Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Captain Mark L. Bristol, Director of Naval Aeronautics, to Lieutenant Commander Henry E. Yarnell, Secretary of the Naval War College


Navy Yard, Portsmouth, N. H.,

21 October 1916.   

From:     Captain Mark L. Bristol, U.S.Navy.

To:       Secretary of the Naval War College.

Subject: Use of Airplanes for Scouting.

References:    (a) “The Service of Information and Security”, by Lieutenant Commander W. S. Pye, U.S.N. Chapters 16 and 26.

(b) U.S.Naval War College letter of 13 Sept. 1916; N.C.2162-16.1

     1.   The use of the word “hydroaeroplane” is going to be discontinued and in place thereof, all heavier than aircraft will be known as “airplanes”.

     2.   Like other types of war vessels that have been developed, the airplane will not replace other types but will form a new type and lead to modifications of the other types. Likewise naval strategy and tactics are not going to be revolutionized by airplanes, but will be modified. The modifications should be determined so that the development of airplanes can be made to meet the demands in strategy and tactics that are most desired. This requires a study of strategy and tactics as applied to airplanes based upon assumptions of the most probable attainments. Such a study will produce information to assist the designer and constructor, as well as the operator of airplanes. This study and the information derived are absolutely essential to the proper development of airplanes for the Navy. Without them the designers are making assumptions as to the tactical requirements of airplanes, each designer without regard to the other. The operators likewise have practically as many different ideas regarding what airplanes should accomplish for naval use as there are operators. It is evident that many of these assumptions are wrong and much energy and work is lost in following them. It is my opinion that it is decidedly the province of the War College to study the tactical requirements of airplanes and prescribe the same and therefrom determine the effect upon strategy. An “estimate” of the present situation from all sources of information can be made and a “decision” arrived at, though it may be modified in the future. This will give the designers information so they can concentrate along one line. This means the maximum of effort in development of a design suited to naval purposes.

     3.   In view of the little practical experience in our Navy with airplanes; the very undeveloped state of design and construction of airplanes for Naval use; and the very little knowledge thus far gained of the use of airplanes in the war in Europe, that assumptions regarding the possibilities of airplanes as made in the book, reference (a), are good enough for a preliminary study of the subject. These assumptions can be varied in accordance with information given herein, and as further experience and knowledge are gained the assumptions can be changed accordingly. Variations are necessary for a proper development of the study of the problem.

     4.   With regard to the questions, reference (b):- It is practical to launch an airplane from a ship when the ship is steaming down the wind so that the resultant force of the wind is practically zero, and there is little or no motion on the ship. It is believed that with more experience an airplane can be launched when steaming down the wind without regard to the resultant force of the wind and with moderate pitch and roll on the ship; that is, under ordinary weather conditions of sea. A ship, not especially fitted for carrying only airplanes, should carry three planes with spares so as to have these three constantly ready for service. If airplanes of good staunch construction are provided they can be hoisted out like any boat, and in the same time. But no airplane that we have now, nor do I know of any, could get away from and land on the water except in practically a smooth sea. There is no definite data to give on the flights a plane could give per day, but at least one flight. At present the speed is about seventy-five miles per hour for four hours. Radio is the only means that seems practicable for transmitting information from an airplane, but thus far this means cannot be used for receiving on account of the noise of the airplane engines. It is believed the range will be about one hundred miles. The chances of breakdown of airplanes will be about the same as the chances in a fast speed motor boat.

     5.   These answers are fair and conservative, but do not represent at all the capabilities of an airplane properly designed and constructed for naval use. Thus far the Navy has done very little to develop the design of airplanes and airplane engines. The main dependence in this country has been placed upon private manufacturers who have not been scientific engineers except in very few cases. The principle results have been obtained by the “cut and try” method, which cannot be depended upon for such a difficult and complicated problem as the design of airplanes.

