Welcome to Knights of the Air, a weekly series on Dieselpunks spotlighting the aces and pioneering aerial technology of World War I.
From the moment the flying machine showed signs of military usefulness, navies of the world sought ways to employ airplanes at sea. In a 1910 experiment, American pilot Eugene Ely took off in a Curtiss biplane down a sloping ramp built above the foredeck of the cruiser USS Birmingham. The plane dipped so low that the tips of its propeller splintered against the water, yet Ely managed a safe landing ashore. Several months later, he set down successfully on the anchored battleship USS Pennsylvania, which had been outfitted with a level landing platform.
During the War, England’s Navy pioneered the launching of planes at sea to bomb and scout the enemy – although with limited success. After its mission, a land plane launched from a ship had to choose between heading for shore or ditching near the ship. Seaplanes could be recovered in calm seas, but the ships that carried them steamed so slowly that, after stopping to hoist the planes from the water, they could not catch up with the fleet.
To solve that problem, the British converted a partially built light cruiser, HMS Furious, into a seaplane carrier. With a top speed of 31.5 knots, the Furious was fast enough to overtake other ships after retrieval.
Taking off from the forward deck of the Furious as it steamed into the wind was safe enough. Landing, on the other hand, appeared to be so risky that it was not even part of the Admiralty’s plans for the ship. Then Squadron Commander EH Dunning, the ship’s senior pilot, persuaded his superiors to let him try a landing; he would have to fly slowly alongside the ship, then sideslip deftly in front of the bridge and onto the deck.
In August 1917, Dunning demonstrated that such a landing was possible, although extremely hazardous. A landing deck equipped with rudimentary arresting gear was built onto the stern of the Furious the following winter, but trial landings on it were largely unsuccessful.
However, the Furious still could launch its warplanes. On July 19, 1918, having slipped to within 80 miles of the German dirigible base at Tondern, it dispatched seven Sopwith Camels that destroyed two enemy airships on the ground. All but one of the pilots survived, either by ditching or by landing safely in Denmark.
Three Sopwith Camels are lined up on the deck of the HMF Furious. The hatch in the foreground leads to a hanger deck that held eight planes.
A wheeled trolley (foreground) supported the pontoons of seaplanes during their takeoff runs. It was left behind as the planes lifted off.
After two successful landings, Dunning made a third attempt in gusty weather. In the photo above, officers chase his plane as it touches down far along the deck. Seconds earlier, realizing his approach was faulty, Dunning had tried to regain altitude for a second try, but the engine failed to respond and when the plane hit the deck, the right tire blew out.
Unable to grab Dunning’s plane in time, the flight crew watched helplessly as it plunged over the side. Before it could be retrieved, Squadron Commander Dunning had drowned in the cockpit.