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Chapter 23

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,
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Chapter 25
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p259  Chapter XXIV

Five-Year Program of 1926

Moffett and his close associates welcomed the Morrow Board and the legislation that followed it as the right impetus toward the "steady, farsighted, progressive development" they had so long been urging. They were pleased when the new post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy was given to Dr. Edward P. Warner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a recognized expert in aeronautical engineering with a wide acquaintance among aviators and others who believed in aviation. Hoping Congress would appreciate that better information on the Navy's needs could be obtained from this representative or from the Navy itself, all hands prepared to press forward.

Since the act of June 24 had been one of authorization only, it remained to be seen whether the next congressional appropriations would provide the necessary money. For the fiscal year 1927 Moffett made a supplementary estimate to cover the additional planes and the two rigid airships which would be required under the five-year program, only to have this estimate thrown out by the Bureau of the Budget on the ground that this program would not be begun until the fiscal year of 1928. For that year the first estimate, submitted as early as May, 1926, had already suffered a reduction by the Budget Bureau, and this was followed by several others which finally brought the original figure of a little over $40,000,000 down to a little under $20,000,000, where it stood when hearings in the House began.

During these hearings an encouraging moment for Aeronautics came when the committee began looking into these drastic cuts made by the Bureau of the Budget. Representative Thomas Butler of Pennsylvania was led to declare that what that bureau had done to the original estimate would have the effect of changing the five-year program, already approved by Congress, into a ten‑year program. Representative Britten of Illinois was even more emphatic, crying out that officers of the Navy, expected by Congress to execute  p260 the policies of Congress, were being stultified by a Budget Bureau with "more power here than Mussolini has in Italy!" In the end the House added $5,000,000 for new construction to the estimate given it and sent the question to the Senate. That body, also concerned about aviation, recommended still more money for new construction, with the final result that the total reached $29,500,000 of which $9,500,000 was for the building program over the next two years. This was a substantial increase but Moffett would still have to make full use of his diplomacy to persuade each succeeding Congress of the need for reasonable liberality. He did just that.

Any plan to procure more planes must embody decisions as to their type, their proper maintenance, and their employment, because the act of June 24 directed that two thirds of the ultimate total of 1,000 should be kept in commission while one third was held in reserve. To facilitate arriving at these decisions the Secretary of the Navy established a second Taylor Board in April, 1927, this time to examine the naval policy of 1922 and recommend any changes found to be desirable. The resulting report had several features, an outstanding one being the unanimity with which those heard by the board insisted upon the vital need for carriers, both to protect the Fleet and to carry on "scouting and offensive operations at a distance from the battle line." Another was the general condemnation of the so‑called "multiple-purpose" design, which made a torpedo plane, required to have very high speed and superior maneuvering qualities, also a scouting plane which had no great need for either of these qualities. Such an expert as Comdr. Newton White, for one, deplored the combination as producing nothing but an inefficient hybrid in which both types were ruined. A third feature was the emphasis laid upon fighter planes, upon dive bombers, and, in general, upon a closer study of high-altitude and low‑altitude bombing. Finally, this report urged the building of the two big rigid airships for use, "primarily with the Fleet," to determine their true value to the Navy, leaving patrol work to nonrigids, the building of which was also recommended. This was the report of progressives because those sitting with Admiral Taylor included Moffett himself, Rear Adm. Frank H. Schofield, Capts. A. W. Marshall, J. M. Reeves, Henry V. Butler, J. J. Raby, and H. E. Yarnell, Commander Ellyson, and Lieutenant Commander Mitscher. Most of these, as they advanced in rank, would have high aviation commands and be enthusiastic supporters of the Navy's p261 p261 air arm, especially the brilliant Yarnell and Schofield, the latter a Naval Academy graduate and close friend of Moffett.

