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Chapter 19

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 21
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p216  Chapter XX

New Uses for Aircraft

When Moffett made his prophetic declaration, one element of air power destined to fill a brilliant page of history was just beginning to attract the serious attention of the Navy's fliers. As they carried on elementary experiments, none of them suspected that he was helping to clear the air for a great American victory years later. Who could have guessed, in the early twenties, that the Japanese Fleet of 1942 would be stopped dead at Midway by the United States Navy's dive bombers?

There are no documents to tell who first had the idea that a plane could come hurtling down from a high altitude, apparently bent upon destroying itself and its crew and then, in the last split second, drop a bomb, nose up, and pull out. It seems certain that the pilots of more than one nation in World War I, using the very inefficient bomb sights of the day, simultaneously realized how much higher would be the number of their hits if their bombs were dropped from a point almost on top of their targets. During that war the British began bombing at low altitudes, from level positions, but the bombs they used were very light and they appear to have attached to the practice only the nuisance value of its effect upon the Germans. Only after the hostilities were over did aviators here and there, needing no such special installation as were required by torpedo planes, begin improvising gear and experimenting with bombs. By 1919 a small squadron of marine fliers in Haiti, under the direction of Maj. (later Brig.‑Gen.) L. H. Sanderson, using homemade gear, was swooping down over guerrillas at the jungle edge, getting terrifying moral effects and causing a number of casualties with light fragmentation bombs. These and other members of the corps, notably a veteran warrant officer, Marine Gunner Elmo Regan, continued similar experiments after they went back to various posts in the United States.

In 1921 army pilots of the First Provisional Pursuit Squadron when bombing the captured German ships went down to heights of  p217 no more than 200 feet above their targets, and against a German destroyer they scored enough hits to sink her, 21 in 44 drops. Some time after that Maj. (Later Maj. Gen.) R. E. Rowell of the Marines, sent to the Army's school at Kelly Field for advance flight training, found diving to be a definite part of the experimental work in progress there. Although still without a good bomb sight the army men, using any convenient projection on their engines as a front sight, lined up their targets as best they could and dove at them on an angle of about 60 degrees. According to Rowell, most of the pilots agreed that such attacks, against ships or shore stations armed with antiaircraft guns, would be possible only at the risk of great loss in planes. This was also true at the Army's Selfridge Field, where Rowell next reported and where similar experiments were being made; but what he picked up at these two fields led him in 1925, when he commanded a marine squadron at San Diego, to put similar experiments into common practice. It was still generally believed that enemy personnel would be the best targets for such attacks; and that much could be accomplished against personnel was proved on July 17, 1927, when a marine detachment in Nicaragua, surrounded by a surprise attack by the insurgent Sandino, was rescued by Rowell and his squadron, diving with 50‑pound fragmentation bombs. During succeeding years there would be a good deal more exhibition flying and it is commonly believed that what Major Udet of the German Army saw at the Cleveland air races inspired him to go home and organize the Stukas that were so effective in World War II when he was a lieutenant general.

In all this it was not only the marines who began to take the situation in hand, for the Navy's fliers were also very active. To dive down, drop a bomb on a ship, and pull away before her guns could be manned became an objective while a bomb sight accurate enough to make such an attack really effective was still a sort of will-o'‑the‑wisp. In 1925, when Capt. (later Adm.) Joseph M. Reeves took command of the aircraft of the Battle Fleet, he was given authority to assemble all the Pacific aircraft at San Diego, to attempt the evolution of new tactics. With the help of Lieut. (later Capt.) F. W. Wead, previously one of the Navy's racing pilots, he issued a pamphlet familiarly known as "Reeves' Thousand and One Questions," one of which was "How repel a force endeavoring  p218 to land on a beach?" Among the aviators assembled to find the best answer were Lieuts. Frank D. Wagner, J. E. Ostrander, D. W. Tomlinson, T. B. Lee, S. H. Arthur, E. C. Ewen, and Robert F. Hickey, some of them among today's flying officers; all of them at that moment ready to try almost anything in their F6C planes, then regarded as rugged fighter types.