     6.   The development of aircraft as well as airplanes for the Navy has been decidedly retarded by two factions. The one is represented by those with a lively play of imagination that greatly exaggerates what has been accomplished with aircraft; the other, by those with a pessimistic view which condemn aircraft because they do not come up to the exaggerated views of the former. Real progress in the Navy is being made by those who represent a view between these two extremes. They are attempting to develop to the full capacity the capabilities of those aircraft that are being designed and can be constructed, and are studying the present development trying to see light and follow the right leads for new development. They are studying every lesson of the present war in order to apply it to future development. They know that aircraft are not accomplishing in this war all that is being claimed by the anthusiasts, but what is really being done shows us what can and should be done if we are not “stand patters”. Then there are those in the Navy evidently misled by the exaggerated reports in the press of the capabilities of airplanes who do not realize the size of the job required to produce airplanes for the Navy. For instance, one of the officers at the War College very recently said, “Why haven’t we airplanes for the Navy? I thought we had a million dollars last year for them?”; and again when I replied because there are none to be had; “Why can’t we get some of those which have been shipped abroad?” The airplanes that have been shipped abroad are mostly land airplanes. The production of a land airplane is much simpler than a sea airplane. There is not now a single airplane that I know of in this country that it would be right to send across the open sea on a scouting flight unless there were vessels stationed along the route. These vessels are necessary for navigating and to rescue the operators in case the airplane is forced to land. At present there are no safe means of finding an airplane’s position by dead reckoning or by observations. The engines for airplanes are so unreliable that a forced landing at any time must always be expected. The airplanes are so frail and unseaworthy that a wreck is almost certain in landing except on a very smooth sea. If a landing is made without a wreck the airplane cannot get up again except in a smooth sea with not more than a light breeze. If the wind became a moderate breeze or stronger with the sea accompanying it, the airplane could not ride it out. Though an airplane is successfully launched from the catapult it is subject to all the above conditions. The catapult provides for launching the airplane when the sea is too rough for it to get up from the water, but the catapult does not provide for it landing on or riding out a rough sea.

     7.   Many airplanes have been flown and are being flown because of the skill, determination and courage of the operators. They are not scientifically designed nor constructed, and many a life has been lost as a consequence. Airplanes of today are like the first steam buggy of about fifteen years ago as compared to the present motor cars of every description indispensable in the war going on in Europe and in daily use all over the world; or like the original Holland as compared to the U-53 type;2 or the torpedo boats that were built to be carried on the original TEXAS and MAINE to the present seagoing destroyers. With a knowledge of the science which now makes airplane design not only possible but decidedly practical, it is only a question of energy, hard work and time when airplanes can be made a part of our fleet. If the subject is given the necessary consideration the time required to equip our fleet with proper airplanes can be decidedly shortened. If we grasp the opportunity and apply energy and hard work we are in a position right now to be the first to have real naval airplanes. However, the job must be considered seriously for it is a big one, and thus far we have made only a good beginning. There is a very prevalent idea that airplanes for the Navy are an accomplished fact, and it is only necessary to go into the open market and buy them or have them built as destroyers or battleships are obtained. This impression retards the development which required for accomplishment an enormous amount of study, research, experiment and hard work. The Navy must be made to realize that aircraft are necessary to our fleet. It is hard to predict the part they will play in any future naval war. It is fresh in the memory of nearly all of us how little consideration submarines were given only a few years ago. Therefore, the lesson taught in the case of submarines should be applied in aircraft. Then too, the Navy does not consider what a big undertaking it is to develop aircraft for the fleet.

     8.   The officers in our Navy that have devoted their time to flying are deserving of the greatest credit for the pioneer work they have done. They have risked their lives in airplanes that were not properly designed and constructed to develop the art of flying for the good of the Navy. They have advanced the science of aeronautics by practical tests and experience when the slightest mistake meant practically sure death. Now the science has advanced to where these risks can be avoided by scientific design, model tests, and proper construction. The officers who fly have not been able to increase their experience in flying because airplanes properly designed could not be obtained and have not been developed. Enough technical officers have not been engaged in investigation and research of airplane design and design of engines for airplanes. Therefore our flyers have had little to no experience at sea nor in really rough air.

