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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

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 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p69  Chapter VII

Effects of the War in Europe

Throughout 1916 inventors were busily trying out new ideas in flying, the most significant of these being the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Aeroplane. Equipped with the gyroscopic stabilizer, a new steering gear called a Servomotor to control rudders and ailerons, and another special device to cut off the motors after any desired run, the plane had startling possibilities. Launched from a catapult or sent up from the surface of the sea, it could climb to a predetermined height, level off, and take up a prescribed course. After covering the distance for which it had been set, it could drop bombs or, if adjusted to do so, dive back to earth. While it remained in the air, however, its course could not be changed, and for this reason any inaccuracy of its compass, combined with any miscalculation of the force or direction of the wind, made it liable to serious error. Nevertheless, this was another important step along the road leading toward the accurate robot pilot used today.

Lieut. Theodore S. Wilkinson, one of the Navy's most brilliant young mathematicians and destined to become one of its prominent flag officers, made several flights beside Lawrence Sperry, with the plane kept under its automatic control until it was ready to come down. Wilkinson reported the control to be "adequate and excellent" and suggested that the Hammond wireless, already tested with underwater torpedoes, might be adapted for use when the plane was sent up with no one aboard it. Outweighing the value of the plane, however, stood its cost, the complications of transporting it and of launching it, its lack of any "homing" device, and its lack of complete accuracy in flight. Without such accuracy it might serve against a large land target but not against anything relatively so small as a ship. Although it was the most spectacular of several efforts to break the trail toward today's guided missiles, it necessarily remained through the years immediately ahead not much more than an object for further study.

 p70  Meanwhile Curtiss was working on modifications to enable his planes to carry an additional 250 pounds, an increase to be represented by machine guns and ammunition; an effort aimed at producing what the General Board, on the recommendation of Towers and Mustin, was now advocating: the high-speed fighter. Other designers were trying to improve the catapult by eliminating those complicated rails and tackles, so necessary in getting planes into launching position but so obstructive to a ship's guns and turret. Such efforts were getting rather less encouragement from the Navy Department than they had received when aviation was under Captain Chambers. The interest of both Bristol and McKean was more administrative than scientific.

Captain Chambers himself sought to keep in touch with the experimenters but the truth was that his position was becoming more and more anomalous. Still in the office of aviation, he was no longer really of it, and with the Navy Department paying so little attention to him it was only natural that designers and manufacturers both came to consider him less and less. Indeed, he became so obscure that the Navy Department wrote him a letter in November, 1916, asking what he was doing, and thus learned that he was at Cohoes, New York, studying a new design for a helicopter. This design proved to be novel in many respects and Captain McKean did express interest in it, but its weight was too great, its motors too complex, and its controls in flight too complicated. Moreover, said McKean, "none has succeeded in solving the problem of safe descent in case of engine failure." Captain Chambers might do better than to return to Washington and work on the "aerial navigator" which had long occupied him. One advantage to be gained in Washington would be that of talking with the man whom Rear Admiral Taylor had just secured to head his bureau's research into planes, instruments, and especially, wind-tunnel experiments — the very civilian expert who had done so much with Curtiss, Dr. A. H. Zahm.

The lifting capacity of planes came up again for study by the Bureau of Ordnance during efforts to equal if not improve upon what was understood to be the practice abroad in carrying torpedoes. When Construction and Repair fixed the carrying limit at two torpedoes of 300 pounds each, this fell far short of the Ordnance plan for supplying torpedoes of 1,000 pounds; the smaller one, even if it scored a direct hit, could not be expected  p71 to damage a capital ship very seriously. It followed that although designs for the carrying and the releasing devices were made at this time, their completion meant little more than that the aviation mill had begun to grind steadily upon whatever grist might be destined to come out of it. This was at least slightly encouraging to Rear Admiral Fiske, who constantly urged that only an improved weapon would furnish the United States with the means to attack and defeat decisively the experienced, seasoned German Fleet.

