1913: A Pioneering Pair of “Navy Bird-Men” Fly Over the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay

May 8, 1913

Two U.S. Navy aviators undertook a record-setting plane flight that began in Washington, D.C. These men were 28-year-old Lieutenant John Henry Towers, chief of the fledgling Naval Aviation Corps that was based at a camp near the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; and 24-year-old Ensign Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier, a student officer at the camp. Towers and Chevalier were among those individuals, collectively characterized by the Baltimore Sun as “navy bird-men,” who were selected by the military service to soar above the earth in planes for experimental and often high-risk flights.

For their flight on May 8, 1913, Towers and Chevalier piloted a seaplane to see how long it could stay in the air during an extended trip. A seaplane (also known as a flying boat) is a powered fixed-wing aircraft capable of both ascending from and descending on water. The seaplane used by Towers and Chevalier for this Thursday morning flight was built by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company. (In the above photo, Towers and Chevalier sit in this aircraft out on the water.)

During the weekend before the flight, the seaplane was shipped from Annapolis to the Washington Navy Yard in the southeastern part of the nation’s capital. Towers and Chevalier were at the yard as early as May 5 to make needed adjustments to the aircraft for the big flight. The Washington Herald later confirmed that nobody else knew about their planned trip at the time except a few other Navy officials.

The trip started at 7:40 a.m. on May 8, with Towers and Chevalier taking off in the seaplane from the yard. Since the aircraft was equipped with dual controls, the aviators took turns operating it. After flying from the yard, Towers and Chevalier headed south over the Potomac River and followed that waterway to where it flows into the Chesapeake Bay. They then maneuvered the seaplane northwards over the bay and towards Annapolis.

Towers and Chevalier brought the trip to a close when they arrived at the Naval Academy at 10:45 a.m., a total of three hours and five minutes after they left Washington. They had covered 169 miles (272 kilometers) altogether, and not once did they alight on water or make any other type of landing en route. Consequently, they established a new record for a long-distance military flight in a seaplane without any stops. Their journey also set a record at the time for the longest distance by Navy personnel in any aircraft in that region of the United States.

“The trip was made without mishap, though strong winds and bumpy air [were] encountered often during the trip,” reported the Washington Herald. “An average altitude of 1,500 to 1,700 feet [457.2 to 518.2 meters] was maintained.” Towers told a reporter for Aero and Hydro magazine that — despite the turbulent weather during the flight — “everything worked perfectly.” Towers also noted that the seaplane began the trip with 35 gallons (132.5 liters) of gasoline and had used up 23.3 gallons (88.2 liters) by the time it reached the Naval Academy. This Washington-Annapolis airborne trip was hailed as “a remarkable flight” by the Washington-based Evening Star.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on this record-setting 1913 U.S. Navy flight, please check out https://www.earlyaviators.com/etowers2.htm

2 thoughts on “1913: A Pioneering Pair of “Navy Bird-Men” Fly Over the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay

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    1. Good point! Thank you for raising it. I will have to check on why they completed the trip with that much gas left in the tank. About six years ago, I did go through John Henry Towers’ papers (including an unpublished autobiography) at the Library of Congress as a part of a freelance research effort focusing on those 1910s U.S. Navy experimental flights. I will have to see if I still have those notes and, if yes, whether they include an explanation on why they ended that 5/8/13 flight as soon as they did. If I do find that clarification, I will definitely include it in a revised version of that blog post.

      Liked by 1 person

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