Marking 100 Years of the First
Underway Catapult Launch
By DAVID F. WINKLER
Nov. 5 will mark a significant milestone in naval aviation history — the first catapult launch of an
aircraft from a ship underway. A century earlier, LCDR
Henry C. Mustin climbed into the seat of a Curtiss
Model AB- 2 Flying Boat that was attached to catapult
temporary affixed to the stern of the armored cruiser
North Carolina. His launch in Pensacola Bay, Fla.,
marked a world’s first, and contributed to Pensacola’s
growing reputation as the cradle of naval aviation.
Mustin’s accomplishment demonstrated an evolving
technology — the catapult — which led to scout planes
being deployed from battleships and cruisers and would
enable aircraft carriers to launch heavier aircraft.
If Pensacola can claim the title of cradle of naval aviation, the tracing of the development of catapults
would enable Washington to claim a share as the incubator of the naval aviator title.
With the successful evolution of heavier-than-air aircraft during the first decade of the century, far-sighted
naval leaders grasped their potential use as gunfire direction platforms or even ordnance delivery systems. At
the turn of the 20th century, the Washington Navy Yard
had established itself as the Navy’s leading design, testing and production facility. Having such an industrial
infrastructure, the Navy Yard was poised to assist the
placement of aircraft into operational use.
Initially assigned to Navy Department Headquarters
as the assistant chief of Ordnance, CAPT Washington
Irving Chambers was reassigned to the Bureau of
Navigation to take charge of the development of naval
aviation. His contract specifications for the Navy’s first
aircraft, signed out on May 8, 1911, remains recognized as the birth date of naval aviation.
Later that year, LT Holden C. Richardson reported
to the Washington Navy Yard for duty as the Navy’s
first aviation engineering maintenance officer. Working for Chambers, Richardson was involved with a
number of projects.
One of the most important was the design and
development of a functional compressed-air catapult.
Fabricated at the Navy Yard early in 1912, the catapult
would undergo its first test on July 31, 1912, from the
Santee Dock in Annapolis, Md.
That day, Naval Aviator No. 1, LT Theodore G.
Ellyson, climbed aboard a Navy Curtis A- 1 Triad to be
launched for a short flight over the Severn River. The
catapult worked. However, a cross-wind caught
Ellyson’s plane as it rose off and drove it headfirst into
the water. Ellyson survived. Three-and-a-half months
later, on Nov. 12, an improved catapult launched
Ellyson into the Annapolis sky.
Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer followed
the developing technology and recommended to
President William Howard Taft that an aerodynamical
laboratory be placed at the Navy Yard. Following a
change of presidents and Navy secretaries, the Navy
finally authorized the establishment of Aeronautical
Engine Laboratory in July 1915. In the interim, the
Navy’s first wind tunnel became operational at the
Navy Yard’s Experimental Model Basin, testing less-
Meanwhile, Richardson continued to improve on
catapult designs. On April 16, 1915, a Navy Yard-built
catapult launched LT Patrick N.L. Bellinger and his
AB- 2 Flying Boat off a barge into the sky off Pensacola.
This success set the stage for the arrival of North
Carolina later that year.
Mustin’s accomplishment of being the first naval
aviator to be catapulted off the deck of an underway
warship was one of many contributions made in a
career that was cut short due to health issues.
As executive officer of the battleship North Dakota
in 1918, Mustin plunged into heavy seas to save the
life of a Sailor who had been swept overboard. His
body never recovered from the stress of this incident
and he would die in August 1923, shy of his 50th
The Navy honored Mustin by commissioning a
Sims-class destroyer in his name. Launched on Dec. 8,
1938, Mustin fought extensively in the Pacific during
World War II. The current Mustin, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, pays homage not only
to the pioneering naval aviator, but to his son Lloyd
and grandsons Henry and Thomas, who served the
Navy with great distinction. ■
Source: Edward J. Marolda, The Washington Navy Yard: An
Illustrated History — Special Commemorative Memorial
Edition, Naval Historical Foundation, Washington, DC, 2013.
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical