- Historic Sites
Navy Power-A View From The Air
Seventy-five years ago a powered kite landed on a cruiser. From that stunt grew the weaponry that has defined modern naval supremacy.
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
It is only fair to note that this development of the carrier was paralleled by the Royal Navy of Britain, whose first aircraft carrier, the Argus , became operational in 1919. But England’s naval-air arm was severely constrained by the official concept that all military aircraft, no matter what their design or intended employment, should be part of the Royal Air Force. American naval aviators have always felt that the bureaucratic inertia of this system was the principal cause of its ineffectiveness in the Atlantic naval war of 1939. In the meantime, however, another navy, on the far side of the world, had studied the lessons well. Japan had set up an excellent naval air organization and knew exactly what it was intended for.
Not all naval aviation was confined to carriers during this developmental period. Great attention was paid to lighter-than-air craft. We obtained the dirigible Los Angeles from Germany in 1924, filled her gas cells with nonflammable helium instead of the lighter but inflammable hydrogen, and operated her successfully despite greatly reduced lifting capacity. Disaster struck, however, with our own American-built dirigibles. In 1925 the Shenandoah , too lightly built for the weather she eventually encountered, was caught over Ohio in a line squall, broken in half, and dashed to earth with the loss of fourteen of her crew. (A hushed-up scandal of the crash was that some of her dead were found to have been stripped of mementos such as class rings, watches, and even portions of their uniforms, and the wreck itself had been looted by souvenir hunters.) Undaunted, the Navy built two bigger and better dirigibles, the Akron and the Macon , and constructed a huge new air base and hangar at Sunnyvale, California. But disaster struck again. First, in 1933, the Akron , with the chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics on board, went down at sea in a sudden storm with all hands lost. Two years later the Macon , cruising off the California coast, suffered a minor casualty in her tail fin; though not a serious accident itself, a broken girder pierced one of the gasbags, and she sank slowly down into the sea. The weather was good, the water calm, and all but two of her crew members were rescued.
The final deathblow to the huge silver machines was the destruction of the German Hindenburg by fire as she was landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. The pictures and newsreels of the catastrophe put an end to the rigid airship. The Los Angeles remained in a nonflying status in her hangar at Lakehurst, New Jersey, until she was broken up for scrap in 1939, a final sad relic of what the Navy and the country once had believed to be the shape of things to come.
Nonrigid airships, the so-called blimps, much smaller and far less complicated than the big dirigibles, remained in service, however, more or less in experimental status, until their usefulness for coastal antisubmarine patrol became evident during World War II. At one time during the war, a fleet of 150 blimps provided air cover to convoys, and it became their boast that no ship was lost to submarine attack of any kind while there was a blimp in the air overhead. Eventually, however, one blimp actually was shot down by a German submarine (the submarine was damaged, and was sunk during the return voyage to its base). The Navy’s last nonrigid airships stayed in commission until 1961.
For a long time the flying boat also showed great promise. Provided the weather was favorable, the sea was an infinitely long landing field and takeoff runway, and for many years the Navy’s biggest aircraft were, in fact, lightly built boats with wings. Their epochal accomplishment occurred when Seaplane Division One, consisting of four Curtiss NC flying boats, took on the project of flying across the Atlantic Ocean. Plagued with mechanical difficulties, NC-2 was forced to abandon the mission, but NC-I, -3 and -4 took off on schedule, on May 8,1919. NC-I ,and NC-3 were forced to land at sea and were unable to complete the trip (all hands were rescued after drifting some distance in their disabled boats), but nineteen days later, on May 27, NC-4 landed safely in Lisbon Harbor. Since the NC-4 exploit had been accomplished with government equipment in the course of a government-approved operation, with Navy ships stationed along the route for assistance, her crew was denied permission to accept the $50,000 prize money the London Daily Mail was offering for the feat. Nevertheless, the portent of transatlantic flight was clear, and to the U.S. Navy belongs the honor of completing the first, ever.