Watching a Navy Hornet—with its vast array of electronic and hydraulic components that aid in flying and carrying out a wide variety of missions—come screaming out of the sky to slam down on the deck of a nuclear-powered carrier, it is almost impossible to imagine the humble origins that led to such an impressive display of technology and acquired skill. Yet less than a century before, very brave men took to the skies in machines constructed of fragile frames covered with fabric, relying entirely on a magnetic compass, a pressure altimeter, a mechanical speed indicator, and the Mark 1 Mod A eyeball for their instrumentation.
During a fleet exercise in January 1924, two of these primitive machines—Douglas Torpedo Planes (DT-2s)—left the USS Langley (CV-1) on the Atlantic side of the Panamanian isthmus in search of an “enemy” fleet on the Pacific side. This was the first time that carrier aircraft had attempted a scouting mission. Equipped only with a map of Central America that was based on Spanish surveys conducted a long, long time before, these aviators took off with no survival gear or training.