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CHIPS Articles: When the Navy Built Airplanes — and More

When the Navy Built Airplanes — and More
By Sarandis Papadopoulos, Ph.D., Secretariat Historian - February 21, 2017
Just under a century ago, the United States joined the Entente Powers fighting what we now call World War I. That conflict saw America rearm quickly, ramping up production of weapons, especially aircraft. To meet an urgent need, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels ordered establishment of the Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF), near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In March 1918, the facility’s first H-16 flying boat flew. Built under license from the Curtiss Company and delivered less than seven months after the secretary’s order, the same plane operationally deployed to England the next month. That rapid delivery, less than 15 years after the world’s first airplane flight, showed the flexibility of the government-run facility.

Post-World War I reduction of the U.S. Navy saw the Factory primarily engaged in research and experimentation by the mid-1920s. The 1934 Vinson-Trammell Act allowing the U.S. Navy to rebuild the fleet also required that 10 percent of Navy aircraft and engines be built in government facilities.

Only the NAF could meet that mandate, primarily by producing trainers, float planes and other reconnaissance aircraft. Given rapidly changing aviation technology, with higher octane fuel and superchargers, the Factory continued building craft and engines under license from private companies. Its expertise between 1919 and 1945 proved useful, as the NAF built over 1,700 airplanes. When needed, the Factory’s skilled staff also supported the second rapid expansion in aircraft production before and during World War II.

Perhaps most intriguing was the NAF’s role in unmanned aircraft. Further technical developments permitted an operator using either an early television or radar system to guide an aircraft into a heavily-defended area, without risking a human pilot.

Creating what now we term an unmanned aerial vehicle, in conjunction with the Interstate Aircraft Company the Naval Aircraft Factory built over 100 of these TDN-1 “assault drones.” Largely made of wood, they could carry up to a one-ton bomb or a torpedo. The TDN-1 proved ahead of its time, however, too unreliable and not needed for World War II combat. But their innovative nature, and the Navy’s building of them, are important examples for today.

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With a test pilot, Naval Aircraft Factory / Interstate TDN-1. Picture #80-G-387145 courtesy U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command
With a test pilot, Naval Aircraft Factory / Interstate TDN-1. Picture #80-G-387145 courtesy U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command
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