Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 49, no. 1 (Spring 1992), p. 12-15
Early Aviation on Nantucket
By Captain John Lacouture
A year after World War I was declared, the first hydroplanes arrived, unannounced, on what is now Childrens Beach
Nantucket's aviation history begins during World War 1. On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany. At the time aviation was in its infancy, but the United States planned to carry on the war in the air on a grand scale. Naval aviation was assigned to overcome the German submarine threat to our control of the sea, both off our coasts and between North America and Europe. A string of air bases was located from the Panama Canal to Massachusetts to provide Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) escort for shipping and to conduct searches for German U-boats. Of necessity, all escorting was done during daylight hours, since night flying in those days was strictly an emergency operation.
Naval Air Station Chatham, the most northern of the bases, was commissioned onjanuary 6, 1918, to convoy shipping from Nantucket South Shoals Lightship to Cape Ann and to patrol the waters south to the western limit of Georges Bank shoals and to the western tip of Martha's Vineyard. This would protect the large amount of shipping entering and leaving the ports of Boston and New York. It was inevitable, therefore, that the first plane to land at Nantucket would fly out of Chatham.
Early in March Chatham received its first hydroplane. After assembly and engine tests the aircraft, an R-9, made the first flight from the new station on March 25,1918. The R-9 was a Curtiss twin-float, single-engine biplane with a crew of two. A Lewis machine gun was mounted aft of the rear cockpit and bomb racks capable of holding small bombs were mounted underneath or on the side of the fuselage. The plane, which weighed 4200 pounds loaded, was powered by a Curtiss V-2 200-horsepower engine and could attain a maximum ceiling of 9,100 feet and a maximum speed of 82 miles per hour.
Homing pigeons were carried on all flights so that messages could be sent in case the enemy should be contacted or the pilot should have to set the plane down at sea. In those early days of aviation engines were very unreliable, and none of the planes were equipped with radio communication. One World War I pilot out of Chatham told the story of sighting a submarine, of leaning over the side of the plane to throw a bomb, and of seeing it bounce off the sub without exploding. For the week of April 6, 1918, Naval Air Station Chatham reported to the Chief of Naval Operations: six R-9 seaplanes assigned and twenty-five flights made.
The first hydroplanes to arrive at Nantucket were unannounced. On April 13, J. Franklin Chase, then age nine, was standing with some men on the catboat Lillian's pier on the north side of Steamboat Wharf. He vividly recalls the occasion. He heard an unfamiliar sound, approaching from a long way out. Suddenly he pointed and shouted, "Here come two airplanes!" (He swears there were two, although the Inquirer and Mirror pictured only one at the shore.) Near him an old fisherman growled, "Looks like sea gulls to me," whereupon Franklin asked, "Since when do sea gulls make that noise?" Just then the two R-9s from Chatham flew in over what is now Children's Beach. The men stopped laughing and agreed that "The boy had been right." The seaplanes landed to the south just off Commercial Wharf. One taxied around and then took off again; the other taxied in to South Beach (where the Maria Mitchell Association Aquarium is now) and remained for a while to allow all the curious to get a close-up look and the I&M photographer to get his picture.
The next time seaplanes came to Nantucket, Chatham had notified the town in advance that they would be landing in the harbor on April 17. The schools declared a holiday, and all of the children, along with most of Nantucket, congregated on Brant Point to watch the arrival of the four R-9s. They saw the last one spin into the shallow waters of the Coatue flats. For most observers, it would be their first viewing of such aircraft.
Starting in June 1918 the Curtiss-designed HS-16 and HS-2L seaplanes built by Boeing began arriving in large numbers at Chatham and soon became the standard patrol and hauling flying boats of the Navy. Powered by a Liberty 360-horsepower pusher engine, they could obtain a maximum altitude of 11,000 feet and a maximum speed of 88 m.p.h. They had a midship cockpit that could hold two persons and a forward cockpit that could accommodate one person. Initially they all carried a Lewis machine gun and, after the first of August, the large Davis non-recoil, six-pounder gun. They also carried two MK IV bombs containing 120 pounds of TNT, but like the early torpedoes of World War II, about 80% of the bombs failed to detonate.
