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USS Wright circa 1923-1925 in her original configuration as a lighter-than-air aircraft tender (AZ-1)
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Class: WRIGHT (AZ-1)
Design EFC 1024
Displacement (tons): 8,391 light, 11,500 full
Dimensions (feet): 448.0' oa and pp x 58.0 wl x 24.5 mn, 27.8 mx
Original Armament: 2-5"/51 2-3"50
Later armaments: 2-5"/51 4-3"/50 0<12-20mm (1941); 2-5"/51 4-3"/50 2-1.1"Q 12-20mm (1943);
6-3"/50 1-1.1"Q 12-20mm (1944: AG-79)
Complement: 360 (1929)
Speed (kts.): 15
Propulsion (HP): 6,000
Machinery: G.E. Curtis geared turbine, 1 screw
||27 Oct 20
||American International SB
||20 Mar 19
||28 Apr 20
||16 Dec 21
||21 Jun 46
||31 Jul 46
||17 Sep 46
||28 Jul 48
The Navy's first aircraft tenders were the converted minelayers AROOSTOOK and SHAWMUT (designated CM-3 and CM-4 in 1920), which in early 1919 were modified temporarily to support the transatlantic flight that was completed by the seaplane NC-4 in May 1919. They were then fitted to support both seaplanes (heavier than air) and kite balloons (lighter than air) and remained in aviation duty until SHAWMUT (later OGLALA) returned to the mine force at the end of 1921 after being replaced by WRIGHT and AROOSTOOK was decommissioned without replacement in 1931.
On 10 Jun 19 CNO instructed an ad-hoc Plans Committee to recommend ex-German vessels that might be converted to heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air aircraft tenders. On 19 Jun 19 the Committee recommended two former German passenger vessels, USS MADAWASKA (ID-3011) and USS AEOLUS (ID-3005), for conversion to combination lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air tenders and the former U.S. coastal passenger steamers USS YALE (ID-1672) and USS CHARLES (ID-1298) for conversion to lighter-than-air tenders. The Navy Department decided on 24 Jul 19 that aircraft tenders of both types would be obtained for the present by using converted merchant vessels. On 15 Nov 19 CNO's office directed that no further action be taken to convert the two coastal ships to aviation tenders or mine planters because of high estimated conversion costs and that they be decommissioned and sold. As for the ex-German passenger vessels, the Shipping Board wanted for the postwar merchant marine all of them, including the two selected ships and five more that the Navy had requested for use as destroyer tenders. In late August 1919 the Shipping Board and the Army agreed to provide the Navy instead some of the twelve Hog Island Type B troop transports (EFC Design 1024) that were then under construction for the Army, and on 2 Sep 19 the President concurred with their recommendation to assign eight Type B's to the Navy for use as aviation and destroyer tenders. On 5 Sep 19 Hog Island hulls 675 (then assigned the Army name PETERSBURG) and 678 (MANILA), were selected to become aircraft tenders and hulls 673 (ERIE) and 677 (SANTIAGO) were selected as destroyer tenders, with four more ships to be assigned later.
On the same day the Bureau of Construction and Repair began design work for the conversion of two Type B ships to combined heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air fleet tenders that would each operate 12 to 18 large type seaplanes and six balloons. One ship was to be converted at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and one at Boston. The estimated cost of one combined conversion, however, was $880,000 against a Congressional appropriation of $700,000 for two ships, and BuC&R prepared another design that omitted the heavier-than-air feature to bring the cost per ship down to $350,000. During this time the Navy held off formally notifying the Shipping Board that it would acquire the four ships, and on 18 Dec 19 it learned that at the beginning of December the Shipping Board, believing that the Navy had decided not to ask for them and needing to act because construction of the ships was proceeding rapidly, had reassigned all twelve Type B ships to the Army.
The Navy was able to get a single Type B (hull 680, then named USAT SOMME) back on 6 Jan 19. On 13 Jan 20 SecNav formally cancelled the plans to convert the earlier quartet and ordered that hull 680 be converted to an aviation tender at Philadelphia instead. (The AD-11 class ultimately replaced the two destroyer tenders.) At about the same time the Army names for the Type B's that had not yet been launched were cancelled and the sole Navy hull was left without a name until the Shipping Board reminded the Navy that it needed to assign one before the ship was launched. On 20 Apr 20, just before the launching, the Navy named the ship in memory of Wilbur Wright.
