. Using a squadron of planes, a dozen torpedoes might be launched simultaneously from as many angles. With the aid of Park Benjamin, fellow graduate of the Naval Academy who had gone into patent law, Fiske actually took out a patent for an aerial torpedo in the spring of 1912, well before the Navy Department's real interest was aroused by those tried in Britain and in Germany.

Fiske's interest did not slacken when he became a division commander in the Fleet. He was anchored off Salem, Massachusetts, when W. Starling Burgess, an early plane manufacturer, came alongside in a hydroaeroplane to take him up for a flight over the harbor and bring him down more than ever certain that torpedoes were practicable and that bombers could defend the Philippines. Admitting that the vibration had annoyed him, he still held that there was "less jerking and swaying than in any vehicle  p23 except a sleigh," and that while there probably was "great exaggeration in the claims as to dropping bombs," there was nevertheless "certainly something in it." What the little squad of air‑minded naval men most needed was 50 Fiskes!

Their own greatest progress, just then, was with the problem of launching. Chambers, Smith, and Richardson had been working for a year on their catapult and they now produced a device operated by compressed air. First using an old torpedo tube, for which part of the hoisting gear salvaged from the veteran battle­ship Oregon was later substituted, they extemporized a makeshift model assembled at Annapolis. No one knew what such rapid acceleration might do to the human body, but Ellyson was ready to risk it and on July 31, 1912, he was shot along a wharf. Halfway down, as he reached flying speed, the nose of his pontoon was air‑borne, but the rear end dragged until a cross-wind tipped him neatly over into the Severn, to come up uninjured himself but with a badly damaged plane. By November Richardson was ready to test a modification of the device at the Washington Navy Yard and this time Ellyson's hydroaeroplane was air‑borne in a matter of seconds and making 35 miles an hour. A month later he succeeded again with a flying boat. Curtiss, watching this success, called it the most important advance since wheels were first put on landplanes. Catapults would need little deck space and would not interfere with gunfire. Recovery of planes might still have its problems, but launching was solved.

In the next year, 1913, another important event marked progress. In May the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to establish a course in aerodynamics and the trustees asked the Navy Department to designate an officer qualified to prepare and conduct it. After some delay the department chose Jerome C. Hunsaker, Jr., and that brilliant young naval constructor proceeded to establish a course so thorough and effective that all future ones have closely followed it. Starting from that first moment Hunsaker went so far in design and in the science generally that his name is today known around the world. Among his other services rendered in those early days were his trips abroad which resulted in reports on foreign research that threw much light on hydroaeroplanes as well as on dirigibles, especially upon Germany's relatively great progress with the latter. It was Hunsaker, too, who was chiefly responsible for the erection, at Cambridge, of the long-awaited wind tunnel.

Thayer's Note:

a A much more circumstantial account of McCurdy's flight is naturally given by Adm. Stirling in his autobiography, Sea Duty, pp126‑128.

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