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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

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 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p36  Chapter IV

Pensacola and Vera Cruz

Who would head Naval Aeronautics? To the aviators and to the slowly increasing number of believers in aviation, that was the vital question. "At one moment," wrote Admiral Fiske in his memoirs, "I seriously entertained the idea of asking the Secretary to let me give up Aid for Operations and take it myself," an admission which should remove any lingering doubt of the importance which he attached to the air weapon. As it was, after studying many names, weighing many reputations and, in the end, finding it necessary to overcome his choice's reluctance, he picked Capt. Mark L. Bristol, an officer of recognized ability and strong character. The more distant future would further prove Bristol's worth when he served with distinction in flag rank and as High Commissioner of the United States to Turkey. Reporting on December 17, 1913, as relief for Captain Chambers, he brought to his new desk great energy and the name of a firm, decisive administrator. Almost at once his slogan became, "Take the Air Service to Sea!"

Before he could accomplish that there were the immediate administrative problems to be solved. Beyond his own rather general orders to the duty he had, as a guide, nothing more definite than some regulations from the Bureau of Navigation on tests for pilots and the still effective General Order No. 41, allocating "cognizance" among the various bureaus. In making his early decisions and recommendations, he was not greatly helped by contemporaries inclined to urge him not to become "an empire-builder with a top‑heavy organization." On the other hand Admiral Fiske was very helpful, for he made it clear that Chambers, still on active duty, would concern himself with scientific research and experiment, leaving to Bristol the coordination of "the work of the various Bureaus" in supplying necessary material, equipment, and personnel. While there were the usual predictions that a newcomer like Bristol would never mesh with old‑timers like Chambers and  p37 Towers, and that civilian engineers would side with one "faction" or the other, what friction there was may fairly be attributed to honest differences of opinion among strong-minded human beings. Even after January 7, 1914, when Bristol's so‑called "central office" was moved from the Bureau of Navigation to the Division of Operations, cooperation continued to be good. To a degree, it was helped because Fiske took the opportunity to press an earlier recommendation from the General Board and secure presidential approval of a change in the Navy Regulations which, on the following July 1, established the "Office of Aeronautics." Thus, although the authority of Bristol's office was still not clearly defined, and although he was not given the title of director until November, the existence of a new departmental activity was recognized.

By a most happy coincidence, at the moment when Bristol took over a new Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair was also appointed. His name, already recognized in the Navy, would thereafter never be forgotten by the Navy or by naval engineers and architects everywhere — Rear Adm. David W. Taylor. A firm believer in the importance of aviation, he was a strong supporter of the study of aerodynamics, notably by such experiments as can be made only in a wind tunnel. Among the earliest of his many helpful contributions to flying was his successful fight for that tunnel and for the aerodynamic laboratory; perhaps of even more immediate and vital significance was the fine spirit of cooperation in which, from the first hour, he approached all the problems that he and Bristol had in common.

Closely associated with them both was Lt. Comdr. Henry C. Mustin. A few passenger flights at Guantánamo in the winter of 1913 had kindled his enthusiasm and he was now a fully qualified and able pilot. As the man who had designed the gun sights that had made it possible for Admiral Sims to revolutionize United States naval gunnery, and as the man who talked intimately and wisely of 25,000‑yard battle ranges while his shipmates were fully occupied with getting gun pointers to hit at 1,600 yards, it was natural that aviation should offer him exactly the scientific and strategic study and work that best suited his abilities and his vision. Chosen by Bristol as a key man in the new organization he was, from the first, a strong advocate of the plane carrier as absolutely indispensable to success in commanding the air above a fleet. In the years to come he would be a prominent, outspokenly militant figure in aviation.

 p38  By the middle of January, 1914, Bristol had secured the assignment of the battleship Mississippi, already regarded as obsolete, as experimental vessel under Mustin's command with a berth at Pensacola, Florida. In that same month a start was made in erecting an air station on the site of the abandoned navy yard for the Navy's nine planes, with six qualified commissioned pilots, 23 enlisted men, some spares, a few stores, and a canvas hangar or two. Pensacola was not a very impressive place in those days, but after the beach had been cleared of old stumps and wreckage and after some old buildings had been adapted, the aviators began to feel at home and ready for work. It was typical of the obstacles apparently surrounding aviation on all sides that in April the Mississippi should be ordered out to join the Fleet and that the cruiser North Carolina, selected to replace her, should before many months be sent to Europe. Operation of Pensacola, when the files, the pay records, a plane or two, and even the enlisted cooks were all on a so‑called station ship thousands of miles away, was a task tough enough to baffle even the hard-bitten, aggressive Mustin.

