Californians and the Military
Frank Simpson, Jr.
The Pensacola Time
 
By Hill Goodspeed
 
 
The steady rhythm of his step was probably all that could be heard over the waves lapping against the seawall as the lone officer strode past the mammoth hangars that rose above the waters of Pensacola Bay. Peering into the cavernous spaces, where the darkness revealed only the "spreading shapes of the machines," he envisioned them as living things, silent with thoughts all their own.

"I could not but think that with closed eyes, but not asleep, they were meditating upon the things they had seen and felt. Thinking of their days high in the sum with smooth blue water way beneath and cloudless skies above. Or perhaps they thought of the dark days with eddying air, days when they tossed about through dark clouds with the center of [1] squall booming over the horizon... It is not impossible that they meditated upon strange intangible things yet to come. Ominous things of the air that men, dull in such things, would not even know were they close at their elbows."

As they did almost eight decades ago, these words reveal a man who has touched the heavens and come away captivated by the magic of flight. The composer was Lieutenant Frank Simpson, Jr., and during 1916-1917 he flew as one of the pioneers of naval aviation in the skies over the Naval Aeronautical Station at Pensacola, Florida. An examination of his time there discloses much about life in the infant naval aviation establishment during that era and captures both the triumphs and disappointments of a man embarking upon on the greatest adventures of his life.

A self-proclaimed "old stager" at the age of thirty-one, Frank Simpson, Jr., was unusual among the men who filled the ranks of naval aviation in 1916. Whereas most of his contemporaries were products of with the Naval Academy or Coast Guard Academy, he was a businessman, having helped run a family fruit company after studying civil engineering at the University of California. Perhaps seeking a more adventurous life, he joined the California Naval Militia and received an ensign's commission in 1915. In short order, he assumed command of the Militia's new Aviation Section and acquainted himself with Glenn L. Martin, a pioneer aircraft manufacturer. Martin had generously donated a pair of aircraft that Simpson and his militiamen put to use in the skies over North Island during their active duty period in Fall 1916. Thus, it was an officer with a certain level of aviation experience who arrived in Pensacola in December 1916 ready to travel the road towards wings of gold.

Little did Simpson know, however, that the first stage of the trip were to be difficult going. Having left college in 1906, he was far removed from his engineering studies, a fact which made his initial classes in ground school, filled as they were with mathematics, simply miserable. "Talk about school days - they weren't in it with the way they pile things on us," a dejected Simpson wrote to his family on this third day in Florida. "I'll tell you all that, while I want to learn, if I had known what they hand you out here - I'd never have been caught dead here."

In addition to academics, the dreaded physical examination, the bane of all aviators even to this day, confronted him almost immediately. For a man afflicted with a heart that was prone to skip a beat now and then, the day the doctor called was a nerve-racking experience.

"When my turn came I was in such a mess that my heart was hitting about 1 in three - and my hands were so cold they were actually purple.

"They looked me over for an hour and a half and among other things connected me up with a machine which registers in big red ink curves each heartbeat, breath - blood pressures, etc. The paper record kept rolling out in front of me and I kept looking and waiting for a miss with my heart - Then they slapped a lump of ice on my bare back when I wasn't looking and
then shot a pistol off (unexpectedly) right behind my ear."

Devine providence shone down upon Simpson this day, however, for his older ticker didn't miss a beat.

Perhaps more relaxed after having passed his physical, Simpson overcame his initial frustration and attacked his studies with vigor. Pensacola's instructors imparted knowledge about "every screw, bolt, [and] principal of theory and construction" relating to airplane and motors, and Simpson's classroom notebooks, filled as they are with penciled drawings and graphs, reveal that he absorbed it all. When grades were posted, those of the militiaman from California created quite a buzz amongst his fellow students.

Though academic achievement required many hours at his desk in the hotel room in which he lived, Simpson found opportunities to celebrate his successes in Pensacola, where the civilian populous and the Navy combined in an active social life, which included dinners and dances thrown at places like the Osceola Club and the famed Hotel San Carlos. Simpson found his fellow officers to be "splendid" company on these social outings and was quick to point out that the Pensacola girls hadn't "anything on them for foolishness." Som of the latter was certainly attributed to the drinking, which was very much a part of the social life of the officer corps. Yet, the station commandant had ways of ensuring that things didn't get too out of hand. There was a standing order forbidding fliers from imbibing except between noon Saturdays and 7:59 Sunday morning and, shortly after Simpson's arrival, twelve particularly festive officers were ordered to live in bachelor quarters aboard the station in a move to deter them from their excessive revelry downtown.

For those who kept in line, partaking of the Pensacola hospitality proved enjoyable and, as Simpson discovered at one dance, occasionally beneficial to one's career.

"... I decided it would be a good plan to establish a little social character - especially since the Commandant and his wife have a young lady, Miss Fletcher, stopping with them - and the Commandants (sic) efficiency report will not be any the worse for a little attention shown Miss Fletcher... [The next day] was up before the Commandant [for] being late [in reporting to the station] ... However, wasn't very serious because the Commandant ended by asking how I enjoyed the last night's dance. Having paid particular attention to Miss Fletcher, I knew that he had noticed it."

