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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

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

Vol. I
Chapter IV

The Status of Naval Aviation

When these young men assembled beneath the hospitable roof of the Davison residence at Peacock Point, they were blazing a trail and undertaking an ambitious experiment. It will require no great space in this narrative to review the progress of naval aviation in the United States up to that time. In its small beginnings it was regarded as a scouting adjunct, to be operated from shore bases or from the decks of ships at sea. Aeroplanes seemed likely to supersede destroyers as the eyes of the Fleet. Naval experts on this side of the Atlantic were slow to realize that the first two years of the Great War had radically changed the whole aspect of hostilities afloat.

The British Grand Fleet held the German naval forces in check. The submarine was the mobile weapon of offense which Germany employed with a skill and audacity that dismayed her enemies. The barbarity of her methods horrified civilization and stained the ancient chivalry of the sea with abominable cruelties. Regardless of the flags they flew, her roving U‑boats sent merchant ships to the bottom in the effort to starve England and cripple her military power. It was a policy of desperation.

So effective was it that the British Admiralty was shaken out of its conservatism and traditional faith in battle­ships as the decisive factor. The battle of Jutland was fought in May of 1916 and a shattered German High Sea Fleet driven back to cover, but this could not alter the fact that German submarines were destroying millions of tons of shipping, from the misty North Sea to the blue  p31 Mediterranean. Allied victory was so gravely imperiled that every resource of naval and scientific ingenuity was focused upon the problem of combating the ravages of submarines, of hunting and exterminating them like noxious vermin.

Patrol fleets of yachts, trawlers, motor-boats were extemporized. Depth bombs and listening devices were invented, hundreds of miles of nets were laid to trap the lurking U‑boats, and countless other schemes, many of them fantastic, were tried and found wanting. For the first time in all her glorious centuries as a maritime power, England was baffled and almost beaten.

It was soon perceived that the air service could be made tremendously useful as one factor of the anti-submarine patrol. Even a swift destroyer could detect a U‑boat only by the telltale periscope or when the hull was awash. An aviator, however, sweeping over hundreds of miles of sea in the day's work, could discern the dim shape if not too deeply submersed, or spy the distant patch of foam when the boat broke water. Aircraft could also assist in convoying troop transports and supply ships. Crusty old admirals with ossified prejudices, who had cursed aviation as a nuisance in time of peace, were compelled to change their minds. They were of the same breed as the stubborn sea‑dogs of earlier generations who had fought the substitution of steam for sail and had denounced the torpedo as unsportsmanlike.

Equipping an aeroplane with pontoons in place of wheels enabled it to take off and land on the water. This was the first innovation. Experience showed that stouter construction was needed to withstand the battering of the waves. This necessitated larger machines. The logical development was the flying-boat with a hull instead of pontoons.

Until 1917 this anti-submarine warfare did not directly  p32 concern the American Navy. Pending a declaration of war, all it could do to protect merchant vessels flying the Stars and Stripes was to give them 'armed guards,' or guns and crews to man them. England's predicament failed to alarm Congress or to interest it in aviation as a vital element of modern warfare.

A few intelligent and devoted officers of the Navy were doing the best they could, lacking funds and equipment. Time has more or less obscured their achievements, but they deserved to be remembered in terms of praise and gratitude. As far back as November, 1910, Eugene Ely had made the first flight from the deck of a naval vessel, the scout cruiser Birmingham, at Hampton Roads. This was the beginning of naval aviation. The first official recognition was in January, 1911, when the Department detailed Captain Washington I. Chambers to pursue the study of aviation and Lieutenant T. G. Ellyson was ordered to San Diego, California, for instruction in flying under Glenn H. Curtiss.

In the spring of that year, the Wright Brothers were awarded a contract for one land plane equipped with a four-cylinder, thirty‑two-horse‑power engine, driving two propellers, and the Curtiss Airplane Company a contract for two planes, one to be a land plane with a four-cylinder, forty-horse‑power Curtiss engine, the other a seaplane (then called a hydro-aeroplane) with an eight-cylinder, eighty-horse‑power engine and landing gear which could be put on in place of pontoons.

These contracts included the stipulation that a Navy officer should be taught to fly each plane. Lieutenant John Rodgers​a was ordered to Dayton to receive instructions from the Wright Brothers while Lieutenant John H. Towers and Lieutenant Ellyson were sent to the Curtiss plant at Hammondsport. These were the first three officers to qualify as aviators under the rules of the Aero Club of America.

 p33  Three small hangars were built at Annapolis which were used for training until the camp was transferred to San Diego in 1912. There were six men in the enlisted force. The officers overhauled their own planes and engines. After some more shifting about, back to Annapolis and then to Guantanamo, the naval school was finally settled at Pensacola. Commander Henry C. Mustin who had learned to fly while executive officer of the Minnesota, was given command of the battle­ship Mississippi which was to be used as an aviation station ship at Pensacola. It was tied up at dock and its electric power used to operate the shops ashore.

At this time the flying equipment consisted of three old Curtiss flying-boats, three new Curtiss boats, two Curtiss pontoon type planes, two Wright pontoon planes, and one Burgess flying-boat. The training was interrupted in April, 1914, by the trouble at Vera Cruz which resulted in a naval bombardment and landing. The planes were sent down there aboard the Mississippi and the Birmingham.

These planes flew over the Mexican lines ten or twelve miles inland and were peppered by ragged infantrymen with big sombreros and had holes shot in their wings. A forced landing would have meant a fatal smash‑up. The aviators liked it because they were the first Americans to handle planes in actual warfare. When the outfit returned to Pensacola it had something to talk about.

At the outbreak of the World War, three officers were designated as assistant naval attachés for aviation. Lieutenant Towers was sent to London, Lieutenant V. C. Herbster to Berlin, and Lieutenant B. L. Smith of the United States Marine Corps to Paris. They obtained much valuable information which the Department used in deciding what types of aircraft should be built for training purposes.

The toll of life had been heavy among these adventurous  p34 young pioneers of naval aviation. Lieutenant Billingsly had been killed in a crash in 1913. In the following two or three years, Stolz, Rockwell, Saufley, and Bronson were victims of fragile, crude machines and the hazards incident to inexperience.

In 1915 a number of officers were detached from other duties and ordered to Pensacola as the first class regularly enrolled for aviation. Among them was Lieutenant Edward O. McDonnell who was later ordered to Palm Beach in charge of the Yale Unit.

That was before prohibition [says he], and Captain Mustin issued an order that no aviation officer should fly who had absorbed any intoxicating liquor during the preceding twenty-four hours. Trubee Davison suggests that this may account for the delayed progress of naval aviation. It was all right for the administrative officers, but Spencer and I were the two instructors and the only time we could take a drink was Saturday night.

However, the work was not so bad. There were eleven planes in the Navy at that time, three of which were smashed up very quickly. At Pensacola we often had only one or two planes in commission. When gasoline funds were expended, we officers had to dig down into our own jeans to buy gas if we wanted to fly. After a while so many officers had been killed in those open-faced pusher machines that we held a meeting and protested against the further use of these planes. The document was forwarded to the Department, Captain Mustin approving, and the tractor plane was adopted as the result. This was the N‑9 seaplane, the training machine used until we went into the war. What we lacked more than anything else was money to develop an efficient motor. Given the motors, we could have kept our naval aviation abreast with the improvements abroad. The best we had was a Curtiss engine weighing four hundred pounds and turning up one hundred horse-power. Nowadays that sounds absurd. In April, 1917, we had twenty‑two seaplanes as the naval aviation force, thirty-eight qualified aviators, and 163 enlisted men detailed to aviation duty.

One of the most vigorous champions of aviation was  p35 Rear Admiral Bradley A. Fiske. Appearing before the House Naval Committee on March 24, 1916, his arguments were recorded as follows:

When I was Aid for Operations I became convinced and I am still convinced that the thing in which we are more backward than in any other thing is aeronautics; and I think it is a matter of common sense that in any large problem which is composed of a great many factors, we should look out for the weak point. No matter how fine and strong you are, if you have a weak point you want to look out for that, and in aeronautics I think we are weaker than we are in anything else. We have not a General Staff, that is true, but we are on the way toward it and now we have something like it; that is, the Chief of Naval Operations —

(Mr. Browning.) Are we weaker in aeronautics than we are in battle cruisers?

(Admiral Fiske.) No; you are quite right there. But we can do more in a year in aeronautics than we can in battle cruisers. We are just as weak in battle cruisers as we are in aeronautics, but in one year we could do a lot in aeronautics and not much in battle cruisers. Now, that may not be all the time we want, but we may get into trouble when this war ends, and battle cruisers are not going to help us unless they are constructed and in the Fleet. That is the thing that is going to take us the longest time and it will be necessary also to train an enlisted personnel. Even if we started today it would take a long time to get your personnel enlisted, trained, and earning their pay aboard ship. But what most excites the public is, I think, the fear of invasion. Of course that is the most horrible thing that can happen to any country, to have its soil invaded by an enemy.

Now to help us in that event, we need a competent aeronautical corps and we need it right off. To do that we could get, in an emergency, a lot of people from the outside. The Aero Club is doing a great deal and is very much interested.

If we got one thousand aeroplanes together and had them well organized to meet an attacking force, we would have aircraft that could drop large bombs and launch torpedoes and it would help a great deal. You see, we could probably get ready to do that in a year. Then when it came to landing men to make the invasion, actually getting ashore with guns and ammunition and  p36 supplies, the enemy would have reached the very ticklish period of its operations. If you had a thousand aeroplanes and they dropped bombs on those fellows, especially upon those in the boats, you would present an attack that they had not learned to answer. So I think aeronautics is the thing on which we can get to work quicker and by which we can accomplish more than in any other way.

Admiral Fiske's views were sound, but his vision of a thousand aeroplanes made ready in a year turned out to be fanciful. With unlimited funds and under the pressure of war, the United States Government was able to supply its forces overseas with almost no aircraft at all during the first year of the war. Another prediction that went wrong was Mr. Henry Woodhouse's belief that 'units of the Aerial Coast Patrol were now about to be established in twenty States.'

The difficulties are mentioned, you will note, in what may be called the optimistic manner. They were, in fact, insurmountable. Training schools and aeroplanes were not available, no matter how 'patriotic the gentlemen of twenty States' might be. Nor did they feel inclined to use their private funds to the amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars to organize, direct, and somehow find the equipment for units of the Aerial Coast Patrol. What Mr. Henry P. Davison and his friends undertook to do was therefore unique.

Thayer's Note:

a John Rodgers would become Chief of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics, a post he was holding at his death in a plane crash in 1926. For his career, especially his famous 1925 flight to Hawaii, see George R. Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, p516, and my further note there.

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