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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 22

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The First Yale Unit

Ralph D. Paine

printed at
The Riverside Press
Cambridge (Mass.)

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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

Vol. I
Chapter XXIII

A Test Pilot in Ordnance

When Albert Ditman arrived in Washington and reported to Lieutenant Commander Stone, he found that this particular department had not been long organized. It had a staff of four officers each of whom was an expert in some on specialty of ordnance. The purpose was to investigate and develop the various types of armament which were tried and suggested for aeroplanes. It was Ditman's duty to have planes ready for testing these various inventions, to attach and test them out, and to submit detailed reports of the success or failure of the same. It was work which could not be called monotonous, because every new gadget was liable to furnish a little surprise party of its own.

Inventors and factory experts from all over the country were submitting ideas and implements of warfare in the air. Some of these were promising, others fantastic. They had to be sifted out, and those which seemed practicable were at once fitted to planes and demonstrated in actual flights. There was the most urgent need of ordnance for aircraft. It had been over­looked in the general indifference to the requirements of aviation before the war. An efficient machine‑gun was the prime essential. The Lewis gun had been designed and built for the army,​a but it was found that it could be adapted to airplane work. The weight of the air‑cooling chamber was discarded because the speed of the machine supplied sufficient air to cool the barrel. The only additions that had to be made were a proper mount and a device for catching shells as they came out of the breech so that they would not hit  p262 the plane as they flew by. These problems were successfully solved.

Albert Ditman's major task at the outset was to secure an adequate equipment of machines, shops, etc., with which to carry on the numerous experiments. A station at Anacostia had been assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance for this work. It was very small and had no more than one or two aeroplanes which were rather out of date. There was no shop equipment, armory, magazine, or other essentials of an ordnance experimental station. This was explained by the fact that the buildings had been erected with the idea of offering shelter and storage to planes which might be flying to and from Washington. In other words, an aerodrome had to be converted into a mechanical plant.

The station was in command of Lieutenant Dougherty. Diverting the station from its original purpose and expanding it to the proper dimensions for these new activities involved some delay and argument with the authorities higher up, but eventually the Ordnance Section of Aviation was allowed to proceed under full headway with its guns, bombs, sights and mounts. Lieutenant Dougherty was succeeded by Lieutenant Murray who had a special aptitude for this technical work and was very enthusiastic about it. Personnel and material were obtained. It was the same story as elsewhere, building up an organization amid the difficulties arising from the tremendous pressure of war and the inevitable lack of enough trained men to meet the demands.

Albert Ditman throws light on some of these handicaps in reviewing the incidents of his own job:

It was not at all easy for us to secure skilled and experienced engineers to supervise the several departments of this experimental work. It was a rule in the Aviation Section at this time that no more officers could be taken on in Ordnance with higher  p263 rank than ensign. With the high cost of living in Washington it was a severe test of patriotism for a man to join us when he could get a commission of higher rank and better pay in the aviation service of the Army.

There was no special appropriation for this experimental station. Therefore the plans could not be mapped out on a large and energetic basis. It was hand to mouth, because for each new task as it came along a separate order had to be obtained from the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance and the labor and materials provided for from the general ordnance budget. Admiral Earle did his best, however, to smooth this rough road and offered every possible assistance within his power. When we needed more room, he arranged to give us a piece of land on the lower Proving Grounds, thirty miles down the Potomac River, where he said we were welcome to put up our own hangar and use the ordnance shops already there. We laid out this station and it was well under way when the war ended. Isolated from any towns, it would have been an ideal place for carrying on experiments in secret.

When I first went to Washington there was a lively controversy between the members of the Naval Aviation Corps and the heads of Naval Aviation as to whether the Navy should have some fast scouts as well as the large, heavily armed flying boats. We took every opportunity of arousing interest in the fast type of machine and trying to win official approval of it. While at the Bay Shore station I had become well acquainted with Lieutenant Flachaire, who was said to be one of the best of the French pilots. He was sent to this country by the French Commission and had brought a Spad fighting plane with him. Flachaire was persuaded to fly to Washington and as soon as he landed there I made arrangements with him to give an exhibition of what could be done with a fast machine. This flight was well advertised and on Sunday afternoon I took out the fastest machine we had at Anacostia, which was a twin engine hydro-aeroplane called JN‑E. It was a rather light plane with two 100 h.p. engines and could travel about seventy miles an hour. I flew over the landing field where Flachaire was waiting and as soon as he saw me there, he started up, and it is needless to say that the comparative speed between a Spad and the Navy Curtiss plane was very noticeable. Everybody immediately realized that a slow plane such as ours did not have the slightest  p264 chance in a combat with the fast scout. This may have carried some weight with the heads of the Aviation Department because they issued orders that when the Spad was in the air we would not be allowed to take any of our planes out of the hangar. Presumably the contrast was too great. The point had been won, however, and it was not necessary to pull off any further exhibitions.

