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A Century Ago — The First Launch!

By David F. Winkler, Ph.D. Staff Historian

On October 17, 1922, America’s first carrier, USS Langley held a fixed position in the York River as preparations proceeded for a historic milestone. Naval Aviator No. 41, Lt. Virgil “Squash” Griffin, climbed into a cockpit of a VE-7SF biplane (BuNo. A-5932). As Griffin prepared for takeoff, winches on the stern pulled and released lines to the aft anchor buoys to adjust the ship’s heading into the wind.

Griffin, who would later earn the nickname “You All” Griffin by Langley’s crew during his XO tour a decade later thanks to his Alabama drawl, earned his “Squash” moniker at the U.S. Naval Academy as a member of the Class of 1912. There he spent his spare time reading novels and maintaining a good social reputation. “He takes life in a matter-of-fact way,” exclaimed his Lucky Bag yearbook citation. Following his commissioning, Griffin drew orders to the battleship South Carolina. After one sea tour, he applied and was accepted for flight training. Graduating from Pensacola and designated as Naval Aviator #41, Griffin came over to France with Lt. Kenneth Whiting embarked in Jupiter and Neptune. Whiting detailed him to establish and command a seaplane base at Saint-Trojan, in southwestern France. Later, he went to Paris, assigned to the staff of Capt. “Hutch” Cone, who had succeeded Whiting as head of U.S. Naval Aviation Forces, Foreign Service in Paris. From there he joined Lt. Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier in Dunkirk for a temporary assignment to build a naval air station. Returning to the United States, Griffin had a shore duty in Washington before returning to flight duty.

Griffin would be given command of “Atlantic Fleet Shipplane Division” based at Hampton Roads that had been established to provide spotter planes for the fleet prior to being assigned to Langley.

The VE-7 trainer was the product of the Lewis and Vought Corporation of Astoria, Queens, a company that came into existence in the early months after America’s entry into World War I. The aircraft’s builders used European designs. The Wright Hispano Suiza engine was similar to those found on French Spads. Though designed to be a trainer, the performance of the aircraft was such that the Navy would employ it as a fighter in the 1920s. The Navy ordered 128 of the aircraft, with most being built in New York, with others built by the Navy at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia.

BuNo. A-5932 was built by the contractor and the SF designator meant the plane was a single-seater, equipped with stowed away inflatable bags – an item that Griffin certainly checked on as he sat down. His plane was spotted well aft of the elevator amidships and the tail was lifted on to a trough that was created by two short rows of saw horses. The tail was held in place by a wire with a ring attached to the plane’s landing hook. At the tail end of the flight deck, a bomb-release mechanism was employed to release the wire. After the propeller was hand-cranked to get the engine started, Griffin revved the engine up to its 180 horsepower, on signal, an operator on the deck triggered the bomb-release mechanism and the VE-7SF was airborne almost before it reached the elevator. Griffin then flew to land on terra firma at the Hampton Roads Naval Air Station.

The Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Adm. William A Moffett, on hand to observe, subsequently boasted: “The air fleet of an enemy will never get within striking distance of our coast as long as our aircraft carriers are able to carry the preponderance of our air
power to sea.”

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