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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 22

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 24
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p249  Chapter XXIII

The Morrow Board

On September 2, 1925, Lt. Comdr. Zachary Lansdowne, veteran of numerous airship flights, took the Shenandoah, "Daughter of the Stars," out of Lakehurst. This flight, like others, was designed to afford training and experience but it had the particular purpose of complying with a request that the Navy test the new mooring mast for dirigibles, erected during that summer at the Ford field in Dearborn, Michigan.

The flight was uneventful until about four o'clock the next morning, when the ship was over Byesville, Ohio. At that time, her crew saw heavy clouds accompanied by severe lightning looming in the northwestward sky. Almost at once the head winds became so strong that even her five motors hardly gave the ship headway and presently her drift to leeward became faster. Her navigator, Lieut. (now Vice Adm.) C. E. Rosendahl, afterward spoke of a thin, dark, streaky cloud as just visible in the pale moonlight, and he had barely noticed this when the vicious squall struck. Caught in violently whirling upcurrents, the ship began to rise so fast that all efforts to check her were unavailing. At 4,000 feet she paused, then rushed higher. In the thinner atmosphere of the upper levels the expanding helium created so much pressure on the gas cells that they were in danger of bursting and the crew, already sent by Lansdowne to emergency stations, began opening hand valves to relieve the gas cells more rapidly than the automatic valves could do it.

The upward rush continued until, at about 6,000 feet, the ship met the down-currents of the storm. She was "heavy" now because valving so much helium had cost her buoyancy and, to check her as she began to fall swiftly, tons of ballast water were run overboard. In perhaps two minutes she fell about 3,000 feet, where she was struck again by upcurrents and flung up once more. In the hope that the next downthrust of the higher levels might be checked, Lansdowne gave orders to cut adrift the middle gas tank,  p250 so it could be "slipped" in such an emergency, and sent Rosendahl forward to supervise this effort.

It was just as he stepped up on the ladder leading from the control car to the keel that Rosendahl felt the ship incline to what he knew was a dangerous angle. In the next instant he heard the struts cracking and the metallic crash that meant structural members were parting and suspension wires snapping. From almost under his feet the control car tore itself loose, carrying Lansdowne, three other officers, and four men. Then, looking down through the grey dawn, he could see the whole after end of the ship falling, taking with them all the engineers. Not until long after would he know that the stern section, with Lieutenant Rauch and a few of the crew, by some unexplained miracle would reach the ground unhurt. For the moment he had all he could do to clamber into the forward section, now to all intents and purposes a 200‑foot free balloon.

Up it shot to 10,000 feet, to be drenched in rain squalls, pounded this way and that, driven down to earth into the top of a tall tree, extricated, and at last, by the most expert "valving," brought to the ground and secured. Rosendahl and his small group of six were 12 miles from the crushed control car when they began enjoying for their shipmates. Three of those in the midship section and 17 in the afterbody were unhurt while two others were injured but recovered, leaving a total of 14 dead. Most of the survivors continue to be as enthusiastic as Rosendahl in advocating the use of airships.

The court of inquiry, such as always follows a disaster, found no grounds for such opinions as the one expressed by General Mitchell, that the tragedy was what was to be expected from the "incompetent, criminally negligent, and almost treasonable administration" of the air services by both the Army and the Navy; an expression, by the way, which led directly to the general's trial by court martial and his ultimate resignation from the Army. On the contrary, the court decided that the ship had been adequately prepared for a duly authorized flight; that there had been no warning of the storm; and that the ship had had no apparent structural weakness. It cited the numerous instances of individual heroism and the gallant efforts of groups to save ship and shipmates. It recognized the important fact that the use of noninflammable helium instead of hydrogen had resulted in saving many lives. As far as possible it established the facts; but it could not  p251 soften the heavy blow to aviation or halt the wave of adverse publicity that swept the country.

One great good did follow when the Secretaries of War and the Navy together urged President Coolidge, as Commander in Chief, to call upon a group of highly qualified citizens to study the whole problem of "aircraft in national defense and to supplement the studies already made" by both departments. Hardly more than a week after the Shenandoah tragedy the President complied on September 12, and the distinguished Dwight W. Morrow was shortly named chairman of a board including representatives of the Army, the Navy, the aircraft industry, Congress, the judiciary, and the foremost experts in aeronautical engineering. The members were Maj. Gen. J. G. Harbord, Adm. F. F. Fletcher, Howard E. Coffin, Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut, Representatives Carl Vinson of Georgia and J. S. Parker of New York, Judge A. C. Denison, and Dr. W. F. Durand of the engineering faculty of Stanford University. Throughout the nation the opinions of such a group were certain to be respected.

