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Navy Power-A View From The Air

May 2024
15min read

Seventy-five years ago a powered kite landed on a cruiser. From that stunt grew the weaponry that has defined modern naval supremacy.

For hundreds of years ships of war were of wood, moved by the wind. Their long-range weapons were simple cannon, while at short ranges, with ships locked alongside one another in deadly embrace, the sailors used cutlasses, sabers, pikes, and small arms. The strategy of sea power consisted of maneuvering, out of sight and beyond knowledge, into position where the power of the guns and their trained crews could become decisive. Before Trafalgar, as before all his battles, Nelson kept himself informed of the enemy location and movement through his scouting ships (of which he complained he never had enough). Villeneuve, commanding Napoleon’s fleet, knew the British were nearby, and hoped to avoid meeting them, but in fact had no idea of exactly where they were or what Nelson’s strategy might be. When the day of battle dawned, England’s enemy could not escape. Disaster, in the form of a concentration of British sailing battleships, leaped out of the sea and fell upon the hapless French and Spanish on October 21,1805. Trafalgar determined Europe’s course for a century.

Not for one and a third centuries, until Midway, did a naval battle have such a world-shaping effect. In the meantime the Industrial Revolution had increased the capabilities of man a thousandfold, and those of his warships by at least twice that. Ships of war changed more in this short period than in all of naval history. It was then that the armored steam-powered battleship as we know it today developed, the first one being the little Monitor of Civil War fame. By 1940 its successors had become the epitome of impregnable force at sea. But during all its history, the battleship seldom was engaged in actual battle. It performed its function more through the majesty of its image than through the effectiveness of its weapons. These were still limited to the range of man’s vision on the surface—to the range, in other words, of guns. Meanwhile, man’s reach had gone much farther. Despite its aura, the great fort of floating steel never really justified its existence by the conclusive Trafalgar-like combat for which it had been created. Other, smaller, ships fought the battles: even Jutland was principally a battle-cruiser engagement. And at Pearl Harbor the battleships were merely victims.

Nevertheless, during the last half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, we looked on the battleship as the quintessential, primary ship of war. But after World War I, the battleship began losing this distinction at an ever faster rate. Beginning about 1930 the men in charge of the Navy, still in romantic thrall to the naval lore of the past, blinded themselves to an evolution taking place before their very eyes. They believed our fleet of outmoded World War I-type battleships to be the backbone of the Navy. So they believed until 1941; all the while, in reality, the battleship was already destined to play a distant second fiddle to a revolutionary weapon developed during the last forty of the eighty years since the Monitor had fought the Merrimack .

The new queen of battles was the aircraft carrier. She could accurately project power hundreds of miles instead of only tens of miles; and unlike the battleship, the carrier came into fierce combat from the very outset of her reign. Caught in the fire storm of World War II just as she came of age, the carrier and her aircraft proved to be the best fire fighters. The traditional battle fleet changed its shape and even its name, becoming the carrier task force. In the process it became outstandingly clear that Pearl Harbor should never have been allowed to happen. The ships sunk there should never have been so exposed to enemy air power. It was a classic case of an anachronism brought face to face with a reality that for years had been predicted by officers and men of our naval air arm. In macabre disguise, the disaster was a blessing. At a single stroke Pearl Harbor freed us from the dead weight of a mistaken strategy, a mistaken concept of how to use our power on the sea.

The new queen of battles was the aircraft carrier, and unlike the battleship, she came into combat from the outset of her reign.

Only six months later, at Midway, both sides had aircraft carriers—and the similarity to Trafalgar was profound: concealed power leaped from the sea to overwhelm a strategically surprised enemy; a superior force was defeated by a lesser one that was superior in the things that really counted—prior intelligence, awareness, careful planning; immense consequences flowed from the battle.

At Midway, carrier-based air power confirmed its claim to control of the sea, and it has done so many times since. Its versatility is unmatched. Off Libya it has just provided America’s most potent weapon for a limited strike against another state. On the free sea, well within striking range of its enemies yet surrounded by its own protective umbrella, our sea-based air power leaves behind no trail, no vulnerable infrastructure of logistics, nothing that can be used to hurt it or restrain its freedom of action.