Machine guns, spraying their bullets over the landing party from planes flying low and level, seemed the obvious defense; but these pilots soon realized how quickly the target, at close range, would be lost to view, and also how exposed they and their planes were to antiaircraft fire. Before long they found therefore making their approach to the target at altitudes of more than 12,000 feet, then diving at angles as steep as 70 degrees, to keep the target in sight and also to substitute bomb dropping for machine‑gun fire. Next, they realized that an attacking squadron must not come down bunched but from several different bearings, and the led to making the approach in the familiar echelon pattern of wild geese or in what was called the ABC formation. To "see how the attack looked from the target," Tomlinson and Ewen, noted for their flying skill and sense of timing, were frequently stationed on the ground as observers who could offer helpful criticism of what their fellows did in the air.

This was Squadron VF‑2, with Wagner as its commander, and by the autumn of 1926 it was making attacks on the battleships. On October 22 it made the first of these from 12,000 feet, after warning the ships just when it was going to do it. The approach at such a height was not detected, while the dives were so nearly vertical and the speed so great that the planes had pulled out, leveled off, and actually landed at Long Beach by the time the ships' crews could get to their battle stations. Thereafter, in order to give the Fleet more experience, such attacks were made in a series, rather than as a single dive from which the planes could roar away to safety.

Meanwhile, over in the Atlantic, much the same effort was being made by other aviators, led principally by Lt. Comdr. (now Rear Adm.) O. B. Hardison. In their attacks, gun cameras had been planted on the target ships but even these recorded almost no hits on the incoming planes. Lieut. Cmdr. (now Rear Adm.) A. C. Davis, then in the Bureau of Aeronautics, was in a position to contribute greatly to the advance of dive bombing, by rewriting the rules for gunnery practice and by arranging for the purchase of better  p219 bombracks and improved equipment for the planes. Others in the Bureau had mental reservations about the suitability of existing planes for dive bombing, while the Fleet was dubious over diverting fighters and observation planes from their primary purposes, but it was not long before the Navy followed its classic method of conducting special tests. These were run off in the winter of 1926‑27, with results clearly showing the effectiveness of dive bombing against personnel but also suggesting what it might accomplish against light craft and, indeed, against the crowded flight decks of carriers. After the usual board had been convened to make recommendations, the Bureau of Aeronautics, with the aid of the Glenn L. Martin Company, was ready in 1930 to test a type that could dive with a 1,000‑pound bomb. During the next year the Fleet began getting the types from which were developed the planes so often and so convincingly heard from in the Pacific at Midway and in the years that followed.

While these powerful weapons of war were in the making, Moffett was not unmindful of what aviators might learn in the arts of peace, nor was he neglecting his great interest in airships. At the time of the creation of the Bureau of Aeronautics, lighter-than‑air flying was under suspicion because of the tragic loss, in England, of the ZR‑2 and so many of her American crew. This had left the C‑7 the only United States airship actually in service, but Moffett was pushing what remained of the postwar program for dirigibles. At Friedrichshafen, Germany, the nonmilitary ZR‑3 was under construction, while at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the more important ZR‑1 had been laid down.

Following inquiry into the loss of the ZR‑2 new studies of stresses and strains were begun, and to carry these further the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, at the request of the Navy Department, assembled a group of engineers under Dr. Henry Goldmark. These experts examined all available data and made the most exhaustive aerodynamical studies. In the end, they concluded that the Navy Department design provided sufficient strength for normal cruising at not less than 6,000 feet and at speeds of not more than 50 knots. All this was of added importance because it was clear that the fate of airships in the United States must depend chiefly upon the success or failure of the two then building. Further, because any such success must in turn depend upon having personnel able to handle the ships, and because only five men had survived the ZR‑2, it was also important that a new start at training  p220 crews be made and the done at Hampton Roads on July 1, 1922. By March of the next year the group was moved to Lakehurst where special instruction in ground school began under Capt. Anton Heinan, formerly of the German Navy and already employed by the United States to supervise tests.

On May 4, 1923, the big ship, soon to be famous as the Shenandoah, was launched. She was 680 feet long, with a diameter of about 79 feet, a gas capacity of 2,150,000 cubic feet, and a total lift of 65 tons. Each of her five gondolas mounted a 300‑horsepower engine. Her first flight, under the command of Capt. F. R. McCrary, with Commander Weyerbacher and Captain Heinan aboard, was made on September 4, and like those immediately following, it was highly successful. Moffett's report to the General Board summarized her military value as due to a radius of scouting equal, in a given time, to that of three cruisers together; to her ability to make high speed, gain great altitude quickly, hover as desired, and receive or transmit information by radio. In any weather, said the admiral, she could travel 9,000 miles without a load or 5000 miles with a load of 25 tons. Admitting her vulnerability, he claimed that this was relatively not a great as that of destroyer or cruisers, for they could be attacked in many more ways. Moreover, in his opinion, the dirigible of the future would be itself a plane carrier and therefore capable of defense against its chief threat, attack by aircraft.

In the very week when the Shenandoah was launched, Moffett had discussed with Stefansson, the noted explorer, the possibility of her making a flight to the Arctic. As the admiral saw it, such a flight would not only determine requirements for cold-weather operation but also gather valuable meteorological data and incidentally get favorable publicity for the Navy. It was proposed that the Ramapo and the Patoka should both be converted into tenders and equipped with mooring masts; the former to be sent to Nome, the latter to Spitzbergen. Each would carry three long-range scouting planes to assist in the operation, especially in the event of an accident. Three CS‑2 planes and three SDW‑1 were to be used, all under the command of Lieut. Charles P. Mason, who had been a test pilot at Pauillac during the war. When President Coolidge approved the plan in December of 1923, he noted that the Navy, through Rear Admiral Peary, had discovered the Pole and therefore the Navy should complete the exploration of the area. Less than a month later, however, a severe January gale tore the  p221 Shenandoah from her mooring mast at Lakehurst. Her nose was damaged and several cells badly torn, but she rode out the blow and returned to her base under the direction of Lt. Comdr. Maurice Pierce who, with Captain Heinan, had fortunately been on board with a skeleton crew when the gale struck. At once the Arctic flight by airship was postponed.

During 1924, however, there were many other flights, productive of both experience for personnel and improvement in material equipment. Among the latter was an apparatus to recover water ballast and thus prevent hampering the ship by increasing her buoyancy as fuel was consumed, a difficulty that must otherwise be met by "valving" precious helium. The process was so efficient that "on one flight it condensed about 1,150 pounds of water from 967 pounds of fuel burned," thus giving the ship's commander "perfect control of the weight" and making it "unnecessary to valve gas except under the most exceptional circumstances"; these advances were regarded as more than offsetting the 10 per cent increase in the drag upon the ship due to the use of the apparatus and also as sufficient compensation for a substantial reduction in cruising radius.

This progress with the Shenandoah, and the expected early delivery of the ZR‑3's, led Moffett again to seek an expansion of the program. At the end of June, 1924, he drew the Secretary's attention to the British plan to build two superdirigibles and to Japanese intentions of duplicating that effort. Parity in naval building, he said, demanded that the United States not be left behind; but when the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Eberle, disapproved, the Secretary directed a delay in final decision until after the Shenandoah had taken part in the Fleet exercises that summer. Unfortunately, her showing at these exercises was not good because, although she did discover the "enemy," she subsequently lost contact because of bad weather. When heavy rain added nearly a ton to her weight, she had to release water ballast, with the result that when she dried out she was too buoyant. This could not be corrected because only three of her five engines were fitted with water recovery apparatus and she could not spare helium. It followed that in order to land safely she had to leave the exercises ahead of time and return to Lakehurst. This made it evident that such a ship, to be useful to a fleet, must be able to depend upon mooring masts distributed around the world, a considerable problem though not a very expensive one. Temporary masts were established  p222 Fort Worth, Guantánamo, San Diego, and Tacoma, while plans were made for other masts at Boston, the Canal Zone, and Hawaii. In October the Shenandoah's cross-country flight, during which she tested the mooring masts on the West coast, indicated that such masts, installed aboard ships, would give her much more mobility and far greater usefulness to the Fleet.

Meanwhile in August, 1924, the ZR‑3 had been completed at Friedrichshafen, where Lt. Comdr. Garland Fulton had been chief inspector for about two years. Of nonmilitary character, she was 658 feet long, just under 91 feet in diameter and just over 104 feet in height, with a gas capacity of 2,740,000 cubic feet. Her five Maybach motors, of 400 horsepower each, gave her a cruising radius of 3,500 miles and a top speed of 63.5 knots, with a useful load of 30 tons. She was by far the strongest airship yet built, a quality which would have far‑reaching influence from the day she made her first test flight on August 27. On October 12, under the direction of Hugo Eckener, later well known as commander of the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, she crossed the Atlantic, making the 4,229 miles to Lakehurst in 81 hours and 2 minutes. There the hydrogen that brought her over was replaced by helium, a water-recovery apparatus was installed, and on November 25 Mrs. Calvin Coolidge formally christened her Los Angeles.

During the next year the two ships made many flights which served to edify the public and, more important, to familiarize the personnel with their operation. The Los Angeles, in addition to her crew of 29, could accommodate 30 passengers by day and 20 by night, and this was especially useful for training purposes after the United States secured international permission to use her in exercises with the Fleet. More extended flights became possible with an increase in the production of helium, something regarded as of great importance when it became evident that helium, although safe where hydrogen was dangerous, would give the ships only about 60 per cent of the cruising radius they could get with hydrogen. This was a considerable handicap and it may have been one of the contributory reasons why the idea of an Arctic flight by airship was not revived by the Navy Department even after the Italian attempt.

For heavier-than‑air craft however, such a flight again came to the front. In 1924, when Amundsen was preparing for another polar expedition, it was agreed that Lieut. R. E. Davison, one of the Navy's well-qualified pilots, should go with him, and Davison  p223 actually did get as far as Spitzbergen in March, only to stay there until July and then return because the expedition did not succeed in raising enough money. An American expedition appeared to be very much in order, and in 1925 a naval detachment under Lieutenant Commander Byrd accompanied Donald MacMillan, also a reserve officer, into the Etah region. With Byrd, who had three Loening amphibian planes, went Lt. (jg) M. A. Schur, Chief Boatswain B. E. Reber, Chief Machinist's Mates A. C. Nold and N. P. Sorensen, and Naval Aviation Pilot Floyd Bennett, who had flown a UO‑1 from his ship, the cruiser Richmond, off Greenland during the preceding summer. With this group Byrd flew through the thick summer fog, to cover 30,000 square miles of the polar wastes, collecting a mass of scientific data and much knowledge of cold-weather work in the air. He came home so enthusiastic that he persuaded Edsel Ford to support an attempt to fly across the Pole during the following spring, before Amundsen, who had once been forced down 150 miles from the Pole, could try again. Ford brought John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Vincent Astor, and others in as fellow sponsors, enabling Byrd to sail for Spitzbergen early in April, 1926. His chief assistant was again Bennett, and on May 9 the two took off from Kings Bay in a three-engine Fokker monoplane. With the luck of clear weather and the help of a Bumstead sun compass and Byrd's own bubble sextant, they flew for 15 consecutive hours, circling the Pole for the first time in history and returning safely. Both were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and promoted by act of Congress but, for Byrd, at least, this would be only the first of his long series of polar flights and expedition.

In this same period came the Navy's first serious attempt at a long-distance flight over the Pacific. The Army, while making its noteworthy flight around the world in 1924, had circled the oceans; but the Navy proposed to cross the Pacific in its widest open area. Accordingly, in 1925, that veteran of the Navy's earliest days in the air, Comdr. John Rodgers, was selected to command a flight from the coast of California to Honolulu, to be made by three seaplanes especially designed with metal hulls. Two of these were built at the Philadelphia Naval Aircraft Factory and designated PN‑9 while the third was built by Boeing in Seattle and designated PB‑1. On May 2 Lieut. C. H. Schildhauer flew one PN‑9 for 28 hours, 35 minutes and established a new world's record for seaplane endurance. This was the same Schildhauer who was recognized in  p224 World War II as founder of the Naval Air Transport service familiar known as "NATS."

