USS Pennsylvania

Early Naval Aviation – History Up Close

Military Balloon
Soldiers from the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment inflate the balloon “Intrepid” before the Battle of Fair Oaks, Va. in late May 1862. (Library of Congress Photo)

On July 12, 1849, the Austrian Navy ship Vulcano launched a manned hot air balloon in order to drop bombs on Venice, the attempt failing due to contrary winds. During the US Civil War in the peninsular campaign balloons were used to reconnoitre Confederate positions. When the battles moved inland they were transferred to the decks of coal tenders, the decks cleared to make room for generators and other apparatus used to inflate the balloons with hydrogen. It was at this time that Prof. Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps, made his first ascents over the Potomac River telegraphing to those on the ground, the ship bourn balloon telegraphing the ground an aviation first. More barges were converted so as to launch military balloons transported about the eastern waterways to reconnoitre confederate positions. Although none of these vessels had ever taken to the high seas they did lead to the introduction of balloon carrying ships  into  the navies of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Sweden. About ten such “balloon tenders” were built, their main objective being aerial observation posts.

German submarine SM U-53 - Naval Aviation
German submarine SM U-53 in Newport, Rhode Island 7 October 1916

The development of heavier than air aircraft in the early 20th century caused various navies to take an interest in their reconnaissance potential for big gun warships. Captain Thaylor Mahons book ‘The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890).’ which was gospel at the time, had emphasized the supremacy of the battle ship and so the role of aviation was seen as ancillary to it. However modern technology was wreaking his thesis. On 16 October 1916, the German submarine U-53 entered the harbour of Newport, R. I. to ‘pay respects to the naval authorities of the base.’ The U-53 departed a few hours later after a hostile reception… Within 24 hours of leaving the U-boat captain had sunk five steamers of British, Dutch and Norwegian registration inside U.S. continental waters. This new generation German submarine was one of the recently developed classes of U-boats with extended cruising range and large displacement. The sole purpose of the visit was to impress upon the US the formidable new German technology so as to deter it from entering the war or from supplying the Allies.  

In 1909 the French inventor Clément Ader described in his book ‘L’Aviation Militaire’ ‘a ship to operate airplanes at sea, with a flat flight deck, an island superstructure, deck elevators and a hangar bay. These vessels would be constructed on a plan very different from that currently used. The deck will be cleared of all obstacles’, the book stated, ‘and will be flat, as wide as possible without jeopardizing the nautical lines of the hull, and it will look like a landing field.’  That year the US Naval Attaché in Paris sent a report, the above included in his observations.

La Foudre Naval Aviation
The French La Foudre, first seaplane carrier in history, with hangar and cranes.

In March 1910 the French ship Le Canard flew the first float plane, designed to carry airplanes, albeit equipped with floats. In December of 1911 the French Navy ship La Foudre appeared, the first seaplane carrier, and the first known air craft carrier. It carried float-equipped planes under hangars on the main deck which were lowered to the sea by crane. La Foudre was again modified in November 1913, now having a 10 meter flat deck so as to launch seaplanes. In April-May 1913 the British followed up with HMS Hermes, a temporarily converted seaplane carrier, the first experimental seaplane carrier of the Royal Navy, originally laid down as a merchant ship, converted on the building stocks as  a seaplane carrier in 1913, and again converted to a cruiser and back again to a seaplane carrier in 1914, to be sunk  by a German submarine in October 1914. The US too in December 1913 introduced its first seaplane tender, the USS Mississippi, this also a conversion.

First airplane takeoff from a warship
Eugene Burton Ely takes off from the USS Birmingham, Hampton Roads, Virginia, November 14, 1910

In 1911 an American, Eugene Ely, had made the first land plane take off from ship structure fixed over the forecastle of the US armored cruiser USS Birmingham at Hampton Roads, Virginia landing nearby on Willoughby Spit after some five minutes in the air. Shortly after he took off from a race track to land on the cruiser USS Pennsylvania anchored on the San Francisco waterfront. To land he used an improvised braking system of sandbags attached to wires in order to avoid smashing into machinery, or running off the deck. He then turned the aircraft around and took off again to become the first man to not only to take off from on board a ship but also to land onboard a ship.