Social life aside, the central forces of those at Pensacola was flying, which set them apart from other naval officers of the day. Having tasted the wonder of flight while still in California, Simpson relished his moments in the cockpit and made steady progress flying the assortment of seaplanes at Pensacola. One morning, after completing an instruction flight with Captain Francis T. Evans, the Marine Corps' fourth aviator, Simpson was surprised to receive orders to fly with the Senior Flight Instructor, LT Earl W. Spencer, a recently married, two-year veteran of flying whose wife, Wallace Warfield Spencer, would one day create a stir in the British monarchy. Though "shaking in his boots," Simpson performed so well that, upon returning to the beach, Spencer ordered all planes in the air back to base. The time had arrived for Frank Simpson, Jr.'s first "single hopping" trip, or solo, a milestone in every aviator's career.

"Imagine then -: the whole personnel [sic] of the station on the sea-wall [sic] in front of the station, a sunny sky, blue expanse of water with just enough roughness to break the glare, sand as white as snow- and, from my place in the sky, the speed boats [station crash boats] like bugs with long white tails... For once I had things all my own way and was the one important thing in all that little world."

He passed with flying colors, thus clearing the first hurdle of his flight training.

Though Simpson remained busy with his flight training, he couldn't help but notice around the air station the signs that something was afoot. Writing to his parents in early February, he described a "harbor full of warships, destroyers and submarines and intense activity at the yard with thirty new airplanes on the way. The cause of the build-up was revealed on 6 April 1917 when the United States Congress, in response to a request from President Woodrow Wilson, declared war on Germany. "Now the aviator, sailor and soldier are the heroes of the hour," Simpson wrote his parents just days after U.S. entry into the war. The would be aviator soon learned however, that the luster of wartime service can be quickly tarnished. Only a week after the declaration of war, Simpson found himself at sea in a driving rain in command of a "small steam craft." Tasked with patrolling the coastal waters off Pensacola for German U-boats and identifying all craft approaching the city's bay, his tenure as skipper was uneventful, with most of the excitement coming more from fishing that nay contact with the wily Hun. With command of the boat rotating among station officers at four day intervals, Simpson was quickly back to flying. Command of the small vessel would be the closest he ever got to going "over there."

As Pensacola prepared to receive an influx of wartime personnel, Simpson continued his flight training, marching ever closer to his final obstacles, a series of tests designed to measure a student's proficiency in everything from high-altitude flight to landings. The prestige associated with becoming an aviator was not lost on the militiaman, who promised to wire his parents as soon as he had passed his test because "that's supposed to be something pretty good, as there are only a very few Naval Aviators here or elsewhere." By the end of May, he was ready for the most difficult of his naval aviator tests, those requiring the trainee to climb to high altitude and spiral down to a landing within a prescribed distance from a boat.

One of the first of these, as was oftentimes the case in these primitive days of naval aviation, flight training and flight testing proved one in the same. With the altimeter in one of the station's aircraft not registering properly, Simpson was ordered to fly the machine during his tests carrying a recording barograph so that comparisons could be made between the two instruments upon his return. Taking to the air, it took the better part of an hour for Simpson to nurse his aircraft to an altitude of 5,000 feet, at which point he checked the barograph against the altimeter. Here, however, clumsiness got the best of the intrepid test pilot as the barograph slipped out of his hands and bounced behind the seat beyond his reach. Undaunted, mainly because he didn't want to repeat the test, Simpson decided to remain aloft until his gas ran out in hopes of achieving the test's required altitude of 6,000 feet. "Foggy and hazy- couldn't see a thing," he wrote of the flight. "Almost like flying with one's eyes shut because nothing to look at to judge altitude of machine." After two hours, Simpson decided to return to earth, gliding and spiraling to a landing in the waters of the bay. Though, true to form, the malfunctioning altimeter had ceased registering at 5,900 feet, upon inspection the telltale barograph revealed a whopping 7,500 feet.

Given this experience, it seems as if Simpson would have been unnerved by the mere 3,000 foot altitude test. However, as many officers "busted" on this particular challenge, the militiaman was fearful. Playing upon his trepidation, Simpson's fellow officers appointed a committee of three to evaluate his progress and, as he recounted to his family, the kangaroo court pronounced before the flight "...Old boy, if you don't make it we're going to beat you up -so go to it." Simpson avoided the sentence, climbing to 3,300 feet on this test and nearly hitting the boat after spiraling down over the buildings of the station. A short time later, this kind of proficiency in the air brought its just reward for, on 12 June 1917, Lieutenant Frank Simpson, Jr., received his designation as Naval Aviator Number 53.

Frank Simpson, Jr., was the first native-Californian and the first member of the California Naval Militia to be designated a naval aviator. His flight training was but the first step on a career that would take him to NAS North Island, California, and later NAS Key West, Florida. More importantly, however, completion of those first six months at Pensacola symbolized entry into a unique calling. Writing to his parents in the summer of 1917, he expressed his feelings about being a naval aviator.

"...In the Navy more than in any other branch is the ‘science' of the thing... We do our work in the class room (sic) and laboratory-over stretches of silent water or in the air with the roar of a motor for our marital music. We are a class of specialists in a virgin field... Naval Aviation is our profession and we strive for advancement in our profession."

Little did Frank Simpson, Jr., know in those pioneering days just how far his profession would advance in the hands of his successors.

 

 
 
 
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Updated 8 February 2016