Several amusing things happened to me while on some of these tests. One day when I was taking up an officer to try out some incendiary tracer bullets to be fired from a Lewis gun, I put him in the bow of the JN‑E which has a cockpit extending out in front of the wings and also forward of the twin motors. After we had climbed to the desired height and were coming over the target, I gave the signal to start firing and instantly began to feel something sharp hitting against my feet and legs. The next thing I realized I was seeing numerous light spots in my right-hand wings and these I very quickly saw were very large holes. Next, I began hearing things whistling past my ears, and every now and then one hitting me. What happened was that the gunnery officer had forgotten to put the shell-ejector bag on the gun and the shells were blowing back into the propeller and there getting their acquired speed to carry them on their way. I ducked down under the cowl and apparently, in doing so, the machine performed enough stunts so that it scared the gunner and made him stop firing, after which we came down on the water and talked it over.

Another little surprise in flying on the Potomac River, was that when passing the Indian Head proving grounds one would hear whistling noises in the air. Some of the officers, appreciating the opportunity of having a real target to try out their anti-aircraft guns, were showing what wonderful marksmen they were by shooting their shells past us, at what they said was a safe distance. We never considered this an amusing pastime and the only way to get rid of this annoyance was to fly overland where they had to discontinue their practice because they were afraid of the projectiles falling on towns.

The twin motor JN‑E itself was no end of amusement, both on the water and in the air. The plane would just as soon go sidewise or backward as forward, as it was almost impossible to keep both engines running exactly even, and when one changed speed it would start things going. However, it served  p265 its purpose and we were able to do a great deal of experimenting with a Davis gun and Davis ammunition until such time as we could get the large boats. At intervals I was sent to the different coast patrol stations to do various jobs.

At Rockaway I was very often sent to try out new bombs, and bomb dropping mechanisms, and also to instruct the ordnance officer in the handling and insulation of the Davis gun. Bombs were dropped in the Bay or out in the ocean as different depths were required. Some bombs were equipped with land heads and dropped on the beach.

At Cape May we installed and instructed the ordnance officer in the handling of the Davis gun and also tried to make their bombs operate. There was a great deal of question at all of these stations as to whether the Mark‑4 bomb would go off or not, and I was sent out to show them that it would. This was a rather difficult job because every one in the department felt pretty certain that the Mark‑4 was a failure. This was primarily because the head which contained the firing mechanism, although it was a mechanical success, when put in service and allowed to sit around in a magazine at the seashore for several weeks would become rusty, and when the bombs were dropped this mechanism would not function. Several tests had proved that when these mechanisms were properly oiled, adjusted, and set the same day that they were to be dropped, about three-fifths of them would function.

However, there seemed to be something else mysterious that prevented their going off. To determine this, we decided to set one off on land and then examine it. We buried a Mark‑4 about half way down the sand and then ran a line for about fifty yards, so that we could hide behind a dune. We pulled the line and nothing happened. Upon going up to the bomb, it apparently just as we had left it, but when one of the men touched the head it fell off and a cloud of black smoke went up in the air. It is needless to say that it was at least a half hour before we were able to find each other, and the only reason we stopped running was because our breath gave out. When we cautiously approached the bomb again, we found it had not exploded but the small detonating charge in the head had burned, but had not created enough heat to set off the main charge of cast TNT.

When this report was submitted to the experts they thought this could be corrected by putting a train of black powder down  p266 through the main charge of the TNT. The black powder was put into long tubes, two and one‑half feet long, and I was told to insert them in twenty-five bombs and try it out. I asked how this was to be done, and was told: 'Take a brace and bit and drill a hole in the cast TNT and then insert the black powder, replace the head, and proceed as usual.' Not knowing anything about TNT I asked if drilling holes in this stuff was a safe pastime and what the dangers were, so that I might look out for them. I was told that it was perfectly safe except that if too much heat was generated during this boring process, it might possibly light.

I proceeded to drill these holes, inserting the black powder, and tried them out on the planes. With these I was able to get nine out of ten to explode, but it was afterward found that this scheme was not successful and it was given up. When I was ready to drop these, I went to the commanding officer and asked him for planes in which to carry them. He said they were short of planes at that time and asked if I would be willing to place these bombs on machines that were doing regular patrol duty, and at the end of the patrol these bombs could be dropped. This was done and I arranged to go with one of the planes as observer for the patrol and to watch the functioning of the bomb. On my first trip, which was with two R‑6s, we were on our second leg, about twenty miles from shore, when the other plane that was accompanying us had engine trouble and was compelled to land on the water. We circled around for a short time when we realized that it would be impossible for him to get off the water again as the waves were breaking over his top wing.

Therefore we went ashore to the nearest coast patrol station and telephoned to the aviation station for them to send a patrol boat and pick him up. The embarrassing part of this was that it was nearly dark and, afraid that this patrol boat might not get out in time for us to see him and make the rescue, we decided to try to ask a large transport steamer that we saw headed for New York to pick him up. The course of this steamer was about three miles west of where the plane was, and on account of the heavy sea it was difficult for anybody on board the ship to see the plane. However, we circled around the steamer several times, making motions for her to follow us, and after a long time she suddenly changed course and went over and picked up the plane.

 p267  Now for the story that the rescued aviation pilot told of his trip into port! After the plane and its crew were taken on deck, the captain of the steamer asked the pilot whether they had any explosives on board his machine. The pilot answered that he had one bomb. The captain of the ship ordered him to throw it overboard immediately. The pilot explained to him that he was afraid this was a rather risky stunt as it was an experimental bomb and he did not know anything about it. Possibly it might go off when coming in contact with the water or soon thereafter. This alarmed the mariner who decided that whatever was to be done with the damned bomb, it should not be thrown into the water where it might destroy the ship. The poor pilot was then ordered to take charge of it. Very much perplexed, he concluded the only thing to do was to give it a comfortable berth, so he took it to his cabin and put it on a bed of pillows where he was forced to spend the next twenty hours with it.

Arriving in New York, he was commanded to take it off the ship at once. He received the same peremptory instructions when he landed on the pier with it. The distressed aviator was in a dilemma, landing in New York City with a fifty-pound bomb under his arm and not knowing what minute it might go off. It had ceased to be a laughing matter. However, he persuaded a taxi driver to take him to Rockaway and he held the bomb in his lap all the way down so as to prevent its being jarred. He was a happy man when he reached Rockaway and turned the bomb over to the ordnance officer.

My visits to these stations showed that as a rule, the men in charge of the ordnance department were young officers or who had just finished their instructions and were filling the positions temporarily until they could be transferred to something more definite. Most of them had had no experience whatsoever in ordnance, and, I believe, thought it a good deal safer to leave the stuff entirely alone rather than to try to keep it in operation.

In many instances patrol machines would be sent out on their patrols without ordnance of any kind. I found that at some stations magazines were impossible to obtain for lack of appropriation, and ordnance was stored in any old kind of a shack. Sometimes these were placed so close to the hangars that an exploding magazine would have destroyed the hangars and seaplanes. No instruction or practice was given to any of the pilots  p268 or observers in bomb dropping or shooting, at the majority of these stations what little had been learned about guns and bombs was soon forgotten unless the work was continued as part of the regular routine of the station.

An interesting experiment, in progress shortly before the Armistice, was the lowering of a torpedo from a plane. We started these experiments by carrying a 150 pound bomb on an H.S.‑2 with a lowering device consisting of a cable from a bomb rack to the observer's cockpit, where he had a large reel of fine steel cable. He would lower this 400 to 500 feet and I found that I could fly with this suspended bomb with almost as much ease as I could without it. It had a tendency to make the plane sway slightly and also made it skid on turns until I became accustomed to it. The bomb retained its proper position in the air. A special tail was built which acted as a weather vane.

The next step in this development was to carry a full size torpedo from a Blimp. This experiment was satisfactory. It was found a torpedo could be dropped into the water without damaging it and that its proper direction could be maintained. From this we shifted to an H‑16. To prove that the machine would carry this loaded, we put fifteen men into the plane and made a flight first. This proved successful. We then put the torpedo on it.

The commanding officer at Pensacola insisted upon keeping in this plane one of his own pilots who was unfamiliar with the experiments up to this point and who felt perfectly sure it could not be done. Therefore, when the torpedo had been let down about ten feet and began to sway from side to side he ordered it cut loose. This was the same thing that had happened to us with the lighter bomb, and we had found that it was not until it had been let down 100 or 150 feet that it stopped swinging. From that distance down to 500 feet it was practically steady.

Personally I feel that there are great possibilities in this weapon, and that it should be continued and perfected. We also made experiments with the FB, with which several members of the Unit are familiar and concerning which, on account of their being kept secret, I am not at liberty to go into details. I might say, however, that at the time I left the Department these experiments had not proven successful, but I believe it was due to the construction of the machine rather than the theory. We also equipped a JN with Martin stabilizers and although this  p269 proved helpful for straight flying it was not at all handy for maneuvering.

Captain Mustin had worked on a plan, somewhat similar to that tried with lighters by the British at Felixstowe and later adopted for our own station at Killingholme, of transporting seaplanes to attack the German bases in the North Sea. Captain Mustin, however, favored the idea of carrying the sea planes on very fast sea‑sleds, sending a fleet of these units on dark nights. The sea‑sled would take the planes to a safe distance from their objective and then the latter would be cut loose and go and do their bombing job. I heard a story to the effect that a Caproni was mounted on a specially built sea‑sled which did its required speed of about fifty miles an hour. This gave the plane flying speed, but no one was willing to pull the string and release it at this very fast pace.

All the experiments of this kind showed the necessity of putting the planes on shipboard as the only practicable floating base. This was done during the war on British ships attached to the Grand Fleet, and our Navy then recognized the importance of aeroplane carriers as essential to the operations of a fighting fleet.

Albert Ditman's technical reports furnish material for a history of aviation ordnance in the U. S. Navy Department. Here, for instance, are the various items of equipment which had to be tested, developed and manufactured:

Machine guns Small arms
Machine gun mounts Small arms ammunition
Larger calibre guns Machine gun ammunition
Larger calibre mounts Larger calibre ammunition
Gun sights Camera gun
Synchronizers Pyrotechnics
Bombs Bomb-dropping sights
Bomb gear and controls

All this came under the supervision of Desk 'M‑a' whose personnel increased from four officers to twenty‑one. It established the Aviation Ordnance Storehouse at Philadelphia where all the material was concentrated, excepting that shipped direct from factories to air stations.  p270 This base had its own staff of twenty-five officers and men and its shipments amounted to millions of dollars.

Ditman was not limited to Washington and the experimental stations near by. He was testing and inspecting and doing interesting stunts wherever naval aviators were gathered together. You might have found him juggling some new type of incendiary bomb at Hampton Roads or trying out invisible paints and listening devices at New London or mounting a flying torpedo device at Pensacola or installing machine guns at Chatham or flying in an F‑B at Amityville. His organization coöperated in a cordial manner with Army Aviation Ordnance, to their mutual advantage. They had the same ends in view and compared results on the different tests and experiments to avoid the duplication of effort wherever possible.1

The Author's Note:

1 From the Fitness Reports, Navy Department:

(Lieutenant Albert Ditman.)

October 1 to February 15th:

Lieutenant Ditman was experimental pilot of the aviation ordnance section, and ordnance officer of the air station at Anacostia. He was thorough and careful in his work and cheerfully ready at all times.

Recommended for examination for confirmation as lieutenant. He is a very fine type of officer.

A. C. Stott,

Commander, U. S. N.

August 6 to September 4, 1917:

Excellent material. This officer is an excellent flying instructor, although his eyes are not up to normal. Is of the type that never has too much work to do, and if he runs out of work, asks for more.

A. C. Read,

Lieutenant, U. S. N.

February 6 to March 31, 1918:

Ensign Ditman is detailed to the Bureau of Ordnance as experimental pilot for Naval Ordnance, with additional duty as seaplane instructor, and is considered in every way an excellent officer.

Ralph Earle,

Rear Admiral, U. S. N.

Thayer's Note:

a This machine gun had recently been invented by Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Isaac Lewis; for good details on the gun and its production, see his obituary in the 1932 Annual Report, Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy.

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