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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

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 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p58  Chapter VI

The General Board Recommends

In February, 1916, Bristol recognized that his "signal number was up" — in landman's language, the highest authorities had had enough of him in Washington. Accordingly, he asked for orders to command the North Carolina, with additional duty as supervisor of all aircraft and aircraft stations and the further development of aeronautics. His purpose was what it always had been — to "take aviation to sea"; to give the Fleet what he, Chambers, Fiske, and all the aviators had so long urged: a real air arm. To his pleased astonishment, his request for the assignment was approved without demur.

Before leaving Washington on March 4 he wrote a final report which he could not make optimistic in tone. Listing 24 officers at Pensacola, he noted that but ten of these were qualified pilots, three other pilots being then on duty abroad as attachés and two more being assigned to inspection of aircraft construction. As was inevitable because of the Navy's general shortage, additions and replacements were coming very slowly, the eight officers who composed the class of July, 1915, having been followed by seven in October and two in January, with only one more in immediate prospect. Yet, even for this small group, available material was inadequate.

One free balloon had been delivered at Pensacola but the dirigible expected in the preceding fall had not yet been received. The airship shed, coming from Pittsburgh, was long overdue and the manufacturers of seaplanes were "meeting with a great deal of difficulty." On a contract made two years earlier the Wrights had yet to deliver one satisfactory plane and, while two "tractor" hydroaeroplanes by Martin had arrived, the two others being built by Curtiss had not. A dozen more, six each due from Sturtevant and from Burgess, might be expected "within a few days," but an experimental plane, by Gallaudet, was "delayed on account of  p59 . . . the motors." Not even the great and exceedingly helpful enthusiasm of Rear Adm. David W. Taylor had achieved the impossible in expediting deliveries or in cutting all the bureaucratic Gordian knot of tape. In comparison with Europe, the position of Naval Aviation was very low.

This also applied to administration, as Bristol saw it. He was about to be replaced in Washington by Clarence K. Bronson, a junior-grade lieutenant hardly likely to succeed in real coordination where captains had failed. Bronson would be subordinated in the Office of Naval Operations to Capt. Josiah S. McKean, long known as a frosty sailorman but not as one with the great interest in an air arm which would lead him to take up the cudgels for it. Indeed, it would not have astonished Bristol, could he then have read what McKean, some four years later, would give as his own view of aviation in 1916, when he took it over. "It did not," he would say, "belong legitimately to my part of the department, but Admiral Benson and the Secretary did not think we were getting the progress that was to be expected . . . in spite of my protest they said that I had to take that thing and dig it out to the foundations, and find out where we were going . . . and organize it; and as soon as I got it organized . . . and . . . people trained to take it over . . . they would take it off my hands."

These were hardly the words of an air enthusiast, but Bristol did not have to read them to foresee that Bronson would be little more than an office boy, not allowed even to touch "the handle of the big front door," much less polish it. As for himself, Bristol cannot have had much confidence that his own voice, raised from the bridge of a seagoing ship, would carry into the administrative offices in Washington. Still, he could try.

It was in this frame of mind that he left Washington to take over the North Carolina. Joining the Fleet off Guantánamo at the end of March, he had four planes aboard and for a week he drilled with them as he saw fit. Then began a series of the most important exercises yet attempted: exercises designed to "establish facts as a guide for future development of aeronautics in the Navy" without regard to "preconceived ideas." Planned to be well within the capabilities of the planes, these exercises included reconnaissance flights, sham attacks upon oil tanks, machine shops, and ships, shooting at kites, scouting, and tests of radio communications. Notwithstanding a disappointing amount of motor trouble, the planes flew nearly 4,000 miles, but the results obtained served  p60 chiefly to emphasize how much there was still to be known about preparation and cooperative planning for such drills.

Constructive lessons were learned from the "attack" upon the Petrel by Chevalier and A. C. Read. The ship's commander reported that the planes were "never within the arc of fire of the 3‑pounder and 1‑pounder guns of the ship, except at a distance far too great to fire these guns." He added that one plane had passed over his ship at an estimated height of 3,500 feet and he believed that "if this aeroplane had bombs, it could have destroyed the Petrel." Further, the exercises brought into strong relief the many inadequacies of plane equipment and the Fleet's general lack of proper understanding of what the planes were attempting to do. For example, successive launchings from a catapult could be planned, but since the first launching almost invariably damaged the "car" through the shock of stopping it, the other planes had to await repairs to the catapult. Planes could make flights that were called "reconnaissance," but since they carried no cameras to record what they observed the term was an exaggeration. Spotting flights could hardly be fully successful when the pilots had not been trained as spotters, much less if the ships failed to signal that they were about to begin shooting, and least of all when inadequate radio forced the planes to report on "ships" with a cumbersome triple-mirror heliograph. Orders to shoot down kites could be issued but could hardly be carried out by planes that carried no machine guns.

As a commentary upon these exercises Bristol a few weeks later forwarded a long report from Bellinger, which he described as the work of "an officer who has had long experience in naval flying and . . . the most experience . . . over the open sea." Weight must be given, said Bristol, to Bellinger's declaration that "water-aeroplanes have been more or less overrated . . . and there is [none] built at present which is . . . capable of operating . . . in a moderate sea." Similarly, importance must be attached to the contention that scouting, with the undependable instruments available, was a difficult task, especially when out of sight of the ships; an impossible task at anything approaching the proposed scouting distance of 200 miles. When Bellinger said that "planes now owned by the Navy are very poor excuses for whatever work may be assigned them," and added that catapults were no better, he was giving good reasons for his conviction that the Navy must know more exactly what types it wanted before it could expect manufacturers  p61 to spend time and money trying to build them. Although Bristol did remark that Bellinger had not laid enough stress upon the need for better motors, he might have found this need implied in Bellinger's insistence that the Navy should do its own experimental building, especially in the "tractor" type used for training. Altogether, there was much food for thought in that long and rather discouraging report from Bellinger, especially because he was a man generally inclined to be optimistic and unargumentative.

It appears that Bristol himself did not, at this time, favor Bellinger's plan for experimental building at Pensacola. He considered that station already overworked and his view was that all design should be by engineers rather than by aviators because "the general idea of any certain group in the Navy getting off in a corner," to carry on "without full cooperation from the rest of the service is bound to produce poorer results than if the talent of all hands is used." Following this line of reasoning, Bristol remarked that "no design, invention, or research work should . . . [take] up any time that ought to be devoted to training officers and men to handle aircraft." He held that elementary training would fully occupy Pensacola and that the North Carolina "should be devoted to training officer and men for the Fleet and the open‑sea work." If Pensacola and the ship could form a team with "each pulling the load given," real progress would be possible and modifications of design could be left to the Navy Department.

It is a fact that cooperation between Bristol and Mustin was not, at this moment, very close. Both were strong characters and neither was inclined to concede much ground to the other. At the end of May, 1916, this was recognized by Benson and orders were issued relieving Bristol of "supervision over all aircraft and aircraft stations and the further development of aeronautics in the Navy," leaving him responsible only for planes with the Fleet. He was, however, directed to comment on designs as they performed and also comment upon the efficiency of personnel sent to him. These comments could take the form of recommendations but they must be made to the Chief of Naval Operations. At the date of these new orders Bristol and Benson exchanged private letters. Benson deplored what he described as a lack of progress because designs were changed so fast that only "delays and disappointments" followed. He added that it had "finally been decided to try the experiment of putting aircraft in exactly the same category as other ships," with Bristol in charge of the "development of tactics  p62 and use of aircraft afloat" and "work at the Station" under Mustin. This reduction of his authority quite possibly affected what Bristol had to say on Bellinger's report.

That report was still going the rounds of the Navy Department when the General Board on June 24, 1916, issued the result of its latest three months' study of "the possible uses of aircraft . . . to enable the Department to undertake the orderly and systematic development of aeronautics in the Navy," a study supplementing the one made in the autumn of 1915. After declaring that not enough attention had been given to the strategical and tactical possibilities of the air arm, the board set forth several conclusions.

"Aeronautics," said the report, "does not offer a prospect of becoming the principal means of exercising compelling force against the enemy." To support this broad statement it cited the relatively small motive power and striking force of aircraft, considered as a part of the enormous expenditure of power in the destructive effort of a war. It therefore viewed planes as limited to scouting, patrolling, spotting, and controlling the shooting from ships, but held that they should "have some fighting capacity," because "at times, some of them must . . . support . . . the reconnoitering force." If the enemy were not in full command of the air, "it will frequently be possible for aircraft to utilize their very moderate lifting and transporting capacity by dropping explosives without prohibitive danger of counterattack from the surface."

Even in scouting, declared the board, estimated maximum ranges would undoubtedly be cut down in practice by surface haze, glare, and general weather conditions. In spotting, while planes might detect an enemy's change of course, his launching of torpedoes, or the presence of his submarines, the pilots' confusion in attempting to spot gunfire from all friendly ships would be very great. Moreover, having a spotter "outside the ship introduces . . . difficulties in the chain of command between the spotters and the gun, which . . . may . . . neutralize . . . the direct advantage of spotting from the aeroplane."

As to bombing, the board held that the Navy might well "omit the heavy weight carrying type . . . since inaccuracy in aiming forbids . . . valuable service against anything but large land-targets." When accurate bombing became possible, this would best be done "from dirigibles whose size will permit . . . a large supply  p63 of bombs." As to "combat hydroaeroplanes . . . using the Fleet as their base," these did not, in the board's opinion, "seem necessary at present." Then the board added a paragraph that makes strange reading thirty years after it was written: "It seems that the aviation service as attached to the Fleet will not be of as great importance to the Navy as . . . to the Army. There is no substantial reason apparent at the present time to yield to the clamor of extremists who assert the supremacy of aeronautics as a naval arm. On the contrary the aviation service with the fleet seems likely to be confined to a subordinate role."

Nevertheless, the board by no means advocated neglect of aviation. It proposed that three small nonrigid dirigibles for coast patrol be bought at once, with one rigid and one semirigid, each of 11,000‑cubic‑foot capacity, for experimental work. It also suggested, as the make‑up of a standard air division, two planes, four officers, four petty officers, and four seamen; one division to be assigned to each battleship, two divisions to each scouting ship. For patrol of coastal areas the standard hydroaeroplane division recommended was one composed of three 7,500‑pound planes, with eight officers, eight petty officers, and such mechanics and helpers as proved necessary. One such division was proposed for each naval district, not including those on the Great Lakes but particularly including the Canal Zone. The board was opposed to any plan for a "separate Air Force," and insisted that all commissioned pilots should be officers of the regular Navy, fully trained in seagoing duties. No pilot should continue to fly after he became 30 years old.

The board had not reached these conclusions without hearing many witnesses, the most outspoken of whom was Commander Mustin. He did urge that the Navy be given a separate flying corps similar to the Marine Corps, although there are those who say that his vehemence on this point was designed less to carry the point than to promote discussion of the whole problem of Naval Aviation. He also — with clear farsightedness — urged the immediate building of carriers, another point that he did not carry with the board. Proposing that dirigibles be abandoned as not worth the time and money, he declared that the Navy was wrong in trying to find one type of plane that would do everything. Instead, he wanted at least three types built, each for its especial purpose and, in design, representing what ship design represented, the best practicable compromise between the fundamental requirements of speed, armor, and fire power. One type should be a fast, low‑flying  p64 torpedo carrier; another should be for spotting and scouting; the third, also fast but very easily handled, should be fully armed to defend not only itself but also the other two while they were carrying out their missions. Certainly it was in part because of Mustin's recommendations in March that the board, without waiting to make its full report, advocated spending as much as $5,000,000 on aviation during the next three years, specifically for purposes which it summed up as follows: to encourage invention and scientific progress; to equip ships and bases with planes; to launch an experimental Zeppelin program.

The board also continued studying all available information on the bombing then being carried on in Europe. The weight of bombs carried, the speed of bombing planes or dirigibles, the visibility of targets and the hits or near-misses scored; all these had come under exhaustive review to produce further recommendations in August for what was described as "active" and "passive" defense of naval shore establishments. Active measures included the use of antiaircraft guns, searchlights, devices for accurate fire control, and, particularly, planes to attack approaching bombers. Passive measures included isolation of facilities; underground shelters and storage with duplication of vital stores at a distance from main warehouses; camouflage of all kinds; and such other measures as the flooding of dry docks when they were not in use.

Essentially these recommendations, destined to be as sound in 1941 as they were when made in 1916, were based on three assumptions: the enemy would take attack risks commensurate with the possible resultant gains; local defense could not be perfection itself but must be related to naval defense as a whole; no system of defense should be more costly than the value of its effect.

Considering "active" defense, the new 3‑inch, 50‑caliber gun, designed to reach an altitude of 24,000 feet, and the 4‑inch, 50‑caliber, designed for 41,000 feet, in theory covered the limit of visibility for antiaircraft use. In practice against such small targets, moving so fast, it appeared essential that these guns be grouped in batteries but even then they would not be fully effective at night or in thick weather. Therefore enemy bombers at 6,000 to 10,000 feet would, in the opinion of the board, often be immune to anything except the one truly effective defense, fighter planes.

Fundamentally, declared the board, the defense of the Navy's 74 bases on shore was the Army's problem. It was merely reiterating  p65 a fundamental division of duties between the Army and the Navy when it recommended small naval defense units of two combat planes and two seaplanes for each naval district, trained to cooperate with presumably much larger Army defense units. While the war that now appeared imminent might not bring air attacks upon the Atlantic coast the board was providing against these in a way consistent with the defense obligations laid upon each Service, including those at the Canal Zone, where in the board's opinion two seaplanes with trained personnel should be ready to work with the Army.

Some effort to carry the General Board's recommendations into effect was very shortly made. The Secretary of the Navy's order issued in August, 1916, if it did not please the aviators, at least clarified the administration of aviation. It directed that the Office of Naval Operations consider all recommendations by the General Board and then distribute the measures to be taken among the various bureaus. It held the repair work by aviators in the field down to minor repairs, prohibiting them from making alterations to planes without going through all the bureau channels. On the whole, in thus decentralizing rather than centralizing, at a moment when aviation needed strong pushing, it appears to have retarded rather than expedited the accomplishment of the board's real purpose. The order did, however, recognize that aviation must be a definite part of the Navy's program of preparing for war and this could be taken as a sign that aviation was "coming of age" in the Navy. This was the view of those who recognized a case of too many cooks but were less outspoken about it than Rear Admiral Fiske, who would insist, to the day of his death, that he "lost flesh . . . in fruitless exasperation" because "if . . . the Division of Aeronautics had not been actually abolished, we could have started flotillas of bombing-machines and torpedo planes across the ocean on April 7, 1917."

The admiral's view was, of course, exactly opposed to that of Captain McKean, who had been busily "digging into the foundations" and who would later say of his own policy in the autumn of 1916 that the "aircraft was simply another type of naval craft. If we needed them at all, we needed them to make a part of a team . . . as we needed . . . destroyers . . . scouts . . . cruisers or battleships; or, if they were such a peculiar animal that they could not take their place in the fleet as a ship, and be associated with the rest of the unit and as a part of the team, they  p66 did not belong in the Navy; they were foreign matter." While this could hardly be called enthusiasm, McKean's reorganization did have some valuable features, such as better regulation of the inspection of materials and of construction. It had been the practice to send inspectors, somewhat at random, to plants from which they made their reports directly to Bristol, thus confusing the question of cognizance. Under McKean's plan every inspector received formal orders to report for duty under the officer specifically designated by the Navy Department as inspector of machinery for the particular plant. This tended to keep correspondence in official channels and thus diminish, if not entirely eliminate, letters between manufacturers and individual aviators.

