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Chapter 20

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.
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Chapter 22
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p228  Chapter XXI

Personnel and Training in the Twenties

This state of affairs persisted, notwithstanding such declarations as that by the General Board in May, 1922, which bluntly asserted that "the rapidly growing importance of aircraft" made imperative "the keenest possible effort" in their strategical and technical development. Instead of progress in new designs and experimental types, there continued to be a dwindling of World War I material without adequate replacement, and the inevitable result was inability to maintain anything approaching "treaty strength." As Moffett did not hesitate to insist, these deficiencies left openings for critics who declared that "aviation is not appreciated but actually neglected by both the Army and the Navy," claims furnishing ready ammunition to those still agitating for a separate air force. Nothing, said the admiral, could at once give the nation a proper defense and stop these agitators except adequate appropriation for Naval Aviation. As matters stood, he declared, what little money became available was being wasted in a hopeless struggle to keep the aircraft, the tender, the supporting shore stations, and the personnel anywhere nearly up to date, without hope of getting ahead of other nations.

In personnel a real crisis came very soon. None of the means proposed for augmenting numbers, such as holding reserve fliers in service, increasing the size of the Naval Academy, transferring men from other branches of the Navy, or training more enlisted men as pilots, was in really effective operation. Indeed, none had been supported with sufficient funds for a thorough trial, even after the failure of a group of reserve officers to pass examination for transfer to the regular Navy had aroused Congress to an investigation of this failure. It still being the policy of the Navy Department that aviators must all be qualified seamen, the examination had been too broad in scope for men really trained only in  p229 flying. Although this was duly brought out by such senators as David Walsh of Massachusetts who condemned the loss of valuable men, neither the Navy Department nor Congress did anything to effect a change in policy or to provide money for adequate training of reserves.

Another harmful factor was rotation in duties. Among 100 officers trained at Pensacola during 1923, so many were presently ordered back to seagoing assignments, while others resigned and a few died, that the net gain was only 12 pilots. From those trained during the next year similar losses left but two additional pilots. At the same time the shortage throughout the whole Navy had been growing more acute since 1921, the year in which over 1,000 officers resigned or, as enlisted men temporarily commissioned during the war, reverted to their permanent ratings. This meant that it was impossible to get enough officers as fliers without crippling the Fleet and it also meant that junior officers hesitated to ask for aviation duty. Even the addition of flight training to the curriculum at the Naval Academy, while it was a good move and destined to become better, could offer no immediate relief in added pilots. By the spring of 1924, among 567 officers assigned to aviation only 308 were naval aviators, a figure representing a marked decrease since July, 1922. Since the tentative complement for the carriers included 175 officers for the various billets, with 3,000 enlisted men, and since the means for filling such a complement were nowhere in sight, the prospect of manning the Lexington and Saratoga was anything but good. Even if Moffett had been willing to lower the standard at Pensacola — something he flatly refused to do — existing law would not permit getting all the pilots and other aviation officers needed, while the training of enough enlisted men was impossible at a moment when the Bureau of Navigation was insisting that the demands for economy in the Navy must force the contraction, rather than the expansion, of the 21 training schools then in commission for all branches.

Nevertheless, as a means of stimulating interest among the enlisted men, the Bureau of Navigation had established some helpful changes in classification. In 1921 it had announced four of these, three to be known, respectively, as naval aviation pilot for seaplanes, for ship planes, and for airships, while the fourth was balloons. Men found qualified in any of the first three were allowed to wear the full wings of a naval aviator, but the balloon men were given only the left wing. In March, 1924, enlisted men were further  p230 encouraged by abolishing the four classifications and establishing in their stead the basic rating of aviation pilot. Even so, at the date of this change a total of only about 130 men qualified in the two types of planes or in airships were on duty, while at least double that many were needed. Moreover, even the best of those available left something to be desired because it could not be denied that their educational and general background was weaker than that of the men who had so promptly enlisted for the war. With a few notable exceptions, those who joined the Navy during this discouraging period of the twenties were not of a type to be completely dependable for an emergency in the air. It would have been quite unfair to require them to serve as more than second pilots and it was not to be expected that first pilots should have full confidence in such subordinates.

In addition to these shortages, there were serious ones in the air stations ashore. At one of these, work ordinarily expected of the enlisted personnel was accomplished only by taking on 1,000 civilians, at best an unsatisfactory expedient. On the other hand, in the Bureau of Aeronautics, where civilian experts of so many kinds were needed, severely limited funds prevented hiring enough and also prohibited advancing those that were employed to higher-paid positions for which they were fully qualified. To meet the continuing executive and congressional demands for curtailment of the civilian pay roll, it became necessary to let some of the best men take advantage of opportunities outside the Navy.

