Flying Boats for Navy Patrols, 1917-1934
Patrol planes were the first American aircraft in wartime service, and were the first to sink an enemy vessel, so they are an appropriate beginning for the story of Navy combat types. Certainly their heavy armament and long battle record qualify patrol planes as combat types, despite the monotonous nature of the average wartime patrol.
Flying Boats versus U-boats
Throughout its history, the naval patrol plane has been linked to the submarine. Originally envisioned as passive observers of fleet movements, patrol planes were called into combat action when German U-boats were inflicting heavy losses on Allied shipping in World War I. With land warfare stalemated, the only possible German answer to the British blockade had been a counter-blockade by submarine.
Unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans shocked American public opinion (which never dreamed the U.S. would later use the same methods against Japan) into accepting war, but was calculated to starve England out before a single U.S. division arrived. In April 1917, sinkings rose so high that it seemed the Germans calculated rightly.
In this emergency, British flying boats patrolled the most dangerous areas, and in 1917, a Curtiss H-12 hit the first German U-boat sunk by aircraft. Others were not usually so successful, but flying boats handicapped the subs by reporting their location and driving them below the surface, where their speed was reduced. Other devices played a larger part in beating the subs and saving England- the convoy system, mine barrage, and hydrophones- so aircraft shared the credit for only five of 140 U-boats sunk, but the flying boat had demonstrated its future possibilities.
The flying boats used then were developments of the first twin-engine Curtiss America, a 5,000-pound, 72-foot span biplane. Built in 1914 at Hammondsport, New York, it had a single-step boat-like hull, Curtiss engines, and 300 gallons of fuel for a proposed attempt to fly the Atlantic. The war prevented that flight, but a British officer, John C. Porte, saw its possibilities, and the two experimental Curtiss America boats were shipped to Britain on September 30, 1914. Like eight similar H-4s delivered in 1915, they had two 90-hp Curtiss OX-5 water-cooled engines, but when this power plant proved inadequate, 100-hp Anzanis were used on 50 H-4s ordered March 1915 and used for training and limited patrols by the Royal Naval
These flying boats were called Small Americas by the British and were followed by bigger Curtiss H-8 Large Americas. Two 160-hp Curtiss engines powered the first one delivered July 1916, but again the biplane was under-powered, and 275-hp Rolls-Royce Eagles were substituted. These aircraft became the Curtiss H-12, the first American plane used in combat.
Open cockpits were provided for a pilot, co-pilot, engineer, and “wireless operator”, two 230-pound bombs were carried under the wings, a pair of .30-caliber Lewis guns were in the bow cockpit, and another Lewis gun was in the rear cockpit. These guns destroyed the first enemy aircraft downed by an American airplane. On May 14, 1917, a Curtiss H-12 swept down below and alongside a German Zeppelin. A short burst from the bow guns, and the L-22 caught fire and fell into the North Sea.
On May 20, another H-12 attacked a submarine, the UC-36, and an H-12 sank UB-32 with two 230-pound bombs with two-second delay fuses on September 22, 1917. Official RAF history counts UC-36 as sunk by the
H-12, but a German historian blames that loss on mines, while UB-32’s sinking is accepted by historians. It should be noted that the first submarines destroyed by aircraft were two Allied submarines sunk in the Adriatic by Austrians in 1916.
Eighty-one Curtiss H-12s built to British orders were shipped without engines, but another 20 were turned over to the United States Navy. The first Navy H-l2 in March 1917 had the original Curtiss engines, while the rest were delivered early in 1918 with Liberty 12 engines.
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