Fly Navy

Discovering the Extraordinary People and Enduring Spirit of Naval Aviation

Alvin Townley

Thomas Dunne Books


SOME TIME AFTER MY VOYAGE on the Nimitz, I found myself looking across the waters where naval aviation’s century-old tradition began. Nothing about this particular place resembled the warm, sun-washed cruise across a smooth Eastern Pacific Ocean that I had experienced with the VFA-14 Tophatters (their VFA designation stands for fixed-wing [V] Fighter Attack [FA]). The Pacific of my transit was a summer lake compared to the wintry Chesapeake Bay that I found off the shore of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Whitecaps danced on the churning gray water and ominous clouds above made the water grayer still. A biting wind howled across the channel and cut straight through my jacket.
One hundred years ago, on a similarly inhospitable November day, a ship very unlike the Nimitz carried a plane very unlike an F/A-18 out into this very channel. The lone aviator aboard the USS Birmingham couldn’t swim, didn’t like the water, and was known to get seasick. Instead of a polished, carbon fiber helmet with an electronic display like the one worn by Lee Amerine, Eugene Ely wore a leather football helmet along with shoulder pads, and looked more like a turn-of-the-century linebacker than the world’s first maritime aviator. His training, attire, and aircraft differed from what I encountered in the men and women aboard the Nimitz in almost every conceivable way—but Ely had exactly the same spirit.
Wilbur and Orville Wright also shared that spirit, and on windy Atlantic dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they had performed the first great feat in modern aviation history—simply getting airborne. Thus, in 1903, the Wright brothers had opened an entirely new and unconquered realm to pioneers and daredevils alike. In the air, records waited to be broken; new dares awaited the brave. There were plenty of takers, and Eugene Ely would become one of the most famous.
Eugene was eighteen when the Wright brothers flew, and he had already become fascinated by the internal combustion engine and the speed, danger, and freedom it could offer. In the late 1800s, when automobiles were quite rare in Eugene’s rural corner of Iowa, he began driving and maintaining cars for a local Catholic priest who rightly saw cars as the future of transportation. Eugene became a crack mechanic and standout driver in the process, expert at repairing cars and pressing their limits. From his first minute behind a steering wheel, he loved speed, and Father Smyth only encouraged him. The pair ruffled feathers throughout the community as they flew over the local roads, the accelerator pressed to the floorboard.
“Ely got a little too smart for the old priest,” remembered Iowa minister Louis Rohret, who knew Ely as a boy. “[He] used to take the priest’s car away with the intent of making some difficult repairs to it. Instead, Ely would run races at the country fairs. The fact that Ely was running in these races finally got back to Father Smyth and he fired him.”1
Chastened but not in the least discouraged, Eugene struck out for the West to make his mark. He arrived in San Francisco in 1904 where he used his knowledge of engines to become a respected mechanic. His entrepreneurial spirit soon led him to start a car rental company, forerunning naval aviator Jack Taylor’s Enterprise Rent-A-Car by half a century. Ely operated the business out of San Francisco and remained by the Bay long enough to marry the petite and attractive Mabel Hall. Then the couple left for Oregon where Eugene indulged his growing interest in aviation—which proved well-matched for his adventurous nature and relish for risk.
In early 1910, Ely flew his first aircraft—a Curtiss biplane—and promptly crashed it. Completely unbowed, he bought the plane from its owner, repaired it, and taught himself to fly. He was simultaneously an airplane mechanic, engineer, and pilot. All the skills that aviation would require, he possessed; he played the roles of the modern navy’s enlisted ranks and officers alike. All the men and women involved in flying and maintaining navy aircraft can trace their roots to this young man from Iowa.
Eugene was a pioneer, expert, and daredevil who rapidly built a reputation as a skilled pilot and expert maintainer. But by late 1910, he had yet to distinguish himself from the other young bucks of aviation who were aiming for distance and altitude records. He began working with entrepreneurial aircraft designer Glenn Curtiss, who had designed the first plane Ely crashed. Curtiss was an exceptionally creative inventor who had designed and raced motorcycles before he began building aircraft. Together, he and Ely devised a plan that could transform aviation.
The two men had met in Winnipeg, Canada, during a demonstration show. Ely’s keen interest in the mechanics and theories of flight caught the attention of Mr. Curtiss, who was regarded as the day’s leading aviator and plane manufacturer. Curtiss recognized talent and immediately hired Ely as an exhibition pilot.