Even so, there was progress. In the hope of getting more able planes Bristol, with the advice of Chambers, Mustin, and Towers, sent a circular letter out to all designers inviting their criticisms and suggestions for a competition to produce a successful type. The letter brought immediate response from many of those who received it and plans for such a competition were well underway when the "Vera Cruz Incident" necessity diverted all naval attention and postponed anything of the sort until about three years later when the nation was to find itself in a world war.

On the experimental side, Towers and the other pilots carried on tests of various types of propellers, of the Wright 6‑cylinder, 60‑horsepower motor; of the new Wright Incidence Indicator and "3‑in‑1" control; of the Renault motor for the Burgess flying boat; and of the new design for catapults. After some further experiences in attempting to detect mines from the air, Lt. S. W. Bogan of the Marines made the suggestion that planes might further mine laying by reconnaissance flights to determine the color of water over the proposed field. By signals to mine layers they could then suggest appropriate camouflage paint for the mines before they were laid. This idea stimulated Mustin to propose that the selected areas be artificially muddied in advance of mining. It also inspired plans for equipping dirigibles to grapple  p39 for mines, but as yet actual mine laying from the air was not contemplated.

Down off Culebra, Puerto Rico, Lieutenants Smith and McIlvain of the Marine Corps had been exercising as a unit, using the Navy's one other flying boat and an amphibian type developed by Curtiss, at Chambers' suggestion, and familiarly known as a "Bat Boat." Smith, keeping up out of rifle range and outside the limit of elevation for ships' guns, had gathered valuable data on spotting possibilities and on the ease with which a force attempting to land in small boats might be bombed from the air. The approaches to Vieques Island, its roads, trails, and contours were charted from the air, while planted mines, even under rough water, were detected and accurately plotted. In this work the flying boat proved much the better type because the amphibian would not lift two men easily and did not handle well on the water. Considerable practice led to the recommendation that a unit should consist of five pilots with two flying boats and one amphibian. If higher speeds were required one landplane should be added. Further recommendations proposed that a transport, then under construction at Philadelphia for the Marine Corps, be provided with a deckhouse in which one plane could be kept ready for instant use, and also provided with special cranes and a catapult.

Thus, although still without full recognition from their brother sailors, and still lacking the support of a Navy Department really committed to the new weapon, the handful of aviators worked tirelessly at anything that might add to their knowledge and experience. They studied everything that came along, including intelligence reports, now more and more filled with the situation in Mexico and with a Europe driving toward war. Some reports contained the wildest stories, such as that of the German Zeppelins which could "see through the clouds" to locate targets on the ground; a rumor eventually found to be based upon nothing more novel than the ancient device of putting a man in a basket and lowering him on a cable.

Curtiss, however, brought back from Europe some dependable information, skimmed from the boiling pot of rumor. As to motors, he reported that current interest was fixed on the Mercedes, with which the Germans had made two nonstop flights of over sixteen hours' duration; the new Gnome, which was much better than the old one; and the Salmson, a water-cooled type. In plane types the  p40 monoplane was a general favorite although the leading powers of Europe all differed slightly in their tastes as they did in the importance which they attached to aviation generally. Both Italy and Russia had appeared to like Curtiss designs but this was not of great significance because Italy was "making very little progress" and Russia was not yet really "air‑minded." In England an immediate problem was the replacement of her hydroaeroplanes, most of which had been smashed to pieces in recent encounters with the proverbially rough English Channel. It was obvious that hydroaeroplanes, especially with two pontoons rather than one, were a chief British interest but other advances were not being neglected. In the House of Commons Winston Churchill had declared that the new Short plane with folding wings would solve the problem of stowage aboard ship, while new British radio equipment had raised the range of communication with planes to 120 miles. That airships were not being neglected was clear from recent contracts made; one with Armstrong for a large rigid and two small non‑rigids; another with Italy for three nonrigids; and a third with France for an Astra-Torres. On the side of defense against aircraft, the British were putting deck armor on the great battleship Iron Duke as bomb protection and equipping her with a new three-inch antiaircraft gun. Britain was progressing, but in Curtiss' opinion it was in Germany that aviation was "on a broad, substantial basis" from which that country would soon move far ahead of all others in the science of flying.

