History of Naval Aviation Part 2 – “Father of the Trap”

By NHF Staff Historian Dr. Dave Winkler

Sea Power, October 2017

As plans proceeded to convert the collier Jupiter to become the Navy’s first aircraft carrier Langley at the Norfolk Naval Shipyardthe carrier’s prospective flight officer, Lt. Cdr. Godfrey deC. Chevalier noted an oversight in the plans. Interviewed in 1970, Alfred “Mel” Pride recalled “Chevalier told me that I was to stay ashore at Norfolk and devise an arresting gear to stop the aircraft on Langley’s deck.” Pride, who had joined the Navy as America entered the World War I, applied for flight training and eventually flew anti-submarine warfare patrols from naval air stations in Europe before the war ended.


Pride was not the first to confront this challenge. On January 11, 1911, Eugene Ely landed an aircraft on a platform built onto the stern of the armored cruiser Pennsylvania which was anchored in San Francisco Bay. To stop the aircraft, Lt. Theodore G. Ellyson conceived of a primitive arresting cable system that employed raised crossdeck wires that were held taunt by fifty-pound sandbags that would be grabbed by hooks protruding from the bottom stern of Ely’s plane. Pride was to be assisted by Lt. Frederick W. “Horse” Pennoyer, Jr. Pennoyer had graduated the Naval Academy in 1915 and later obtained a Master’s degree in Engineering at MIT in 1920. 
Over the Winter of 1921 through 1922, Naval Air Station Hampton Roads served as Pride’s test bed for flight deck operations. Initially a sixty-foot long cloth strip was placed down on the field and as soon as a pilot passed over it, he would touch down and measurements of the impact point back to the cloth were taken.


At first Pride replicated what Ellyson had set up a decade earlierplacing sandbags along a road with elevated cables strung between to determine the best dragging hook design. As Pride observed these traps, workers installed a British-conceived landing gear system on a turntable flight deck. One hundred feet in diameter, the deck resembled the bottom end of a banjo, thanks to rows of ¾ inch thick wires mounted on a series of fiddle-bridges that held the wires above the surface. The turntable was flush to the surrounding sandy grassy soil. Able to turn the deck using a tractor into the predominant headwinds provided some sense of landing at sea.

Pride described the arrangement as “some cables stretched real taut about nine inches apart and a little over a foot off the deck, running fore and aft on the flight deck.” Pride recalled he placed the cables about 15 inches off the deck. On the axle of the aircraft landing gear, hooks were installed to catch the wires.


 The inaugural test, conducted on August 21, 1921, was a ground trap. With the turntable turned towards the southeast to face an oncoming 15 miles per hour breeze, Pride climbed into the cockpit of Aeromarine 39B #584 and rolled the aircraft toward the turntable at 15 miles per hour. Passing onto turntable, the plane bounced up into the air. Pride cut back on the throttle and the plane bounced down and the axle-mounted hooks screeched against the fore-and-aft wires. With the tailhook catching a crosswire, the plane surged up again only to be slapped down and trapped in the wire mesh. 


Follow-on landings generated inconsistent results. The hundred feet of deck on the turntable simply was not enough to allow the axle friction on the wires to slow him to a safe stop. Probably concerned about his life longevity, Pride overlaid the cross-deck system Ely had landed with and developed a hybrid system where slightly raised cross deck lines that could be caught by a tailhook were placed underneath the higher elevated fore and aft lines. Initially the cross deck lines were secured with sandbags. Then the lines extended down over the sides and were weighted with obsolete shells. Once Pride determined the optimal cross wire configuration, two high beamed towers of over 30 feet in length were erected astride of the landing strip, braced in place by cables. Pride installed a cable pulley system that lifted two old 11-inch ordnance shells into the air within the two towers as an aircraft’s tailhook latched on to the wire. Pride explained, “You knew what the airplane weighed, you knew how fast it was coming in, so you knew its kinetic energy.” Pride adjusted the weights accordingly.              