The Morrow Board thoroughly examined every aspect of aviation in the United States. With hardly an omission, the views of every American qualified to express views were sought, and the four printed volumes reporting the board's hearings and its conclusions therefore constitute an exhaustive, indeed a monumental study of all aviation problems up to the time of sitting. In these pages it is possible only to outline the recommendations of some of the more prominent men among the hundreds called before the board.

The destruction of the Shenandoah and the emphasis laid by the Eberle Board upon the vulnerability of airships in general had put Moffett on the defensive but with characteristic vigor he refused to stay in that uncomfortable position. Instead he gave the board a vivid account of all that had been learned from the lost ship's many successful flights, and followed this by urging the continued study and development of the rigid airship by building at least one successor. As part of the "steady, farsighted, progressive" program, he asked for the establishment of a new base, on the West coast, for lighter-than‑air elements. All this was very much what he had previously said to the General Board when he asked that body, in addition, to approve the immediate building of an airship of 1,125,000‑cubic‑foot capacity, for training purposes, with two giants of 6,000,000 cubic feet to follow.

 p252  As to industry, the admiral emphasized the friendly relations which existed between the bureau and the makers of aircraft, bringing out the efforts made by the Navy to improve those relations through its frequent invitations to industry to join in conference or to inspect the Naval Aircraft Factory; through its sharing of technical information gained from the racing planes; and through its consistent policy of encouraging at least two manufacturers for each design of plane. He was blunt as ever in asserting that the smallness of appropriations was at the bottom of the Navy's inability to give industry enough to do, to standardize types and thus permit mass production, or to arrange negotiated contracts with approved builders.

Turning to personnel, Moffett did not fail to make the point that the Bureau of Aeronautics should have complete control of whatever officers and men might constitute its quota. As one means of making that quota greater, he urged the revival of Admiral Mayo's plan for augmenting the number of midshipmen at the Naval Academy and strongly recommended a general increase in the enlisted personnel allowed the Navy. To provide adequate facilities for this personnel and for material he asked that the limitation to six stations in the United States, imposed by a clause in every appropriation bill in recent years, be eliminated from future bills. For much the same reason, he also asked that a part of the Army Appropriations Bill of 1922, in which areas of operation for the air arms of the Army and of the Navy were defined, be repealed because "while presumably this should be satisfactory it appears that in some quarters it has been, and in the future is likely to be, invoked to restrict and hamper the development of naval aviation." He recommended that extra pay for flying be authorized as long as flying continued to be hazardous. He urged the importance of carriers and, in general, he besought the board to recommend that the five-year program be definitely established with due assurance that it would be carried to completion.

Other officers of standing gave their views on these points as well. In their essence, these views have already been noted in these pages. Whiting reiterated the "plan for personnel" which he had previously advocated, insisting that to follow this plan would do away with existing inefficiencies, such as jeopardizing promotion by long service in aviation, and the "rotation" system under which aviators, during periods of duty as ship's officers, must become rusty in their specialty. In all this Whiting was supported  p253 by Mitscher. Bellinger and Bartlett brought up the separate flying corps idea, the latter, in particular, giving details of the plan, including a plea for special schools in strategy and tactics for the corps. Of such schools high-ranking officers like Adm. C. F. Hughes, Commander in Chief, would have none because to their minds the Fleet was the proper school for these matters. Lieutenant Carpenter, another among those disagreeing with Bellinger and Bartlett, put his objections on the novel ground that "aviation is far too important a subject to be limited to the minor position implied by a corps," and he declared that all naval officers should be trained, at least to some extent, in flying and its problems. That outspoken Mississippian, Comdr. John McCain, years later to be vice admiral and Mitscher's alternate as a leader of carrier task forces, was bitter in assailing the separation of aviators as "a protective promotion device pure and simple." A corps of the kind would accomplish no good for the Navy, he insisted, because the specialists would neglect the sailors and the sailors would neglect the specialists. Lieutenant Commander Paunack, in his turn, supported the separate corps with an analysis of all the grievances of the aviators ranging from uniforms to promotions.