International figures, assembled at this time by the Office of Naval Intelligence, were anything but favorable to the United States:

Planes Dirigibles
Built Building
Germany 500 20 5
France 500 18 8
Great Britain 250 7 8
Russia 500 3 7
Italy 150 8 5
Austria-Hungary 31 3 3
Belgium 27 2
Japan 10 1
Spain 11 2
U. S. 19 0

 p41  Fiske, always alert and progressive, immediately proposed buying planes from Europe. This, he insisted, would not only improve our position in mere numbers but also stimulate American manufacturers to build better planes in order to hold the government market. His proposal, supported by both Construction and Repair and Steam Engineering, resulted in the department's obtaining bids from such firms as Paul Schmitt, Nieuport, and Sopwith, and the ultimate ordering of two Salmson and two Mercedes motors, a few British instruments, and a Scheimflug aerial camera. Delivery under these contracts was effectually blocked by the war in Europe but meanwhile the attention of all hands was to be diverted to Mexico, toward which most of the Navy was soon steaming full speed across the Gulf.

In the Fleet that came to anchor off Vera Cruz was the Nebraska, and aboard her was John Rodgers, no longer on aviation duty but forever a flier at heart. To him the increasing imminence of hostilities with Victoriano Huerta suggested obvious uses for aeroplanes. In an official recommendation he declared that if Vera Cruz were to be bombarded it would be important "to place the shell with the greatest effect against the Mexican forces, with the least damage to non‑combatants and their property." To this end planes could locate enemy concentrations and spot the fall of broadsides. Moreover, planes "armed with bombs and machine guns, might force a retreat without the use of heavy artillery and consequent damage to the city." If the enemy finally took shelter in the hills from a bombardment, planes would be better than infantry scouts to locate him, and they might thereupon bomb him out. Another very important use of naval aircraft might be above the clear Gulf waters in detecting mines. That recent intelligence reports at Vera Cruz should cover all details of military interest except aviation appeared to Rodgers to be explainable because no one in the Navy could say what aeroplanes might accomplish in war, for the obvious reason that no naval pilot had ever been subjected to war conditions. Here and now, said Rodgers, was the great opportunity.

Apparently, he did not know how far the interest of Rear Admiral Badger, the Commander in Chief, had been drawn to aviation by the exercises at Guantánamo and by talks with Towers. This interest now supported Rodgers' letter and the result was most informative. When actual intervention came, in April of 1914, the Navy had a Curtiss hydroaeroplane and two Curtiss  p42 flying boats on the Birmingham, one hydroaeroplane and one flying boat aboard the Mississippi. The former, with Towers, Smith, Chevalier, and ten enlisted men went to Tampico; the latter, with Bellinger, Saufley, LaMont, Stolz, and a slightly larger enlisted group, went to Vera Cruz. Tampico was dull, with little to do except stand by to make a demonstration if German men-of‑war off the port tried any unfriendly move. At Vera Cruz, however, reconnaissance flights were frequent, with good results in gathering information valuable to subsequent landing parties. After actual hostilities opened, photographing from the air drew rifle fire and Bellinger's plane flew home with the Navy's first enemy bullet holes. This incident served to prove a belief already long held, that rifles would not bring a plane down unless they hit either the pilot himself, the fuel tank, or the motor.

Rear Admiral Badger spoke highly of the pilots' contribution but seized the occasion to note the shortcomings of the flying boat, inadequacies promptly emphasized by the pilots themselves. For work at sea they now favored the hydroaeroplane, particularly because in rough weather it took up two pilots where the flying boat would not lift even one. Moreover the boat, a slow climber, would not get high enough and would not make satisfactory speed. All this adverse comment resulted in at least temporary abandonment of the flying boat in favor of a hydromonoplane, preferably of "parasol" type, which was the pilots' favorite of the moment. While it could easily be stowed aboard ship, it sat high enough upon the water to lessen the danger of dipping a wing under. If its motor were "tractor" rather than "pusher" it would be safer for the pilot. On the whole, because of less weight and easier getaway, one pontoon was liked better than two.

There was little chance to progress along this more advanced line of thinking because no sooner were the aviators back from the all-too‑short Mexican experience than the beginning of war in Europe sent most of them overseas. The Mississippi was promptly sold to Greece, while her assigned relief at Pensacola, the North Carolina, was rushed to Europe without waiting to disembark her aviation personnel, including Mustin and several other pilots.

