On September 6, 1911, a somewhat overdue express consignment of several bulky crates from Dayton, Ohio was delivered to the armory of the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. At Dahlgren Hall, a small working party commanded by a lieutenant, fell to work with a will, uncrating and laying out the packaged material—a few bicycle type wheels, a gasoline motor, wooden propellers, and fabric covered struts and braces. The assembled contents of the crates, along with the working party, represented the beginning of naval aviation in the United States— a beginning which is well reflected forty years later in the daily news headlines of 1951 as formidable Navy carrier task forces fly countless tactical and support missions from the decks of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean Fleets.
With the first aviation logistical task satisfactorily completed in Dahlgren Hall by the evening of September sixth, the first Navy plane promptly went into action the following day, flying from Farragut Field, aided by a hastily recruited ground crew of eager plebe midshipmen. The Navy lieutenant, seated in the Wright bi-plane, warmed up the engine, waved “all clear,” and seconds later became the first naval aviator to leave the ground at the Naval Academy. A newspaper account of the day has recorded this eventful flight in the following fashion:
LIEUTENANT RODGERS’ FLIGHT TO WASHINGTON
“Annapolis, Maryland, Sept. 7, 1911. Lt. John Rodgers, USN, this afternoon inaugurated with complete success the experiments in aviation which will be undertaken at the Naval Academy. In a Wright Brothers bi-plane he made an ascension from the Academy parade grounds, staying in the air nearly a quarter of an hour, and showing complete mastery of the machine. Lt. Rodgers ascended in a spiral to a height of over 500 feet, made long and short turns in different directions, circled the parade grounds a number of times and ran his machine with perfect control at various levels. Once he returned within 25 feet of the ground and the spectators thought he would land, but he again ascended and made several other sweeps. He also raised so as just to clear the Seamanship building by a few feet. The landing was made with utmost smoothness and the car did not run over a few dozen yards before it was brought to standstill.
“Lt. Rodgers was so pleased with his machine that he decided to try a flight to Washington. He therefore took on a full supply of gasoline and the start for Washington was made at 3:40 o’clock. A dispatch from Washington reported that Lt. Rodgers arrived safely. The spectators on the parade grounds included the whole of the new plebe class, some of whom assisted Lt. Rodgers with his starting and seemed pleased to do it.
“Lt. Rodgers is a pupil of the Wright Brothers. Lt. Theodore Ellyson, due to arrive here shortly, has become an expert with the hydroplane under the instruction of Glenn Curtiss. The latter machine is considered especially adapted to the work of the Navy on account of its ability to skim the water as well as fly in the air. Captain Washington Irving Chambers, USN will have general charge of the aviation work at Annapolis.
“Hangars are being erected at the experimental grounds on the Severn River and that will be the aviation base. In the meantime, Lt. Rodgers is quartering his airplane in the Academy armory.
“Intense interest was taken by Navy people and Annapolitans in this first flight and Lt. Rodgers was given hearty applause. He is a modest young officer and treated his splendid work as if it was slight moment. He has the honor to be the first aviator to make an ascent from Annapolis or the Naval Academy.”
This successful flight of the Wright biplane from Farragut Field ended any doubts of the skeptical that aviation would not stay at the Naval Academy, and the Naval Air Station, Annapolis, became a reality rather than a dream—a dream envisioned a year previous by the Naval Aviation Board of 1910.
During its brief existence as the first naval air station, N.A.S. Annapolis was to be the scene of many far-reaching naval aviation experiments. It is fitting that these be briefly noted during the fortieth anniversary year.
The story of naval aviation had its beginning in October, 1910 with the appointment of the first Aviation Board, comprising Captain W. I. Chambers, U.S.N., Lt. N. H. Wright, U.S.N., and Naval Constructor Wm. McEntee. One of the first official duties of the Board was to visit the Baltimore Aviation Meeting of November, 1910. They were favored by an impressive display of air power featuring a dummy bomb dropping flight by French aviator Hubert Latham in his Antoinette flying machine. The “bombing mission” carried out at 200 feet altitude with six small bombs scored six direct hits and the “target” was reported destroyed. The fact that the target represented an outline on the ground of the 800 foot first line dreadnought U.S.S. Delaware undoubtedly added impetus to the work of the Board. In any event, by May 1911, the Aviation Board had moved Departmental red tape to the extent that Acting Secretary of Navy Beekman Winthrop signed the requisition for the first naval aircraft, one plane to be built by the Wright Brothers Company of Dayton, Ohio and two planes to be built by the Glenn Curtiss Company. The specifications directed that the planes “be capable of carrying one man for one hour, with the provision made for attaching water pontoons.” An additional clause was responsible for creating new personnel classifications in the Navy in that “three naval officers are to be instructed as aviators and three enlisted men are to be instructed as mechanics at no extra charge to the government.”