A similar clash of opinions was evident among the others on the long roll of experts, especially when they came before the board to discuss the bombing experiments. Here the range extended from the view of General Mitchell that it was "all over but flying" to the view of the former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Coontz, who called the experiments "absolutely inconclusive" because true battle conditions had not been simulated and because the target ships had been wholly without personnel to repair damage and fight back. He did not "think it possible to get anything out of . . . [such ] a one‑sided affair," and while he admitted to a belief in "stunts, so‑called, that are of distinct advantage," except for these he "would put the money into legitimate lines of endeavor."

All the naval officers were opposed to anything like a separate department of the air for the nation and, except for the followers of Mitchell, so were most of the army officers. Major General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hines, Chief of Staff, insisted that the "training of all units is based on the fundamental doctrine that their mission is to aid the ground forces." His Assistant Chief, Brig. Gen. Hugh Drum, held the Mitchell proposals "unsound from a national defense viewpoint, as well as from purely Army considerations." As he put it, "so far  p254 as the future of aviation can be foreseen, air power has no function independent of the Army and the Navy." Other army officers recalled the letter that General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing had written General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Menoher in 1920 when the latter's board was in session; a letter in which Pershing, among a dozen other reasons against a distinct and separate air force, cited the inability of such a force to gain a final decision against a ground force, the necessity for close cooperation between the two types, and the impossibility of bringing about that cooperation except under the supreme command of the ground force. Admitting the wisdom of a "separate branch within the Army," General Pershing had insisted that he meant "separate" in the sense that the Infantry and the Field Artillery were separate, an argument repeated by the army men who brought forward the letter. In this stand they found themselves supporting not only the ranking generals like Hines, Drum, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Summerall, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ely but also such admirals as Eberle, Robinson, Coontz, Hughes, Sims, and others. They maintained that training and operation in the Army and the Navy continued to differ and that independent air missions should remain under the control of the high command in the particular operation. Great Britain was cited as an instance of the failure of amalgamation, the Admiralty being reported as finding it intolerable to be responsible for the success of the Grand Fleet without controlling the Fleet's air cover. While consolidation might, in the opinion of these officers, eliminate some overlapping and permit some peacetime economies, this must count for nothing against what might happen in attempting to fight a war under such a handicap.

Admiral Sims, while he stood with those opposed to taking the Navy's air arm away from it, did not hesitate to criticize the Navy's current handling of that vital weapon. Attacking a continuing tendency toward conservatism, he said that taking refuge in the familiar phrase, "a well-balanced fleet," was dangerous because it involved no proper definition of "balanced" and meant a defensive rather than an offensive policy. He insisted that the plane, already "a major force," was "becoming daily more efficient" with more and more deadly weapons. No battleship could hope longer to protect itself against planes except by its own planes, and a small carrier might, from far out of gun range, disable if not destroy a battleship. This must mean that in future the fleet that commanded the air would be the winner, and in this sense he saw the fast carrier as the "capital ship" of the future. Thus the admiral, conservative  p255 in the fundamentals of the chain of command, was in step with the progressives in aviation itself.

These are mere sentences from paragraphs, half pages from chapters, a dozen names from the legion paraded before the patient Morrow Board. All the prominent men in civilian flying had their day in court, and all of industry had an opportunity to present its grievances, its hopes, and its suggestions. Taken together, they enabled the board, in its report dated November 30, 1925, to reach many conclusions of great importance and make many recommendations. The board was strongly opposed to a consolidation of military, naval, and civilian flying into a general organization because it believed that even partial control of the civilian effort by the military would be a reversal of the policy that had made the United States a great nation. In effect, a supervision of civilian flying by the Armed Services would be a long step toward a Prussianism that would make all foreign nations suspect American motives. Instead, said the board, civil aviation should be given assurances analogous to that being afforded the maritime service, which was furnished with good lighthouses, a buoyage system, improved rivers and harbors, and invaluable up‑to‑date hydrographic information. Service to airmen should be rendered by the Department of Commerce, in which a special section covering the navigation of the air should be established.

As to the question of a merger, the board admitted that there might be some overlap in procurement which could be reduced by consolidation, but held that the saving thus effected would be far less valuable than the worth of competition between the soldiers and sailors in aviation. Moreover, in addition to believing that the army and the navy fliers should be controlled by their own central military or naval authority, the board held that each branch was entitled to a top‑level civilian representative and that the whole organization would be strengthened by creating posts for Assistant Secretaries of Aeronautics, not only in the War and Navy Departments but in Commerce as well.

