William Moffett

Considered by many to be the architect of United States naval aviation, Rear Admiral William Moffett (1869-1933), was the chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics from 1921 until his death in 1933. He was responsible for the modernization of the navy to include aircraft carriers and the aircraft needed to land on them. He introduced launching catapults on all cruisers and battleships, encouraged the development of large flying boats for work with the fleet, motivated the improvement of the design of the air-cooled engine, and supported the experimentation with dirigibles.

William Adger Moffett was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on October 31, 1869, to Captain George Hall Moffett, a Confederate veteran and merchant, and Elizabeth H. Simonton. He was the fourth son of seven children. His father was killed in an accident when he was six. He had a strong mother who raised him to believe that he should always act with judgment and behave according to a strict code of conduct. He attended public schools, the Presbyterian Sunday School, and engaged in typical boy activities such as hunting, fishing, and boating. At sixteen, Moffett took the competitive examinations for the Naval Academy on July 30, 1886, and passed with top honors. He began school in August 1886, and graduated in 1890.

Served in Spanish American War

After eight years of service mostly at sea, Moffett was on the Charleston when Guam surrendered without a fight during the Spanish American War. He also served as watch and division officer during the Battle of Manila Bay. The commander at Manila Bay, Admiral George Dewey, designated Moffett as captain of the port. He was to salvage Spanish ships sunk in the Battle of Manila Bay.

After his return to the United States, Moffett married Jeanette Beverly Whitton in July 1902. The marriage produced seven children. Two children died before reaching adulthood. His three sons became naval aviators and his two daughters married naval officers. Moffett was short at 5' 6" but kept in shape. He taught his children good values, and administered corporal punishment if necessary. As an officer he was known as patient, diplomatic, and a team player who worked within the naval system. He was considered a lively fellow who liked action, color, and a little noise, as well as being a noted raconteur. He rarely swore and did not tell off-color stories. He liked his pre-dinner manhattan, smoked a pipe, and liked mystery stories, especially Agatha Christie.

As an officer Moffett was well liked. He was able to choose the right man for the job and expected him to work "for the good of the ship." He delegated the details and concentrated on broad policies. He backed his men to the hilt unless he found out that they had fouled up. Then he got rid of them quickly. He encouraged his men to show initiative and advanced their careers as well as he could. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in 1905, studied at the War College in 1906, and served two years as navigator and later executive of the Maryland from 1908 through 1910. His ships, including the Maryland, won many efficiency awards in engineering, gunnery, and athletics.

Battle of Vera Cruz

Moffett was appointed commander in 1911, and after a year as executive aboard the Arkansas, he was given command of the Chester, a scout cruiser. During the winter of 1912 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Moffett saw his first aircraft. Two years later in 1914, he saw Lieutenant Patrick N.L. Bellinger make reconnaissance flights at Vera Cruz. These flights provided the intelligence needed to defeat the Mexican sea and land forces during an American intervention in the Mexican Civil War. Moffett took his ship the Chester into the inner harbor at Vera Cruz without a pilot or navigational aides and had her moored close in at daybreak. The Chester fired on buildings along the waterfront, greatly supporting the troops ashore. For his efforts in this battle, Moffett was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on December 4, 1915. General Order 177 stated that he "placed his ship nearest the enemy and did most of the firing and received most of the hits."

During World War I from August 1914 to November 1918, Moffett commanded the Great Lakes Training Station in Illinois and the 9th, 10th, and 11th naval districts. He expanded the station from a capacity of 1,600 men to over 50,000. During the war he trained nearly 100,000 men for the fleet. He also founded a school for aviation mechanics and organized several flight units for practical instruction. In 1916 he was made captain. He showed excellent executive ability and promoted naval activities to the general public. He wanted to fight overseas during the war, but the navy felt that his abilities were best used in training men. For this service he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

Appointed Director of Naval Aviation

After the war Moffett assumed command of the Mississippi in 1919. The ship carried spotter aircraft. Moffett believed that naval aviation would be extremely important in the future. He wanted to reform the Office of Naval Aviation after he had some difficulty cutting through the bureaucracy to learn about catapults. Also, he learned that a new post, chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, would soon be created. Lastly, he was certain that aircraft carriers would be the best weapon system to have if the United States had to wage a war in the Pacific with Japan. In 1921 he was appointed director of naval aviation.

As director of naval aviation, Moffett was enmeshed in bureaucracy. He could not get his needs met with the current chain of command. He found that he had to go through the chief of naval operations who could not legally give orders to the bureaus that handled aviation. Also, there were no aviators among the ranking naval leaders. There were no aircraft carriers and no planes that could land on ships. Without one he could not get the other. Pioneer aviators were too junior in the navy to influence policy and as line officers had to spend two years at sea before they could be promoted. This lowered their flying proficiency. Navy personnel argued about whether there should be a Naval Aviation Corps similar to that of the Marine Corps or a Bureau of Aeronautics. Lastly, Congress drastically cut defense funds after World War I.