Under these discouraging conditions, Moffett nevertheless succeeded in maintaining some semblance of an aviation program for the Naval Reserve. Even when the funds made available in 1920 to cover 15‑day training periods for officers of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps were not provided thereafter, with the result that hundreds of aviation officers, thus deprived of flying, failed to re‑enroll when their first four years in the corps had been completed, he refused to give up. Well aware that this corps was an essential to proper preparedness, he insisted that it would be better to drop something else, and in this view he persuaded the Bureau of Navigation to join. In July, 1922, that bureau announced that inactive officers of the corps would be permitted to return to 15 days of active duty which they would spend at the San Diego station, aboard the tender Wright in the Atlantic, or aboard the Aroostook in the Pacific; a good beginning but, to Moffett, no more than that. In seeking a firm foundation for this training,  p231 his next step, taken in November of that year, was to ask the Secretary of the Navy to make a public statement expressing the intention of the department to encourage aviators of the Reserve to maintain their proficiency as fliers and to keep abreast of technical advances. As tangible evidence of this interest, he urged that all commandants of naval districts be asked to foster the organization of units of the Reserve and to provide the necessary planes and equipment. In this way, he declared, those already qualified as pilots would keep their hands in, other officers and men would gain experience in maintenance, and new recruits would be attracted. He asked that $500,000, for the specific purpose of supplying what was required for ten localities, be added to the estimates for 1924.

He did not succeed in getting this sum but after the appearance of the new statement on naval policy, issued in 1922 and outlined in an earlier chapter, he made another effort to convince the Chief of Naval Operations that there must be a well-defined program for reserves. He proposed 13 separate units, to each of which there should be allotted two planes, under one officer and four enlisted men of the Reserve, all on active duty. Each of these units should provide preliminary flight training, each year, for ten students, rated seamen, second class, in the Volunteer Reserve and allowed a course of 45 days, to be followed by 45 days on active duty at a regular naval air station. He expressed the opinion that this program would permit enrolling 1,000 wartime pilots and, through the training given, add about 125 new pilots each year. Mincing no words, he told the Chief of Naval Operations that his plan would require, for aviation alone, about a quarter of the total sum appropriated for all training of naval reserves.

He did not get approval for some time but with the help of the Reserve itself he made a beginning. Hundreds of young men who had learned to fly during World War I wanted to keep on flying, and many others wanted a chance to learn to fly. Many wrote to the Bureau of Aeronautics declaring that if the Navy would make planes and instructors available they would contribute their time, their labor, and even their money. In response to letters of this sort Moffett, in May, 1923, lent the aerial police of New York City four N‑9 training planes, his only condition being that the men who flew them must agree to join the Naval Reserve. Other localities or organizations, such as Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, the District of Columbia, and Culver Military Academy indicated  p232 their interest in such programs, but none was as enthusiastic as Boston, where the old seaplane base at Squantum, built by public subscription in 1917, offered a convenient site. Lieutenant Commander Byrd, at his own suggestion, was ordered there and, since he had neither men nor money to get the base into operation, he "borrowed" material from a near‑by destroyer base, recently decommissioned. The local Reserve turned to with pick and shovel, helped now and then by working parties from the First Naval District where the Commandant, Rear Adm. Louis De Steiguer, was sympathetic; and the result was that Squantum, although not the first to receive a unit for training, became the first real reserve air base. When it needed a landplane for training, the reserves secured this, parked it for a while on a neighboring civilian flying field, and built their own runway with cinders they also got from the naval district. This set the style for similar enthusiasm in other places where the love of flying and real patriotism combined to inspire the reserves throughout these lean years. In the very first summer, with scarcely any official recognition, Squantum and the aerial police unit at Fort Hamilton, New York, gave primary training to 33 students.

In November of that same year the Chief of Naval Operations approved the program, essentially along the lines suggested by Moffett. Next month a double unit, raising the total number of six, was established at Great Lakes, and within one more year a similar unit was organized at Sand Point. By the end of 1925 elementary training of reserves was in full swing at seven places, while advanced training was under way at four naval air stations; but the possibilities suggested by the enthusiasm of the reserves themselves had not yet been realized and adequate funds were still lacking. Further expansion had to wait until, as will be seen, the strong recommendations of the Morrow Board were followed by suitable legislation.

Meanwhile, Captain Mustin appears to have been the officer among Moffett's subordinates who was most closely associated with all the flight training programs for both officers and men; but with him, among others, were Capts. H. V. Butler and A. W. Johnson, Commander McCrary, and Lieutenant Commanders Bartlett, Chevalier, and C. P. Mason. All of these had a part in supervising instruction and practice in scouting with the Fleet, in spotting, torpedo handling, navigation, radio, gunnery, and combat exercises. Into one year's work they crowded both elementary and advanced  p233 training, after which the officers found qualified became naval aviators while the enlisted men of the same relative ability became naval aviation pilots.

This was seaplane work, but it had not been forgotten that seaplane pilots must also be able to handle the landplanes aboard carriers, and in 1923 this special instruction had been begun at San Diego and at Pensacola. To be sure, there had been a period, from October, 1919, to January, 1921, during which a number of naval fliers had been trained in landplanes by the Army at Carlstrom Field in Florida, March Field in California, and a little later at Kelly Field, Texas. Marine Corps fliers, after finishing at Pensacola, continued for some years to get additional landplane training at various army fields, but the Army had not had enough money to keep up the broader program. Moreover, after a board convened for the purpose had studied the question of cooperative training, it had been decided that more could be accomplished "along . . . strictly naval lines," and it was this that prompted establishing the courses at the two naval stations. To get as much realism as was possible ashore, landing platforms to simulate flight decks were built on the fields, thus beginning a practice still followed today. Before long Moffett could report that these new courses were less costly and more efficient.

Increased efficiency of the officers in aviation became general through these various modifications in training and it received an added impetus during this period from the success of the aviation courses added to the curriculum at the Naval Academy. These were proving so instructive that Rear Adm. David Taylor made them a sine qua non for all midshipmen whose academic standing warranted their applying for transfer to the Construction Corps. Since at least four hours' flight training was required at the academy, this meant that young men would take with them to their postgraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in naval construction some practical knowledge of the problem they would meet in their study of aircraft structure and of aeronautical engineering.

As to the older officers, there continued to be some controversy over a provision in the act of July 12, 1921, which required that at least 30 per cent of those of higher rank must qualify as observers within one year of their assignment. Moffett, however, welcomed this requirement, although it included himself. Having lost no time in taking and passing the necessary tests, he insisted  p234 that all his subordinates be prompt in following his example.

So much for the officers. For the enlisted men, one perplexing question continued to be the selection of clearly defined ratings and the fixing of the number of men allotted to each. As early as July, 1921, the Bureau of Navigation had established new ratings of aviation machinist's mate, aviation metalsmith mate, aviation carpenter's mate, and aviation rigger, undoubtedly an improvement over the former ones. Only a year later, however, Moffett had pronounced these unsatisfactory, because the names did not fit the work expected of the various specialists and because, as the numbers were divided, the distribution was resulting in too many chief petty officers, not enough of the lower ratings. Unfortunately no satisfactory solution was immediately found, leaving the question unanswered from year to year.

For training in the various ratings, Great Lakes continued to be the most important center for all forms of aircraft handling, overhaul, and repair, but Pensacola did conduct a few classes for mechanics of all kinds. These were in addition to its regular courses and it presently added another one for instruction in the folding and packing of parachutes which, after 1922, included all the types adopted even earlier by the Army. By 1924, although all hands in aviation had been furnished with parachutes, many did not know how to handle them because Pensacola had been too busy to teach them all, and to meet the emergency a special parachute course had to be established at Lakehurst.

In aerial photography contemporary progress was not satisfactory. Years before, when the functions of the director of Naval Aviation had been distributed throughout the Office of Naval Operations, the photographic school organized by the director during World War I had been handed over to the Bureau of Navigation. Since it had thus become concerned with all the photographic activities of the Navy, the Bureau of Aeronautics had been unable to obtain particular concentration upon its personnel, and even after Moffett succeeded in getting the school transferred from Anacostia to Pensacola in 1923 the improvement was only temporary; within a year the school had to be closed for lack of funds. This was very discouraging to Lieut. L. A. Pope, a naval graduate of the Army Photographic School at Chanute Field, Illinois, but after some months he got authority to open a new course at Pensacola and this he contrived to keep running for another year. Incidentally, it was Pope, as a captain, who headed the Navy's  p235 organization for aerial photography in World War II and accomplished a stupendous task.

In gunnery training cooperation with the Army continued to be so close that the Navy was able to send some of its men to the Army's specialist schools at Raritan, at the Springfield Armory, and at the Colt Company's plants. While no rating as specialist had yet been established for the Navy's aviation gunners, it was not long before the value of this help from the Army made itself apparent in the number of naval men who had the fame if not the name, a number that remained not fully adequate but did represent a definite gain.

Meanwhile, other efforts included the training of men as well as officers in the handling of catapults at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, where a manual covering the Mark I type provided for a course of about six weeks' duration. By 1924 a catapult of the same type was erected at the San Diego Station and there some personnel selected from the Fleet was able to get at least a small amount of practical training. At the same time other small classes were studying the care and adjustment of aeronautical instruments and still others were established, whenever and wherever possible, to learn all they might of the advances in the design of aircraft engines. All these were kept running on a ropeyarn, the seagoing equivalent of the landsman's shoestring.

