John Towers quickly learned the importance of his extensive Navy sea training when bad weather forced him and his Curtiss NC flying boat to make an emergency landing in the Atlantic Ocean. Unable to take off again because of buckled wing struts, the plane was basically at the mercy of the waves. Towers refused to accept defeat, however, and used his seafaring skills to fashion a canvas bucket into an anchor. He then used the plane’s rudder to sail toward an island nearly 200 miles away. Fifty-two hours later, Towers and his crew taxied the dilapidated ship into the Harbor of Sao Miguel Island.
- In 1913 he was in charge of the aviation unit which began its first operations with the Fleet off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they explored the potential of the planes in aerial reconnaissance, bombing, aerial photography, and wireless communications.
- In 1914, Towers took part in activating the first Naval Air Station at Pensacola and led the air unit’s first action in the Mexican crises.
- In 1919, Towers led the Navy’s attempt to fly the Atlantic in the NC-3 flying boat.
- Towers commanded the USS Langley, the Navy’s first aircraft carrier.
- June, 1939, he became the first pioneer naval aviator to achieve flag rank, and was responsible for expanding naval aviation.
- During World War II he helped develop the strategy that won the war in the Pacific Theater.
- He commanded the second carrier task force, Task Force 38 the 5th Fleet.
- Following World War II he was Commander in Chief of the Pacific fleet.
A native of Rome, Georgia, Towers graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1906 and then went to sea, serving with distinction aboard the battleship Kentucky.
Towers became interested in aviation and after numerous futile requests for aviation duty he finally got his wish and received orders to the Curtiss Flying School on June 27th, 1911. There he became the Navy’s third aviator, following Theodore Gordon Ellyson and John Rodgers. He learned to fly the Navy’s first airplane, a Curtiss seaplane called the A-1.
Soon afterward that Towers and Ellyson made a record distance flight down the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis to Old Point Comfort, Virginia, in the A-1. Later, he took over the training of the other young Navy pilots. One of the highlights of 1912 occurred in October when he rigged extra gasoline tanks to a Curtiss seaplane for an endurance flight. Taking off from the Severn River at Annapolis early in the morning, he flew up over the Chesapeake Bay and remained aloft for over six hours, setting a world’s endurance record. This was the first official record flight that a naval pilot made.
Early in December Towers completed tests which demonstrated the ability to spot submarines from the air, even in the muddy waters of the Chesapeake Bay. In 1913 he was in charge of the aviation unit which began its first operations with the Fleet off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He and his fellow Navy pilots explored all the potential of their planes to serve the Navy aerial reconnaissance, bombing, aerial photography, and wireless communications. In the ocean waters off Cuba they were able to spot submarines at depths of 30 to 40 feet.
One day in June 1913, he was a passenger in the Wright seaplane that Ensign William Billingsley was piloting. Suddenly, 1,600 feet above Chesapeake Bay, the two hit severe turbulence. Without warning Billingsley was hurled out of his seat and fell to his death on the water far below. This tragically made Billingsley the first Navy pilot to make the supreme sacrifice. Incredibly, Towers managed to catch and cling to a wing strut and ride the plummeting unpiloted plane down, miraculously surviving the crash. After that incident, he ordered safety belts for all the Navy planes.
In January 1914 Towers set up the first training Naval Air Station in an abandoned navy yard at Pensacola, Florida. From here he led his unit in the first naval air operations during the Mexican Crisis. After World War I Towers participated in what was to be one of the greatest exploits in aviation history. In 1919 he led the Navy’s attempted trans-Atlantic flight of Curtiss NC flying boats. All four planes were ready in April for the departure from Rockaway Naval Air Station, but a severe storm scratched the NC-2 from the flight. When they took off on May 8th on the historic flight, Towers was in command of the flight and of the Flagship W-3. Patrick Bellinger commanded the NC-1 and Albert C. Read the NC-4.
The first leg of the flight was to Halifax, Nova Scotia, but the NC-4, suffering severe engine troubles was forced to land at sea. The NC-1 and NC-3 proceeded from Halifax on to Trepassay, Newfoundland, and awaited there until the NC-4 arrived after undergoing repairs. On May 16th all three planes were ready and took off from Trepassey’s harbor. Out over the sea, as the planes climbed to 1,000 feet, an occasional iceberg glinted in the light of the setting sun. It was planned to fly in formation but both his NC-3 and Bellinger’s NC-1 fell behind Read’s NC-4 as night fell. By early morning they encountered heavy weather. Churning through rain squalls and fog, his NC-3 became hopelessly lost and he had to set it down on the storm-tossed ocean. Unable to take off again because of buckled wing struts, Towers turned to his experience as a seaman. Rigging a canvas bucket for a sea anchor he used the plane’s rudder to drift sail toward Sao Miguel Island, 200 miles away. It was an almost impossible task, even for an experienced seaman with a reliable ship, but fifty-two grueling hours later he and his crew triumphantly taxied their battered ship into harbor in the Azores an the crowd lining the shore went wild with a joyous welcome. Nine days later the NC-4 flew on to Lisbon to complete the historic first transatlantic flight. It was a triumph of planning and skillful flying by the naval aviators.
But perhaps his greatest contribution was his vision in 1921, when he began training of Navy pilots in land planes, in his anticipation of the requirements of the Navy’s aircraft carriers yet to come. In 1922 the Navy converted a Collier into the Langley, the first aircraft carrier, and gradually solved the practical problems of operating aircraft from it. The Navy developed arresting gear and barricades to provide safety in landings. The carriers Lexington and Saratoga were also authorized and these three ships eventually became the nucleus of the U.S. pre-war carrier fleet. Towers served as executive officer and later commanding officer of the Langley and later of the Saratoga.
Finally, in June 1939, Towers became chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, with the rank of admiral, becoming the first naval aviator to achieve flag rank. In this capacity, he was responsible for expanding naval aviation in that period of ever-changing criteria.
When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in 1941, naval aviation was just 30 years old and the Navy faced the greatest task in its history for many of its warships and airplanes lay in the mud of Pearl Harbor. But dedicated pioneer naval aviators such as he were the Navy’s greatest asset, for they had lived and breathed flying ever since our first carriers were launched. They were able to pass their lessons on to the thousands of naval aviators to be trained. He directed naval aviation’s expansion during World War II and helped develop the strategy for winning the war in the Pacific.
By 1943 a tremendous change was wrought in the Pacific as the “Flat-Top” became “Queen” of the fleet and its aircraft led the fleet toward victory an the world’s greatest sea-borne Air Force.
At the end of the war, he commanded the second Carrier Task Force, Task Force 38, and the Fifth Fleet. He then served as the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet and finally as Chief of the Navy’s General Board. In 1947 he ended a long and distinguished 41 year career in naval aviation and he died in 1955. Towers had pushed the envelope of naval aviation, and his achievements would inspire and awe aviators of all stripes for years to come.
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