Named First Chief of Bureau of Aeronautics

Fortunately, Moffett had the support of the secretary of the navy, Josephus Daniels, and the chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair, Rear Admiral David W. Taylor. They supported the idea of a bureau. Moffett spoke before Congress detailing the need for a central authority to coordinate affairs. President Harding entered the discussion and called for a subcommittee to recommend legislation on both civil and military aviation. Harding approved the bills for air bureaus in the Navy and Commerce Departments. Representative Hicks, a member of the House Naval Affairs Committee, shepherded the legislation through Congress. Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell of the United States Army entered the fray and supported the idea of an independent air force. Moffett wanted the Navy Air Wing tied to the Navy. Moffett prevailed and the Bureau of Aeronautics was authorized. Moffett was promoted to rear admiral, the first air admiral in the Navy, and became the first chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics on July 25, 1921 where he served three four-year terms. While all this political maneuvering was going on, the Navy was slowly going forward with its air program. Congress authorized the conversion of a collier to be refitted as an experimental aircraft carrier, the Langley. In the winter of 1919 catapults and planes were fitted to battleships and flying boats were added to the fleet.

As chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Moffett controlled the activities of the Naval Air Force, including a naval experimental station at Annapolis, Maryland, and helium production. He became the chief of naval operation's major advisor. He controlled purchasing, and supervised the construction, design and installation of equipment provided by other bureaus. He brought together ships carrying aircraft, planes, and pilots while also managing a revolution in aviation technology. At 52 years of age, Moffett created and enrolled in the naval aviation observer course in Pensacola, Florida. By June 17, 1922, he had performed every flight function except piloting. His flight pay made him the highest paid admiral in the Navy.

Placed Turntable Catapults on Ships

The Washington Conference of November 1921 through February 1922 affected the Bureau of Aeronautics greatly. Moffett realized that aircraft carriers could serve as advanced bases that were not allowed under Article XIX of the Five Power Naval Disarmament Treaty. Congress did not fund the carriers Moffett demanded so he sent aviation to sea on fleet ships outfitted with turntable catapults. He acquired an airship tender, the Wright. The Lexington and the Saratoga, two fleet carriers, were being built. With the carriers, five aircraft tenders, and an airship tender, Moffett felt that the Navy could sustain a cross-Pacific war. He also embarked on a program to build a thousand planes in five years. He promoted and funded the development of Charles Lawrance's radial air-cooled engine. This engine did not have radiators, coolant, and plumbing that caused a lot of trouble in liquid-cooled types.

Moffett employed his planes in fleet exercises as spotters for long-range gun fire, took photographs and movies, towed target sleeves for antiaircraft firing, and tracked torpedoes fired by ships for recovery. Moffett ran into flack from fleet commanders who felt that they needed carriers, better fighting and observation planes, and radios in torpedo planes. They also felt that Moffett spent too much time on publicity and favored Naval Air Factory products over private industry.

Fleet Exercise Mock-Bombed Panama Canal and Pearl Harbor

In his first term as chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Moffett had brought in improvements in both the liquid-cooled and radial engines. His planes held 22 of 42 world records. He boosted the airplane industry by purchasing new equipment on the open market. He shifted the use of wood, wire, and fabric in favor of metal for aircraft. Moffett's carriers performed excellently in severe tests of their ability during the 1926-1929 fleet exercises. Aircraft from the Langley mock bombed the Panama Canal in 1926, and in 1928 planes from the Lexington and Saratoga successfully performed a mock bombing of Pearl Harbor, perhaps giving the Japanese a lesson which they put to use in 1941. The Saratoga crossed the Pacific in 1929 and launched 32 fighters, 17 dive bombers, and 17 torpedo bombers from 140 miles out and caught the defenders of the Panama Canal unaware again. Other planes attacked from the Atlantic side of the canal in another mock attack. Moffett certainly proved the importance of the air wing in warfare.

Killed in Dirigible Accident

President Herbert Hoover appointed Moffett to an unprecedented third term as chief of aeronautics. Moffett continued to fight for more money from Congress to bring his fleet up to the level needed to fight a war. Hoover wanted to reduce naval power. Moffett served as an advisor to the Naval Conference of 1930 in London, England. He made some points and lost some but was generally pleased with the London Naval Treaty of 1930 because it did not limit aircraft. Another interest Moffett had was dirigibles. He obtained funding for two large rigid aircraft, the Akron and the Macon. Moffett was uncertain as to the usefulness of rigid aircraft for either military or commercial purposes, but he was open-minded. True to his nature to try out new aircraft, he went up in the Akron ; however, he was killed when it was caught in vertically opposed air currents off the coast of New Jersey on April 4, 1933.

Moffett is remembered as the man who brought the navy into the modern era. He had the ability to understand the technical aspects of the machinery and the personal charisma to convince Congress to fund the projects. He understood political power as well as the value of publicity to get his projects done. He understood what he could get done and what he could not. Historians contend that the navy would not have been as prepared for World War II with its excellently trained personnel and carriers if it had not been for Moffett's persistence. Will Rogers deemed him the "propeller of the navy."


Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement One, edited by Harris E. Starr; Supplement Two, edited by Robert Livingston Schuyler, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.

Technology and Culture, University of Chicago Press, 1995.


The American Neptune, Winter 1991, pp. 23-32.