     9.   Almost from the very beginning of the war in Europe there were three officers as assistant attaches, one at Berlin, one at Paris and one at London.3 Each one was a fully qualified flyer of the best we had in the Navy. In addition the regular attaches all over the worl[d] were especially directed to report on aircraft. Before the war began very full information was in hand regarding aircraft in the various countries. It is well known that ever since the war began every country has been utilizing its manufacturing abilities to the utmost to keep up the supply of munitions of war. The design and building of airplanes and airplane engines was a quite new thing with very few people engaged in this work, therefore it was much harder to increase the output. There were several fairly successful types of land machines fitted for military use at the beginning of the war, but there were practically no sea airplanes abroad. It is plain then to understand why quantity, not quality, of airplanes was the first consideration, and with the engineers engaged in production how little of development work could be expected. Our observers abroad did not have much chance for getting first hand information but enough was obtained to make sure little development work was going on. Certain types of airplanes were discarded as worthless but new types did not appear. The Germans had a good type of motor at the beginning, but France, England and Italy have now overcome that handicap. There have been improvements of types of airplanes and enormous increase in production but no radical developments except in the effort to produce larger airplanes. It is known that several failures have resulted. There may be some successful large airplanes, but not to any great extent or the information would have come out gradually.

     10.  Because the war in Europe has been almost entirely a land war, airplanes have not been used to any great extent at sea. They have been used to a great extent for coast patrol. Very little is known of the success with which airplanes have been used for this coast patrol. The raids along the Belgian coast by airplanes have been made by land airplanes as well as sea airplanes and at first almost exclusively so. Land airplanes flew from England or France to make these raids, and then returned. It may be remembered how often the reports stated that airplanes had landed in the sea and the crews had been saved. The reason the airplanes never got up again was because they were land airplanes. The number of sea airplanes operating in this region has been steadily increased.

     11.  It must be borne in mind that only on three occasions have we authentic accounts of sea airplanes being used at sea, that is for the Cuxhaven raid, a raid on the Jutland coast, and during the last naval battle in the North Sea.4 In all these cases a number of airplanes were reported lost in getting off the water, or that they could not get away, and others were wrecked after returning and their crews saved. These facts and the fact that these experiments or expeditions were not repeated shows that these operations were of little effect or the sea airplanes were not suited to the work required. It is evident they were not fitted for the work from the number wrecked.

     12.  When this war broke out there were very few sea airplanes in Europe and at that time it is most probable that this country had developed this type to a greater extent than any other country. The flying boat type was the best type of water airplane then developed. It was not a sea type but essentially a smooth, inland water airplane. Russia and Italy, early in the war, obtained a number of these flying boats in this country. The motors proved very unreliable and as far as any further information can be obtained the airplanes have not been extensively used. England obtained a few large flying boats of the so-called “America” type.5 The motors in these were discarded and other motors of foreign make substituted. These airplanes were stationed for coast patrol, but how successful they have been is not known. Later England obtained more of this type, but larger, and with over double the engine power. Quite recently England has obtained airplanes of this same type but very much larger. They are triplanes, with engines of about seven hundred horsepower. There are reports that seem quite reliable that the British have developed airplanes of a thousand horsepower.

     13.  The Germans at the beginning of the war possessed a splendid reliable motor and had given careful attention to building rugged substantial airplanes for military service. They at once gained the reputation of never coming down unless shot down. They had not, up to that time, given much attention to sea airplanes. They have produced a military airplane for land use, having twin engines of about one hundred horsepower for each engine.

     14.  France and England have bent every effort to develop reliable engines for airplanes and in doing so have produced engines for airplanes of about two hundred to two hundred and fifty horsepower. It is evident they are producing airplanes of about this power.

     15.  Following up all clews and sources of information from the war it seems evident that the size of airplanes is being increased. This is the natural evolution that could be expected.

     16.  A good deal of romance has naturally been drawn around the exploits and operations of airmen in the European War. Still knowing the character of the airplanes that they had to start with and the little improvement that has been possible under the stress of quantity production, too much credit and glory cannot be given the flyers. It would undoubtedly have taken ten years or longer to have made the same advance in the art of flying under ordinary conditions, especially while flying was in the first stages of development. However, this war will not give us experience in operating airplanes across the open sea, therefore we must carefully study the information obtained and try to apply it to sea flying operations.

