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Captain Joseph M. Reeves: Developing Carrier Aviation

Curtis F6C-1A of VF-2 US Navy Naval Aviation

Captain Joseph Reeves wasn’t the first or only pioneer in carrier aviation. But after he assumed command of the United States Navy’s sole aircraft carrier, the USS Langley (CV-1) in October 1925, Reeves forged carrier aviation into a fighting force that shaped military operations in the Second World War and beyond. One of the foremost battleship tacticians of the day, Reeves was nicknamed “Bull” from his days playing football as a midshipman at the US Naval Academy.

US Navy Admiral Joseph M Reeves
Captain Joseph Reeves

The former head of the Tactics Department at the Naval War College, Reeves came to be known for his innovative tactics and forward-thinking. His time working on naval tactics exposed him to the potential of aviation in future naval operations and despite having a “Big Gun” battleship background, he saw the decisive potential of the submarine and the airplane in the next war. The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Edward Eberle, had served with Reeves on the battleship USS Oregon and was well aware of his innovative thinking when he selected Reeves to command the Langley.

That same year Reeves assumed command of the Langley, a very public debate broke out between Rear Admiral William Moffett, the chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer), and Rear Admiral William Shoemaker, the head of the Bureau of Navigation (BuNav). At the time, BuNav was in charge of personnel matters for the entire Navy. Moffett, taking it as his personal mission to nurture and grow naval aviation, felt that aviation personnel should be the responsibility of BuAer rather than BuNav. After all, Moffett believed, only aviators knew what was best for other aviators.

USS Langley CV-1 US Navy Aircraft Carrier Naval Aviation
U.S.S. Langley CV-1

While this administrative dispute was going on within the halls of naval power, the CNO’s selection of Captain Reeves was a careful one, intended to avoid ruffling feathers at either BuAer or BuNav. Commanding the Langley as a politically sensitive post and it probably helped Reeves that he was seen by BuNav as an acceptable choice. Reeves had a strong reputation as a tactician, he was a trained engineer, and he came from the battleship side of the Navy. A law passed in 1921 stipulated that all aviation units of the US Navy, including aircraft carriers (at this time there was only one, the Langley) had to be commanded by naval aviators.

“What is the most efficient way of launching planes?”

Reeves wasn’t a pilot and naval aviation was so new to the Navy that there weren’t any senior officers in aviation with the qualifications, time served, and rank to fill aviation command billets. The most senior naval aviator, Commander John Towers, didn’t have the qualifications to command the Langley and he wouldn’t make captain for another ten years. Thus, BuAer created a special course for naval aviation observers at NAS Pensacola to train senior officers in the basics of flight for postings to aviation units until there were enough senior aviation officers in the ranks. As a requirement to Reeves getting command of the Langley, he had to complete the naval aviation observer course at Pensacola, which he did a month prior to assuming command in San Diego.

Taking Command

When Reeves took command of the Langley, the pace of operations on the converted carrier (it was once the Collier USS Jupiter before a flight deck was built atop the hull, giving the Langley its nickname “Covered Wagon”) reflected the experimental nature of carrier operations. For a month, Reeves observed shipboard operations both below decks and on the flight deck. He was surprised that the Langley’s air wing was composed of only eight aircraft. He took notes and made observations and then in November 1925, he gathered the officers of the carrier and its air wing at a meeting at NAS North Island and bluntly told all of them “they had no conception of either the capabilities or limitations of the air force.”

Admiral Joseph M. Reeves

He fired off a long series of questions to his officers about carrier operations like “What is the most efficient way of launching planes?” and “What is the maximum interval between planes in a scouting screen?” To their surprise, he then told his men that he didn’t know the answers either, “but unless we can answer them, we are of little use to the fleet.” Reeves’ questions came to be called “A Thousand and One Questions” and his men sought answers to each of them. Each answer went into what would become the textbook of naval aviation. It was Reeves’ mission statement: the USS Langley and her air wing would become a school before becoming an air force of use to the fleet.

