12 Mar 2018


Lost Capitol Hill: The Richardson Hydroaeroplane

Last week, I wrote about the wind tunnel at the Washington Navy yard. Today, we will look at one of the first products thereof – the Navy’s first seaplane.

While the US airplane industry was slow in developing –especially in contrast to that of the Europeans– the outbreak of war in 1914 spurred the government into action. While some planes were sourced to British and French manufacturers, there was also a push to build aircraft domestically. The Navy looked to their own for help, and found in Holden C. Richardson (pictured) a naval constructor willing to break into new ventures.

Richardson was an early pilot, having learned how to fly from Glenn Curtiss in 1913 and had been only the 13th pilot in the Navy. He had been involved in the first attempt to build a catapult to launch airplanes from boats a few years earlier.

The June 12, 1916 Aerial Age gave the first indication of this new “hydroaeroplane” with a picture of an odd four-winged beast attempting to lift off from the water. While they claimed that this was Richardson’s new creation, later pictures – and models tested in the wind tunnel – show a completely different aircraft.

Two months later, the Washington Times published an article under the headline “Giant Hydroaeroplane Undergoing Tests Here”

Preliminary tests with a giant hydro-aeroplane, which was designed and built at the Washington Navy Yard, are being conducted in the Potomac, off the Army War College, by Naval Constructor Richardson.

A preliminary try-out of the giant craft, minus its armament, was held yesterday afternoon.

The seaplane has a carrying capacity of 2,000 pounds, two 160-horsepower motors, and will carry a one-pounder rapid fire gun and a radio when completed.

Experiments are being conducted with the new hydro-aeroplane for the purpose of installing this craft, if practicable, on the new scout cruisers for which contracts are to be let this year.

A few weeks later, the Aerial Age added that the first flight had taken the plane about 100 feet into the air, where it had flown for some three quarters of an hour. While some changes were still contemplated, the plane was showing promise, with a takeoff speed of 50 mph and a top speed of 80 forecast. The wingspan was just under 60 feet, making it about twice as big as the usual fighter planes of that era – and equal to the two-engined bombers of the second world war.

The Richardson Seaplane, also known as the 82-A. (navy.mil)

Unfortunately, a few months later, Richardson was assigned to the naval aeronautic section in Pensacola. While two more of Richardson’s planes were ordered, they were never built and the Navy went back to Glenn Curtiss to build their planes. The result was the famous NC flying boat, one of which would be the first airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Richardson was hardly done with seaplanes, however. He not only designed the floats for the NC, but also completed a crucial test flight thereof. He would also be aboard the NC-3 when it, along with NC-1, NC-2 and NC-4, made their transatlantic trip. While his ship would be forced to land well short of the Azores Islands, and survive only by navigating on the surface the last few hundred miles, NC-4 would complete the journey.

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