In a general way, plans for the flight followed those used for the NC crossing of the Atlantic. At specified positions along the proposed course lay station ships, ready to use smoke and searchlights as "buoys" and also ready to lend a hand in any emergency. Since this was before the day of the modern radio compass, it was also the duty of these ships to give the planes their radio bearings as shore stations would do and thus help them to fix their positions as they proceeded. In addition, tenders and submarine groups were assigned special stations off the Hawaiian Islands, while one tender, with a squadron of planes aboard, stood by to furnish escorts or, if necessary, to start an aerial search.

Two of the new planes, fitted with all the instruments then in use, including earth-inductor compasses borrowed from the Army, wind-drift sights, and special towing sleeves for the radio antennae, were ready for a take‑off on schedule but the Boeing plane was not finished until a few days later and, in its final tests, it performed too doubtfully to justify its starting. With Rodgers were Lieut. B. J. Connell, Chief Radioman N. H. Stantz, and Naval Aviation Pilot S. R. Pope and W. M. Bowlin. Under Lieut. A. P. Snody in the other plane were Lieut. A. Gavin, Radioman C. W. Allen, Aviation Pilot N. H. Craven, and Machinist's Mate C. Suttey. At two o'clock in the afternoon of August 31, with Moffett on hand to see them do it, they took the air. Four hours later Snody was forced down to a safe landing on the water, luckily so near the marker ship William Jones that she could promptly take him in tow. That left Rodgers in a position like Read's in the NC‑4, alone over the Pacific.

In the early hours all went well, with nothing disturbing except that the fuel consumption appeared to be running about six gallons an hour over what had been estimated. This took on some significance when the tail wind with which Rodgers had started began dying down, and it became serious when the exhaust from the port engine changed color from blue to yellow, a definite sign of improper firing. When he was 1,200 miles out, Rodgers decided that before long he would have to come down near a station ship to refuel and to adjust the engines. Another 200 miles brought him within sight of the Reno where he calculated that he could reach the Aroostook, 400 miles ahead, with enough fuel to spend about 40 minutes in making a landing. Until that moment, keeping only  p225 near enough to the prescribed course to sight the station ships, he had not attempted to pass directly over them and therefore he had not been greatly concerned to note that the radio bearing they gave him, from distances over 50 miles, often proved, as he drew nearer, to have been a good deal in error. Now, with the weather thickening in rain squalls, and with a specific ship to find, exactness in these bearings suddenly became of vital importance.

According to the bearings he was getting, he was well south of the Aroostook, whereas his own navigation figures put him north of his proper course. At about three o'clock in the afternoon he decided to trust the bearings and make a search to the northward. At a quarter past four, 25 hours and 23 minutes after his take‑off, his last drop of fuel was gone, and he was left with no choice but to land on the sea. The distance he had covered was not absolutely certain but the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale officially accepted it as 1,841 statute miles, a world's record for airline by seaplane.

Good airmanship having landed the plane safely, good seamanship took command. Fabric from the lower wing was fashioned into a sail, floor boards became leeboards and a course 15 degrees off the wind was laid for Hawaii. A rudimentary radio sending set was extemporized but this, again like those of the NC‑8, served only to tantalize all hands. Since they could not get their position through to ships that were combing the ether with inquiries for it, there remained nothing to do but sail on.

The Aroostook was already looking for Rodgers. The Langley sent up her planes on daily search. Submarines steamed out from Hawaii and patrol planes left Pearl Harbor. A squadron of destroyers from the Fleet, then on its way back from Australia, ran search curves to the southward. But it was not until four o'clock in the afternoon of September 10 that the submarine R‑4 sighted Rodgers, "under all plain sail" on his course, about ten miles off Kauai Island, with some 450 miles made good on the surface. To many here was proof that the Navy's aviators remained, fundamentally, sailormen.

