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.
The flight across the isthmus was uneventful and quite scenic as they soared above the rising peaks of the Continental Divide and peered down from their open cockpits at the verdant carpet of tropical rain forest that seemed to swallow the rays of the bright sunlight. Arriving on the Pacific side, the two planes conducted their search but failed to find the opposing fleet.
As they climbed the western slopes of the isthmus for their return to the Langley, the bright sunlight was masked by great pillars of black clouds. Soon large raindrops hammered at the fabric-covered wings and splashed, then flowed, across the tiny windshields and the lenses of the pilots’ goggles. Flying nearly blind, they pressed on through the sheets of rain, struggling against the rising winds until the squall abated.
When they emerged from the storm’s shrouds, the two aircraft had lost sight of one another. One flew on, without further complications, to the waiting carrier. The other, piloted by Lieutenant Stanton Wooster and crewed by Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate James Demshock, was less fortunate.
As Wooster flew along in a narrow valley beneath a lowering overcast, he observed the sides of the valley closing in and could only see green ahead. Opening his throttle as wide as it would go, he attempted to climb out of the narrowing trap but was unable to gain enough altitude to escape. Yielding to the inevitable, he shut down the laboring engine to prevent fire and prepared for the upcoming crash. For a brief time, all was quiet except for the rush of air and a strange singing in the planes exposed wires. But then silence yielded to cacophony as the plane plunged into the hundred-foot-high green canopy that covered the jungle below. Twisting vines and solid branches clutched at the fragile aircraft, tearing it apart as it bore a narrow tunnel through the botanical tangle before crashing into the solid jungle floor.
Miraculously, both Wooster and Demshock survived the crash. For three days, the two men endured an odyssey of physical torture and mental anxiety as they followed a stream downslope in search of the familiar sea. Vegetation shredded their clothes, rocks sliced through their shoes, menacing snakes and hungry insects relentlessly harassed them, until they staggered into a coastal town and were eventually reunited with their ship.
Within a few days, the two aviators were flying again. Although they had failed in this first scouting mission, their experience led to improvements in navigational equipment and survival gear that today’s aviators take for granted.