CNO on 21 Jan 20 directed that the lighter-than-air design be retained for the single ship in hopes of using the rest of the $700,000 to get a second aviation tender. On 14 Feb 20 the Philadelphia Navy Yard advised that Hull 680 was unlikely to arrive at the Yard in time for conversion funds to be obligated before the appropriation expired on 30 Jun 20 and suggested that the funds be obligated by having an outside firm contracted to do the work. In April 1920 the Bureaus produced two sets of plans for bidders, one for a lighter-than-air tender and one for a combined tender. Bids were opened on 24 Jun 20 and one bidder, the Tietjen & Lang Dry Dock Co. at Hoboken, N.J., offered to carry out the combined conversion for a surprisingly low $596,000, about half of the next lowest bid. The Bureaus persuaded SecNav to accept this option and the contract was signed for a combined tender on the last possible day, 30 Jun 20.
The features in the after portion of the ship for lighter-than-air aircraft (kite balloons) were very similar in both of the designs prepared for this conversion. Specifications issued on 29 Nov 19 for the austere lighter-than-air only conversion provided for the stowage of six kite balloons knocked down and packed in cases, the inflation and housing of a kite balloon aft in a balloon well, flying operations of a kite balloon, a hydrogen generating plant for balloon inflation, and the necessary repair plant to keep balloons in service condition and ready for flight at all times. Specifically, the "R" type kite balloon used by the Fleet had a length of 88 feet and a maximum diameter empennage inflated of 35.6 feet, which required a deck space of 100 feet long by 40 feet wide by 40 feet high for laying out and examining the balloon. The deck space was to be flat and clear of hatches and other obstructions, and any obstructions were to be covered smoothly so as to insure against damage to the balloon fabric during examination and inflation. It would be necessary to construct this space as a well deck so that the balloon would not be subject to the force of the wind while bedded down. The well was to be located in the center of a balloon platform located about 4.5 feet above the bridge deck and extending from the after end of the bridge deck to the stern. A hydrogen generator of large capacity that used salt water for cooling, a sufficient number of hydrogen compressors, a large number of hydrogen flasks, an air blower for the kite balloon, and two balloon winches were also to be provided.
Few changes were made in the rest of the ship in the austere conversion, but in the combined heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air design the living quarters amidships were quite differently arranged to provide for a larger complement (572 vice 291 officers and men, including aircraft crews) and the well forward was decked over (making the ship a flush decker) to give increased capacity between decks and allow for the overhaul and repair on deck of heavier-than-air aircraft. Expanded storeroom spaces, more repair shops, and greater salvage facilities were also provided. The ship was designed to carry two 5"/51 guns on the stern and two of the new 5"/25 anti-aircraft guns forward, but 3"/50 guns were fitted instead of the 5"/25s. When the Navy's standard hull classification system was implemented on 17 Jul 20 WRIGHT was designated a lighter-than-air aircraft tender (AZ-1), although from the beginning she also tended seaplanes, initially between 13 and 18 of the Navy's standard twin-engine F5L patrol type.
Hog Island had been directed not to do any new work related to the conversions but not to install items that were not required for or that interfered with the arrangement of the vessels as aircraft tenders provided they had not already been fitted. With a few exceptions such items not installed were to be stowed on board the ship for possible use in the Navy's conversion. The Navy accepted the intentionally incomplete ship from the shipbuilder on 27 Oct 20, and tugs from the Philadelphia Navy Yard delivered her to the conversion yard on 31 Oct 20.
After commissioning in December 1921 WRIGHT experimented with her kite balloon and her Commanding Officer (Capt. A. W. Johnson, an aviation specialist) soon came to the conclusion that it was not of much use as fitted in this ship. The balloon as it was rising out of the well after inflation was liable to be caught by the wind and torn on the hatch coaming. Capt. Johnson felt that it was easier to handle a balloon on a battleship (as had been done during World War I) than on the new tender. He concluded that the ship was a failure as a lighter-than-air tender and recommended that the balloon well be eliminated and that the ship be used as a heavier-than-air tender. The ship sent up her kite balloon for the last time on 16 Jul 22 and then transferred it ashore. On 1 Nov 23 the Secretary of the Navy approved the project of decking over the balloon well and fitting this space for use of the ship as a heavier-than-air tender, and at the same time he changed the designation of the ship to a heavier-than-air aircraft tender (AV-1).
On 17 Dec 23 BuC&R directed the Philadelphia Navy Yard to develop a general scheme for conversion of the vessel to a heavier-than-air tender, though no actual work could then be done due to the shortage of funds and other work at the Yard. The yard submitted plans on 5 Jan 24 that called for the removal of the balloon platform and well and plating over the upper and main decks where they had been. This plan met with general approval, but in August 1924 correspondence from the Asiatic Station, which was building up its aviation unit, prompted a series of conferences within the Navy Department on the broader issue of the desirable features of aircraft tenders. This issue and the WRIGHT design were referred to the General Board in September. In reporting out its proposed characteristics for the type on 15 Dec 24 the Board stated that an airplane tender should serve two squadrons, each with 18 planes, by providing quarters for the crews of the airplanes (43 officers and 296 enlisted men), stores and spare parts for the aircraft, shops to repair their machinery, fuel and lubricating oil for their use, a ground force for their care and overhaul, and clear deck space upon which not less than two assembled airplanes might be kept during necessary periods of repair. The ship's hatches were to be large enough to take crates of wings and fuselages in disassembled condition while the booms were to be long and strong enough to hoist the largest planes from alongside to the repair deck. If the ship selected for conversion had additional space, it was to be allotted to the storing and transportation of planes to locations beyond their safe flying radius, although this would not be possible in WRIGHT. By this time the standard aircraft in question was the single-engine Curtiss CS and Martin SC scout plane and torpedo bomber. On 11 Jun 25 BuC&R informed SecNav that it had studied the conversion of WRIGHT to meet these characteristics and found it impossible for her to handle two squadrons with 36 aircraft; the design therefore provided for one squadron of 18 aircraft. Otherwise the specifications could be met. With the balloon well cut down to the level of the upper deck, space would be available for two aircraft on deck aft and one forward with wings spread. The forward hatch would take the largest size wing crates, while a hatch in the former location of the balloon well would be large enough to handle a plane with its wings off. The forward and after booms could both handle CS planes, and the forward boom could handle a larger PN-9 (a derivative of the F5L) in light condition. Funds for the project were not available in Fiscal Year 1925 but could probably be arranged for in FY 1926. SecNav approved the BuC&R conversion study on 25 Sep 25 and the work was completed on 1 Dec 25. A decade later, in 1936, the ship was rated as being able to tend efficiently 24 patrol planes (2 VP squadrons) with their total manning of 27 officers and 200 enlisted men.
During World War II WRIGHT continued to tend seaplanes but also performed a large amount of cargo and personnel transportation duty. In July 1944 she became flagship of Commander, Aircraft, 7th Fleet, and in August she probably tended her last seaplane. On 8 Sep 44 her designation was changed to AG-79 effective 1 Oct 44, and on 26 Oct 44 she embarked Commander, Service Force, 7th Fleet with his staff of 64 officers and 204 men and became the flagship for Service Squadron 7, Service Force, Pacific Fleet. She was renamed SAN CLEMENTE on 1 Feb 45 to allow the use of her old name by a new carrier then under construction, WRIGHT (CVL-49).
||Ex unnamed, ex USAT SOMME 1919, ex merc MOUNT HOKTON 1919, ex SKANEATELES 1918. Named WRIGHT by Navy 20 Apr 20. Initially AZ-1, to AV-1 1 Nov 23. To AG-79 1 Oct 44, renamed SAN CLEMENTE 1 Feb 45. To buyer 10 Aug 48, scrapped by 16 Jan 50.
Compiled: 30 May 2012
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2002-2012