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Chapter 4

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 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter V

The Summer at Port Washington

When the would‑be aviators reported for duty at Peacock Point in July, 1916, their first impressions were rather scrambled. It seemed like aviation de luxe, with a jolly house party thrown in. There were all the social diversions of country life on Long Island together with such outdoor pastimes as yachting, motoring, golf, tennis, and swimming. Nor could the attractive girls of the neighborhood be expected to regard this invasion with total indifference. An aviator was something of a hero whether he had learned to fly or not. In short, if this was training for war, the hardships had been greatly exaggerated.

These were surface ripples. The real current of purpose was quickly set in motion. There was time for play, but not in working hours. Trubee Davison infused the others with his own spirit. His mother was ever so much more than a hostess and a chaperon. She was one of the leaders of the organization, interested in every detail of the daily routine. This was true also of Mr. Davison, busied though he was with his own affairs and compelled to spend part of the summer abroad. He had sponsored the Unit. He expected the boys to make good. This they keenly realized. They had been offered a wonderful opportunity.

The property of the Trans-Oceanic Company was taken over for the use of the Unit. The most valuable asset was Dave McCulloch whom the bargain included. At the start, the only machine was the Mary Ann, bless her old soul, who tried not to slip out from under these greenhorns and seldom lost her temper. She could not do it all, however, and Mr. Davison presented the Unit with a  p38 new cedar flying-boat later in the summer. Trubee took charge of this transaction. With his careful attention to detail, he jotted down when making out a list of times for a trip to New York, 'one toothbrush, one aeroplane.' Mr. Daniel Pomeroy made the handsome gift of a third machine. He told his nephew Trubee that he was very much impressed by the way the fellows had tackled the thing. At first he had strongly disapproved, but he was convinced that the Unit was doing good work and he wished to help it along.

This flying-boat proved to be very popular. The wing flaps and the ailerons were interposed. The controls were easier to operate than in the other machines. The hull was mahogany, with a green bottom and a narrow white band on the water-line. It was as smart as a yacht.

Collecting these machines was one thing, learning to fly them quite another. There was only one mechanic, Steve Goodrich, during the early lessons. This meant that the amateur aviators had to learn how to overhaul the motors and planes and do all sorts of repair work and tinkering. It gave them a practical background, a mechanical knack and knowledge, that proved valuable all through their service. They were literally learning aviation from the ground up. They could wash off the grease but the information stuck.

Port Washington was thirteen miles distant from Peacock Point. For the first week or two they drove over there twice a day for training. This wasted so much time on the road that a different schedule was devised. Half the Unit reported at the hangar early in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. These watches were shifted about every week. Says Wells Brown:

Mrs. Davison was kind enough to prepare our breakfast the night before. We thought more about the weather than we ever had in our lives. We used to bounce out of bed just as dawn was  p39 breaking and run to a window to look at the Sound. If we could see the Connecticut shore, everything was lovely. We jumped into our clothes and swallowed breakfast and then had a wild ride to Port Washington with Bob Lovett. This was by all odds the most dangerous thing we did that summer. The next stunt was to drag Dave McCulloch out of bed. He always swore that he would be ready for us at five-thirty, but we were in luck if we could get him under way an hour later. It was his only failing. He certainly did love that good old sleep.

One by one McCulloch took them skittering over the Sound in the Mary Ann and was a wise, tactful teacher. He checked their impetuosity and hammered it into their heads that a dead aviator was of no use to anybody. And machines were too scarce to be smashed by idiots who thought they knew it all. So they studiously watched Dave do it, and he made flying look absurdly easy. Brain and nerves were learning new coördinations. It was unlike anything else, a sport more thrilling than any kind of athletics, with the sharp zest of danger. The whole art of flying was still in the pioneer stages. People talked about it as sensational. An aeroplane in the sky was thrilling and uncanny.

It was soon discovered that there was such a thing as temperamental aptitude, or the personal equation in flying. One man picked it up faster than another. The Unit could not be developed like a football team or a crew, and until the other machines were added to reinforce the industrious Mary Ann, progress was handicapped. It was difficult to get spare parts. Much time was lost. This couldn't be helped. As Trubee recalls it:

Bob Lovett learned very quickly. 'Di' Gates was very earnest but slower to get the hang of it. Finally Bob and I soloed, along in August. I think we had about six hundred minutes, or ten hours, in the air, not all of it instruction for we had done some joy‑riding. We began to feel worried because it looked as though the others were not going to solo before we  p40 went back to college. Dave McCulloch told us to keep our shirts on, that he had seen this sort of thing happen before and he knew what he was doing. My reply was that the fellows were not getting the time in, and the pace needed to be speeded up. 'Di' Gates finally did his solo before he had to report at New Haven for football practice. So that made only three of us to qualify as flyers during the summer at Port Washington.

The others had learned a good deal and were coming along nicely. The chief trouble was that college interrupted the training at a time when the first rough organization was smoothing out and there were not machines and mechanics enough to equip the station properly. It was, in fact, a season of preliminary work, the foundations of the structure.

If the others failed to qualify, it was not for lack of interest and diligence. 'Alphy' Ames, the life of the party, had his despondent moments. In one of them he was heard to remark, in accents forlorn, after making something like a dozen bad landings: 'Do you know what I am going to do to‑morrow? Give Dave McCulloch a hammer and when I make a bum landing I'll tell him to hit me on the head. When I get back in the evening I can sit and count the bumps and say, "Bad landing, you poor boob, another bad landing." '

The leisure hours at Peacock Point were not allowed to drag. Bitter rivalries of the tennis courts endure to this day and are renewed whenever the Unit holds a reunion. Envious of Ames and his exploit with the camera man, John Vorys thrust himself into the limelight by posing as a virile he‑man from the open spaces. This he proceeded to prove by 'bulldogging' the Davison bull, an animal that had done nothing to deserve such treatment. Like all strong, elemental men, Vorys had a sentimental streak. The young ladies were taking a course in home nursing. In the forenoon they used the dormitory as their  p41 practice room. And there, as late as ten o'clock, you were likely to find John Vorys. He had formed the lingering habit, and harsh measures were required to break him of it.

Because of an epidemic of infantile paralysis, the household kept more or less to itself in an unofficial quarantine. This it was thought best to do with so many under one roof. It was no hardship, with so many things to do and such delightful company. They went as far as Piping Rock for a dance at which John Farwell was left and forgotten with a girl on his hands. He walked four miles home in a very sour humor and grumbled that he didn't need that much exercise.

They were not allowed to forget aviation even when they felt frivolous. Trust Trubee Davison to look after that! He was everlastingly on the job. They read practical books about flying and tried to learn how to read charts. Experts were invited to Peacock Point to talk to them in the evening, Mr. Morgan of the Sperry Company, Mr. Jarro who explained the compass and drift indicator, Captain Kelly who had seen service abroad and had almost bombed the Kaiser, a Swedish aviator who had done things but didn't know how to tell about them.

Mrs. Davison was never content to look on. It was all right to listen to the theory of aviation or drive to Port Washington to watch the boys go out, but this was not enough for her. She had helped persuade all those other doting mothers that this was the right thing for their sons to do and that their lives were fairly safe. As one might have expected, her logical conclusion was that she ought to make a flight herself. Therefore she garbed herself in the proper apparel and Dave McCulloch took her up in a flying-boat. She was a full-fledged member of the Unit. Trubee probably felt more nervous than she did. She enjoyed the experience.

 p42  'Well, if I can do this at my age,' said the intrepid Mrs. Davison, 'it certainly is all right for these youngsters.'