By July Chatham was making as many as twenty flights a day. During this period wrecks and engine failure were common. On several occasions Nantucket boats came across planes from Chatham downed at sea and towed them back into port. The Inquirer and Mirror reported that on June 8, 1918, a Navy seaplane landed at Quidnet barrier beach. The plane, with two pilots on board, was lost in the fog, which had set in since they took off. They had been flying for several hours and had no idea where they were. When told that they were on Nantucket by locals who then directed them to Chatham, they were much relieved and took off on a proper course. By now Chatham was one of the Navy's largest air stations with seventy-five officers, four-hundred-fifty men, eighteen seaplanes, a couple of kite balloons, and two blimps built by Goodyear and Goodrich.
After World War I ended on November 11, 1918, and winter weather set in, the tempo of flying at Chatham was greatly reduced—a fact of which Nantucketers were well aware. By May 1920 the Naval Air Station Chatham was deactivated, but not without first sending out ten planes on February 25, 1919, to welcome President Wilson aboard the S.S. George Washington on his return from the first session of the Versailles Peace Treaty Conference.
The war, along with the successes of Lieutenant Commander Albert Read's trans-Atlantic flight in 1919 and Charles Lindbergh's non-stop flight in 1927, as well as that of John Rodgers' flight from San Francisco to Hawaii in 1925, all made the nation airplane conscious, and Nantucket as well. The American public's growing enthusiasm for flying was further fueled by air meets, air races, parachute jumps, and such spectacular aerial stunt demonstrations as playing tennis on the wings of planes in flight and ultimately by such military stunt teams as the Navy's Sea Hawks and Flying Fish in the late 1920s.
Here on the island, most initial flights to Nantucket and by Nantucketers were made in seaplanes. By the mid 1920s on good days there would be several hydroplanes moored, taxiing, or landing and taking off in Nantucket Harbor. One of the piers had a float extension where seaplanes could come alongside to load and unload passengers and baggage and to get refueled.
On May 17, 1927, a seaplane made the first round trip from Boston to Nantucket. Three government hydroplanes came over the same day. On July 2 Boston-to-Nantucket passenger airplane service was inaugurated, and on August 15 the Boston Airport Corporation opened the first airport on the island at Tom Never's Head. Two 1500-foot grass runways, one east-west and one northeast-southwest, were located just northeast of the present old Navy base. At the time the airport, which was not far from the large Tom Never's Hotel, made joint use of the abandoned Tom Never's railroad station as a passenger terminal.
This airport was bought in 1929 by Curtiss Flying Service and ultimately by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation which still owns the land. The old Fairchild and CurtissTri-motors were the original airline planes to fly in and out of this field. As late as 1932, Tom Never's Airport was advertising charters and student instruction in cabin-plane Cessnas and open-plane Curtiss Fledglings.
In the late twenties and early thirties, before scrub oaks and brush covered much of the land on Nantucket, there were many level grass fields and pastures that made ideal landing areas for small private and passenger planes that did not require long runways for landing or take-off. As a result, it wasn't long before such Nantucketers as David Raub, Parker Gray, Allen Holdgate, Bert Manning, Sandy Craig, Les Bachman, Tommie Gibson, Richard Marshall, Arnie Larson, Cliff Allen, Jean Cook, Marcel Gouin (Navy pilot), and several others were flying from Nantucket fields on various and sundry ventures.
In 'Sconset Allen Holdgate had a little field, where he had a small hangar, just west of Lindbergh Avenue. Here he took off low beneath telephone wires and just over Earl Coffin's chicken farm. The annoyed Coffin claimed it scared his chickens from laying, but Holdgate regularly flew passengers out of this field. He, with others, also had a little field on Muskeget Island where they had week-end homes. There was an airstrip on Hummock Pond Road, another at Miacomet just before the Golf Course, and one just south of Sankaty Golf Course.
In all probability Nantucket's four most famous early aviators were:
First, Marcel Gouin, a 'Sconset boy who went to the Naval Academy and had a distinguished career as a Naval aviator, a combat carrier pilot in World War II, a carrier skipper, a Carrier Division commander, and head of flight testing at the Naval Air Test Center Patuxent (Maryland), finally retiring as a vice admiral.
Second, Parker Gray, who started out in 1927 as a young radio operator at the Surfside Coast Guard Station. He soon learned to fly and began ferrying old biplanes to the island, landing at a grassy strip just northeast of the present airport building where Rainbow Motors is now located. He soon acquired some planes of his own and started a flying service that blossomed into Mayflower Airlines. To accommodate this airline, he built himself a small field and passenger lounge at Halfway Hill just north of the road to 'Sconset at the fourth milestone. He operated from there from about 1935 to 1938 when he moved his airline back to the old Nobadeer Field.
There are several anecdotes about Gray's flying. During Prohibition days it is said that he flew liquor in and out of Nantucket for one of the local merchants. On one flight, while bringing in freight and passengers, he looked down and saw that the floor of the plane was covered with grease. On landing it was found that he had packed his load too close to the engine, and all the butter had melted.
On another occasion an old timer relates that he "bummed a ride" with Parker from New Bedford on a cold winter's day. En route the engine froze with all the oil congealed. Gray executed an emergency landing at Muskeget and used candles to heat the engine oil lines and oil. He somehow managed to start the engine again and limp back to Nantucket. Parker Gray also used to barnstorm and was considered by pilots who knew him to be one of the best pilots ever under any flying conditions.
Third, David Raub, a licensed mechanic from the Fairchild Ranger factory on Long Island and a former test pilot in Brooklyn, who came to Nantucket in the late twenties to be near his mother. He resumed his flying on Nantucket and soon became an enthusiastic promoter for a new airfield on Nantucket. In 1932 Les Holmes, a young farmer living in his farmhouse (which is still there) at Nobadeer, joined Raub in the decision to plow under some of the cornfields, to smooth over the land with an old stone roller, to plant grass, and together to buy three old planes—-an old Traveler, a Fairchild, and an 0 X Challenger. They also constructed a small hangar and formed the Nobadeer Flying Service for charter and instruction. Soon their new company was thriving.
Raub taught many of Nantucket's early aviators to fly, including Allen Holdgate, Bert Manning, and Jean Adams Cook. Among his frequent charter passengers was Mrs. Ludwig, owner of the White Elephant. For his flying company she even financed a large hangar that still stands at Nobadeer. He was also one of the enthusiastic founders of the Nantucket Flying Club, which used to feature wingdings at the airport with fly-ins by many off-island aircraft. Featured were acrobatic shows, parachute jumps, etc., followed by a weekend of hangar and beach parties. In 1940 Alexander Haynes bought out Holmes's share of the Nobadeer Airfield and also bought Raub two new Stinson aircraft. Raub had been his personal pilot in Virginia the previous winter. In the winter of 1940 Raub flew awhile for Pan American Airways.
And fourth, Allen Holdgate, who started out as a student pilot in December 1929. He later attended Park's Air College and earned a commercial pilot's license. He returned to the Island and started the Nantucket Flying Service between Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and New Bedford. He began with a Piper Cub and ended up after World War II with thirteen aircraft. He also had many colorful flights and flying adventures.
The 1930s were rich in events of Nantucket's early aviation history. In February 1934 a plane flew from Boston in thirty-one minutes to establish a new record for this flight. In October winter airplane service was instituted by Island Airlines with two round-trip flights daily between New Bedford and Nantucket with stops at Vineyard Haven and Wood's Hole. On October 16 a large amphibious airplane landed in the harbor. It was one of two planes racing out to intercept an ocean liner and procure film showing news-reel shots of the assassination of King Alexander of Serbia. The plane left shortly after midnight but crashed 150 miles at sea in an attempt to glide down alongside the liner.
On July 3, 1935, a seaplane from the German S.S. Bremen stopped at Nantucket to refuel after making a 600-mile trip from the vessel. On November 28 a plane, flying over the west end of the island, dropped its propeller. The plane made a safe emergency landing, but the propeller severed the Western Union cable going off island. During these early days William Harris used to land in a Pitcairn auto-gyro in the form of a flying automobile. He would remove the wings and propeller and drive his "car" into town. One wonders why they don't have similar devices today, but perhaps airport traffic control would know the answer.
A seaplane carrying newspaper photographers on July 26, 1936, was caught in a "downdraft" while flying over the Queen Mary near Nantucket Shoals Lightship and crashed into the sea. One person died, and eight were rescued by the freighter Exermont. On May 19,1938, the first airmail flight to Nantucket was instituted with an accompanying colorful first-flight envelope. On August 6,1939, the first air meet was held at Nobadeer Airport through the efforts of Dave Raub. It attracted a large crowd with many planes participating.
With the advent of the forties, World War II soon dominated Nantucket's aviation history. Before Pearl Harbor, the Town of Nantucket had purchased Nobadeer Airport in June of 1941 for $7600. Parker Gray, then head of Mayflower Airlines, had bid $8500 but later withdrew his offer. On June 13 the airport was officially transferred to the Town. At the time the field consisted of two sod runways, one north-south 2200-foot long and one east-west 1600-foot long, with a hangar and service for planes that was available in the daytime only. It was run by Don Allen, who maintained a very successful and safe service and repair facility at the airport for many years before and after the war.
After Pearl Harbor practically all of Nantucket's early aviators entered the Navy or the Army flying service for the duration of the war. Of these, only Dave Raub was killed while test-flying a P-38 in the Ferry Command. A supercharger blew up, and a piece hit him in the head, killing him instantly. Someone else had been scheduled for the flight, but Raub, ever eager to fly, had talked him out of it.
Construction of Nantucket Airport under Navy contract began in earnest in early 1942 (the Navy had leased the airport from the Town of Nantucket) and was completed in the summer of the following year. The Naval Auxiliary Air Facility was established officially on August 6, 1943, with a second hangar, two paved 4000-foot runways plus taxiways, parking ramps, runway and taxiway lights.landingfloodlights, and a control tower.
The Navy and the National Guard used the field mainly for weapons training. Fighter planes had restricted areas at sea where they could shoot air-to-air gunnery against sleeves. Torpedo planes dropped training torpedoes at sea against towed targets. There was an air-to-ground rocket target just west of the old Naval Station, and there were several bombing targets on the small islands west of Muskeget. In fact, I came up once to inspect the facilities from Naval Air Station Groton (Connecticut) where I had command of a fighter squadron.
On June 20, 1946, the Navy turned the field back to the Town of Nantucket, and Northeast Airlines initiated regular passenger service to Boston and New York. Just prior to this, on May 22, the airline had flown several courtesy flights from the field, taking groups of townspeople for free rides. Jean Adams Cook, an excellent pilot in her own right, became the first manager of the airport. At one time she was president of the 99 Club, an international licensed women pilots organization that had been founded by Amelia Earhart. On August 25,1946, at its first postwar air meet, the field was dedicated by Reverend Claude Bond, U.S. Army Air Corps, chaplain and pastor of the First Congregational Church, as Nantucket Memorial Airport. It honored the eleven Nantucket men who gave their lives in World War II and all Nantucket men and women who had served in the armed forces in the war.
Today in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Nantucket Memorial Airport is second in volume to Boston's Logan Airport. Several of Nantucket's barnstormers are still around to see the burgeoning traffic generated here by several airlines, charter companies, numerous private planes, and the well over 100,000 passengers who arrive annually. The Nantucket Airport Commission oversees the latest $2-million terminal improvement project, and private plans for another hangar have recently been announced. A $15-million radar system has been installed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Aviation is a significant factor in the economic revival of Nantucket.
However, Nantucket's early pilots, along with many of her year-round and summer residents and her present-day flyers, have a great affection for those days of open cockpits, stretched canvas wings, biplanes, auto-gyros, and hayfield runways kept in shape by an improvised stone roller. The history of aviation on Nantucket is an impressive record of recreation, service, and achievement.
Captain John Lacouture attended the U.S. Naval Academy and Princeton and Cambridge universities. He was a naval aviator for thirty years, and has previously written for Historic Nantucket.