In commenting specifically on the Navy, the board praised its personnel and material but made numerous recommendations. It held that the Aircraft Factory should continue to do experimental and repair work but should not compete with industry in manufacturing planes and parts. Officers who had specialized in aviation long enough to bring their promotion into jeopardy should be promoted and, to avoid delaying the promotion of nonaviators in the  p256 same grade, carried as "extra number" in the order of their rank. To provide for command posts temporary promotions should be made, but junior officers should be required to perform adequate duty at sea before being advanced. The command of carriers, tenders, and shore establishments for the air arm should be given only to men fully qualified as commissioned pilots of aircraft. There should be careful search for means of attracting qualified technical experts, among officers and enlisted men, to the aviation branch.

In its consideration of the aircraft industry the board fully recognized its vital importance in any program of national defense. After a study of existing aircraft builders and their resources, they were considered capable of expanding, within 12 months after the declaration of a national emergency, to a production of 15,000 planes a year; within six months more, to figures far outstripping those of any foreign country. Nevertheless, because no peacetime formula could provide for the enormous needs of war, especially if designs were so frequently changed that it became impossible to lay up any reserve planes, it appeared advisable to standardize design for periods of three years, with appropriate provision for replacements and for the turnover of equipment at stated intervals. Production orders should be awarded only to competent, well-staffed concerns, with due regard for their proprietary rights and with every effort to further their work in research. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics should expand its assistance to inventors and to the advancement of commercial flying, an element of such importance that it should have every possible governmental support.

The prestige of Mr. Morrow and his associates aroused widespread interest in their findings, completely overshadowing the concurrent sessions of the Taylor Board. This would have been true even if the latter group had dealt conclusively with the problems laid before it, which it did not do. It failed to establish a ratio between enlisted and commissioned pilots, and it begged the question of high commands in aviation by suggesting that these be left to the nominations of the commander in chief of the Fleet. As to the promotion of officers who were pilots, after remarking that while an officer's ability to fly might decrease with the years, his ability to command might increase, it merely recommended that no aviator be advanced to the rank of commander until he had served one year as at least second in command on a cruising vessel. Otherwise, in what amounted to a general review of the Johnson Board's findings,  p257 it disagreed as to the wisdom of ordering midshipmen who volunteered for aviation to Pensacola immediately upon their graduation, and also as to proposed new ratings for enlisted men. Altogether, it was not a constructive report and when it was referred to Rear Admiral Shoemaker of the Bureau of Navigation, he said that "the good of the Navy" could be served only by a board of senior officers with "nothing to gain or lose . . . and no future that could be adversely affected." Oddly enough, the Secretary of the Navy in his turn confirmed the report "as modified by the first endorsement," which was Shoemaker's, thus straddling the whole matter without any explanation. Comdr. Dewitt Ramsey, later to be an admiral and Commander in Chief in the Pacific, but then at his desk in the Bureau of Aeronautics, correctly described this procedure as "queer," because Moffett was given no opportunity to comment; but in view of the inconclusiveness of the Taylor report there is nothing queer in the fact that no great importance appears to have been attached to it. At that moment what counted was the Morrow Board.

In particular, when that far‑seeing board put an end to numerous long-standing dissensions and pointed the way to the solution of other vexing problems, it laid the foundation for a general belief that a truly constructive plan for aviation in the United States could at last be made. In this belief Congress very shortly began debating new legislation and within six months enacted three laws. The act of May 21, 1926, provided for certain aid to civilian flying and, as was very important, created the post of Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Air. The act of July 2 covered numerous other recommendations of the Morrow Board relating largely to the Army, but from the Navy's standpoint the most vital act was that of June 24. This authorized a five-year program for building 1,000 planes, with definite numbers of these to be procured each year until the total was reached, and with replacements which would serve to maintain that round figure. It provided for two dirigibles of 6,000,000 cubic feet each, to cost not over $8,000,000 in all, and for one metal-clad airship to be used for experiments. It laid down rules for procurement that would safeguard the rights of industry in making contracts without loss of protection for the government. It directed that the awarding of contracts, after competitive bidding, should be made to the lowest responsible bidder, with such awards subject to review only by the President of the United States or by the federal courts. At the top administrative  p258 levels it authorized the appointment of an Assistant Secretary of the Navy specifically "to . . . assist in furthering naval aeronautics." Considered as a whole, this was very progressive legislation.

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