When a reporter from the New York Times interviewed her and asked why she had taken such an active interest in the Unit, she replied:

To show mothers that flying is safe, sane, wise and constructive work for their sons to take up in connection with preparedness for our national defense. . . . Aviation is infectious. With very little urging I went up for a flight and enjoyed it. Mr. Davison did the same thing. For these boys, flying is not a sport. It is real earnest work to make them fit for the service of their country. I have kept in touch with the mothers of the members of the Unit and told them all about it. It is a great responsibility, I suppose, to have their sons learning to fly here, but they know that I would not allow my own sons to fly if I thought it was foolishly dangerous.

The annual training maneuvers of the Naval Reserve in conjunction with a regular force were held at Gravesend Bay during the week of September 5th. This was the first opportunity offered the Unit to fly on actual service with a definite purpose in view. The Navy Department made a request that this aviation group should operate with the fleet of destroyers, battle­ships, and Naval Reserve patrol boats in working out certain problems of coast defense. The recognition was gratifying although the Unit felt a little dubious about results.

The first task was to discover and report a field of mines secretly laid inside Sandy Hook by vessels of the patrol. Spotting them from the air was an interesting experiment to the naval officers directing the maneuvers. They had no planes of their own nearer than the Pensacola station. On the appointed day Dave McCulloch with Harry Davison as observer flew to Gravesend Bay. The weather was foggy with a bothersome wind. They expected Trubee Davison and Bob Lovett to follow them, but this pair of adventurers were nowhere to be seen. This made  p43 McCulloch uneasy so he scooted hither and yon, diving under bridges, almost grazing ferry boats and other river craft, and otherwise startling all beholders. Unable to find the missing aviators who were supposed to join him, he flew back to locate these submerged mines. One by one they were discovered and the signal made to the waiting boats of the patrol fleet. Harry Davison was able to make a pretty fair chart of them. It was a feather in their cap.

Meanwhile Trubee and Bob had gone soaring away from Port Washington. Everything was lovely until they were passing over the Queensborough Bridge at a height of a thousand feet. Then the motor began to miss. Trubee was flying the boat and this was perhaps his second or third experience as a pilot in command. He began to perspire but was outwardly calm. Looking down, there appeared to be a shocking congestion of bridges, buildings, and things. However, he shut off the motor and glided down, while Lovett murmured, 'Here goes for a hell of a bump!'

Not at all! Deftly the boat was steered to flop upon the water and skim along to the foot of Twenty-Third Street after avoiding collision with a couple of bridges. It was an excellent landing, if Trubee did say so himself. Waves from a passing ferry boat drenched them as they plowed the surface at something like thirty miles an hour. The only damage was to the rocker‑arm. While they waited for a new one they ate luncheon on the Davison yacht Skipaki which was providentially near by, and flew home in the afternoon. They had learned a good deal about dodging the bridges of a great city. In brief, they had successfully strutted their stuff even if they had failed to spot any mines.

Another phase of the war game which had been assigned the Unit was even more spectacular. Two destroyers, the  p44 Flusser and Warrington, masquerading as hostile cruisers, were to attempt to steal in past the outer defenses of New York Harbor, or as close to them as possible. The Navy Department had in mind the chance of a visit from fast German scouting vessels which might endeavor to hurl a few shells into Broadway as a sample of frightfulness and a display of bravado.

The destroyers were sent well out beyond Fire Island. When they started in, the aviators were supposed to leave their own base and scout seaward. It was a test of the range of visibility from the air and also of the effectiveness of the destroyer smoke screen. The Navy orders were so complicated and elaborate that the Unit felt a bit bewildered. This was worse than final examinations at New Haven. It was the first experience with the precise methods of the regular service. They were enough to put a man up in the air, and this was no idle jest.

Never say die and try anything once was the motto. With Trubee as observer and Dave McCulloch at the helm, the aerial patrol went out to find those destroyers. The air was hazy. They could see no more than six miles away. Off Fire Island, however, they sighted the two slim, gray war‑ships which seemed to be at rest. The plane was flying at an elevation of thirty‑two hundred feet. This was easy. They had shown the Navy something. The next thing was to report it to the fleet and the day's work was done.

