The first U.S. Navy fighter to go to sea was a variant of the French-built Hanriot HD-2 floatplane. The Hanriot was a one-seat, single-engine, twin-float, biplane fighter that was noted for being rugged, maneuverable, and easy to fly. A small number were assigned to French warships. In addition, 125 were built for Belgium and 831 for Italy, most built under license at Varese in northern Italy.
The U.S. Navy acquired 26 of the aircraft for use in European coastal operations during World War I. After the war, ten of the aircraft were shipped to the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia for conversion to landplanes. In front of their new wheeled undercarriages they were fitted with a hydrovane for stability in possible emergency water landings.1
In March 1919, the Navy began flying the fighters from wood platforms built over the forward main battery turrets of eight battleships. That effort began 17 months after the Royal Navy initiated similar operations.
Aviation historian Peter Bowers wrote:
But it wasn’t easy. The effectiveness of the airplanes operating with the fleet in this 1919–1920 period was severely restricted by their configuration. They had to stay within range of shore bases. However, provision was made for emergency landings at sea. A flotation system developed in England during World War One was used to keep downed planes afloat. It consisted of two bags inflated by compressed air.2
The position atop gun turrets was chosen rather than a takeoff ramp on the bow to avoid sea damage as the ships steamed into the wind for takeoffs. The turret also could be trained into the wind for takeoff if the ship could not be easily brought to that heading. In addition, the forward position could have interfered with the ship’s normal activities.
For several reasons, the era of Hanriot fighters on board U.S. battleships was brief. Soon they were succeeded by floatplanes, launched by catapult, that could be recovered after a water landing alongside the battleship or cruiser. However, those floatplanes were suitable only for scouting, gunfire spotting, and rescue—all important roles—but they were not fighters.
Thus, the Hanriot HD-2 was the only fighter aircraft taken to sea by the U.S. Navy until the 1920s, when aircraft carriers began to join the fleet.
1. The Naval Aircraft Factory was established in 1918.
2. Peter Bowers, “United States Navy’s First Fighters at Sea,” Air Trails: Military Aircraft, 1970, 55–56.