USS Pennsylvania
Eugene Ely landing his Curtiss Model D biplane on the USS Pennsylvania

The first US naval aircraft combat occurred during the Mexican war of 1914 where two sections of aircraft, two aircraft to a section, were loaded onto USS Mississippi and the USS Birmingham. Mississippi’s aircraft flew for forty three days scouting enemy trenches around Veracruz. On May of 1914 the US sustained its first aircraft damage resulting from combat. Naval aviation bases, actual or in the process of being established, were now situated in Washington DC, Long Island New York, New Brunswick Canada, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pannama Canal, Halifax Nova Scotia, Virginia, Florida and California.

Before US involvement in the war naval air units were loaned to France where entire squadrons were placed under their command. Some pilots were also attached to the RAF. The French eventually placed four of their naval aviation airbases under the care of US Naval Air Patrol units, as they were known at the time. One of the bases, Dunkeque, was under a cloud of contention, this outpost on the coast of Brittany was within range of, not only German aircraft and Zeppelins stationed at Zeebruuge and Ostend, but also naval aviation gunfire coming in from the North Sea. The senior US officer specified that in order for him to take over the base he would have to be given fighter cover. The French replied that they didn’t have the resource. The net result was that the Americas were to supply the fighter cover using French aircraft after undergoing a period of air combat training in France, to be followed by air gunnery training in Britain.

Harwich Force
Harwich Force in line ahead

Operations against German Zeppelins formed the major focus of Royal Navy carrier operations in the North Sea. The Admiralty and the Grand Fleet’s commander, Sir John Jellicoe, were cognizant of the danger Zeppelins posed to the fleet, even though at the outbreak of war the German Navy possessed but one operational unit. This number rose to four by the end of 1914. As they began their bombing campaign against the British Isles the Royal Navy was forced to take action. Floatplanes versus airships resulted in a severe handicap for the former as they were incapable of rising to the altitudes of the Zeppelins, or of carrying weapons sufficient to destroy them in the air, the British therefore opted to attack their bases. These ships, consisting of conventional ships and aircraft carriers, became known as the Harwich force. They too served as an enticement to the German High Seas Fleet; promising an easy victory and a way of breaking out  in to the Atlantic Ocean.

Curtiss HS-2L flying boat
Curtiss HS-2L flying boat built for the United States Navy during World War I

The first US offensive of WWI by naval aviation occurred on November 18, 1917 where Tellier seaplanes escorted convoys from the US moving through Quiboron Bay to Saint Navarre. Dunkerque too was having its share in the action. A patrol from the base ran into a surfaced U boat which they attacked to be driven off by cannon and machine guns mounted on the deck and conning tower of the submarine. The escort fighters seeing the plight of their comrades dived to the attack firing their machine guns at the deck and silencing the guns. The high section then dived in for the kill dropping fifty pound iron bombs and sinking the U boat. The common fighter type flown by the US forces at the time were the French Hanriot single seater twin float plane equipped with rotary engines and HS-1 HS-2 flying boats. (Flying boats were supported in the water by their hulls and had top mounted engines.).

Throughout the war the Royal Navy mounted attacks upon Zeebruuge and Ostend but were rarely successful. Aircraft were driven off by naval aviation gunfire, suffered mechanical problems, were  turned back or downed by patrolling Hansa Brandenburg fighters. However there were some success. On July 19, 1918 seven Sopwith Camels launched from HMS Furious attacked the German Zeppelin base at Tondern, with two 50 lb bombs each. Several airships and balloons were destroyed. Unfortunately the carrier had no method of recovering the aircraft safely; two of the pilots ditched their aircraft in the sea alongside the carrier while the others headed for neutral Denmark. This was an ongoing problem throughout the war. Many aircraft were lost in this way. The Royal Navy flew both land and seaplane, the latter needing calm water, the land aircraft able to be used in rougher sea conditions the art of landing on a pitching deck not yet mastered.

Soon these problems would be ironed out but by then the war would be over. WWI had partially demolished Captains Mahan’s thesis that the Battle Ship ruled the seas. German U boats operating on their own sank massive amounts of allied shipping with no support or interference by Battle Ships. WWII put the final nail in the coffin regarding the theory of the superiority of the Battle Ship in naval aviation warfare. At the battle of the Corral Sea not a single big gun was used, at least not in the ship to ship role, the Japanese and American fleets never coming within sight of one another;  the aircraft carrier and its aircraft the deciding factor.