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First catapult off a ship

In April 1915, the AB-2 flying boat was successfully catapulted from a barge by Lieutenant Patrick N. L. Bellinger at Pensacola, Fla. The catapult used had been designed in 1913 by Lieutenant Holden C. Richardson, CC, USN, and fabricated at the Washington Navy Yard. The success of this and subsequent launchings led to installation of the catapult aboard ship.

Navy dirigible

The U.S. Navy's first airship approaches a floating hangar.

Naval aircraft at Pensacola

Naval aircraft on the beach at Pensacola during World War I. The navy established its first air station there in 1914.

USS Jupiter

The Naval Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 1920 provided for the conversion of the collier Jupiter,shown in this photo, into a ship specifically designed to launch and recover airplanes at sea - an aircraft carrier - later to be named Langley. The engineering plans for this conversion were modified in November and included catapults to be fitted on both the forward and after ends of the flying-off deck. The USS Langley was placed in commission at Norfolk, Virginia, on March 20, 1922, as the Navy's first aircraft carrier.

W.A. Moffett

W.A. Moffett, the first chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics.

Eugene Ely

Eugene B. Ely became the first person ever to land an aircraft on the deck of a warship when he landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Pennsylvania on January 18, 1911. On November 14, 1910, Ely, an employee of Glenn Curtiss who was trying to sell airplanes to the Navy, had become the first man to take-off from a warship - the U.S.S. Birmingham. His pioneering flights demonstrated the adaptability of aircraft to shipboard operations.

The Development of Naval Aviation

By the end of the 19th century, the world’s navies had already experienced a century of rapid change. Steam power, ironclads, and submarines had developed from new inventions into standard technology used to help win control of the seas. So when airplanes began to fly in 1903, it was understandable that many high-ranking naval personnel were slow to adjust to yet another technological revolution affecting sea power. The French naval publication La Vie Maritime even complained that after the submarine, "there is now a new gimmick, the airplane" and called for an end to the "abomination." But navies realized not only the potential of aviation, but also incorporated it as an integral part of sea power doctrine, unlike the U.S. Army, which was slow to accept the use of aircraft in its operations.


When Wilbur Wright demonstrated the capabilities of the Wright Flyer III for the military in 1908, the U.S. Navy sent two observers. Their report was favorable, but no actions were taken. It wasn’t until 1910 that Captain I.W. Chambers from the navy’s Bureau of Equipment attended several air shows and realized great potential for aviation in the navy. He asked the Wright Company to demonstrate that an airplane could be launched from a boat, but they were not interested. Instead, Chambers turned to Glenn Curtiss and his new company with the same request. Curtiss accepted, and a long relationship between Curtiss and the navy began.


The demonstration was held on November 14, 1910, when Eugene B. Ely, a Curtiss employee, launched a Curtiss biplane off a specially constructed deck on the USS Birmingham while the ship was anchored. The following January, he landed on the USS Pennsylvania while it was anchored in San Francisco Bay. Ely thus had become the first person to take off and land on a boat. The next week, flying a seaplane for a different demonstration, Curtiss flew a seaplane from the ground, landed it in the water next to the USS Pennsylvania, hoisted it onto deck and then dropped it back into the water and took off again. With these demonstrations, Curtiss had shown how the navy could integrate airplanes into its operations. Convinced, the navy requested $25,000 for aviation in the 1911-1912 Naval Appropriations Bill. To foster good will, Curtiss agreed to start training pilots before the money came through. Under Curtiss’ training, Lieutenant T.G. Ellyson became the navy’s first aviator.


In England, the naval aviation program did not get underway as quickly. Although the Royal Naval Air Service was established in 1908, pilots and planes were slow to arrive. In 1911, the Royal Navy made several airplanes available to whoever wanted to learn to fly. But no one was interested. Young officers were worried that aviation training would ruin their careers by making them appear "eccentric." King George V had to step in and offer a special daily allowance for flying, thereby erasing the stigma. Officers began signing up and the Royal Naval Air Service was finally a reality. The other world navies followed suit in the next few years, until 1913, when Brazil and Greece became the last.


In 1913, the U.S. Navy built the first catapult system at the Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C. In January 1913, the navy took several airplanes to Guantánamo, Cuba, for operations with the fleet. It tested the airplanes’ abilities at reconnaissance and spotting minefields and submarines. The planes proved to be especially suited to reconnaissance, since at 3,000 feet (914 meters) they offered a 60-mile (97-kilometer) view, versus the 12 miles (19 kilometers) that could be seen from the average crow’s nest. In 1914, the navy established its first air station in Pensacola, Florida.


In addition to land airplanes, seaplanes, and flying boats, navies were also developing rigid airships, such as blimps and zeppelins. These ships could remain in the air for hours, and their slow speed was perfect for spotting submarines.