Late in 1910, just seven years after the Wright brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk, a noted civilian pilot, Eueene B. Ely, employed by the Curtiss Aircraft Company, took off in what might today be called a powered kite, a fifty-horsepower Curtiss pusher aircraft, from an inclined wooden platform built on the bow of the scout cruiser Birmingham , anchored in Hampton Roads, Virginia. His plane sagged startlingly low as it cleared the bow ramp, nearly hit the water—by some accounts actually did so and damaged its propeller —and moments later everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief as the sweating Ely put his craft safely on the ground at a field some two miles away.

Two months later, in January 1911, the first landing aboard and takeoff from a man-of-war took place. In preparation, an inclined landing platform similar to Birmingham ’s had been built over the stern of the much bigger U.S. armored cruiser Pennsylvania , slanted upward over her after eight-inch gun turret. Arresting gear, consisting of sandbags on the ends of taut ropes elevated a few inches above the wooden planks, was stretched across it, and a canvas barrier was rigged to prevent the plane from striking the ship’s mainmast, where the landing platform necessarily terminated. The Pennsylvania was anchored in San Francisco Bay. With every available observation space crammed with onlookers, Ely landed his same Curtiss on the platform, rolling uphill and catching about half of the arresting lines with the hook built into the tail of his fragile machine. Most accounts say he nearly hit the canvas screen, but Ely later claimed his craft should have been allowed to roll even closer to it. (Most of the duly impressed witnesses felt he had come quite close enough.) About an hour after landing, Ely climbed back into his plane, revved up its engine, and signaled to cut the hold-down line. The plane clattered down the runway and over the stern, again dropped alarmingly but only to within ten feet of the water, and then rose triumphantly into the air. It is surprising how many of the techniques innovated for that single short flight are still in use today.

Naval aviation can be dated from that day, but there were earlier preliminaries. The first Officer in Charge of Aviation (imagine anyone with that title today!) was Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, USN, and it was he who persuaded the Navy Department to allow the experiment to be made in the first place. For this and other services, Chambers is sometimes called the father of naval aviation, and some authorities give May 8, 1911, the day Chambers signed the order for two aircraft from Glenn Curtiss’s aircraft factory, as the true inauguration of naval air. Capt. Charles F. Pond, of the Pennsylvania , an old sea dog proud of his seamanship, foresaw a great future for aircraft in the Navy and was delighted to lend his ship for the occasion. Ely, of course, gets the credit for the actual landing and takeoff.

After the Pennsylvania there was still a very long way to go, and almost immediately controversy developed. Battleship adherents, who believed in the great and storied fleet action between perfected steel behemoths hurling tons of ogival-shaped spinning projectiles at one another, saw the airplane as a magnificent platform for scouting and spotting (correcting the fall of shot). Every battleship and all new cruisers were swiftly assigned an air department and two or three float planes, with catapults for launching them, and cranes or derricks for hoisting them back on board. The rules for battle practice were rewritten, and gunnery officers and captains studied how to get the most out of this interesting and potentially useful contraption. To battleship aficionados the millennium—accurate gunfire at long range—seemed nearer at hand, and they blessed the airplanes that made it so.

The growing group of fliers was not, however, enchanted with the prospect of being an adjunct to what they saw as a mission without a future. From their point of view, maximum gun range was ridiculously less than the distance they could carry a bomb. Float planes were slow and vulnerable, and observation planes slowly circling over a battle fleet to spot gunfire would be sitting ducks for combat aircraft. The idea of flying directly off ships at sea—and landing aboard them—as was pioneered on the Birmingham and Pennsylvania , appealed to them far more. Finally, after much discussion over design, the collier Jupiter , best and fastest of her class, was taken in hand in 1920 for conversion into our navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Langley . The then Commander Kenneth Whiting K is generally given most credit for design and authorization of the Langley , but there were many other dedicated officers who foresaw control of the air as being potentially as important as control of the sea and who acted accordingly. Most had yet to fly in an airplane, and many never did, but that did not prevent them from appreciating the possibilities.