Every attempt to expand training was hampered by the continuing lack of enough adequately equipped shore stations. Original plans had called for proper air bases in the Philippines, in Samoa, and at Guam but, as has been noted, work on these was stopped by the stipulations of the Washington Treaty. Of the three, only Guam was far enough along to permit the establishment of a small Marine Corps air detachment, the other two getting nobody. At the same time bases in the areas not affected by the treaty, such as those at Pearl Harbor and Coco Solo, suffered so sharp a pinch of economy that even the Chief of Naval Operations, in support of Moffett, could secure authority for only a very small expansion. Moreover, the additional personnel thus provided for at these two stations could be found only by slicing it away from the complements of the Lexington and Saratoga, an example of Peter's pockets being so nearly empty that even turning them inside out could produce little help for Paul.

Similarly, the plans of the Bureau of Aeronautics for continental stations remained in the paper stage. It was proposed to establish  p236 18 of these at intervals of 300 miles, and to include chiefly those previously recommended either by the Helm Board or by the General Board. Some had been partially completed when the war ended, some not even started, while a few would have been new additions, such as those planned for maintaining aircraft tenders at Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa, San Luis Obispo, and Humboldt Bay. This modest program had the approval of the War Plans Division of the Navy Department, but not that of Congress which in every appropriations act after 1919 had continued to limit the Navy's air stations to six. Even the expenditure of a mere $825,000, recommended in 1923 by a board headed by Rear Adm. (later Adm.) Hugh Rodman as the minimum requirement over a period of 20 years, was never fully authorized. Comparatively little was accomplished until, year later, it became imperative to prepare in great haste for another war and then, as was unavoidable, the money spent was in far greater ratio to value received than it would have been under the plans of the twenties.

In other ways the Bureau of Aeronautics was getting good value for the money it was allowed to spend. While progress was slower than had been hoped, it was nevertheless progress, and it was made along many lines. One of these led toward standardization of such flight instruments as the compass and the sextant, marked advances resulting from studies made in cooperation with the Army, the Bureau of Standards, the Weather Bureau, and the commercial manufacturers, carried on with the strong backing of that invaluable body, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Another line led through experiments with substitutes for parachute silk, a material certain to be even scarcer and more costly than various other materials for which proposed substitutes were also tested. A third line of progress, the one on the lighter-than‑air side, was marked by the production of better girders and similar controls for airships and also by the compounding of a new antifreeze solution that did not eat into duralumin.

Duralumin itself was improved upon by new alloys found to be less susceptible to corrosion and to "combat fatigue." New metal tubing, replacing the wooden frames of aircraft, eliminated the waterlogging of these frames with the consequent addition of weight. When the PN‑9, with its metal hull, proved satisfactory, it was not long before the use of metal spread to wings and tails, and by 1925 metal propellers, at first built in parts but later forged in one piece, were replacing wooden propellers as fast as these wore out.  p237 Still another discovery was a preparation which could be sprayed on these metal surfaces and become a good protection against corrosion.

No advance, however, was of greater importance than that toward better engines, which was made while Naval Aviation perforce continued to use up the overstock of Liberties on hand after the war. By this time liquid-cooled engines were developing as much as 800 horsepower, but the Bureau of Aeronautics had become increasingly interested in air‑cooled types, agreeing with the view of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, expressed as early as 1920, that air cooling would give ship-based planes that highly desirable quality, less weight per horsepower. In his annual report for 1922 Moffett drew attention to an air‑cooled engine developed with the Navy's money and flown in the Navy's planes, a reference to the Lawrance‑1, a radial type first built for racing. Four years later, as the aircraft industry was reorganized by combining various interests, two companies were building similar but much improved types; one was Pratt and Whitney's Wasp, the other was the Wright Aeronautical Company's Cyclone. These fairly settled the long argument between air and water in favor of the former, with the ultimate result that a long series of air‑cooled engines, in planes varying from trainers through carrier types to the Army's giant B‑29, was used throughout World War II.

All these gains did not mean that Moffett was reconciled to economy and, in retrospect, there appears only this of good to be said for it: it did enforce a search for equipment that would be less expensive yet more efficient. That search led to a new design of tank car which reduced the freight rate on helium from Texas to Lakehurst; to an improvement in wind tunnels which gave 25 per cent greater efficiency at no increase in operating costs; and, on what was perhaps a somewhat lower level, to a decrease in the price of winter suits for aviators from $315 to $125 each.

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Page updated: 18 Jan 17