Unfortunately the full worth of all these various experiences and achievements was not translated into an expansion of Naval Aviation. To some extent this was because the aviators had been gagged by the act of 1921, which created a Bureau of the Budget to review the recommendations of all departments of the government and to keep them in line with administration policies. In the act  p226 it was specifically stated that "no estimate or request for an appropriation and no request for an increase . . . shall be submitted to Congress or any committee thereof by any officer . . . of any department . . . [except] at the request of either House . . ." This meant that once an appropriation recommended by the Bureau of Aeronautics had been reduced by the Navy's budget officer or by the Bureau of the Budge, Moffett and his assistants could not protest until Congress called them in, and not then unless committee members asked exactly the right questions.

During the years that followed, numerous cuts in the amounts recommended by the Bureau of Aeronautics were made by Rear Adm. Joseph Strauss, the Navy's first budget officer. One reason for these cuts lay in Strauss' realization that Congress was economy-minded; another lay in his own belief that although aviation had a place in the Fleet, it was not of paramount importance. His conviction was quite as honest as Moffett's, but the result was that their relations were sometimes rather strained.

Under his feet the budget officer had the sure ground of congressional determination that all the surplus in Naval Aviation, resulting from deliveries under the contracts of World War I, must be examined before any new material was bought. Idle for Moffett to point out that only a part of this material could be used with any profit to the Navy, and that much of it was not worth its costly upkeep — two facts, incidentally, which would be recalled in 1946 when both the Army and the Navy made haste to scrap much of what was left over from World War II. It was even useless to answer the complaint of the manufacturers that neither Army nor Navy had any definite plan for aircraft by pointing out that both had programs which were being torn up by the economizers. Since the gagged aviators could say little or nothing to the contrary, Congress appears to have believed that it was giving them what they wanted and that any lack of success was due to fumbling by the military and naval authorities. In 1923, for example, the Bureau of Aeronautics asked for $21,500,000, but after the cuts a Congress that hardly can have been fully informed allowed it only $14,663,000. Indeed, it was not until 1925 that Congress appears to have realized that its own act prevented it from learning all the facts, and even then the condition would not be corrected fully. In 1926, of the $33,000,000 requested, Aeronautics got only about $19,000,000. Moffett could plead with the Navy's budget officer or with the Secretary of the Navy. Later, when an Assistant  p227 Secretary of the Navy for Air had been appointed, he could plead even more eloquently with him; but unless personally summoned by Congress he could go no higher. General Mitchell had tried that expedient — and landed in a court martial. Others must have felt justified in playing safe, especially when it became evident that President Coolidge was determined to follow President Harding in economies, even if he were not quite so specific as the latter had been in declaring that he did not "hesitate to say that the repetition or advocacy of an estimate . . . in excess of the Executive recommendation will be looked upon as a sufficient reason to give instructions for severance of employment with the Government." As a gag, this was effective.

The Bureau of Aeronautics' four-year program proposed in 1921, and its five‑year program discussed in 1922, were doomed. The latter called for 870 new planes in addition to those that might be required by any carrier built, but although fully approved by the General Board as the basis for the bureau's estimates and recommendations during the years immediately succeeding, it was cut before it ever reached Congress. Consequently, since the money was not appropriated, the program fell farther and farther behind the schedule, leaving the bureau more and more dependent upon the obsolescent if not already obsolete material on hand. This had its bad effect upon the aircraft industry and, even more unfortunate, a disastrous influence upon the morale of aviation personnel. Officers and men training with untrustworthy equipment became nervous and less efficient. As shortages in numbers became more severe, the load upon those remaining became greater and this could not but result in occasional grumblings about overwork and lack of recognition. Dissatisfaction produced more resignations and more discharges, more shortages and more complaints, thus drawing the vicious circle. The Fleet, attempting to use planes that were continually in need of repairs, found it impossible to keep adequate squadrons in the air, a handicap which gave the commander of the squadrons "great anxiety" and made it impossible for the commander in chief to carry out anything like the exercises that had been planned. Nowhere was Naval Aviation up to the standard which it had set for itself and which an uninformed public fully expected it to maintain.

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