Curtiss well understood the possibilities of aviation; he also had interest in profiting from it. With a mutually beneficial contract in mind, he began to approach the U.S. Navy, which had been resisting overtures to develop a real aviation program. To encourage their consideration, he spoke out publically, saying, “The battles of the future will be fought in the air. The aeroplane will decide the destiny of nations.… [America’s battleships] cannot launch air fighters, and without these to defend them, they would be blown apart in case of war.”2
He emphasized his point by using aircraft to successfully bomb ship-shaped targets off the coast of New York. That needled the well-established ranks of battleship admirals and also caught the attention of Captain Washington Chambers, the man responsible for exploring aviation’s potential for the navy.
The three men—Curtiss, Chambers, and Ely—met at a New York air show late in 1910 and discussed launching and landing an airplane aboard a navy vessel. Chambers knew that a German company had plans to do the same, and the three felt a mutual sense of urgency—they wanted themselves, along with their country, to be first. The truth was, however that, like Wilbur Wright, Glenn Curtiss thought flying off a ship might be too dangerous for a pilot to attempt. But Eugene Ely had lost neither his confidence nor his desire to put himself in the record books. Ely and Curtiss proposed staging the flight free of charge and Chambers agreed to build a runway aboard a ship. So it came that seven years after the Wright brothers’ landmark flight on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, twenty-four-year-old Eugene Ely would earn his place among aviation’s pioneers by flying a plane off a ship.
At its base in Norfolk, Virginia, the U.S. Navy had constructed an eighty-three-foot-long wooden platform on the bow of the cruiser USS Birmingham. From his plane’s position at the platform’s end, Ely would have fifty-seven feet for takeoff. The navy had craned aboard the Hudson Flyer, a Glenn Curtiss–designed biplane already famous for a record-setting flight, and on a blustery November morning, the world’s first aircraft-carrying vessel sailed into the Elizabeth River. Crowds had gathered in boats and along the Hampton Roads shoreline to see if Curtiss and his pilot could pull off their feat, which many observers considered more stunt than military experiment. Time would prove them quite wrong.
Several storms rolled across the Chesapeake early that afternoon and the Birmingham dropped anchor to await better conditions—a decision that agitated Ely considerably. The aviator had spent months preparing for this moment and now felt much like a focused, well-prepared runner who arrives at the starting line only to have officials delay his race. He wasn’t the only one frustrated by the inaction. Captain Chambers had risked his reputation on this venture and he feared that if Ely couldn’t launch, the observers from Washington would leave scoffing at his idea.
A window in the weather finally appeared and the aviator pressed the opportunity. The ship’s captain complied and issued the order to begin raising the anchor. Ely’s momentary relief evaporated when he discovered the agonizingly slow pace with which the ship reeled in foot after heavy foot of anchor chain. His impatience and frustration returned. Over the next half hour, he fidgeted, paced, and fumed; he checked and rechecked his plane. He was ready, his engine was ready, his plane was ready, and the weather—for the moment—was also ready. So what if the ship’s anchor wasn’t? He decided to launch.
At 3:16 P.M. on November 14, 1910, Ely gave his idling engine a final rev. Just like modern aviators before a launch, he flexed his rudder and elevators. He signaled a crewman to release the fasteners holding the plane. The crewman hesitated, knowing the captain had not issued an official launch order. Ely repeated the command more emphatically and the crewman complied. The biplane’s fifty-horsepower motor pushed it down the slightly inclined deck toward the cold, gray river and a good deal of uncertainty. The primary question in Ely’s mind as he rattled forward was whether the little biplane would have enough speed and power to clear the water. Since the ship wasn’t under way and thus wasn’t generating any wind, Ely prayed his wings would have enough lift to get airborne. He’d find the answer at the deck’s end.
The plane’s wheels cleared the deck. Instead of rising, however, the biplane began dropping quickly toward the river. The possible and quite unwelcome answer to Ely’s question flashed into his mind, but he wasn’t giving up. He pulled hard on the controls, using every bit of his skill to avoid a crash—which he did, barely. The wheels dipped into the water and the furiously spinning propeller scraped the waves, slightly damaging the blades. Cold water sprayed over Ely, but he continued urging the plane upward, and thankfully, the determined little biplane slowly began rising away from the water. Ely worried about the effects of his brush with the water and heard the engine begin to vibrate disturbingly. Being a nonswimmer, he had no interest in remaining over the bay any longer than necessary and he scratched his original plan to land at the Norfolk Navy Yard. Instead, he landed on a nearby beach five minutes later, having opened a new era of sea power.