Scaling the Air Wing

From his time as a tactician at the Naval War College, Reeves was familiar with English engineer Frederick Lanchester’s N-Square Law, which defined the relative power of opposing forces: the combat effectiveness of a military force is proportional to the square of its numerical strength multiplied by the fighting value of its individual units. The fighting value was determined by training and Reeves relentlessly drilled the Langley’s crew and air wing and made sure the ship participated in as many fleet exercises as possible. Numerical strength was improved by getting as many aircraft as possible on the Langley. If the crew could launch and recover aircraft quickly and efficiently, then the carrier could support a much bigger air wing than its current paltry complement of eight aircraft. His first order of business was to increase the Langley’s air wing to fourteen. No one thought it possible, but Reeves’ order stood and on the first day of fleet exercises, VF-2 managed to launch six aircraft quickly and get a second group of six airborne right after that. After all, the day would come when a carrier would have to defend itself against air attack and its aircraft were its own best defense.

In the months that followed, Reeves pushed the Langley crew endlessly to increase the tempo of flight deck operations. He steadily increased the air wing of the Langley and frequently took charge of flight operations himself, acting as the “Air Boss.” In less than six months, he had twenty aircraft operating routinely off the Langley’s small deck. Before he took command, it was customary to let a plane land and then lower it to the hangar deck before allowing the next plane to land. This was time consuming and Reeves pushed his men to orchestrate their movements on the flight deck. As each plane landed, it was disengaged from the arresting gear and pushed forward to the bow to make way for the next aircraft. A collapsible barrier was used at the midpoint of the flight deck to protect the parked aircraft forward. Once all the aircraft had landed, they were all pushed aft for fueling and rearming to prepare for the next launch cycle. A subset of the plane directors were assigned the role of flight control officers who used a checkered flag to signal each pilot to firewall the throttles and race down the deck for takeoff. By increasing the speed of the launch and recovery cycle, the Langley made more use of its air wing: it was a force multiplier.

Working with his executive officer (XO), Commander John Towers, Reeves worked out a system of specialized groups within the deck crew. Each group was assigned a specific task on the flight deck: arresting gear, releasing tail hooks, fueling aircraft, arming aircraft. To delineate their roles to each other, Reeves and Towers had each group wear colored shirts. The blue shirts moved aircraft forward, the brown shirts were crew chiefs, the purple shirts were in charge of refueling. The yellow shirts were the plane directors, the elite of the flight deck crew. The yellow shirts orchestrated all the action of the other groups and movement of aircraft on the deck. Hand signals were developed to make communication clear and concise over the roar of aircraft engines.

An Integrated Air Wing

In preparation for the fleet exercises in the summer of 1926, Reeves had all the squadrons under his command (two fighter squadrons, three observation squadrons, one utility squadron, and one torpedo/bombing squadron) train together as an integrated air wing. Changes and improvements to operating tactics were to be shared amongst all the squadrons. Reeves pushed his men to turn around aircraft faster on the deck and further reduce launch and recovery times. He would stand on the deck during each launch and recovery cycle with a stopwatch. Only 15 seconds were supposed to elapse between each launch and only 90 seconds between each landing. By the time of the summer fleet exercises, it wasn’t unusual for the Langley’s air wing to have 24 to 30 aircraft and VF-1 could conduct 127 takeoffs and landings in a single day. Just a year prior that might have been VF-1’s sum total of takeoffs and landings for a month. The increased pace of operations improved the proficiency of the pilots, the deck crew, and the crew in engineering roles who kept the ship operating.

When the USS Langley and her air wing set sail for the fleet exercises in the summer of 1926, many of Captain Reeves’ “A Thousand and One Questions” had been answered and formulated into naval air doctrine. But one question nagged him that summer and that was how to sink ships. He had seen level bombing in action during his naval aviation observer course in Pensacola and felt it was a useless endeavor as bombsights were inaccurate and targets had to be more or less stationary. Torpedo bombers were still limited in their carrying capacity and no one was keen on a low, slow approach to an enemy warship for a torpedo launch.

The solution of course, would be dive bombing and it came from one of Reeves’ officers, Lt. Commander Frank Wagner, the skipper of VF-2. Stay tuned for more on that in the future!

An historical aside: In 1893 when Joseph Reeves played football at US Naval Academy, he was advised by a physician he had to give up football or risk a kick to the head which could kill him. Reeves went to a local shoemaker and had a protective helmet made out of leather and mole skin so he could play in the Army-Navy game. He is considered one of the inventors of the football helmet.

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