When World War I began, the Germans moved their seaplanes to Helgoland, Germany, to counter an anticipated attack from the north by Britain. The attack never came, since the British had decided to form a blockade instead. The only major naval battle of the war occurred at Jutland and did not involve much aerial activity. In the early days of the war, the Royal Navy boasted the first deck landing at sea and the first zeppelin kill by a sea-based aircraft. On July 19, 1918, the English launched the first carrier strike when seven Sopwith Camels launched from HMS Furious bombed the zeppelin sheds at Tondem. The strike was successful, but all the planes had to be ditched at sea because the deck of the Furious was too short for landings. Not until September 1918 did the first true carrier, HMS Argus, set sail.


Seaplanes soon proved an inefficient choice for fleet airplanes. It took too long for a carrier to slow down enough to either drop the seaplane in the water for takeoff or pick it up once it had landed. Seaplanes were also more likely to experience weather delays, as they depended on both calm seas and skies. As a result, navies began to order airplanes that could land on carriers.


Military resources, however, were sparse, and worldwide, armies and navies competed for the same planes and money. This sometimes led to a failure to share intelligence information and to support one another in military operations. This competition increased after World War I when treaties demanded a trimming of worldwide military budgets and the services had to fight even more for the remaining meager funds.


The British merged their land and sea aerial forces, creating the Royal Air Force in 1918. The interservice rivalry continued and because the majority of the officers were from the army, naval aviation was neglected. The United States remained the only naval aviation power. But the budget cuts were also felt in the States. The army and navy bickered over the small funds being allocated to the military. Billy Mitchell, an army officer whose support of air power and a separate air force was vociferous, risked his career to ensure that air power received funds. His attacks focused on the navy, which wanted to build more battleships. In 1921, to prove his argument, Mitchell performed a series of demonstrations to show how effective airplanes were against battleships. The right people were convinced. The navy realized it needed to organize its own aviation operations and created the Bureau of Aeronautics in August 1921. Rear Admiral William Moffett, a 35-year veteran of the sea, was named its first chief.


From the beginning, Moffett was a supporter of aviation. But he also knew that Mitchell and other outspoken supporters had created much animosity and divisiveness. Moffett began working to ease these problems and was helped by the fact that in contrast to Mitchell, he appeared responsible.


Instead of defining the air power debate as the pilots versus the traditional military, Moffett declared that pilots and their planes were part of the team, which was composed of battleships, submarines, and aircraft carriers.


Moffett also made aviation a part of the staff structure. Whereas the Army Air Corps was separate from the army with a different command structure, ranking system, and career path, navy pilots were on the same career track as other naval officers, with the goal of commanding ships and fleets eventually. They were naval officers first, pilots second. This close connection was exemplified in 1941 when Admiral Ernest King, a pilot, became chief of naval operations.


Moffett was aided by the rising threat of Japan, which forced the navy to start planning for war in the Pacific. The entire naval force had to be able to move across the Pacific, independent of ground support. Experts lobbied for aircraft carriers, which were basically portable airfields. Moffett and Mitchell had proved the value of airplanes to the fleet so Congress was willing to support them. In 1927, two aircraft carriers, USS Lexington and Saratoga were built. By 1941, the United States could claim a well-balanced naval force, with a combination of heavy and light battleships, submarines, and aircraft carriers. Moffett had built a new navy, ready to fight a campaign across the Pacific Ocean.


--Pamela Feltus


Sources and Additional Reading:

Gunston, Bill. History of Military Aviation. London: Hamlyn, 2000.

Hoyt, Edwin P. Carrier Wars: Naval Aviation from World War II to the Persian Gulf. New York: McGraw Hill, 1989.

Kennett, Lee. The First Air War, 1914-1918. New York: Free Press, 1991.

"William Moffett." in Leary, William M., ed. Aviation’s Golden Age: Portraits From the 1920s and 1930s. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

Wragg, David. Wings over the Sea. New York: Arco Publishing, 1979.


"The Aircraft Carrier." http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/ships/carriers/

"Chronology of Significant Events in Naval Aviation." www.history.navy.mil/branches/org4-5.htm

Ivy, Lt.Col. Jack M. "The Paradoxical Paradigm: Aviation Leadership, 1918-1926: How William Moffett Changed the Navy and How Billy Mitchell Prevented the Formation of a Separate Air Force" from the Air University Student Research Papers Database at www.au.af.mil/au/database/research/ay1997/awc/97-090.htm.

U.S. Navy Historical Center: www.history.navy.mil/index.html

Fleet Air Arm Museum: www.fleetairarm.com

National Museum of Naval Aviation: www.naval-air.org


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