The US Navy carried out a number of crucial early experiments with aircraft, using a specially-designed seaplane from Glenn Curtiss. Ultimately, this led to the aircraft carrier which has dominated naval warfare for decades.
A-1 Triad on display at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola FL
The first military airplane, the 1909 Wright Military Flyer, was used by the US Army as an aerial observer for reconnaissance and as an artillery spotter. Various navies around the world, however, recognized that the airplane might be useful in fleet engagements too, both to scout for enemy ships and to correct the aim of naval gunfire on targets over the horizon.
In March 1910, the French Navy modified a number of Fabre monoplanes by replacing their landing wheels with pontoon floats, and produced a plane that could take off and land on water—they called it the Hydravion (“sea plane”). It was the birth of naval aviation.
In the United States, the leading researcher into seaplanes was Glenn Curtiss. In February 1911, Curtiss began testing of a new Model E seaplane, which was a modification of his earlier Model D biplane. The new seaplane was revolutionary. It used a central air pontoon and two smaller wingtip floats to allow the plane to act as a “flying boat”. The flight controls used a set of ailerons located between the two wing planes, which were manipulated through a shoulder harness worn by the pilot. The elevators and rudder were combined in the tail at the rear, and the propeller was mounted behind the pilot in a pusher configuration. More importantly, the aircraft had a set of wheels next to the pontoon which could be cranked up and down, allowing the pilot to land on either water or ground. Since it could operate on land, sea and air, Curtiss dubbed it the “Triad”.
The US Navy took interest and requested that some modifications be made. Curtiss complied, and the new Model E-8-75 was capable of carrying two people for two hours. The Navy purchased fourteen of the seaplanes (at around $4,000 each), designating it the A-1. Curtiss was also hired to train a number of pilots for the Navy, and in June 1911 Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson successfully flew an A-1 Triad from Keuka Lake in New York, becoming the first certified US naval aviator. Soon Triads with extra fuel tanks were staying aloft as long as ten hours.
The next step was to take the airplane to sea. In December 1911, the French Navy commissioned a ship, the Foudre, that was specially-built as a seaplane carrier. She stored four Fabre seaplanes (later replaced by more-capable Voisin seaplanes) in a hangar on deck, which were lowered into the water by a crane, flew off for their missions, then landed in the water alongside the carrier to be winched back aboard. By 1913, the British Royal Navy and the US Navy had seaplane carriers of their own, the HMS Hermes and the USS Mississippi. In the Pacific, the Japanese, who were quickly becoming a naval military power, had purchased three of Curtiss’s Triads and were also experimenting with seaplane carriers.
When World War One broke out in August 1914, the seaplane carrier finally got its chance for action. In September, the Japanese navy, fighting for the Entente allies, launched the first naval air strike in history: four Japanese copies of French Farman seaplanes were lowered from the seaplane carrier IJN Wakamiya, flew off to bomb a German base in Tsingtao, China, and returned to their ship to be recovered. Three months later, on Christmas morning, the British launched a more ambitious attack: a fleet of three seaplane carriers, HMS Engadine, Riviera and Empress, launched a group of nine Short seaplanes loaded with bombs to attack the German Zeppelin base at Nordholz, and damaged several of the airship sheds.
But the seaplane carriers presented some crippling problems. The ships were slow and unable to keep up with the fleet. The seaplanes could not take off in rough seas and were useful only in good weather conditions. And winching the planes off and on the ship was a time-consuming task. It was quickly realized that naval airplanes would be much more useful if they could take off and land directly onto a fast-moving ship.
The first experiments took place in the US. In November 1910, a modified Curtiss Model E took off from a flat wooden platform that had been built over the forward turrets of the cruiser USS Birmingham, and landed on shore. Two months later, the same pilot took off from land, flew to the battleship USS Pennsylvania anchored offshore, and landed on a flat wooden deck built over the aft section of the ship. To stop within the short landing distance, the plane used a metal hook hanging from its tail to snag a series of ropes stretched across the deck and weighted down with sandbags. The concept of the aircraft carrier had been born.
The British Royal Navy took a passenger ship that was in the process of construction, added a flat wooden flight deck that ran the length of the ship, and launched her in December 1917 as the HMS Argus. She carried up to 18 Sopwith Pups and Sopwith Ship Strutters. The first American aircraft carrier, a converted coal-carrier, was commissioned as the USS Langley in 1922. She carried 36 biplanes, and was used mostly to test various operations procedures. In 1927, the first American fleet carriers were commissioned, the Lexington and the Saratoga. They carried a mix of 78 fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers.
Today, an A-1 Triad is on display at the Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola FL. This is a replica that was built by engineers from the Navy and the aircraft companies Ryan and Convair in the 1960’s for the 50th anniversary of naval aviation, using photographs and original drawings.