Towers, however, was left behind when she sailed. At Curtiss' request, he had gone to Hammondsport to help test the new flying boat America. Her hull was 35 feet long with a 6‑foot beam. Her upper wing had a 72‑foot span and a 10‑foot chord. Her cabin,  p43 with dual controls, instruments, and gas tanks, was fully enclosed, and it took two 200‑horsepower motors to get her off the water. She was a "monster" built by Curtiss at the suggestion of Lt. Cmdr. J. C. Porte, a noted British flier invalided out of the Royal Navy but ambitious to be the first to fly the Atlantic. He and Curtiss had persuaded Rodman Wanamaker to finance the attempt, and they hoped Towers would not only test the America but eventually fly with her. World War I, however, changed all that, Porte going home to volunteer for service and leaving the tests to Towers. Eventually the British Government bought the America and shipped her overseas, to become the forerunner of the H‑12, H‑16, and HS‑1, all types that were to give further service as antisubmarine patrols to both the United States Navy and the Royal Navy.

Other fliers left on this side of the Atlantic were Lieutenant Herbster of the Navy and B. L. Smith of the Marines, both of whom got in some bombing practice, generally at about 1,000 feet and while headed upwind. In those days the bombardier's left arm was strapped to the plane, permitting him to lean over the side and guide the pilot toward the target but finally requiring him to release the bomb with his right hand. Until the bomb was released its "wind-wheel" must be held and consequently, as Herbster, this bombing might have been more accurate, "if I had been able to disengage from the wheel sooner."

Even so, they scored near-misses. The first of four small bombs, dropped in the presence of a board of observers headed by Capt. E. E. Capehart, landed within 50 yards of a 6′ × 4′ land target of white mosquito netting and blew out a hole 30 inches across and 10 inches deep, with fragments scattering to 200 yards. The second bomb hit within 40 yards and dispersed to 300. Of the two others dropped, one in deep water, the other in shallows, neither was seen to explode. All the bombs "tumbled," straightened, then landed flat or at only a small angle, suggesting the use of longer types fitted with fins. Fragmentation must be increased and, for attacks on ships, contact fuses must be devised. Above all there must be better sights, better tables of flight, and better trajectory data. From these reports Captain Bristol made his plans for a Pensacola course in bombing, also recommending new designs for use against submarines, "a much larger bomb then . . . for the decks of ships," and a delayed-action fuse. As another logical result of this summer's work Towers was sent to London, Herbster to Berlin,  p44 and Smith to Paris, all as assistant naval attachés to study foreign aviation.

On August 6, four days after Europe burst into flames, the North Carolina had sailed for Europe on what Secretary Daniels had predicted would be a brief trip but which was to last 13 months. Her first visit being to France, Mustin had a few days among French planes and French designers, during which he found the hydroaeroplane in disfavor but was otherwise much impressed by French designs and technical niceties. Compared with a Morane-Saulnier, a Bleriot, or a Nieuport, the Curtiss seemed to him hopelessly inadequate. He liked the armor under the pilot which was becoming standard because German antiaircraft fire was steadily improving. Altogether, he found much in France that ought to be closely studied.

The North Carolina then cruised in the Mediterranean, with Mustin, Bellinger, Saufley, and other fliers still aboard. Also officially attached to the ship but actually left behind at Pensacola were Chevalier, McIlvain, and Bronson, all unable to draw their pay because their pay accounts were in Turkey. It took Rear Admiral Fiske until November to get the wanderers abroad ordered back and the homeless at home properly established, with the whole group regularly attached to Pensacola. Here the new commanding officer was Lieut. Kenneth Whiting, a welcome addition because he was the same daredevil Whiting who had been shot from the tube of a submerged submarine and who had taken part in every other dangerous naval enterprise he could reach. Aviation was just his dish and the early aviators must have wondered why he was so long in coming to it. Fleet Admiral Halsey, in his recently published autobiography,a supplied an explanation with an account of a dinner in 1910 at which Whiting and Ellyson were his guests. At the time the two young men were in rival submarines but Whiting announced that he had asked for aviation duty. Ellyson thought this such a good idea that he copied Whiting's letter and to the astonishment of both, and to Whiting's great chagrin, it was Ellyson who got the assignment. Whiting was left "holding the bag" in submarines.

Thayer's Note:

a Admiral Halsey's Story, p51.

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