Reviewing the Taylor report, the General Board approved the substance of its recommendations although conservatives among these elder statesmen were inclined to hold back a bit on airships and were not fully convinced that multiple-purpose planes would not do. Out of these deliberations came the naval policy of 1927, appreciably broader than that of 1922, making it the task of Aeronautics "to direct the development and employment of Naval Aviation primarily to the fulfilment of the principal mission, namely operations at sea with the Fleet." Except for a protest that classifications of plane types should have been more elastic, Aeronautics was satisfied with this statement of policy, but Assistant Secretary Warner did suggest that the General Board, by dealing more closely with him, might keep itself better informed. Accepting this suggestion, the board duly advocated a freer hand for the experts, headed by Warner and Moffett, in developing planes for special work.

As part of its building program, presented in late 1927, the board recommended more than the original 1,000 planes and urged the building of one 13,800‑ton carrier in each of the next five years. This inevitably met opposition from pacifist organizations and from penny pinchers, with the result that Congress, even after the failure of the Geneva Disarmament Conference, allowed only one such carrier, eventually commissioned as the Ranger. She would be a help but she alone could not meet the requirements of the commander in chief and his higher-ranking subordinates, all of whom supported Moffett's conclusion that the British Hermes and the Japanese Hosho had clearly proven the value of the small carrier. With enough of that type the Fleet could keep many planes in the air without the risk of losing one large carrier.

When it came to repair ships, only enough money was made available to install some aircraft-repair equipment on ships whose ordinary service was not restricted to the support of aircraft. Money for tenders, too, was lacking, although Moffett had repeatedly recommended their construction. He now urged the conversion "of at least one, probably two vessels" for this purpose, giving as a particular reason the already obsolescent equipment of the tender Wright, and the lack of ships to help her other than a motley group including an ex‑collier, a former mine layer, and several former mine sweepers. No replacements were made possible, however, and p262 p262 even as much later as 1931, when the redesignation of the air stations at Coco Solo and Pearl Harbor as Fleet air bases meant that planes would be operating farther and farther afield, the only improvement in the condition of the tenders was some new gear for handling seaplanes.

It is a little difficult to understand congressional reluctance to appropriate money during this period, for it was marked by numerous events which created favorable public opinion of the Navy's flying. In 1926 Lieut. (later Commodore) Ben Wyatt took off from Seattle with two Loening amphibians, accompanied by the tender Gannet, to conduct the successful Alaska expedition. A few months later other groups made a broad aerial photographic survey of the Gulf of Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Panama, and Nicaragua. Then, early in 1927, burdened began preparing to try crossing the Atlantic in a Fokker with Balchen, Acosta, and Noville. To be sure, the drama of this flight was reduced when Lindbergh, a few days before Byrd was ready, startled the world with his gallant, lonely crossing, but the Byrd flight was productive of very valuable scientific data on ocean flying.

In July, close behind Lieutenants Maitland and Hegenberger of the Army, Lieut. Emory Bronte, USNR, flew from San Francisco to Honolulu, and a month later Lieut. W. W. Davis was at the controls of the plane that won the Dole transpacific flight. As if to crown these achievements, the long-awaited Saratoga was commissioned on November 16, to be followed by the Lexington on December 14. The latter drew a little ahead of the former when Lieut. A. M. Pride, the expert on landing gear, justifiably had the honor of putting the first plane down aboard the Lexington on January 5, 1928; but Mitscher was only six days behind him with the first landing on the Saratoga, and on January 27 that great ship was again in the news when the Los Angeles came safely to rest on her deck.

As the Navy's one working dirigible, the Los Angeles was kept very much in the public eye. In the fall of 1928 she flew down to Texas, mooring to the new mast at the helium plant, Fort Worth. Soon afterward she made a week's flight basing on the tender Patoka, and followed this by dozens of flights across country and along both coasts. When Goodyear's trapeze was completed as a means of landing planes aboard the airship to defend her, the first mid‑air hook on and pickup was made on July 3, 1929, with Lieut. A. W. Gorton at the controls of a tiny UO‑1; but it was not until p263 p263 September 29, 1931, that Lieuts. D. W. Harrigan and H. L. Young, were picked up at night in planes of the N2Y‑1 type. Still another event in Los Angeles history was the successful launching from her, on January 31, 1930, of a glider carrying Lieut. (later Capt.) R. S. Barnaby. Taken together, these accomplishments served to feed the lively interest in dirigibles reawakened when the two giant ones had been authorized, and stimulated in March, 1928 when funds for the first of these, the Akron, had been appropriated.

To get a good design for the Akron a competition among possible builders had been held and this had been won by Goodyear with plans for a ship of 6,000,000‑cubic‑foot capacity, 780 feet long with a maximum diameter of 135 feet. Equipped to carry five planes for her defense, she was expected to make 80 miles an hour, and with a structure twice as strong as that of the Shenandoah, it was calculated that she would be able to withstand squalls of 30‑knot velocity. All this was approved by Aeronautics, but before any contract could be written one of Goodyear's rivals, the Brown-Bovari Corporation, protested the decision and a new competition was arranged, only to have Goodyear again declared the winner. As finally signed in October, 1928, the contract required that firm to build two airships at a combined cost of $7,835,000, with the proviso that the second must embody any modifications found desirable after tests of the first. As this cost was greater than the amount originally appropriated, Congress added another $1,800,000 and construction began in November, 1929, with completion expected by the autumn of 1931 and a plan to follow with the sister ship, the Macon, about two years later.

Because the German Maybach motor gave a better performance than any American motor yet developed for dirigibles, it was chosen for the Akron. Installed inside the hull, these Maybachs were fitted to a special type of shafting, with which it would be possible to get a vertical as well as a horizontal thrust, a feature which was expected to simplify both the ship's take‑off and her landing. Moreover, once she was up, that arrangement would permit her to rise rapidly in case she were threatened by an air attack before she could launch her defending planes. As to these, they were to be of the Curtiss F9C type, weighing about 3,000 pounds each and especially designed for easy hooking on and for stowage inside the ship.

Such immediate and prospective technical progress in aviation p264 p264 was not accompanied by the improvement in the personnel situation sought by Aeronautics. For example, as one way to attract enlisted men from sea duty to flying duty, the rating of aviation pilot was broken into two grades, chief and first class. This was to make it possible for a man to qualify in the lower grade with a good chance to rise to the upper one. Actually, when the lack of enough money made it necessary to keep the men in the lower pay grade, men aboard ship thought they would lose rather than gain by the change of duty and many preferred to stay where they thought themselves more certain of promotion.

Economy being the slogan of the time, numerous strictures had to be placed upon aviation training. The courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, had to be transferred to universities where support by state funds made it possible to keep tuition rates lower. Similarly, schools at important centers like the Great Lakes and Newport had to be closed, while training at Hampton Roads and a dozen other stations was skeletonized. Nevertheless, Aeronautics did manage to continue the Photographers' School at Pensacola, reopened in 1926 after being closed for two years, and here under Chief Photographer W. L. Richardson a fine record was made. The students presently included not merely aerial but all naval photographers except those working in the Hydrographic Office or under the Office of Gunnery Exercises and Engineering Performance, and it was the graduates of this school who eventually formed the nucleus of Captain Pope's organization in World War II.

The school for instruction in the repair of aerial instruments was also kept open and a school for aviation ordnancemen was organized somewhat later. A course in aerology, supplementing the one at Anacostia, was squeezed in at Lakehurst, but Moffett was not so successful with a plan to establish a parachute school where training could be more thorough than was possible by using a handful of parachute experts scattered throughout the Fleet. Indeed, this lack of proper instructors for all the schools continued to be a major difficulty because the Navy's reduced personnel had not enough qualified men nor could it find inexperienced ones with backgrounds making them capable of being quickly converted into "experts" and then used to train others.