Here he was again rather at odds with the General Board. The board held that masses of material and personnel must be assembled at a given point in order to exert maximum force — masses of which aircraft could form little part. Fiske, on the other hand, while readily admitting that the enemy must be hit hard, insisted that aircraft, with the prime requisites of power and mobility, could hit hard and do it in the spot where the blow was least expected. "Is there," he asked, "no device by means of which large units of power can be carried, which is not subject to the limitations of speed and size that restrict a land battle­ship" — by which he meant a tank — "to small dimensions? Yes . . . it is called the battleplane." Should not its possibilities, "not only as a scout and accessory, but also as a major instrument of warfare," be immediately investigated? So vociferous in public did the admiral become upon these points that the Secretary of the Navy twice thought it proper to "slip a gag into his mouth," but notwithstanding that action Fiske continued to insist that planes and pilots could be produced in six months, while an adequate battle fleet would need years, to build it, to train its men, and to bring it to fighting pitch.

Supporting much of what Fiske said was Towers, who had returned from Europe in October with information and opinions of importance to the General Board in shaping its further recommendations. He reported that the British looked upon aeronautics as an important branch: "they do not consider they could get along without it and they are extending the use of it more and more." They had, he said, taken very young lads who had never done anything, trained them, and made fairly good officers out of them. The result was astonishing. On the material side, he described the British as realistic in classifying their plane as expendable from the moment of issue, and in making appropriate provision for replacements.

 p72  In dirigibles, the British had finally adopted the Zeppelin type, having become converted when these German craft, navigated by radio bearing, made attacks through snowstorms and rode out heavy gales. "A zeppelin," commented Towers, "can do the work of a light cruiser." It had higher speed, better vision, was less apt to be caught and could do many things much better. He held that the Zeppelin, because of its longer cruising radius, would be for years to come the best type for scouting.

Continuing, he spoke of British progress in photographic reconnaissance as "the most wonder­ful thing." Photographs taken at 14,000 feet had clearly shown the turrets on battle­ships and even brought out the chipped edges of concrete docks and piers. In tracking enemy shipping and submarines such photographs had been amazingly helpful. Further, he described the British as having "very radical ideas," the latest school advocating a small land machine on each capital ship to be sent up in battle and make a landing alongside a destroyer in the rear. Service of this sort, in battle, was considered as of sufficient value to justify the possible loss of both the plane and its pilot, and to provide that service the British were building planes that could fly for four hours at a speed of 95 mph equipped with radio good for 50 miles. Among these was the new Sopwith, able to climb 10,000 feet in about 12 minutes and good for a speed of 125 mph — altogether a much better performer than any contemporary French, Italian or German model.

As for carriers, Towers had found these to be, for the moment at least, not in great favor. If the United States were not to build them, he would agree, under protest, with the board's proposal to put two seaplanes on each battle­ship, four seaplanes on each cruiser, but he tried to convince the board that small, fast landplanes would be better for both types of ships. In this he assumed that the United States would improve its designs, and he recommended building a motor as good as the British "rotary motors with very blunt noses" and the Rolls-Royce, which he described as "splendid" by contrast with the Curtiss type used on this side of the Atlantic. Only fast planes could escape antiaircraft guns because, while the Royal Navy had made the 3‑inch gun standard aboard ship, better and heavier guns were coming. German guns of the moment were shooting both shrapnel and explosive shell up to 18,000 feet and yet the Royal Navy's planes were success­fully patrolling over the western front and actually making bombing raids into Belgium. Surely,  p73 insisted Towers, there lay in these fact a clear lesson for a nation likely to be drawn into the war.

Confirming Towers, Mustin also urged the use of landplanes, especially because, since they were not hampered by pontoons, their performance in the air was so much better. He considered an allowance of two planes to a ship to be meager and held that every available space should be used to carry more. While he and Towers appear to have represented the minority opinion among the aviators, they stuck to their guns and their arguments had at least some effect when the board, in November, 1916, brought out another of its reports. It would not go so far as to propose the use of landplanes but it did call for one type of small seaplane, weighing only about 1250 instead of 4000 pounds, this type to be complemented by scouting planes and patrol planes reduced from 7,000 to 5,000 pounds. A marked increase in numbers was stipulated, the new total to be 564 service planes, supported by such training planes as might prove necessary, with 19 kite balloons, 20 nonrigid dirigibles, and one experimental Zeppelin. In tabular form the proposed allocation was as follows:

seaplanes landplanes kites nonrigids rigids
For the present fleet
2 seaplanes for each of 12 BBs 24
4 seaplanes for each of 9 armored cruisers 36
4 seaplanes for each of 32 merchant "C" fleet scouts 128
For ships authorized or building
2 seaplanes for each of 15 BBs 30
4 seaplanes for each of 6 battle cruisers 24
4 seaplanes for each of 10 scouts 40
For land services
For the Advance Base Force 4 2 2
 p74  For coastal patrol
7 seaplanes, 1 nonrigid per naval district (ex. Great Lakes) and outlying possessions 112 16
For defense of naval stations, 13 units 26 26 13
Experimental 1
School machines as required
Totals 424 28 15 16 1
25% reserve 105 [sic] 7 4 4 0
Grand Totals​* 529 35 19 20 1

* Divided between 352 small seaplanes, 177 large seaplanes.

This was a long-range program for building up a real air arm and its issue at this time served to prepare the department and the Navy generally, in some measure, for the relatively enormous expansion which was nearer than many then realized.

Since even the additional aircraft contemplated in the program would obviously have to be supported from shore bases, the selection and preparation of these assumed importance, and to make these choices of sites the Secretary of the Navy by authority of the Naval Appropriations Act of August 29, 1916, appointed a special board, headed by Rear Adm. James M. Helm. In laying down the policy to guide this board Captain McKean was careful to say that "there is not enough experience . . . in the world for me to recommend what should comprise an aviation base," but he did suggest there should be "at least one station on the Atlantic and one on the Pacific." Captain Bristol, going much further, asked for bases on both Chesapeake and Narragansett Bays, as well as for fuel and supply stations at Jupiter Inlet, Key West, Guantánamo, Samana Bay, San Juan, the mouth of the Columbia River, San Francisco, San Diego, both ends of the Panama Canal, Hawaii, Guam, and Corregidor. To these, he said, might well be added others at Magdalena Bay, the Galápagos Islands, the Gulf of Guayaquil, and the Gulf of Fonseca. Out of this list the Helm Board did not, however, definitely select any one place. Instead, after declaring that aircraft and submarines might well be maintained and supported  p75 from common bases, the board held that choice of exact locations ought to be made jointly by the Army and the Navy, thus ensuring the satisfaction of both services. The only definite recommendation in the report submitted early in December, 1916, was for the spending of $100,000 to make Pensacola a really efficient base for submarines and destroyers.

While the Helm Board was still sitting another board had been brought together, as the result of a suggestion made on October 11 by the Acting Secretary of War. He had proposed that he and the Secretary of the Navy nominate officers to consider methods of organizing a lighter-than‑air service, with a view to securing cooperation between the Army and Navy in the development of airships and fixing their respective responsibility. The suggestion was agreed to and the General Board, at the request of the Secretary of the Navy, named as members Capts. Hugh Rodman and Josiah S. McKean, with Lieutenant Towers as the one aviation expert among the three. They sat with Lt. Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.G. O. Squier of the Signal Corps, Maj. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.S. D. Embick of the Coast Artillery, and Maj. D. T. Moore of the Field Artillery; curiously enough sitting without formal precept and without any identifying designation. The Chief of Naval Operations spoke of them as the "Joint Board, Army and Navy, re Division of Aeronautic Cognizance," a cumbersome expression which eventually would be shortened to Joint Army and Navy Board on Aeronautic Cognizance. It should be understood that this group was a different one from the already existing Joint Army and Navy Board, which brought together high-ranking representatives of both Services to study questions of national strategy.

The new "Cognizance Board" disposed of the lighter-than‑air question by recommending that it be handled by men who most thoroughly understood it. This was to be accomplished by the appointment of three officers from each Service, all technical experts, under the direction of the Chief Constructor of the Navy, to supervise the building of a Zeppelin. Experience gained from experiments would then lead to appropriate planning for the future, in which the board believed airships "would prove a valuable asset." This recommendation was made promptly but not before this same board found itself confronted with other aeronautics problems passed on to it largely because it existed and was in session.