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Ely and Curtiss set themselves to accomplishing the other half of their plan. They realized that simply flying a plane from a ship would not truly open the sea to aviation—they needed to make a successful shipboard landing as well. Two months later, the twosome traveled to San Francisco to make history once again.
January 18, 1911, dawned overcast and chilly but at 11 A.M., the weather lifted and Ely took off from Selfridge Field, just south of the city. He winged his canvas, wood, and wire biplane toward San Francisco’s crowded waterfront where the cruiser USS Pennsylvania waited offshore with a 127-foot by 32-foot wooden landing platform on its stern.
Before he embarked on this day’s mission, Ely’s primary challenge had been to determine how to stop his plane on the short platform before he crashed into the ship’s superstructure—the decks that rise above the ship’s hull. A similarly short landing had never been accomplished, so he had no existing model to guide him. Interestingly, or perhaps amazingly, he devised a system that has fundamentally remained unchanged for one hundred years.
Ely had lined up a series of sandbags along each side of the landing platform. Between each pair of bags stretched a length of rope. A pair of rails ran parallel along the length of the platform, raising the perpendicular ropes so special hooks on Ely’s landing gear would catch them. As the landing gear snagged more bags, the increasing drag would slow and stop the plane—in theory. If not, a barricade waited at the platform’s end. Today’s system of hydraulic arresting cables and a tailhook, while more advanced, stems from Ely’s initial ingenuity.
Eugene was at once a thrill-seeker and an astute risk manager. He outfitted his plane with pontoons to prevent it from sinking into the bay should it crash. He used a set of bicycle inner tubes as a life preserver. He also saw that a canvas net girded the landing platform in case the plane veered overboard.
That morning, Ely’s biplane approached the waiting ship, circled over the choppy water, and then began its final approach, coming in at approximately thirty-five miles per hour. A sudden updraft lifted the plane above Ely’s desired glide slope at the last moment, and he had to recover quickly. He skillfully put the plane back on slope and set his wheels down near the middle of the landing strip. The plane snared half of the deck’s sandbags, and Ely stopped short of the barricade, having made history’s first arrested landing.
Captain C. F. Pond, the Pennsylvania’s commanding officer, called Ely’s feat “the most important landing since the dove came back to the Ark.”3
The young pilot landed a celebrity, and Captain Pond hosted a lunch for the attending dignitaries before Ely returned to his plane, started its engine, and rolled forward toward his second shipboard takeoff. On this occasion, he easily cleared the water below and rose into the sky above San Francisco Bay.
Upon landing amidst a throng of cheering soldiers at Selfridge Field, Eugene said, “It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.” Then the soldiers carried off the young civilian aviator in triumph. The next day, the San Francisco Examiner proclaimed, EUGENE ELY REVISES WORLD’S NAVAL TACTICS.
Naval aviation’s journey had begun.
*   *   *
Looking over San Francisco Bay a century later from the deck of the retired aircraft carrier USS Hornet, I contemplated how far naval aviation had progressed. I stood on a flight deck nearly eight hundred feet longer than the temporary wooden structure that had received Ely. Hornet’s deck had launched thousands of bomb-laden planes on missions against Japan in the Pacific. It had felt the heat of supersonic jets leaving for missions over Vietnam, and it had welcomed home Neil Armstrong and his crew after mankind’s triumphant first steps on the Moon. In all, the carrier had launched more than 115,000 missions during her 30-year career.
Yet today, even the imposing forty-thousand-ton Hornet seems small compared to a modern goliath like the Nimitz, with her twin nuclear reactors, ninety-seven-thousand-ton displacement, and air wing comprised of state-of-the-art aircraft. Having walked the decks of both ships, I realized how far innovation and spirit like Eugene Ely’s have brought naval aviation.
No guides or rulebooks existed for the pioneers who sought to link aviation with sea power. Theirs was an entirely new discipline, with no forerunners to lead the way. Consequently, many men gave their lives trying to push the limits of flight. Less than one year after making history on San Francisco Bay, Eugene Ely died when his plane crashed during a demonstration flight in Macon, Georgia. Today, aviation still claims lives; it will forever exist as a discipline on the cutting edge of capability, technology, and safety. As one modern instructor reminded a group of aspiring aviators, “Every time you strap that aircraft onto your back, it’s trying to kill you.” For reasons both complex and naturally simple, the tantalizing opportunity to master that wild beast has attracted the best and most daring of every generation.