Since the act of 1926 had made no provision for additional personnel to meet the 1,000‑plane program, and since the whole Navy was short of officers, it is remarkable that Moffett succeeded in getting p265 p265 as many as he did, lending good color to the claim of the Bureau of Navigation that Naval Aviation, on a percentage basis, was doing very well indeed. This claim was emphasized by a comment in the 1928 report of the Secretary of the Navy drawing attention to the loss of general efficiency resulting from shortage of personnel and ascribing this shortage "in large part to the growing demands of the air Navy." It was a fact that the number of officers in aviation, representing less than 2 per cent of the whole in 1916, had grown by 1928 to 11 per cent. At the later date enlisted personnel numbered 11,000, indicating that it had doubled during the preceding five years while the Navy as a whole was losing 2,000 men. Nevertheless, although this might make Naval Aviation appear a sort of leech upon the whole body, figures based upon plane building indicated that it would need, within the next five years, 950 more pilots. It was in the effort to approach such figures that the Secretary of the Navy again urged an increase in the allowance of midshipmen, and this time he did secure legislation raising the number of appointments to the Naval Academy allowed each senator and each representative from three to four. His recommendation that the Navy's complement of officers, then 4 per cent of its enlisted strength, be raised to 6 per cent was not, however, equally successful and this meant that it would be illegal, by 1932, to give commissions to more than one half the graduating midshipmen. Many able young men would have to be discharged and so lost to the Navy.

Meantime, Moffett urged Congress to lower the percentage of enlisted pilots, fixed at 30 by the act of 1926, to 20. The higher percentage, he declared, had the effect of putting enlisted men in charge of air operations which should be carried on by officers whose background and experience made them better able to cope with an emergency. This was true, even though the course for enlisted men had been broadened to cover subjects in which, as a rule, they were not well grounded; and when the effort to reduce the percentage of pilots failed Moffett seized upon a suggestion made by Rear Adm. Richard Leigh, by this time Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. This was a proposal that the quality of enlisted men reporting for instruction at Pensacola would be improved if they had already passed through a screening at the Hampton Roads or San Diego station. Leigh, like Moffett, believed that any lowering of standards would mean more pilots but not better ones, and the result of their agreement was a ten‑hour elimination course at the p266 p266 stations named. Those who passed this course went to Pensacola, while those who failed took ten weeks of training at Great Lakes followed by six months of aviation training afloat and, if finally found qualified, went to Pensacola in their turn. This was helpful, but before long a board headed by Capt. (later Commodore) Byron McCandless would again recommend, instead, the acceptance of special enlistments for aviation duty only. To this Moffett demurred because he was convinced that to establish these would bring into the regular Navy a number of men who would not otherwise wish to enlist but whose interest in flying might well make them enroll in the Aviation Reserve.

This Reserve was always in the forefront of Moffett's mind, and to promote its efficiency he had arranged that 50 ensigns should be ordered to active duty beginning in July, 1927. As these young men had been flying the old N‑9, their discovery of the great difference in the newer planes was a strong indication of the need for bringing the training of reserves more up to date. Accordingly a "refresher course" was established at Pensacola, for reserve officers who could qualify, after taking it, as instructors of their fellows. In addition, more advanced courses lasting 60 days and including 100 hours of flying were established with the understanding that reserves who did well in these would become eligible for one year's active service with the Fleet. Still looking ahead, Moffett then got approval of a five-year program, to begin in 1930, which would eventually provide 12 reserve air bases and five additional training units. With these he hoped to produce 450 naval aviators and 1,100 enlisted men for the Navy, with about 200 officer pilots and 1,000 men for the Marine Corps. After review in ground school and other practical instruction at Squantum, Far Rockaway, Great Lakes, or Sand Point, the student fliers were given 18 hours of flight training, followed by eight months at Pensacola, during which they must spend 215 hours in the air and after which they were commissioned and sent to the Fleet. To administer the program and to serve as his adviser on problems of the Reserve, Moffett arranged for the recall to active duty of Lieut. (later Rear Adm.) I. M. McQuiston, a World War I pilot who had been a moving spirit in the establishment of the base at Squantum. Before reporting to Moffett on May 31, 1930, McQuiston, without pay and wholly at his own expense, spent six months with the Fleet to catch up with the latest developments. Encouraged by Moffett and his successors as Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, this patriotic p267 p267 reserve officer, through the following year, made an invaluable contribution toward building that reserve organization which was to play so mighty a part in the victories of the next war.

