Monday, August 27, 2018

One Century Ago: Naval Air Station Norfolk's First Skipper, Part 1

Editor's Note: On our first blog post about Naval Air Station Oceana's establishment on August 17, 1943, it was mentioned that Rear Admiral P.N.L. Bellinger was in attendance at the commissioning ceremony.  On August 27, 1918, just shy of a quarter-century before that, Bellinger took command of Naval Air Station Hampton Roads (which was renamed NAS Norfolk after his first of his two assignments as CO there), and his name graces a major thoroughfare on Naval Station Norfolk today.  From the pages of  The Daybook, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's quarterly magazine, our resident expert on Bellinger expounds upon Bellinger's importance to U.S. Naval Aviation in general, and its development in Hampton Roads in particular.

The administrative heads of Naval Air Station Hampton Roads (later NAS Norfolk) as photographed in January 1919.  Lieutenant Commander P.N.L. Bellinger, the station's commanding officer, is seated center front row.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
P.N.L. Bellinger: Pioneer Naval Aviator and the Early Days of NAS Norfolk 

By Ira R. Hanna
Many know that the first flight from a ship took place here in Hampton Roads, Virginia. What many people do not know is that the region was largely responsible for the creation and growth of the aviation branch of the U.S. Navy. Naval Aviation had many skeptics in the early years of flight, and it took several inspired and wise men to convince those skeptics that it was worth supporting. 
One of those wise and inspired men was Patrick Nieson Lynch Bellinger. A versatile naval officer, Bellinger served in the surface and submarine warfare communities before finding his true passion in Naval Aviation. During his 40 years of naval service from 1907 to 1947, only a few times did his name appear in the headlines of newspapers. Nor was he mentioned very often in magazines or on radio or television news broadcasts. On the other hand, the public in Hampton Roads should recall him every time it hears the sound of naval aircraft flying overhead. If not for Bellinger's foresight and perseverance in the development of naval aircraft and their integration into the fleet, those aircraft may not have become one of the most powerful weapons in the Navy.

How did this southern country boy from Cheraw (emphasis on RAW), South Carolina, become such an important part of the development and growth of Naval Aviation in general, and specifically, in Hampton Roads? Although it was his home, he hardly ever spoke of it. As his wife, Elsie, remarked, "It was CheRAW! when you arrived and HurRAW!! when you left." Born October 8, 1885, he was raised by his maternal aunt when his mother and sister died a few years after his birth. He was educated in local public schools, and in 1902 he enrolled in Clemson College as an electrical engineering student. Later that year he got his father's permission to leave Clemson to study for the Naval Academy's entrance exam. He received a congressional appointment and entered the class of 1907 on June 22, 1903. As a plebe (freshman) he weighed only 116 pounds and stood only five feet, ten inches tall. Even so, he was cajoled into athletics by an upper-classman and became an excellent boxer. He credited this with putting him in good enough physical and mental shape to be accepted for aviation nine years later.

At the academy, Bellinger was influenced by several of his instructors. The most important was Thomas T. Craven (mathematics and navigation), with whom he later would serve on the battleship South Carolina. Another was Ernest J. King (ordnance and gunnery), a future chief of naval operations.  Bellinger served as King's deputy for naval air during WWII. Also important was Joseph M. Reeves (physics and chemistry), who later pioneered the development of aircraft carriers, providing Bellinger with a wider view of the uses of aircraft. He served with Reeves as his aviation aide when he was commander of the Battle Fleet during the 1920s.

Upon graduation from the Naval Academy. Bellinger was assigned as a Passed Midshipman to the USS Vermont (BB 20), part of the Great White Fleet that departed Norfolk in 1907 and went around the world to show the might of the U.S.Navy. When the fleet reached Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), after he had received exemplary fitness reports from the Vermont's captain, he was transferred to the Wisconsin (BB 9). He completed the voyage on that ship and arrived back in Hampton Roads on February 22, 1909.  On March 6, when the Wisconsin was sent to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for repairs, Bellinger and six other "student officers" were transferred to the cruiser Montgomery (C 9) based in Norfolk. It served as an experimental torpedo ship and this excited him. He watched the gunners' actions so closely that during one high-pressure run, a piece of metal flew up and hit him on the head. If it had hit him just inches lower, it would have killed him, one of many instances throughout Bellinger's lifetime that luck had a hand in his success.

One day, after watching the loading and firing of torpedoes, the student officers became bored and began to play roulette games during the shots. Bellinger happened to leave the game and go on deck for some fresh air. Before he could return, he heard his name being called loudly by the captain (Joseph Strauss, later the admiral who supervised the laying of the North Sea Mine Barrage during WWI). He wondered what trouble he was in, but Strauss merely informed him that the Navy Department had directed him to nominate two ensigns from the class of 1907 to send to the Navy's first dreadnaughts, the Michigan and the South Carolina. Strauss said, "In looking around. I find you are the only one of your class on the job, so you may have the pick." Of course, Bellinger chose the South Carolina that was located temporarily in Norfolk. He later noted "It certainly pays to be in the right spot at the right time." 

A postcard of the battleship South Carolina (BB 26). (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
 In the meantime, Northern European countries had expressed displeasure that the Great White Fleet had not visited their ports. So, in November 1910, the Navy Department sent the South Carolina to visit ports in France and England. After returning to Norfolk in January 1911, she was sent to ports in Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and Kiel, Germany. While in Kiel, Bellinger saw a plane fly over the harbor and decided that he wanted to go into aviation.

Bellinger's assignment on the South Carolina was assistant gunnery officer to "Terrible Tommy" Craven, whom he first met at the Academy and with whom he later would serve in the Bureau of Naval Aeronautics (BuAer). After much pleading, he convinced Craven to assign him command of one of the four 12-inch turrets. By holding extra practices, he had his turret crew ready for the Fleet Gunnery Championship held in March 1910 on the Virginia Capes. His guns made hits 88.5 percent of the time on a towed target and in record time. This enabled the South Carolina to win the Fleet Gunnery Trophy (which today is located in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum). This was instrumental in Craven being ordered to head the Navy's Office of Fleet Gunnery Training. The principle of teamwork and delegation of authority that Bellinger learned aboard the South Carolina stayed with him the rest of his life. The prize money, forbidden for officers to receive, went to his turret crew. Then, without his knowledge, they bought him an ornate gold watch and presented it to him. He was very proud of it and 46 years later he sent it to his grandson, who was named after him.

Before Craven left the ship in late 1911 he asked Bellinger if there was anything he could do for him in Washington. He replied that he had requested aviation duty from Lt. Theodore "Spuds" Ellyson, Naval Aviator No. 1, and would appreciate Craven's recommendation. To further prove he was sincere about aviation, he also had requested submarine duty so he could learn about gasoline engines that were similar to aircraft engines. In January 1912 he received orders to submarine duty and reported to the submarine flotilla commander in Norfolk, Lt. Chester W. Nimitz, on whose staff he later would serve during WWII, and help plan the air strategy for the Battle of Midway.

The C-Class submarine Bonita underway in 1909 before her recommissioning as USS C-4 in 1911. (Wikimedia Commons)
After five months of training Lt. j.g. Bellinger was given command of the Bonita, a training submarine that had been recommissioned as USS C-4. As fate would have it, his first orders were to sail to Greenbury Point Aviation Experimental Camp (the first in the navy) across the Severn River from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. There he was to take part in a test to see if submarines could be located under water from the air. What he saw convinced him of the usefulness of aircraft to the navy. But he also discovered that Naval Aviation was treated as an unwanted stepchild by the "big gun" admirals and starved for equipment and personnel. Many senior officers believed that aviation's growth would challenge the supremacy of battleships, an attitude that Bellinger fought against for rest of his naval career.

At Annapolis in October 1912, with permission to fly as an observer on a test flight, John Towers, a classmate of Bellinger and Naval Aviator No. 2, offered to take him up in a Curtiss A-2. Towers knew that Bellinger was skeptical about aviation, especially when the A-2 crashed the day before they were to make the flight. Still, Towers persuaded Bellinger to take a flight with Victor Herbster (Naval Aviator No. 4) in a Wright biplane with twin floats. Pilot and observer sat side by side on seats mounted on the lower wing. There were no safety straps and only a wooden outrigger to prevent sliding during a steep glide. Bellinger was concerned with personal safety on planes and wondered if he really wanted to fly. Yet, he confessed that he "felt exhilaration, danger, strangeness, and certainly fear, when perched on the edge of a wing, dangled our feet down to a bar on a pontoon, and hunched and prayed our wobbly little seaplane would lift up off the water." 

In early November, Bellinger visited Ellyson at the Washington Navy Yard. He asked Bellinger if he had received aviation duty orders. When he said he had not, Ellyson suggested that he see his detail officer at the Navy Department immediately. The detail officer told him that a clerk had erred and issued the orders to Ens. William Billingsley. Billingsley had not asked for aviation but had accepted anyway and already was being trained. Downhearted and disgusted with the navy bureaucracy, Bellinger was losing his inclination to be an aviator and returned to Annapolis. Even so, he went on a second flight with Towers and was "thrilled with the first hope" that he might become a naval pilot. On November 26, 1912, he received orders that detached him from command of the C-4 and directed him to report to Towers at Greenbury Point for aviation training duty. He was cautiously elated but very pleased to have Towers as his instructor.

Lt. j.g. P.N.L. Bellinger at the controls of a Curtiss A-type seaplane. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
In just a few short months Bellinger was fully qualified as a naval flying officer. Because of severe weather conditions during the winter in Annapolis, in early January 1913, the pilot training school was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to train with the fleet. At that time Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, Director of Naval Aviation, for whom the airfield at NAS Norfolk would be named, encouraged the few naval aviators under his authority to try to influence surface and submarine officers to accept aircraft as useful to the fleet. On one of his flights, Bellinger was able to see a submarine in deep water and to spot mine fields. During war games he invariably discovered the approaching "hostile" fleet at a great distance which impressed the fleet commanders. To further comply with Chambers' request the young pilots gave flights to more than 200 fleet officers without incident. This produced positive press throughout the fleet. It began a change of mind in the "big gun" senior officers toward the integration of naval aviation into the fleet. 

As one of the first Naval Aviators (No. 8), Bellinger tested innovations in aircraft design, construction and instrumentation. In May 1913, Bellinger and Holden C. Richardson, Naval Aviator No. 13 and an aircraft engineer, were sent to the Burgess Aircraft Manufacturing Company plant in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to test a new flying boat being built for the navy. They found it to be satisfactory and it was shipped to Annapolis. When they returned to Greenbury Point, Bellinger was ordered to go with 20-year old Lawrence "Gyro" Sperry to the Curtiss aircraft plant at Hammondsport, New York, to test a gyroscopic stabilizer system invented by his father, Elmer A. Sperry. Meanwhile, on June 13th, his chief mechanic told Bellinger that his plane's engine was working well and that it was a fine day to set a new altitude record with the Curtiss A-3. Since he was eager to better Herbster's record of 4,450 feet, Bellinger flew off in exceptionally smooth air and climbed in ever wider turns until suddenly the plane seemed to wallow and his right wing dipped. He instinctively shoved the controls forward and was soon in a smooth glide. He had stalled the plane, first ever for a navy pilot, and recovered perfectly. In any event, he had reached 7,200 feet, an altitude record that lasted for two years.

Before Bellinger went to Hammondsport, Elmer Sperry requested that he come to his factory in Brooklyn, New York. There, "Gyro" Sperry explained the principle of the gyroscopic stabilizer. He did not tell Bellinger that two Army pilots already had crashed and died using his "contraption." It apparently did not matter since Bellinger conducted over 50 trials in all kinds of weather and found the stabilizer to have too many problems for use on navy planes. But he did make several suggestions that eventually helped Sperry to perfect what eventually became the autopilot.


In 1914, Lt. Cmdr. Henry C. Mustin (Naval Aviator No. 11), and the newly-promoted Lt. Bellinger opened the first naval aviation training station in Pensacola, Florida. During his time there he met Elsie Mackeown, a cousin of Mustin's wife. They were married on July 24th, 1915. Perhaps to extend their honeymoon at the Chamberlain Hotel at Old Point Comfort In early 1915, Bellinger and Mustin took the outdated battleship Mississippi (BB 23) from Pensacola to Norfolk where it would be turned over to a Greek crew. When 30 miles away from Chesapeake Bay, Bellinger's flying boat was lowered into the ocean and he was given an official letter to be mailed. He took off and in a few minutes landed on a sandy beach near Old Point Comfort and mailed the letter at the nearest post office. It was the first time a naval aircraft was used as a mail plane in the United States. Bellinger later established daily mail service for military correspondence from Naval Operating Base (NOB), Hampton Roads, to Washington, D.C.

This very early aerial photograph from the fall of 1917 shows the nucleus of what would be commissioned as Naval Air Station Hampton Roads the following year, where most of the aircraft were stored in canvas hangars along "Discovery Landing," between two giant piers constructed for the Jamestown Exposition a decade before.  The barracks of Naval Training Station Hampton Roads, which opened in October 1917, can be seen in the background. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
In September 1917, Bellinger was assigned as the commander of Naval Air Detachment Hampton Roads. The unit had just arrived at Sewells Point on the grounds of the former Jamestown Exposition to the east of the equally new NOB Hampton Roads. In the beginning, when any of his seven seaplanes needed repair, they were housed in canvas hangars on the sandy shore of Discovery Landing in the Grand Basin between the two 1,000-foot government piers. When operational but not in use the planes were staked in the water. During his first six months in Norfolk, Bellinger saw the station facilities increase exponentially. This included two aircraft repair buildings, three, two-story barracks, a mess hall that accommodated 450 men, a blimp hangar, and a landing field for general use. There, he supervised the instruction of many regular and reserve navy pilots, some of whom became leaders in government and business as well as the Navy.

One of his students was James Forrestal who was a member of the Princeton Naval Reserve Flying Corps. In 1940, Forrestal was Undersecretary of the Navy for Air. On their way to Forrestal's office to receive last minute instructions before Bellinger reported as commander of Naval Aviation in Hawaii, Towers reminded Bellinger that Forrestal had been under his command at Norfolk in 1918. When they got to the office, Forrestal began by saying, "Bellinger, the last time I saw you at Norfolk, you called me into your office, scared the daylights out of me, and gave me hell for stunting a plane that shouldn't have been stunted." Bellinger did not remember Forrestal and later said that "After all, I had chewed out a lot of ensigns in my time."

Lt. Cmdr. Patrick N.L. Bellinger in 1919. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

During WWI, while Bellinger was CO of NAS Hampton Roads, more pilots were trained there than any other station, including Pensacola-662 or approximately 40 percent of the total of 1,656 Naval Aviators. Student pilots were given about 400 minutes of flying instruction in Curtiss trainers. Upon completion, they soloed for five hours in Curtiss Navy Flying Boats and then shifted to the larger Curtiss N-9 seaplanes. This was a very short training time compared to that which naval pilots receive today, but apparently very effective. Many became "aces" in Europe by shooting down at least three enemy aircraft.

Commander Ira "Dick" Hanna (USNR, Ret.), one of HRNM's longest-serving docents, holds a masters degree in history from Old Dominion University and a doctorate in education administration from The College of William and Mary. Among the many leadership posts he has held in the educational field, he has served as superintendent of Mathews County Public Schools and has taught as an adjunct professor of history and education administration at Old Dominion University. His father, Chief Yeoman Ralph Hanna, worked directly for P.N.L. Bellinger during his naval career.  This article also includes published research from Professor Palo E. Colleta, who Cmdr. Hanna studied under at the U.S. Naval Academy. 

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