Chapter 1 - The Early Years

(Part 2)

The Pioneer Naval Aviators

The history of naval heavier-than-air aviation began in March 1898, when Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, recommended that two officers be appointed to examine the flying machine of Professor Samuel P. Langley for its potential as a weapon of war. The flying machine was only a 12-foot model, but the officers' report expressed general support for Professor Langley's ideas and continued experiments.

Ten years passed before further activity occurred with regard to naval aviation. In September 1908, U.S. Navy officers were among the observers at the first Army demonstration of the Wright Brothers' flying machine at Fort Myer. The following year, the U.S. Naval attache in Paris reported on his observations at an aviation event in France. He noted that the airplane could be useful in naval warfare and even suggested two means by which aircraft could be launched from naval vessels. The first idea was to use catapults to launch planes from battleships, while the second idea was the construction of a floor over the deck house of auxiliary vessels to provide a clear area for take-off runs and landings.

In 1909, Frenchman Clement Ader published his book L'Aviation Militaire, in which he described the benefits of having a type of ship to operate aircraft at sea. He predicted the need for a wide, flat flight deck, deck elevators, a hangar bay, and an island superstructure. However, the first French experiments with launching aircraft from aboard ship did not take place until May 8, 1914, when Rene Coudron took off in a floatplane of his own design from the French balloon tender, later seaplane carrier, Foudre.

The first practical demonstration of the ability to launch and land aircraft on naval vessels occurred 3 1/2 years earlier, on November 14, 1910, when civilian pilot Eugene Ely took off in a Curtiss Pusher aircraft from an 83-foot platform built on the fore deck of the USS Birmingham. The ship was at anchor in Hampton Roads and, although the wheels of Ely's plane actually touched the water, he flew safely to shore. This was the first time in the world that an aircraft had successfully taken off from a ship. Two months later, on January 18, 1911, Ely landed his Curtiss Pusher on a 120-foot platform built on the aft deck of the cruiser USS Pennsylvania, which was anchored in San Francisco Bay. A series of 22 wires weighted by sandbags served as the first arrestor system. About an hour later, he took off from the USS Pennsylvania and returned safely to shore.

USS Pennsylvania
Ely takes off from the USS Pennsylvania
in his Curtiss Pusher

After these early demonstrations, U.S. Navy interest turned to seaplanes. In December 1910, Theodore Ellyson signed up as the first U.S. Navy pilot and began training with Glenn Curtiss in his new seaplane. The Navy acquired two Curtiss A-1 seaplanes and a Wright aircraft in July 1911 and sent more pilots to Curtiss and the Wright Brothers for training. By April 1914 the state of naval aviation had progressed to the point that six seaplanes were carried on the battleship USS Mississippi and used successfully as scouts for Army troops during the American intervention into political unrest in Mexico.

Experiments were also conducted by the Navy which led to the development of compressed air catapults for launching seaplanes from existing cruisers and battleships. On November 12, 1912, Ellyson made the first successful catapult launch from a system being tested on shore at Annapolis. The first shipboard catapult launch was made by Lt. Henry Mustin from the USS North Carolina in November 1915. Development also progressed on shore-based seaplanes for maritime patrol duties. During World War I, many American pilots volunteered for service with the air corps of Great Britain and France, and obtained practical wartime experience on anti-submarine patrols over the Atlantic.

While the United States concentrated its efforts on the development of seaplanes for naval use, the British continued to experiment with the use of land planes from aboard ships. On January 10, 1912, Lt. Charles Samson of the Royal Navy made the first British shipboard takeoff from the HMS Africa. On May 2, 1912, Lt. Samson took off from the HMS Hibernia while it was under way at sea at a speed of 10 knots. This not only proved that launches could be achieved from ships at sea, but also highlighted the fact that the ship's forward speed contributed to safer launches.

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