At Pensacola it became very difficult to meet the demands of an expanding program for both the regular Navy and the Reserve. Plans for handling two classes a year were changed to provide for four classes, but this resulted in the complication that two student groups might both be ready for flight training when only one squadron of planes was available for both. Moreover, the four classes laid an uneven burden upon instructors, who were overworked in one period, almost idle in the next; and this was overcome only by adopting a system under which 50 new students reported each month. Another improvement was an increase in the number of training squadrons from three to five, permitting two of these to handle elementary training while the other three gave instruction in large seaplanes, gunnery, and bombing; in spotting ships' gunfire; and in air combat tactics. As rapidly as possible commissioned pilots of the regular Navy were detailed as instructors to replace enlisted men or officers of the Reserve, and this had a good effect. Relations between instructors and students were improved, and training proceeded more smoothly.

By this time relatively little weight was placed upon training "observers." Originally it had been expected that this duty would be generally confined to older officers who might in other respects be eligible for administrative aviation commands, but Moffett considered it better for such officers to have had pilot training. Seeking older officers with "sufficient . . . experience to . . . administer commands, including aircraft carriers," he held that these should have had actual flying but only enough to enable them to see and understand what was being accomplished; and this, in his opinion, they should get from the 100 hours in the air required of them by existing law during their six months' course.

During this same period several efforts were made to provide technical training that would keep aviators up to date in that respect. The Chief of the Bureau of Navigation did not support Moffett in the view that new schools were necessary in design and maintenance, or in such elements of airship flying as fuel gases, refrigeration and water-ballast recovery, and the special care required in storing or transporting helium. Instead, it was Leigh's view that the courses in aeronautical engineering already being given at the Navy's postgraduate schools were sufficient to round p268 p268 out the Naval Academy curriculum but in the fall of 1927 Moffett did get authority to establish a three months' review course in motors and maintenance to which officers who had finished the ordinary postgraduate course could be sent. In operation for about a year, this school produced a few officers whose practical knowledge became of great assistance to Fleet air squadrons.

As it was daily becoming evident that aerology demanded more than the little time that could be given to it by the ordinary student with many other duties, a new plan was made for this. A few officers received special instruction in the science at Harvard or at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, supplementing this by one summer at the postgraduate school in Annapolis and a second summer in Washington at the Weather Bureau, the Hydrographic Office, the Naval Observatory, and the air station in Anacostia. Altogether some 24 officers completed these courses to become expert aerologists.

Since 1925 the various departments at the Naval Academy concerned with subjects in any way related to aviation had introduced one phase of it or another into their courses, with the assistance of five aviators of the regular Navy specifically assigned to that duty. Ground-school subjects were supplemented by flight instruction and one half of the academy class of 1926 got 11 hours of flying in World War I types, the H‑16 and the F‑5‑L, before graduation, while the other half got the same amount in the summer after graduation. Because this new training cut into the summer cruise or into time otherwise available for leave, many midshipmen thought that aviation was being thrust upon them and this created a poor general impression of that type of duty. At the same time, it was costing the Fleet half a squadron of fliers, sent to Annapolis in the season best suited to Fleet maneuvers; but this objection was overcome in 1929 by creating a special squadron permanently based at the academy to give instruction in spring and fall. The Bureau of Navigation, however, continued to look with a disapproving eye upon flight training for midshipmen, contending that they would get this training at the San Diego or Hampton Roads stations where they all had to go during their first year of sea duty. Their instruction at these stations was designed to give them all a general idea of what Naval Aviation was doing in the Fleet, but it was also planned to give experienced aviators a chance to detect and eliminate those unfitted for flying. On the whole, the tour appears to have had the effect of inspiring a good many to request p269 p269 assignment to Pensacola, but Moffett contended that their enthusiasm would fade if they were required to finish two years at sea before being given that assignment. Either send them to Pensacola as soon as they graduated, said he, or else let them get through the two years before taking to the air at all. After considerable effort he secured a brief trial of immediate assignment upon graduation, with the astonishing result that 238 members of the class graduating in 1930 volunteered for Pensacola and, among these, 186 were found qualified, a number doubling that drawn from the class graduating in 1926.

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