     17.  The one great thing that has been learned is that considering the airplanes used and the fact that they have been operated with impunity in all conditions of weather is convincing proof airplanes are not toys or play things but are practical vessels of the air. Therefore we can expect and demand that our designers and constructors produce airplanes that will keep the air with the fleet just so long as the fuel supply holds out. The problem that we have before us then becomes the production of an airplane, that, if it has to land on the water, can safely do it and can get up again in any ordinary weather, or, if it is necessary, can ride out a gale of wind. Also it is necessary to solve the problem of navigating the airplane. It is evident upon thought and consideration that unless the airplane will come up to these requirements it will not be of any use or practically very little use in our fleet for sea work.

     18.  The development of the science of aeronautics has progressed to that point where it seems safe to believe an airplane suited to naval purposes can be designed and constructed. However, this must be proved by actual experience. It is hoped that within the very near future a big step along this line will be made. There has been designed and is now nearly completed, at the Washington Navy Yard, and airplane having a total lifting capacity of about six thousand three hundred pounds. It is expected it will have a speed from fifty to eighty miles per hour, a radius of action of four hours at maximum speed, and be both airworthy and seaworthy. It was originally to have seven hours radius of action but it overran in weight while being constructed, but this is not surprising. The airplane has twin screws with about three hundred forty horsepower. It has a special system of floats designed for landing and getting away from the water and stability when adrift on the water. This airplane is the result of careful study by Naval Constructor Richardson6 and myself, extending for over two years. He is responsible for the design to meet the tactical features that I prescribed. It is a scientific design. I consider it a step in the right direction because I do not believe it is large enough to give the tactical qualities that we should have in an airplane to make it a practical vessel for the needs of the fleet. As regards airworthiness, it is also only a step because from the model tests of this design a practical demonstration will be obtained, then from this, further steps in the improvement of design must be made.

     19.  An effort has been made in this paper to briefly outline the present status of the development of airplanes so that the officers of the War College can correctly consider the subject, It is too large to do justice to it in any paper. In my opinion it would be much better to have a conference at the College and have present Naval Constructor H. C. Richardson, Lieutenant W. G. Child, who has charge of the engine development for aircraft, Lieutenant E. H. Loftin,7 who has charge of radio development and myself. All subjects could then be discussed and questions answered. There are undoubtedly many questions which the officers of the College will not find answered in this paper.

     20.  There are two other types of aircraft that are essential to our fleet. They are the dirigible and kite balloon.

     21.  I finally want to impress most emphatically upon everyone in the Service the fact that the development of aircraft for the Navy is a big job and so far we have only scratched the top of the ground. We are losing valuable time every day by not pushing the work.

     22.  I believe that when airplanes are properly developed practically the same rules for scouting will obtain as for ships scouting.

     23.  I will be glad to answer any questions on this subject or to do anything I can to assist the War College.

/Sgd./ Mark L. Bristol.

Source Note: TDS, DLC-MSS, Mark L. Bristol Papers, Box 30. Document identification number in upper left-hand corner: “N.C.2498-16.”

Footnote 1: Neither of the references has been found.

Footnote 2: The Holland class were the first submarines built for the Royal Navy between 1901 and 1903., consulted 12/18/18. U-53 was a recently-launched German U-boat of the U-51 class., consulted 12/18/18.

Footnote 3: The Naval Aviation attachés in 1916 were: Lt. Victor D. Herbster in Berlin, Lt. John H. Towers in London, and 1st Lt. Bernard L. Smith, USMC, in Paris.

Footnote 4: The Cuxhaven raid was a British ship-based air-raid on German naval forces at Cuxhaven mounted on Christmas Day, 1914. It was described at the time as an “air reconnaissance of the Heligoland Bight, including Cuxhaven, Heligoland and Wilhelmshaven ... by naval seaplanes” during which “the opportunity was taken of attacking with bombs points of military importance” in northern Germany. The London Gazette (Supplement), 16 February 1915, 1720–21. The “last naval battle in the North Sea” was presumably the battle of Jutland fought on 31 May and I June 1916. A British seaplane flew a reconnaissance mission during the battle.

Footnote 5: The Curtiss H-4.

Footnote 6: Naval Constructor Holden C. Richardson. The airplane was presumably the Curtiss N-9. For more on this airplane, see George van Deurs, Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916 (Annapolis, U.S. Naval Institute, 1966), 153-54.

Footnote 7: Lt. Warren G. Child and Lt. Edward H. Loftin.

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