Flying shoreward, they noticed that the sky had taken on a peculiar yellow tinge as though violent weather was about to break. They decided to try to shove through it or, at least, to feel it out. Presently they were struggling with a furious squall. It seemed to have a hole in it, like a huge eddy of air. The machine quivered and dropped into this hole, doing a vertical nose-dive and spinning like a top.

 p45  Trubee and Dave McCulloch were flung out of their seats and tumbled upon the controls. Somehow they scrambled back where they belonged. More by good luck than good management, the machine righted itself and went surging away from the storm with the motor full on.

Trubee's emotions were too much for words, but the veteran McCulloch, who could make an aeroplane do everything but talk, was heard to remark later that he had been one scared guy. They were looking anxiously for a landing place. About five o'clock in the afternoon they descended at a small patch of land entirely surrounded by water which was found to be Oak Island. The naval maneuvers had been jolted out of their minds. They were far more interested in letting their next of kin know that they were still alive.

On Oak Island they found a life saving station with a telephone by means of which a message was sent through to Bob Lovett at the Atlantic Yacht Club. The main purport was that the two lost aviators had survived the storm and were perfectly safe. As an afterthought Trubee added that they had located those two destroyers twelve miles southeast of Fire Island.

The agile mind of Lovett paid little attention to the tidings that his comrades had been found. The big news was that the Unit had made good on its scouting mission. He tore off to report it to the Commandant of the Naval District, unlimbered his very best salute, snapped his heels together, and informed the admiral that the invading fleet had been discovered, position so and so!

'This made a great hit with the Navy,' says Trubee, 'because in this severe storm which had scattered the patrol vessels, they received orders to search for our missing aeroplane and try to pick us up, and presto, our report came through that we had found the enemy.'

 p46  Praise was received from another quarter. It was conveyed in the following letter, dated September 22nd:

Mr. F. T. Davison, Member Volunteer
Aerial Coast Patrol Unit No. 1,

Dear Mr. Davison:

The Executive Committee of the Aero Club of America wishes to express its admiration for the splendid accomplishments of Volunteer Aerial Coast Patrol Unit No. 1 in connection with the naval maneuvers held in Gravesend Bay on September 5th to 12th.

Conditions obtaining at the time when one of your seaplanes located the two torpedo destroyers, the Flusser and the Warrington, make us realize that such a thing could have happened under war conditions and this achievement would have saved New York from being bombarded by the enemy's fleet.

Owing to the fact that the United States Navy has only a few aeroplanes and trained aviators, in case of war the naval aviators available would barely be sufficient to operate at one of the naval centers or in connection with one of the squadrons of the fleet. We can conceive the Flusser and Warrington representing a raiding squadron of an enemy's fleet dominating a strategical point outside New York Harbor and the raiding squadron having succeeded in getting near New York screened by the fog and being found by one of the seaplanes of the Volunteer Aerial Coast Patrol No. 1, thereby saving the ships at the entrance of New York Harbor from being destroyed and New York from being bombarded. Your valuable work in locating mines also deserves commendation.

The fact that we have not an adequate Air Service accentuates the value of the efforts being made by the patriotic members of your Unit.

Your good example is being followed by hundreds of others who realize that aeronautics is the most important branch of our defenses and that naval aeronautics has been shamefully neglected.

We regret more than ever that Congress did not provide for establishing a chain of units of the Aerial Coast Patrol, as your accomplishments have indisputably proven the great value of a chain of Aerial Coast Patrol stations to the nation. Had there been a unit of the Aerial Coast Patrol established in the neighborhood  p47 where the maneuvers were held, the radio station on land could have been notified by wireless from the seaplanes of the location of the attacking ships.

Very sincerely yours

Alan R. Hawley

President, Aero Club of America

That such a feat as finding those two destroyers should have caused all this stir is enough to show that naval aviation was then in its primitive era. The episode did much for the Unit. It had made a name and place for itself. It was publicly known as 'Volunteer Aerial Coast Patrol No. 1.' The members felt more confidence in themselves and faith in the future of the organization.

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