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.

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.

Luckily, the Japanese attack on December 7,1941, caught our battleships in harbor; had they been at sea, the losses would have been much worse.
Carriers built today will be operational forty years from now, and the power they can project is more concentrated than anywhere else on earth.

The real successor to the line-of-battle ship that had for centuries dominated combat at sea had been revealed as the ungainly, once ridiculed, “flattop.” She didn’t have the romantic majesty of Nelson’s Victory , or the awesome presence of the low-lying, multiturreted, battleship of World War I. But she had the power.

Since World War II the flying boats, like the lighter-than-air craft, have passed their peak. In 1946 the largest operational class of flying boat ever built, the Martin Mars, entered the Naval Air Transport Service. Nine years later the Martin Seamaster, which carried jet engines above the wing instead of beneath it, made its debut. The high location of the big boat’s jets was of course to minimize ingestion of water, but there is no controlling the propensity of the sea to seek out and capitalize on even the smallest point of vulnerability. As with the dirigible of two decades before, fatal crashes of the first two Seamasters aborted the nascent program, and the older propeller-driven Mars transports were permitted to phase out through normal attrition.

The need for the flying boat’s anti-submarine patrol mission, combined with some of the elements of long-range scouting by radar and electronic intercepts, remains, but this aircraft has been outclassed by extremely economical, extremely long-range, land-based planes. Today, several generations after the last of the boats, four-engined turboprop airplanes able to circle lazily on station with two of their propellers feathered and carrying a heavy load of detection devices and ammunition, have brought a new level of protection to ships employed overseas.

But the star of our naval aviation show, the principal actor in the new phase of control of the sea that began to raise its head during the halcyon thirties and was crowned in the bloody oil of Pearl Harbor, is the aircraft carrier. Our carriers are today’s titans of sea power and will remain so well into the twenty-first century.

Ultimately, no doubt, even these great ships will disappear from the scene, and it is easy to predict that history will repeat itself as it has for ages past: their place will be taken by some other instrument of frightful force, perhaps an even mightier version of today’s missile-launching submarine. But that prospect—grim and by no means inevitable—is distant.

The new carriers we are building will still be operational forty years from now. They are the Theodore Roosevelt , to be commissioned October 27, 1986, on the 128th anniversary of that extraordinary man’s birth; the Abraham Lincoln , under construction in the shipway where the Roosevelt took shape; and the George Washington , still in the preliminary stages while she awaits the Lincoln ’s launch so as to clear the shipway for her own keel. Compared with them, the Saratoga and the Lexington of only fifty years ago were inefficient, poorly designed, able to put into the air only a small fraction of the power these three new ships will be able to fling aloft.

Everyone experiences the sea in a different way, and life aboard a big carrier is different from that on any other ship. The number of men aboard may approach seven thousand in all, counting her full air complement. She is a city in herself, and she is also a huge, extraordinarily complex machine shop, devoted to only one thing: the success and safety of the planes in her charge. All else is subordinated. The power she can project is greater, and more concentrated, than anywhere else in the world.

The new carriers are as near to perfection as we can get; as a new development in one of the arts of man, they achieve a higher and more stable plateau of control of the sea than has ever been achieved before. They are, nevertheless, under criticism as being too awesome, too strong, too apt to cause adventurism among our leaders. In America there is no validity to this argument. Such capability has prevented war far more often than it has created it. Who, today, would dare suggest that the United States should not have had the seven carriers we had when World War II came to us? Now we are working toward a goal of fifteen—more capable, of course, but so are the aircraft flying from their decks, and so are those of the opposition. It is technology and the training of history that give us the edge. The marriage of ships with aircraft has provided the United States with a defensive system more able, and more flexible, than ever before in our history. Our problem is only how to use it most wisely.

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