With the planes now on order for July delivery, Captain Chambers detailed Lt. John Rodgers to duty under instruction with the Wright Brothers at Dayton and Lt. John Towers joined Lt. Theodore Ellyson at Hammondsport, New York with Glenn Curtiss. The final move was the designation of the first naval air station. After duly considering the merits of Charleston, S. C., San Diego, and Annapolis, the first two sites were eliminated and in June, 1911, the order went forward authorizing an “aerodrome” be built on Greenbury Point, Annapolis, adjacent the Naval Academy. Trees were felled, brush cleared, beaches graded, large tents erected and the project was well underway until the managers of the Naval Academy Dairy heard of the impending encroachment upon their dairy land. The dairymen, anxious for the safety and continued well being of their 120 head of cows, lodged an official protest against the construction of the aviation camp. The protest indicated that “the flying machines will frighten the cows and have a subsequent effect upon the quality of the milk furnished the Midshipmen’s Mess. . . .” In the first known conflict between a Navy cow and Navy flying machine, the fleet air arm emerged the victor and the aerodrome was completed by late August.
After the heralded arrival and assembly of the new 32.5 horse power Wright bi-plane on September 6th, 1911, the aviation camp established complete operating facilities adjacent the Experimental Station on the Severn River for water flights.
On September 16, Lt. Rodgers established a new Navy record by flying to Havre de Grace, Md. and return to Annapolis, covering 52 miles in 63 minutes. By October 1911, Ellyson and Towers, assisted by Ensign Victor Herbster, were flying daily in the three planes and making record breaking over the water hops to such points as Fortress Monroe and Old Point Comfort, Va. Flying at this stage of the game, by the “makee-learn” aviators, was not without unforseen risks, which included the flying bullets and ricochets from the midshipmen’s rifle range which kept the small ground crews busy patching the wing fabric. Night flying advanced to the degree that the planes were taking off and alighting on the Severn by the flickering light of buckets of burning gasoline steadied on the thwarts of rowboats.
By December, 1911, ice conditions in Chesapeake Bay, resulted in the transfer of the aviation personnel and planes to the San Diego area for the winter. By May, 1912, Naval Air Station, Annapolis was back in commission and delighting the June Week crowds with daring flights over the Academy. During the last week of June, Lt. Rodgers flew the Navy Wright bi-plane to Baltimore and landed alongside the U.S.S. Louisiana. On his following flight he established a new Navy altitude record of 2103 feet.
Another first in naval aviation progress was achieved in July, 1912 when the first compressed air catapult for launching aircraft was tested on Santee Dock, Annapolis. The catapult, made of a discarded torpedo tube and air tank “borrowed” from the Washington Navy Yard, was built under the direction of Commander G. L. Smith, and was unofficially tested for human usage when the enlisted mechanics persuaded a small colored boy, known only to posterity as “Joe,” to embark on the catapult car for the first trial run. “Joe” managed to cling to the car as it was propelled along the track at high speed, launching car and boy into Santee Basin without damage. Lt. Ellyson then became the first naval aviator to officially test the product.
By the summer of 1912, the exploits and progress of the aviation personnel at the Naval Academy had attracted the attention of the entire Navy. The Bureau of Navigation reported that over 400 officer applications were on file for duty involving flying instruction at Annapolis. In the spring of 1913 Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels on an inspection tour of the Naval Academy made a trial flight as a passenger with Lt. John Towers at the controls. Ensign Victor Herbster flew as his passenger the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A tragic “first” in the annals of naval aviation was recorded on June 20, 1913 when Ensign William Billingsley, pilot, and Lt. Towers, passenger, were flying at 1600 feet altitude over Chesapeake Bay. The plane, a Navy Wright bi-plane, suddenly nosed down out of control, throwing Billingsley to his death. Towers managed to cling to the plane and was rescued, injured, from the wreckage. As a direct result of this first Navy accident, pilot safety belts were adopted.
By October, 1913, it was apparent that naval aviation must be expanded many fold and the Secretary of Navy’s Aeronautic Board recommended that larger and improved facilities be provided for all year aviation training at Pensacola, Florida.
Thus, after two fruitful years, 1911 to 1913, N.A.S. Annapolis, the birthplace of naval aviation, passed on the torch of progress to N.A.S. Pensacola.
GRADUATING from the Naval Academy in 1942, Lieutenant Commander Murch served on the U.S.S. Colorado and U.S.S. Alaska during the War. Later he resigned to enter the civilian engineering profession, but in 1950 was recalled to active duty as instructor in the Department of Ordnance and Gunnery at the U.S. Naval Academy.
NOT NOW, MEN, I’LL TELL YOU WHEN—!
Contributed by J. W. BOWNE
In the early days—and blacked-out nights—of World War II, communicators were not quite as adept with a garbled message as their compatriots hoped they would be.
The battleship Colorado, in company with several other large units, was moored at a quiet little spot in the New Hebrides. It was shortly after the beginning of the midwatch, and one of the more experienced watch officers, seemingly having the situation under control, was breaking a short message. Although he was having a bit of difficulty with a garble, one quick look at the remaining plain text sent him into immediate action.
“ . . . air raid is imminent, all hands go to General Quarters!” blasted through the inter-comm. to the O.O.D. on the bridge.
The serene silence of the tropic night was shattered by a bedlam of bells, bugles, shouts, running feet, and the definite thuds of watertight doors and hatches being secured. All stations manned and ready. A tense silence descended upon the ship while eyes and radar scanned the skies.
At dawn’s early light, weary bloodshot eyes beheld the unbelievable sight of the crew members of every other ship in the harbor comfortably sacked-out on deck.
Subsequent investigation revealed that the garbled first word of the message had been “WHEN.”
(The Proceedings will pay $5.00 for each anecdote submitted to, and printed in, the Proceedings.)