The new questions involved all types of aircraft and their assignment  p76 to the Services. Which should be responsible for what, and where should lines of demarcation be drawn between areas of responsibility? It immediately became clear that in the event of war the two Services would be operating together, with precedence sometimes going to the Navy, sometimes to the Army. Lines of demarcation should therefore approximate the coastlines and the division of responsibility could be made only in general terms. As finally accepted, these divisions were:

(a) aircraft operating in conjunction with the mobile army;
(b) aircraft required for fire control for coast defenses;
(c) aircraft required for the defense of fortifications, navy yards, arsenals, cities, and shipbuilding plants, powder works, or other similar important utilities, whether public or private, that are located on shore.
(a) aircraft operating in conjunction with fleets;
(b) aircraft operating from shore bases for overseas scouting;
(c) aircraft operating under the commandants of naval districts and advanced bases.

These broad definitions differed little from the original view of the Chief of Naval Operations that the Navy should be responsible for aviation with the Fleet, for overseas scouting by dirigibles and patrol planes, and for antiaircraft defense of naval establishments ashore; the Army for all air operations with troops, for air spotting of coast defense gunfire, and for antiaircraft defense of fortifications.

The board also dwelt upon the vital need for coordinating the two air arms. "A war with a first class power," it wrote, "will find the two services constantly operating together"; adding that "the coastlines and the water areas adjacent thereto will become a theater of joint operations." Because of these recommendations and others it made as time passed, the "Cognizance Board" lived on until the authorities realized that it should be properly authorized and constituted. On June 24, 1919, it was redesignated the Joint Army and Navy Board on Aeronautics and from December 29, 1919, until its demise in 1948 it was known as the Aeronautical Board.

The value of such a group was so obvious that without waiting for this study of inter-service policy, which did not appear until  p77 March 12, 1917, Benson, through the Secretary of the Navy, in February referred to it the old question of selecting bases. Fearing long delay and perhaps an ultimate decision no more definite than that of the Helm Board, he proposed a list of bases which he considered should be immediately established, naming the vicinities of Massachusetts Bay, Newport, New York, Cape May, Hampton Roads, Key West, Galveston, and the Panama Canal. Asked by the Secretary of the Navy to expedite its comment on this list, the Cognizance Board was only two days in approving it, with the substitution of Frenchmen's Bay, Maine, for Galveston and the addition, for the Pacific coast, of San Francisco, Puget Sound, San Diego, and Hawaii. As to specific sites in these vicinities, however, the board held that because the bases should be for joint occupation by detachments and equipment from both Services, selection ought to be made for each seacoast, by groups made up of expert representatives of the Services.

Officers were quickly appointed to pick the actual sites. The Atlantic Coast Panel, headed by Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Haan, USA, included, as its naval members, Captain Cunningham, USMC, with Lieut. E. F. Johnson, USN, for the First and Second Naval Districts; Towers for the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Districts; Bellinger for the Seventh and Eighth. From the Navy's standpoint elements of importance were the estimated cruising radius of a dirigible and a seaplane, and these elements naturally suggested bases close to the ocean that must be covered, whereas the Army, speaking generally, required bases near the large cities it was expected to defend. Otherwise, all bases must be good sized, for fields and buildings, and in reasonable proximity to public utilities.

As a result of the studies made by the East Coast Panel ten sites were selected. Squantum, Massachusetts, was named as an army base, with provision for some use by the Navy if necessary, while Provincetown was designated as the Navy's, with similar occasional use by the Army. Montauk, Cape May, Hampton Roads, Savannah, Key West, Galveston, and Coco Solo were to be solely for the Navy, while Rockaway Beach was the one site chosen as "joint" from the outset. Eventually Chatham replaced Provincetown and Savannah was abandoned as unsuitable for the purpose.

The West Coast Panel, on which Captain Cunningham again represented the Navy, chose Ediz Hook on Puget Sound and Tongue Point near Astoria, Oregon, as combined air and submarine bases, with San Diego as another major air base. For operating  p78 bases the panel selected Morro, Monterey, San Francisco, Humboldt Bay, Coos Bay, Grays Harbor, Port Townshend, Bellingham Bay, and Lake Ozette.

