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Naval Aviation and Submarines
posted in History Up Close on March 5, 2012 in History Up Close on 3/5/2012


Taken alone, it was not an event of overarching significance. On March 5, 1913, as part of operations with the fleet during winter maneuvers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Lieutenant John Towers reported that tests conducted over the course of the previous two days revealed that a submerged submarine running at depths of between 30 and 40 feet was visible from the air. The event marked one of the earliest experiments in antisubmarine warfare and serves as an example of the ties that bind naval aviation to the silent service.

In the profession of naval arms, few endeavors are more inherently dangerous than service in aviation and submarines, the mere thought of ascending thousands of feet into the air or descending to the ocean depths viewed by only the most brave-hearted and adventurous as appealing. This was particularly true in the infant days of both the silent service and naval aviation, when the craft in which men practiced their craft were primitive to say the least. Thus, some of the same men who made a name for themselves in aviation also spent time in submarines, just one example of the links that exist between the two communities.


It began with the first naval aviator, Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, who before receiving his orders to flight instruction in January 1911, spent his first years of commissioned service at sea. Among the vessels to which he was assigned were the submarines Tarantula and Seal, with Ellyson serving as the commanding officer of both boats. Also in the submarine service at that time was Ensign Kenneth Whiting, destined to be designated Naval Aviator Number 16. He became a legend in the small submarine community of the era while serving as skipper of Porpoise in the Philippines. On April 15, 1909, Whiting and his crew took Porpoise to a depth of 20 feet in Manila Bay, at which he conducted an experiment to determine the feasibility of escaping from a submerged submarine via the torpedo tube, a feat summarized in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. “Squeezing into the 18-inch diameter tube, he clung to the crossbar which stiffened the outer torpedo tube door, as the crew closed the inner door. When the outer door was opened and water rushed in, Whiting hung onto the crossbar that drew his elbows out of the tube’s mouth, and then muscled his way out using his hands and arms, the entire evolution consuming 77 seconds. He then swam to the surface, Porpoise surfacing soon thereafter.” Other submariners turned aviator included Warren G. Child (Naval Aviator Number 29) and Lewis Hancock, who received a Navy Cross in submarines during World War I before earning his wings. He was killed in the crash of the rigid dirigible Shenandoah (ZR 1) in September 1925.


In addition to the personal links, the airplane and submarine had a tactical connection, namely in the fact that in advancing the viability of the airplane in fleet operations, the spotting of submarines from the air was a high-visibility capability. As early as 1912, the Navy experimented with the Davis recoilless gun, which would eventually be installed in the noses of flying boats, for use against submarines. That same year Lieutenant Towers, the Navy’s third aviator, reported the completion of trials in the Chesapeake Bay to determine the ability to spot submarines, identifying 800 feet as the optimum altitude for observation and noting that submerged submarines could be observed if they were running just below the surface. Tests in the clearer waters off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, noted above demonstrated that planes could see submarines at depths of 30 to 40 feet.

The outbreak of World War II justified the wisdom of naval aviators in focusing on antisubmarine warfare. Combating German U-boats proved the chief mission for naval aviation during the Great War, the coastal patrol bases established in Europe focusing on antisubmarine flights by seaplanes and the efforts of the offensive strikes of the Northern Bombing Group including targeting of facilities supporting German submarine warfare.


Following World War I, as the airplane became increasingly more integrated in fleet operations, the Navy conducted experiments to determine the feasibility of actually basing airplanes on board submarines. On November 5, 1923, Lieutenant Commander Virgil C. Griffin, the first to launch from the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, Langley (CV 1), supervised tests involving the Martin MS scout-plane. On this day, with the diminutive seaplane that measured only 18 feet in length stored in a cylinder on her deck, the submarine S-1 surfaced at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Her crew removed the planed from storage, assembled it, and then submerged beneath the plane so that it could launch. Over three years later, in July 1926, S-1 carried the tests further, both launching and recovering a Cox-Klemin XS-2.


While the Imperial Japanese Navy operated a limited number of submarine-based airplanes, the concept did not take hold in the U.S. Navy. Yet, the submarine would be called upon to play an important role in support of naval aviation after the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the nation into war. In addition to ranging far and wide on offensive patrols against merchantmen and warships, U.S. Navy submarines positioned themselves off enemy island strongholds during air strikes to serve as lifeguards, pulling from the water aircrews forced to bail out or ditch, sometimes under enemy fire. Most famous among those rescued in this manner was Lieutenant (junior grade) George Herbert Walker Bush, future President of the United States, who like other rescued airmen received a taste of submarine life, remaining on board until the boat’s return to port. Among the most successful boats in this type mission was Tang (SS 306), which during carrier strikes against Truk Atoll on April 29-May 1, 1944, rescued a total of 22 downed airmen.


World War II also witnessed tremendous advances in antisubmarine warfare as naval aviation battled in the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. Technologically, improved depth charges and the advent of homing torpedoes added to the airplane’s arsenal, while the task forces built around escort carriers proved a concept that was reintroduced during Cold War. In addition, during the latter stages of the war, PBY Catalina flying boats employed Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) gear, which enabled the detection of submerged submarines, with great success, effectively sealing off the Mediterranean Sea from German U-boats.


“The flag of the Soviet navy now proudly flies over the oceans of the world,” commented Admiral Sergei Gorshkov in 1968. “Sooner or later, the U.S. will have to understand that it no longer has mastery of the seas.” Indeed, as World War II ended, the U.S. Navy joined battle in another conflict that pitted the nation and its allies against the Soviet bloc. By the mid-1960s, the Soviet Navy boasted a submarine fleet of some 430 boats, and the expenditure on antisubmarine warfare totaled $2.5 billion. Naval aviation was a major element of the arsenal, with a number of Essex-class flattops converted from attack aircraft carriers (CVA) to antisubmarine warfare carriers (CVS), their embarked air wings joining patrol aircraft in playing the potentially lethal game of cat-and-mouse with Soviet submarines.

Today, antisubmarine warfare remains a key mission of the U.S. Navy even amidst protracted ground struggles in the Global War on Terror, the modern threat from the depths still a link in the chain of history binding submarines and naval aviation.

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