C E L E B R A T I N G 1 0 0 Y E A R S O F N A V A L A V I A T I O N

 The First 100 Years

By VADM. Robert F. Dunn, USN (Ret)

 FEBRUARY 17, 1911, Glenn Curtiss’ “Hydroaeroplane” flies out to and is hoisted aboard USS Pennsylvania, anchored in San Diego Bay. The seaplane is later returned to the water and Curtiss flies back to North Island, today considered the birthplace of naval aviation and contributed a major role in minimizing the

U-boat threat. At the same time,  other naval aviators, including Towers and Kenneth Whiting, were detailed to Europe to observe our allies. The English were foremost in recognizing the value of naval aviation well beyond anti-submarine

efforts. It was the Royal Navy that flew fighters from improvised cruiser and battleship decks to repel German Zeppelin raids, and developed the world’s first aircraft carrier from a merchant hull, HMS Argus. Reports from Towers and

Whiting convinced American political and naval officials to authorize the procurement of more aircraft for the fleet, and to convert the collier Jupiter into the first American carrier, USS Langley.

Plans originally made in 1914 to fly across the Atlantic had to be put on hold. Then, in 1919, with Towers in charge, three aircraft started out from Rockaway, N.Y., crossed Halifax, Newfoundland, the Azores and Lisbon, before ending the flight in England. Because of mishaps, only one aircraft — the NC-4 — completed the crossing. Not long after the NC-4 flight, Marine naval aviators developed their concept of close air support, resupply of embattled troops and medical evacuation. Since then close air support has been part of every Navy fighter and attack aviator’s training. It was a very important tactic in Korea and South Vietnam and, despite “smart weapons,” is often called for by troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Likewise, supply and medical evacuation continue askey missions for all naval service helicopters and transports alike. Even as the Marines were developing tactics for troop support, it was another battleship captain, William Adger Moffett, who consolidated aviation development into one Bureau of Aeronautics.

For 11 years, he was a most able advocate and leader of naval aviation in all its forms before he was killed when the dirigible USS Akron crashed off New Jersey in 1933. When Moffett was chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, no one could see ahead to divine what would be the most important aviation systems in the years ahead. To his credit, all available systems were explored and, within the dollars available, tested. His mantra was, “naval aviation must go to sea on the back of the fleet … the fleet and naval aviation are one and inseparable, no matter what its form.” Moffett was convinced that a major role of support for the fleet would be fulfilled by aircraft carriers. Consequently, at the Washington Naval Conference, Nov. 12, 1921- Feb. 6, 1922, he was instrumental in getting treaty authorization for the conversion of the uncompleted heavy cruisers Lexington and Saratoga into aircraft carriers. Moffett also was the point man for the Navy and naval aviation against the onslaught of Gen. Billy Mitchell and his allies, who campaigned for dependence on strategic bombing by a separate air force. Had it not been for Moffett, naval aviation might have disappeared much as did Britain’s Fleet Air Arm, overwhelmed by the Royal Air Force. Moffett held the view that naval aviation and the fleet it supported would only be successful if the airplane was fully integrated into operations at sea. Resisting the efforts of some of his battleship brethren and, indeed, some aviators, he also insisted that naval aviators be naval officers first, and aviators second. There would be no separate corps, as in the Army. After all, he argued, the very reason for naval aviation was to support the fleet. That meant that flying naval personnel had to be part of it. Not so much an engineer as he was a judge of good men, Moffett surrounded himself with experts and doers.

As a result, during his 11-year tenure naval aviation appropriations were protected and a stream of new and improved aircraft entered the fleet. He oversaw the advent of air-cooled radial engines, streamlined cowlings, closed cockpits, aircraft communications, instrument systems and a plethora of other improvements both in aircraft and shipboard aviation facilities. Even while Moffett was holding sway in Washington, yet another battleship admiral was doing good work in San Diego. In 1925, Joseph Mason Reeves hoisted his flag on USS Langley as commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet. Reeves arrived admittedly not knowing a lot about aviation, but it was clear to him from the beginning that what he had inherited was not going to be of much service to the fleet. There were more landing accidents than successes and Langley carried only 12 aircraft at any one time. Against the advice of several of his staff and the aviators in the two squadrons assigned, he insisted that more aircraft could be embarked and operated, perhaps as many as 42.

He also felt that even at only 16 knots, Langley could serve as an ideal stand-in forLexington and Saratoga, soon to be joining the fleet. Almost solely due to his insistence to the fleet commander, Langley joined the 1926 surprise aircraft “assault” on Pearl Harbor, an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come.

This was the first of a string of  Fleet Battle Problems in the 1920s and 1930s that demonstrated time and again the importance of naval aviation, in all its dimensions. Longrange seaplanes, battleship- and cruiser-based floatplanes as well as carrier aircraft played important roles, but it was the metamorphosis of the aircraft carrier from fleet auxiliary to centerpiece of the fleet that was most significant. It was Reeves, ably assisted by those carrier commanding officers who later became the task force commanders of World War II, who made naval aviation that centerpiece.

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