The configuration tested on the roundtable that ultimately would be installed on Langley consisted of fore and aft wires held up a foot apart by notched fiddle bridge boards. The wires were designed to engage hooks that were installed on the axles of the landing aircraft to hold it down as a trailing hook would hopefully catch one of five cross wires that were held in place by weights. Lt. Cdr. Chevalier made the first landing on Langley on October 22, 1922. Eventually, the fore and aft wire component of the landing system would eliminated. In hindsight, Pride lamented, “We should have discarded the fore and aft cables from the beginning.”
The work Pride and Pennoyer conducted at NAS Hampton Roads and then on Langley set the pace for productive naval careers with Pride retiring as an admiral and Pennoyer as a vice admiral.  


Source: Admiral Alfred M. Pride Oral History conducted by Peter Spectre and Paul Stillwell of the U.S. Naval Institute. Admiral Pride passed away the day after Stillwell completed his final interview. Stillwell along with Drs. Edward Marolda and Jon Sumida have previously received the Naval Historical Foundation’s Commo. Dudley Knox Medal for lifetime achievement in the field of naval history.


Replacing Battleships with Aircraft Carriers in the Pacific in World War II 

By Thomas C. Hone

Naval War College Review Volume 66, 2013

This is a case study of operational and tactical innovation in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Its purpose is to erase a myth—the myth that Navy tactical and operational doctrine existing at the time of Pearl Harbor facilitated a straightforward substitution of carriers for the battleship force that had been severely damaged by Japanese carrier aviation on 7 December 1941. That is not what happened. What did happen is much more interesting than a simple substitution of one weapon for another. As Trent Hone put it in 2009, “By early 1943, a new and more effective fleet organization had become available.” This more effective fleet, “built around carrier task forces,” took the operational initiative away from the Japanese and spearheaded the maritime assault against Japan. This was clearly innovation—something new. But it was not an outright rejection of the pastInstead, it was a mixture of innovation and adaptation, drawing on existing doctrine where that made sense and creating new doctrine where that was called for. The end result was the foundation of the U.S. Navy that is familiar to us today . . .

[W]hat took place during [World War II] was not a simple substitution of carriers for battleships but the creation of a modern, combined-arms fleet, one that included submarines and land-based aviation. That was the innovation.

The first argument of this article—the one to which most of the article has been dedicated—is that what Navy officers developed in the Pacific in World War II was not a carrier force but a combined force. Indeed, all the elements of this force grew in sophistication during the war and because of the war. Before the war, for example, carriers were hit-and-run weapons—raiders. This was not a trivial role, as Navy officers recognized, and it remained a central mission of carriers all through the war. But before 1944 there were hardly enough carrier aircraft for naval officers to become adept at planning and staging mass air attacks, especially against land targets. Shielding amphibious forces was perceived before World War II as a dangerous mission for carriers. But by 1944—certainly by the time Admiral Halsey’s planners were preparing the assault on Peleliu—the Pacific Fleet’s air forces were prepared both for a carrier battle and for protecting an amphibious assault. By 1944, the Navy’s fast carrier task forces were a major operational-level weapon. Combined with surface escorts and sustained by mobile service and supply units, carrier task forces could roam widely and gain air superiority over large areas. The carrier task forces were therefore put to work sustaining the amphibious offensive against Japan in the Central Pacific. The purpose of the Central Pacific campaign was to put land-based, long-range bombers in range of Japanese cities and simultaneously to force the Japanese fleet to devote its resources to defending against the wide-ranging U.S. carrier task forces—instead of defending against the effective submarine offensive against Japanese shipping. In the process, the Pacific Fleet’s air and surface striking units destroyed or immobilized the striking power of the Japanese fleet.

Read the Full Article by Thomas C. Hone here:
digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1318&context=nwc-review

Spread the word. Share this post!

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *