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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
Six years later the Navy tried to fly one of its largest flying boats from San Francisco Bay to Hawaii, but unexpected head winds caused it to run out of fuel some distance short of its destination. Its crew commandeered all the suitable cloth on board, stripped some fabric from the wings, rigged a sail, and completed the voyage in a style worthy of Old Ironsides. Despite its premature conclusion, the flight established distance and endurance records in the air and received considerable editorial comment to the effect that only a flying boat could have survived and only a naval crew could have sailed her to her destination. Commercial exploitation of the flying-boat concept also went forward, with the huge-hulled Pan-American Clippers of the 1930s making an indelible impression on the times. The Navy, however, concentrated on the long-range patrol plane, culminating in the familiar PBY or Catalina of the late 1930s, which flew patrol sorties throughout World War II and throughout the world.
It was a heady period. Aircraft and aircraft-engine design leaped forward, each far superior to its immediate predecessor, just as was happening at the same time with automobiles. Many of the improvements, particularly in engines, applied simultaneously to planes and cars. Some naval fliers of that epoch saw the flying boat as the primary instrument of sea-air power. Others looked to a combination of ships and combat-type planes—the aircraft carrier with its brood—while still others clung to the lighter-than-air concept despite its disastrous record. All fliers were as one, however, in the conviction that flying machines were destined to change the Navy more radically than any agency or vehicle or weapon had ever done.
Air races came into vogue during the years between the wars, and the Navy and Marine Corps participated with gusto, winning awards worldwide and putting the names of many of their fliers on the lists of permanent record holders. It was another of the instances when personal drive for fame and fortune coincided with the national interest. The racing planes were, in fact, test vehicles for new engines and new designs that led directly to the high-performance aircraft of World War II.
Despite the faith in lighter-than-air ships and flying boats, as the 1930s drew to a close and war approached, it became increasingly clear to the naval-aviation fraternity that the Navy’s Sunday punch lay in its carriers and the planes they carried: the torpedo planes and dive bombers. The United States and Japanese navies had rivaled each other in development of naval-air capability. The lessons learned from the Langley in our navy, and in the Japanese navy from the Hosho , were incorporated in the two huge new ships each was allowed by the London Naval Treaty of 1922. The Lexington and the Saratoga , modified in construction from battle cruisers laid down in the aftermath of World War I, became the nucleus of our fighting air arm; Amagi and Kaga , equally big and also spawned by the 1922 treaty, became the nucleus of Japan’s. U.S. naval aviators began to develop growing confidence in their abilities. So did those of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
In Japan, however, the process was producing results better than ours, for its target was more clearly defined. All this came to fruition in December of 1941, when Japanese naval aircraft, “fired” from a fleet three hundred miles away, caught our battleships in harbor, unready even to shoot back. Moreover, the ships attacking them were far out of range of any weapons our battle fleet carried. The stunning realization came that it was lucky for us that the outclassed battleships had been caught in harbor. Had they been at sea, preparing for the fleet action for which they had been trained, they would have been sunk in deep water, with far greater loss of life to our side and even less to Japan than was actually the case. From that moment World War II at sea became a carrier, submarine, and amphibious war.
Both Japan and the United States had learned much from their London Naval Treaty carriers, and both navies had designed new and better carriers. We built five during the immediate pre-war years, of which three, plus the older Lexington and still older Langley , now converted to an aircraft ferry, were lost in the first months of the conflict. The most important survivor was the Enterprise . The design of “the Big E”—and that of her lost sisters Yorktown and Hornet —was improved and modified from the lessons of the combat. It was reproduced some thirty times during the hurried wartime construction. These were the carriers that fought and won the war: the Enterprise and her twenty-four near sisters; the eight smaller carriers built on adaptations of cruiser hulls; and the eighty or more “jeep” carriers, designed primarily for convoy escort. Their weapons, of course, were the planes they flew from their decks, and the names of some of these, the F6F Hellcat, for example, and the F4LJ Corsair, became more familiar to the American public than the ships from which they flew.