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Old 11-03-2015, 01:47 PM   #24
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Early Aviation on Nantucket
By Captain John Lacouture

Complete article...

Section related to the R-9

A year after World War I was declared, the first hydroplanes arrived, unannounced, on what is now Childrens Beach

Nantucket's aviation history begins during World War 1. On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany. At the time aviation was in its infancy, but the United States planned to carry on the war in the air on a grand scale. Naval aviation was assigned to overcome the German submarine threat to our control of the sea, both off our coasts and between North America and Europe. A string of air bases was located from the Panama Canal to Massachusetts to provide Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) escort for shipping and to conduct searches for German U-boats. Of necessity, all escorting was done during daylight hours, since night flying in those days was strictly an emergency operation.

Naval Air Station Chatham, the most northern of the bases, was commissioned onjanuary 6, 1918, to convoy shipping from Nantucket South Shoals Lightship to Cape Ann and to patrol the waters south to the western limit of Georges Bank shoals and to the western tip of Martha's Vineyard. This would protect the large amount of shipping entering and leaving the ports of Boston and New York. It was inevitable, therefore, that the first plane to land at Nantucket would fly out of Chatham.

Early in March Chatham received its first hydroplane. After assembly and engine tests the aircraft, an R-9, made the first flight from the new station on March 25,1918. The R-9 was a Curtiss twin-float, single-engine biplane with a crew of two. A Lewis machine gun was mounted aft of the rear cockpit and bomb racks capable of holding small bombs were mounted underneath or on the side of the fuselage. The plane, which weighed 4200 pounds loaded, was powered by a Curtiss V-2 200-horsepower engine and could attain a maximum ceiling of 9,100 feet and a maximum speed of 82 miles per hour.

Homing pigeons were carried on all flights so that messages could be sent in case the enemy should be contacted or the pilot should have to set the plane down at sea. In those early days of aviation engines were very unreliable, and none of the planes were equipped with radio communication. One World War I pilot out of Chatham told the story of sighting a submarine, of leaning over the side of the plane to throw a bomb, and of seeing it bounce off the sub without exploding. For the week of April 6, 1918, Naval Air Station Chatham reported to the Chief of Naval Operations: six R-9 seaplanes assigned and twenty-five flights made.

The first hydroplanes to arrive at Nantucket were unannounced. On April 13, J. Franklin Chase, then age nine, was standing with some men on the catboat Lillian's pier on the north side of Steamboat Wharf. He vividly recalls the occasion. He heard an unfamiliar sound, approaching from a long way out. Suddenly he pointed and shouted, "Here come two airplanes!" (He swears there were two, although the Inquirer and Mirror pictured only one at the shore.) Near him an old fisherman growled, "Looks like sea gulls to me," whereupon Franklin asked, "Since when do sea gulls make that noise?" Just then the two R-9s from Chatham flew in over what is now Children's Beach. The men stopped laughing and agreed that "The boy had been right." The seaplanes landed to the south just off Commercial Wharf. One taxied around and then took off again; the other taxied in to South Beach (where the Maria Mitchell Association Aquarium is now) and remained for a while to allow all the curious to get a close-up look and the I&M photographer to get his picture.

The next time seaplanes came to Nantucket, Chatham had notified the town in advance that they would be landing in the harbor on April 17. The schools declared a holiday, and all of the children, along with most of Nantucket, congregated on Brant Point to watch the arrival of the four R-9s. They saw the last one spin into the shallow waters of the Coatue flats. For most observers, it would be their first viewing of such aircraft.

Starting in June 1918 the Curtiss-designed HS-16 and HS-2L seaplanes built by Boeing began arriving in large numbers at Chatham and soon became the standard patrol and hauling flying boats of the Navy. Powered by a Liberty 360-horsepower pusher engine, they could obtain a maximum altitude of 11,000 feet and a maximum speed of 88 m.p.h. They had a midship cockpit that could hold two persons and a forward cockpit that could accommodate one person. Initially they all carried a Lewis machine gun and, after the first of August, the large Davis non-recoil, six-pounder gun. They also carried two MK IV bombs containing 120 pounds of TNT, but like the early torpedoes of World War II, about 80% of the bombs failed to detonate.

By July Chatham was making as many as twenty flights a day. During this period wrecks and engine failure were common. On several occasions Nantucket boats came across planes from Chatham downed at sea and towed them back into port. The Inquirer and Mirror reported that on June 8, 1918, a Navy seaplane landed at Quidnet barrier beach. The plane, with two pilots on board, was lost in the fog, which had set in since they took off. They had been flying for several hours and had no idea where they were. When told that they were on Nantucket by locals who then directed them to Chatham, they were much relieved and took off on a proper course. By now Chatham was one of the Navy's largest air stations with seventy-five officers, four-hundred-fifty men, eighteen seaplanes, a couple of kite balloons, and two blimps built by Goodyear and Goodrich.

After World War I ended on November 11, 1918, and winter weather set in, the tempo of flying at Chatham was greatly reduced—a fact of which Nantucketers were well aware. By May 1920 the Naval Air Station Chatham was deactivated, but not without first sending out ten planes on February 25, 1919, to welcome President Wilson aboard the S.S. George Washington on his return from the first session of the Versailles Peace Treaty Conference.
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