All these discussions were precipitated and stimulated by current events. The visits to the United States of the German submarines Deutschland and U‑53, during which the latter was able to sink five Allied merchantmen, sharpened the points at issue. As diplomatic relations with Germany hourly became worse, the lack of properly prepared bases became more and more a matter of significance. Within two weeks of the receipt of reports from the coastal panels the Navy Department began drawing plans for 11 bases, the sites chosen being in conformity with the recommendations made. The plans called for an average expenditure of about $300,000 on each base but an additional $1,000,000 was proposed for an experimental air station on the disused grounds of the Jamestown Exposition, together with a further $750,000 for a training school at North Island, California, and the same amount for adding to the air facilities at Pearl Harbor. At the moment of making these plans and estimates a total of 11 bases loomed large, but by comparison with what lay only a few months ahead the number seems very small. Actual construction brought into being by World War I included 11 training establishments, 12 patrol stations and 13 refueling stations on the Atlantic coast; an assembly and repair base in Pauillac and 14 operating bases in France; six bases in the British Isles, three in Italy, and one in the Azores; one special bomber base in England and six similar ones in France; a total of 68 in all. What it had first been planned to spend was a trifle when compared with the $30,000,000 soon to go into this construction — a prodigious sum when considered in terms of the number of officers and men who were on duty in Naval Aviation at the end of 1916.

At that time the commissioned personnel numbered 59, of whom 26 were naval aviators and 30 were students, the other three being Naval Constructors Richardson, Westervelt, and Hunsaker. Of enlisted men there were 93 with the rating of airman, 125 students, with 233 mechanics and nonfliers, bringing the total to 431. There were not enough instructors for those in training, but Commander McCrary's recommendation that civilians be hired for these posts was not followed, both because the Bureau of Navigation did not look favorably upon the plan and because such experts were extremely hard to find. Thus, although the schools at Pensacola were equipped to handle two classes a year, each with 64 officers and the  p79 same number of mechanics, such an enrollment was difficult to handle without sufficient instructors, and no appreciable increase in aviation personnel occurred before the outbreak of the war.

In a group so shorthanded it could not be expected that morale would be very high. McCrary reported that "there is a great deal of discontent and uncertainty among officers and men and something will have to be done soon or wholesale applications for detachment may come in." He spoke of a number of men "who cannot draw pay for the reason that the 96‑list is full," by which he referred to the number fixed by law as eligible for extra money. As a means of lifting morale he proposed a scouting trip of five planes from Pensacola to New Orleans; a flight eventually made, after some month's delay, through the help of Towers in Washington.

Efforts of this sort, added to natural desires to "get into it somewhere," brought in many of the newly authorized 200 enlistments. Enrolling as landsmen for training, the men went to Pensacola where they were immediately examined for rating as machinist mate, second class, or quartermaster, second class. Those who failed were given three months' training and a re‑examination, the special incentive being the provision that the top men in each class would get flight pay after six months' service and, at the end of a year, be examined for first class ratings. This had the effect of expanding Pensacola to capacity and putting it on a double shift, but this difficult situation was slightly relieved when Towers arranged with the Goodyear Company for pilot training in balloons at the Akron plant. A morale-raising move made at this time by the Navy Department was the issue of proposals for distinctive uniforms for fliers, with special insignia.

So stood Naval Aviation when on December 12, 1916, Captain Bristol was finally detached from it, to continue a very distinguished career elsewhere in the Navy. His post, without his formal designation as Commander of the Air Service, went to Capt. (shortly Rear Adm.) Albert Gleaves, previously commanding the Atlantic Destroyer Force from the cruiser Seattle. Handing over the responsibilities, Bristol, realistic in the outline he gave his relief, was bluntly so in his conclusion:

Don't get any idea that I have any pessimistic view of airplanes for Naval use. I believe in them. They are essential to our fleet just as much as all other types of war vessels we have or are providing. It is only that I give you the clear unadulterated facts so that you can  p80 tackle the problem as it is with no fictitious or romantic version of the situation. There has been an erroneous campaign of education going on throughout the world regarding aircraft. This war has been a Godsend for this education. The facts brought out by the use of aircraft in this war are befogged by romance, newspaper known exaggerations, the advertising of airplane manufacturers for pecuniary benefit, and the one‑sided reports of operators, all colored for military reasons. It has taken, and will take, close study and careful investigation to separate the facts from fiction.

Whatever Rear Admiral Graves might expect, it could certainly be no immediate centralization of authority in himself. The Chief of Naval Operations was determined to keep aviation inside the traditional bureau organization. Until he found he could not fight a war that way he did so.

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