*   *   *
After his plane’s success on the Birmingham and Pennsylvania, Glenn Curtiss established a flying school on North Island in San Diego, California. Lieutenant Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson volunteered to leave the submarine service and report to Curtiss’s school and soon thereafter, he captured a New York Times headline when he became the first naval officer to fly, on January 29, 1911. He was designated Naval Aviator Number One in April. In May, Curtiss finally received his sought-after contract, which was for two A-1 Triad seaplanes. Their purchase marks the true birth of U.S. naval aviation.
During 1911, the navy began sending Curtiss its first aspiring aviators, who were a unique and slightly renegade group of young officers with a taste for adventure and the nontraditional. They bucked the established surface warfare path, giving up their posts on prestigious battleships and cruisers. They consequently suffered the condescension of many peers and most commanders, but they didn’t care. They wanted to fly.
*   *   *
By 1914, these early pioneers had earned the reluctant respect of Navy leadership, although they had to struggle mightily to attain it. Stubborn battleship admirals still stinging from Glenn Curtiss’s humbling aerial bombing demonstration against surface ships would admit little strategic use for airplanes in the navy; and any strategic use they could foresee would only threaten their established order. On another front, some politicians and army leaders advocated for a single United States air force that would combine the navy’s aviation assets with those of the U.S. Army Air Service. They argued, quite well but ultimately without success, that the navy did not need a separate aviation program.
Even though most of the navy’s leadership still refused to view naval aviation as of central importance, they certainly didn’t want the army to own aviation entirely. They agreed to provide their air force with a home. For its location, they chose the old navy yard at Pensacola, Florida. For its leader, they called upon Naval Aviator Number Three, John H. Towers.
Jack Towers was Eugene Ely with a uniform. The two young aviators shared the same adventurous spirit and zest for risk. The native of Rome, Georgia, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1906 and jettisoned a promising battleship career as soon as he heard about the navy’s new aviation program. He did so despite stringent protests from his senior officers, who wanted the talented young officer to remain with them. On June 26, 1911, he left his shipmates to join Spuds Ellyson and Glenn Curtiss in a still-dangerous and unproven endeavor that was claiming lives of many aspiring pilots—aviation.
“I am sure many of my shipmates thought it was really and finally Farewell and that a small allowance should be put aside for later flowers,” Jack remembered of his departure. His family in Rome thought “he had prepared to commit suicide.”4 He was risking his life as well as his career.
Jack learned to fly under the instruction of Spuds Ellyson near Glenn Curtiss’s Hammondsport, New York, home. In 1912, he reported to North Island off San Diego and became an instructor. It was there that some of his students established one of naval aviation’s great traditions: brown shoes, which have since distinguished flyers from their black-shoed surface warfare counterparts. Everyone found that North Island’s dusty environs made it impossible to keep their standard-issue black shoes well-shined, and a group of students began wearing brown shoes instead; the brown tended to hide the dirt. From that point on, naval aviators have been called “brown-shoes.”
Jack proved exceptionally adept at teaching and flying. Soon, he began pursuing altitude, flight time, and distance records that impressed the navy brass. They began developing a begrudging respect for aviation and for the navy’s emerging “senior aviator.” Then Jack almost died.
Lieutenant Towers and his copilot, Ensign William Devotie Billingsley, were flying a Wright Brothers B-2 hydroaeroplane over a stormy Chesapeake Bay when an unexpected gust suddenly pushed the plane into a sixty-degree dive. The movement threw Billingsley from his seat and he crashed into the flight controls. Planes had neither seat belts nor parachutes at the time. The plane dove and accelerated toward the bay. Billingsley was knocked out of the plane and plummeted 1,500 feet to his death, becoming the navy’s first aviation fatality.
The initial gust also knocked Jack from his seat, but he managed to grab a support strut on the wing. He tried to kick the steering controls to stop the plane’s dive, but to no avail. Fortunately, updrafts slowed its descent and Jack held on tightly as he rode the B-2 down. The crash knocked him unconscious and injured one of his arms. When he came to, he lashed his good arm to the plane’s pontoon so he’d stay afloat should he pass out. The stormy waves hid him from the crash boat on its first pass, but Jack’s dog, which had accompanied the rescuers, began barking furiously at the scent of its owner. The boat circled back and fished the badly wounded aviator from the water. After Billingsley’s death, Towers helped make sure all navy planes had seat belts.
That was 1913. The next year saw him arrive in Pensacola as executive officer of the navy’s new Gulf Coast airbase. There, he developed the first formal training syllabus for navy pilots and set about getting the base in order so it could begin producing the aviators he envisioned the navy would soon need. He was distracted from his duties when, in April, he led a contingent of aircraft into combat over Veracruz during the Mexican Revolution. In an important first, naval aviators scouted hostile positions for navy and marine forces during America’s occupation of the port city. During this time, he became friends with Lt. Commander William Moffett, who, as a rear admiral, would team up with Jack to lead naval aviation during the 1920s.
In the years before and during World War I, Jack served as the de facto leader of the young aviation department. Then in 1919, Towers embarked on a great adventure he’d been plotting for years. He led a contingent of three Navy-Curtiss (NC) flying boats on the world’s first transatlantic flight. The big 20,000-pound biplanes each had four powerful engines, a five-man crew housed in the forty-five-foot center hull, and a pair of 126-foot fabric-covered wings. They were forerunners to the widely famous and slightly smaller PBY Catalina seaplanes used so extensively in World War II. While made for flight, they were designed to land and take off from large bodies of water. Ten “Nancies” were built, four of which were designated to fly the Atlantic—NC-1 through NC-4. NC-2 was used for spare parts, and NCs 1, 3, and 4 set out from Rockaway Beach, New York, on the afternoon of May 16, 1919, aiming to cover 4,106 nautical miles before arriving in Plymouth, England. Since transoceanic airplane navigation did not exist, the threesome followed signals set by a long line of destroyers spread out along the flight path, which included several refueling stops.
Jack Towers commanded the mission from his flagship NC-3, and held his three planes together until Newfoundland. On the longest hop—Newfoundland to the Azores on May 17—the planes encountered rough weather that cut visibility to one hundred yards. They became separated and NC-1 landed on the North Atlantic to verify its position. Jack Towers and NC-3 did the same. Neither plane realized that ten- to twelve-foot swells crisscrossed the surface. NC-1 succumbed to the waves soon after landing; its five-man crew was rescued by a passing Greek merchantman. The heavy seas damaged NC-3 too badly to fly again, but the machine remained afloat, albeit two hundred miles southwest of the Azores. The plane’s radio transmitter had failed several hours before—unbeknownst to the crew—and nobody knew where NC-3 was on the vast, stormy Atlantic. Even when searches began, nobody looked so far to the southwest.
Jack had one option: sail NC-3 to the Azores. They had no communication and their scant supplies wouldn’t last more than a day or two. Their only drinkable water was radiator water, which pooled in the bilge, tainted with oil and rust. Waves and heavy rain battered the craft, which was made for travels in the air, not on the open sea. With no other options, they began to sail the stricken seaplane toward the Azores. The large hull, canvas wings, and struts caught the stiff wind and carried the flying boat over the seas with surprising speed. They also made intermittent use of the engines and propellers.
The crew used two buckets as sea anchors to stabilize their ungainly ship as it plowed through the storm and ten-foot seas at thirteen knots—about fifteen miles per hour. Jack expertly kept them on course by making sextant sightings on the sun and stars. They took care to move northeast while also keeping their bow to the waves, which would swamp them if taken sideways. The storm increased its temper overnight, and swells grew upward of twenty-five feet. The rain and waves began to batter the intrepid plane to pieces. The sea ripped off the pontoon on the port (left) wing and the men began taking turns sitting on the end of the starboard wing to ensure the opposite wingtip—no longer supported by a float—stayed clear of the water. Should the greedy waves catch the wingtip, they would pull it under and swamp the entire plane along with its crew. The men also punched holes in the fabric wings to keep water from collecting and dragging them down. At the same time, their hands were growing swollen from pumping water from the hull, which had sprung several leaks.
The waves subsided on May 18—their second day afloat—which allowed the pilots to motor their craft toward the island of San Miguel in the Azores. Jack continued taking bearings to ensure they were on course. Should they miss the island, they wouldn’t make landfall until they reached Europe, 760 miles to the east. Each crew member knew they’d never survive that scenario. They had to rely on their battered boat and Jack’s skill as a navigator and leader.
The storm resumed and continued dismembering the ship during their second night afloat. It sent the men scurrying about the wings tightening bolts and lines that the jarring waves had loosened. The pumping continued, draining energy they could replenish with neither food nor rest. Their provisions quickly ran low and the constant bucking and cold spray conspired to keep the men awake around the clock.
Towers estimated they were nearing San Miguel on the morning of May 19. Another storm pushed them temporarily off course, but they recovered and soon sighted the peaks of an island. His sighting put them forty-four miles distant.
“The effect on all hands was astonishing,” Towers recalled. “After two days without seeing any sight of a vessel and expecting to go down any moment, to have land in sight! It was still rough, and we didn’t know if the old wreck would hold together long enough to make shore. But there was hope, spelt with a great big H.”5
The commander hoisted their American flag and mission pennant. He would sail a beaten and battered ship—a flying boat with shredded wings, really—into the harbor, but he would do it proudly. At 4:12 P.M. they were seven miles off the harbor entrance and were finally spotted.
“We crabbed in under the eastern end of the breakwater, and into the harbor,” Towers said. “That place was perfect bedlam. Whistles were blowing, flags flying everywhere, and boats chasing about like mad.” Everyone thought they’d surely met their end at sea.
Several days later, NC-4, the only plane in Towers’s command that was still serviceable, would leave to complete the crossing—although for curious reasons, the Secretary of the Navy (against protests from Assistant Secretary Franklin Roosevelt) ordered that Towers not pilot the flight himself. Jack dutifully swallowed that bitter pill and offered his encouragement as Albert C. “Putty” Read and his crew took off on May 25 in NC-4, bound for Portugal. Two days later, they arrived in Lisbon, becoming the first men to cross the Atlantic by air. The Secretary of the Navy later apologized to Towers for his mistake.
All the NC aviators became celebrities and were feted in Europe and America alike. The transatlantic feat earned mission commander Towers and naval aviation itself new respect, and Towers continued his rise as one of the young discipline’s greatest protectors, advocates, and strategists.
He progressed through the ranks quickly, reaching captain in 1930, and commanding the carriers Langley and Saratoga during the next decade. Many peers called him the Prince of Naval Aviation.
In 1932, Jack sailed to Hawaii in command of a navy task force assigned to simulate an attack on Oahu in a joint exercise with the army. He sailed the carriersLexington and Saratoga into position one hundred miles north of the island and launched his first wave of planes against Pearl Harbor before dawn on Sunday morning, February 7, 1932. That was the navy’s first nighttime launch.
The navy aircraft caught the rival Army Air Corps and all of Pearl Harbor entirely unaware. The army managed to launch one wave of planes, but they couldn’t catch the navy attackers. The army pilots returned to their base at Pearl Harbor. Towers had predicted exactly that, and a second wave of navy planes descended upon the army base just as its last plane returned. The army howled that a Sunday morning attack was most unfair, but the navy’s victory was complete. Unfortunately, by Sunday, December 7, 1941, everyone except the Japanese had forgotten Towers’s lesson.
As a brown-shoe aviator in a black-shoe-run navy, Jack Towers waged a continual campaign to enhance the role of aviation within the fleet. Many friends encouraged him to leave aviation if he valued his career; he didn’t even consider it. The established order of battleship admirals developed a strong distaste for Towers, but as his tactics helped lead naval aviation (and the entire Pacific Fleet) through World War II, he finally won their respect. But before the war, their hostility to him was such that the promotion board—comprised of unfavorable surface admirals—pointedly denied him the rank of admiral. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had seen the results of Towers’s work, however, and he personally intervened, naming him Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, which automatically elevated him to the flag rank of admiral, meaning a starred flag would fly from the mast of any ship on which he sailed. By the end of his career, he would earn four stars and serve as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet. From 1911 until his retirement in 1947, he remained naval aviation’s greatest advocate and its true champion.
Tactically, Jack Towers’s lifelong tenacity and unflinching vision helped prepare naval aviation for its pivotal role in World War II and beyond. On a more personal level, he set an example of daring, innovation, and leadership that generations of naval aviators would follow. Today, his spirit still guides the aviators and airmen who arrive each year at the base he helped found—Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola—to receive their introduction to this special fraternity.

Copyright © 2011 by Alvin Townley