Franklin Roosevelt Authorizes a Clandestine Mission to Get Needed Aviation Technology From the British for the American Military

With entry into World War I an increasing possibility, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt is anxious to spirit away one of the superior seaplanes and engines the British had developed.

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The only letter of a sitting or future President authorizing a covert mission we have seen reach the market

A seaplane is a powered fixed-wing aircraft capable of taking off and landing on water. The utility of such a plane was apparent soon after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. On...

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Franklin Roosevelt Authorizes a Clandestine Mission to Get Needed Aviation Technology From the British for the American Military

With entry into World War I an increasing possibility, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt is anxious to spirit away one of the superior seaplanes and engines the British had developed.

The only letter of a sitting or future President authorizing a covert mission we have seen reach the market

A seaplane is a powered fixed-wing aircraft capable of taking off and landing on water. The utility of such a plane was apparent soon after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. On March 28, 1910, a Frenchman flew the first successful powered seaplane, and in 1912 one of his countrymen constructed the first seaplane with a fuselage forming a hull. Throughout 1910 and 1911, American pioneering aviator Glenn Curtis worked on and developed a seaplane. Combining floats with wheels, he was awarded the first Collier Trophy for U.S. flight achievement. The U.S. Navy believed a seaplane would have significant military uses, and in February 1911 it took delivery of a Curtiss seaplane and soon tested landings on and take-offs from ships. Aircraft designers continued to try to improve the seaplane in the following years, but no really viable model was discovered. For example, a Curtiss seaplane was found to have a number of problems; it was underpowered, its hulls were too weak for sustained operations, and it had poor handling characteristics when afloat or taking off.

“…he was successful a few months ago in actually getting out of England and over to this country a seaplane engine and we are very anxious that he obtain and bring over a complete seaplane…Of course, if Homer gets a complete plane over to this side and it proves successful…the Navy will have got the latest type of foreign machine…What I want is the definite result of getting a complete seaplane over to this side and I do not care whether it is done officially, unofficially or otherwise.”

During World War I the British stepped up research and experimentation on seaplanes, and made some significant advancements. One important innovation they made enabled the craft to overcome suction from the water more quickly and break free for flight much more easily. This made operating the craft far safer and more reliable. Other major design improvements were a larger and more capable hull and a new tail. Perhaps most importantly, this British craft, called the Felixstowe, was powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle engines. It first flew in July 1916, proving greatly superior to the American models being produced by Curtis.

Word of this new, improved plane, and its use of a vastly better engine, soon reached the ears of Americans engaged in the field of seaplane engineering and construction. One of them was Arthur P. Homer, a naval architect, boat designer, and engineer who was in 1916-17 affiliated with the Sterling Engine Company of Buffalo, New York. He was a nephew of the famed artist Winslow Homer. Having strong connections in Britain, Homer succeeded in spiriting away one of the Rolls-Royce engines, which was quite a feat of industrial espionage, and brought it back to America for analysis. He also informed the U.S. Navy Department of the British advances and the trophy he had managed to claim, and the Navy wanted the technology of both the engine and the entire plane in American hands, and badly. This was, it must be recalled, before there was any alliance or information sharing between the U.S. and Britain.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and also a leading proponent of the seaplane. In 1916, with the possibility of the U.S. entering the war, Congress authorized the first major expansion of the Office of Naval Intelligence. So with that subject on his mind, FDR got involved with Homer in a plan to purloin a compete British seaplane; but because of the potential risk to British/American diplomatic relations should it become public that the Americans were trying to steal British secrets, the venture had to maintain secret and the Navy must have plausible deniability throughout.

At least two other men were involved in the escapade. Capt. William D. MacDougall was Naval Attache to the U.S. Embassy in London and in the prime position to further the scheme. He had commanded numerous ships in the U.S. Navy in the past. He served in London until December 1917, when he left for active service in World War I. He ended his career as a rear admiral. William L. Tobey was a naval and mechanical engineer affiliated with the Boston Engineering Company.

Typed letter signed, on his Assistant Secretary of the Navy letterhead, Washington, December 29, 1916, to MacDougall, giving the go-ahead and setting the ground rules. “By the time this reaches you Mr. Arthur P. Homer will have reported to you. I want merely to send you this as a supplementary to the official letter which has gone. We are, frankly, letting Mr. Homer go on this trip somewhat as a gamble. All the Department is doing is to pay his expenses and in a way he is acting on behalf of the Sterling Engine Company. As you may have heard, he was successful a few months ago in actually getting out of England and over to this country a seaplane engine and we are very anxious that he obtain and bring over a complete seaplane. A good many people thought that he was in the past boasting that he could do impossible things, but I am frank to say that he has in nearly every case delivered the goods. Of course, you are to act in the case as Senior Officer Present, but it may be advisable for you not to appear officially in the matter in any way. That can best be determined by a conference between you and Tobey and Homer after the latter arrives, and Tobey can keep in touch with the actual development of the situation. Of course, if Homer gets a complete plane over to this side and it proves successful, his company will probably get an order for engines, but at the same time the Navy will have got the latest type of foreign machine, and you can see from this why the Department is sending Homer over to do his best in conjunction with you and Tobey. I do not want to tie your hands with too definite instructions and am writing along this same line to Mr. Tobey. What I want is the definite result of getting a complete seaplane over to this side and I do not care whether it is done officially, unofficially or otherwise. I know you are having a most interesting time and I hope you will write me at any time unofficially if there is anything I can do.”

The necessity for this becomes apparent in this postscript. Just three months after MacDougall received this letter, the U.S. entered the war on Britain’s side. It quickly sent a mission to London, led by Raynal Bolling, to determine which Allied aircraft should be produced in the United States, and seek joint production. As regards the seaplane, Bolling was told flat out that Rolls-Royce was unwilling to share engineering specifications and allow its engines to be manufactured in the U.S., despite the alliance, and that the British government would not force it to do so. Only after much effort was an arrangement made to license the Rolls-Royce technology, and allow manufacture in the U.S.

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