William Adger Moffett
A conventional Navy man by WWI standards, William Moffett initially had little interest in airplanes and those that flew them. He was very much part of a US Navy that revolved around going to sea on big battleships with big guns. Thankfully, Moffett was a visionary and transformed the Navy. As limited as his exposure to aviation was at the time, he clearly glimpsed the future. As Moffett wrote in 1920, “naval aviation must go to sea on the back of the fleet… the fleet and naval aviation are one and inseparable.”
- As skipper of the cruiser Chester, Moffett landed a party of sailors and Marines on April 22, 1913 at Vera Cruz for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
- As commander the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Moffett established flight training and opened schools for aviation mechanics, quartermasters and armorers.
- The Navy established the Bureau of Aeronautics with Moffett as director in 1921. The Bureau commissioned three aircraft carriers and funding for the development of modern aircraft and engines.
- Moffett perished on board the dirigible USS Akron on April 4, 1933.
A native of Charleston, South Carolina, William Moffett was born in October 31, 1869. He was the son of a Confederate Army officer commended for bravery as a member of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He was only 5 when his father died.
Moffett entered the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated 3lst out of 34 cadets in 1890. Moffett spent the next two decades serving on ships ranging from wooden sloops to modern battleships and cruisers.
After promotion to commander, Moffett became the skipper of the cruiser Chester in 1913. The crew’s skills were tested in April 1914 when the Chester supported the landing at Veracruz, Mexico.
On the morning of April 22, Moffett landed a party of sailors and Marines. Throughout the day, Chester provided gunfire support while under constant small arms fire. His bravery and leadership were recognized with the Medal of Honor.
His first exposure to the Navy’s fledgling air arm happened the previous year during winter maneuvers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At first, he regarded flying as something for the crazy or foolish. That attitude began to change when Moffett became commander of the armored cruiser North Carolina. During this time, he was associated with Lieutenant Commander Henry C. Mustin, a pioneer of naval aviation. Mustin helped to shape Moffett’s opinion about the use of aircraft in the Navy.
In the fall of 1914, Moffett took command of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside Chicago, a post he held throughout World War I. At the sprawling training base, he learned the importance of public relations and the value of cultivating influential individuals to support his cause. He received firsthand experience working with the Navy’s bureaucracy to obtain the resources for his projects at Great Lakes. This included the establishment of flight training and the opening of schools for aviation mechanics, quartermasters and armorers.
Just after the end of World War I, Moffett received a plum assignment, he was ordered to command the battleship Mississippi. During exercises at Guantanamo Bay, Moffett saw the battleship Texas fitted with wooden decks to evaluate the operation of spotting aircraft from ships of the fleet. Moffett did the same for Mississippi during exercises in 1920 off the coast of California and learned that spotting aircraft helped improve the accuracy of his ship’s guns.
Shortly thereafter, Moffett was assigned next to Washington as Director of Aviation in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. One of his first challenges was to respond to the efforts of the Army Air Corps, led by air power enthusiast Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell. Mitchell grabbed headlines by orchestrating bombing tests against old, stationary U.S. and German warships off the Virginia Capes.
Partly through Moffett’s advocacy, the Navy established the Bureau of Aeronautics, which accorded naval aviation a more prominent place in the Navy’s bureaucracy. Moffett was promoted to Rear Admiral and named the bureau’s first director. He realized that he needed to establish a strong aviation organization within the Navy to counter Mitchell’s actions.
Moffett held the view that naval aviation and the fleet it supported would only be successful if the airplane was fully integrated into operations at sea.
With Moffett’s support, the Navy commissioned three aircraft carriers which entered the fleet in the 1920s – USS Langley, USS Lexington and USS Saratoga. However, Moffett also understood that the keys to an effective naval air arm would be its aircraft and aircrews. Perhaps his greatest achievements were securing funding support from Congress for the development of modern aircraft and engines.
His bureau worked closely with Boeing, Grumman, Consolidated and other aircraft manufacturers to use the latest technologies and development of shipboard catapults and seaplanes.
Moffett was strongly identified with the Navy’s rigid airship program. He believed that lighter-than-air ships could serve as platforms for operating long-range scouting planes in support of the fleet. However, the Navy’s dirigible program was a failure. Heavy weather caused the crash of two huge airships – the Macon and the Akron – and the loss of many officers and men. One of those men who perished on board the Akron on April 4, 1933 was the sailor, who proudly led the Navy into the aviation age, William A. Moffett.
His unprecedented 12 year tenure as Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics enabled him to use the skills he acquired during his career to create an organization that would change the face of naval warfare. For that, he is recognized at the “Father of Naval Aviation.”
For his vision, determination and perseverance in the development of naval aviation, William A. Moffett has earned his place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.