Methods of testing planes were similarly modified. Previously, these tests had been made by boards of three aviators, who flew the planes and then submitted reports upon design, construction, and performance to the Chief of Naval Operations. Final acceptance or refusal, while actually made in writing by bureaus to which these reports were referred, generally represented merely formal ratifications of board findings. With mass production of planes in prospect, qualified aviators obviously could not spare the time for such tests, and the new plan provided for agreements with contractors under which they hired civilian pilots to make all preliminary tests. After these had been completed a final flight would be made, with a naval pilot either at the controls or riding as an observer.

Under another department order issued at this time, Pensacola was reorganized to conform more nearly to the pattern of the navy yards. Mustin himself, as commandant, had proposed several changes, among them the assignment of "an experienced Naval Constructor," by which term he meant to imply that he wanted Hunsaker; a faint hope indeed because Rear Admiral Taylor had just had Hunsaker recalled from Cambridge to head the new "Aircraft Division" of the Bureau of Construction and Repair. Other things that Mustin wanted were better tools and equipment for making repairs, greater facilities for experimental construction, and a wind tunnel. The Secretary's order went part way with him, establishing at Pensacola a manufacturing department and an experimental department. It was specified that these should be headed by officers who were qualified pilots but it was not specified that the commandant to whom they were responsible should also be an aviator. In the order of importance, the tasks and missions of  p67 the station were outlined as follows: (1) training of personnel, commissioned and enlisted, for aeronautic service with the Fleet; (2) repair and maintenance of school aircraft; (3) testing of new aircraft, new instruments, guns, bombs, and other devices connected with aircraft; (4) experimental work, consisting primarily of remodeling the design of existing machines to adapt them better for naval use, and development of new types of aircraft, motors, instruments, devices, and the like; (5) construction of new types of aircraft and motors; (6) collection of data on design, purchases, etc., of aircraft which are based on actual experience and making suggestions and recommendations of lines of investigation for the bureaus concerned which might lead to improvements in types of aircraft motors, etc.

It was sound policy to put training of personnel at the head of the list because the importance of this factor needed recognition. Actually, it had come nearly to a stop at Pensacola except on the lighter-than‑air side, where McCrary and Maxfield were making considerable progress in instructing with the free balloon. Their pupils came along well, even though they had not had what Hunsaker had recommended for them, the advantage of previous instruction under Von Parseval, the German balloon expert. The same progress could not be made with the station's kite balloon because only a few days after it had at last been received and moored above the station it was torn adrift in a sharp gale and so badly damaged that it needed many months of repairs.

Lack of training naturally delayed the carrying out of all Pensacola's other assigned tasks; indeed, it emphasized the many material lacks for which aviation was suffering. There must be planes to fly and there must be men who knew how to fly them. Moreover, beneath the swelling black shadow of approaching war could be discerned other grim facts that lent weight to demands for complete plans to standardize not only personnel but also design, production, inspection, and testing, chief among these facts being several fatal accidents during the years 1915 and 1916.

The investigation of Lt. (jg) M. L. Stolz's crash on May 8, 1915, had indicated that he had been killed through having his head thrown back upon the motor. When Lieutenants Saufley and Rockwell, on June 9, 1916, were killed in planes which, like that of Stolz, were of the "pusher" type, the circumstances of these three tragedies led to strong recommendations that "pushers" be abandoned for the safer "tractor" type. Captain Bristol supported  p68 this view although he did remark that such a decision would suggest to the world "that we are arranging our machines to provide for hitting the water" instead of for staying in the air. If he had added that the change of type would have the effect of leaving the United States, at this critical moment, with only four planes in commission, none of them suitable for training purposes, he would have presented the strongest possible reason for speeding up the whole program for aviation. By the following April one would have no need to be a flier to appreciate most of the reasons for haste, but even the pilots would hardly recognize the picture of Naval Aviation as it would then be. To all intents and purposes there would appear, on a fresh canvas, a new sketch, followed by a clearer drawing and a painting in brighter colors.

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