First strike

Birth of the bomber

Long before Curtis Le May billed airborne devastation as a weapon of peace, or Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris promised Winston Churchill that the unrestricted bombing of Germany would cost Britain ‘400 to 500 aircraft…[but] cost Germany the war’, the full power of air attack had been clearly seen by its inventor and first advocate.

No, not Billy Mitchell or Hugh Trenchard, but Glenn Martin.

At the crossroads of early flight

Glenn Martin in one of his earliest pusher biplanes made from (that’s right), bamboo, with the wings covered in doped silk. (SDASM 04-02386)

As much as anyone, Glenn Luther Martin stands at the centre of aviation in America. Just the fact that his first successful airplane combined an admiration for the Wright brothers with the design principles of Glen CurtissJune Bug, puts Martin firmly at the crossroads of early flight.

The plane didn’t last beyond Martin’s first attempt to teach himself to fly, but that’s not the point. He persisted and, on May 10th, 1912, set a world over-water flight record with a crossing from Newport Bay, CA to Catalina Island and back. Martin even carried a bag of mail back from Catalina and flew a total of 109 km (68 miles), for a prize of just $100 – about one fiftieth of the £1,000 Louis Bleriot had received for crossing the English Channel (one way, and with no payload) three years earlier.

Still, it put Martin in the public eye and, more importantly for him, in the airplane business.

The Glenn L Martin Company

Martin always had a strong business sense. As an air-minded boy back in Kansas, he’d made box kites and sold them to the other kids for 25¢ each. Now, in Santa Ana, he owned an auto dealership selling Ford and Maxwell cars which funded his self-taught flying and building. The parallels with Clyde Cessna are striking.

He founded his first Glen L. Martin Company in the empty Southern Methodist Church he’d rented for $12 a month, near his home at Santa Ana, CA. Martin would sell cars during the day and build planes at night.

Glenn L. Martin in 1912, with a stack of newspapers on the wing. He delivered the papers 24 miles from Fresno to Madera to raise funds for his company. The motor would be a Curtiss O Series V-8. (LoC P&P 91721673)

Charley Day, his first mechanic, later recalled Martin fingering his empty pockets on a Friday morning, hustling cars all Friday afternoon, and returning to the church that evening with the staff payroll.

So, while the dealership was undeniably good for cash flow, Martin’s heart and mind were in the air. By 1913, he was putting almost all his energy into developing markets for Martin Company planes.

One big idea he nurtured was aerial interdiction.

Suitably impressed

Back in January 1912, Martin had staged a spectacular air show with fellow aviators Lincoln Beachey and Howard Gill, in which they destroyed a stage-set fortress from the air. In truth, they’d set charges under the wood-and-paper facade and had an assistant trigger explosions every time they released a bomb. But still, the Los Angeles crowds and US Army observers were suitably impressed.

Glenn Martin in his 1911 (?) hydroplane at Newport Bay, Los Angeles. He would take a similar plane to the 1911 International Air Show in Chicago, and crashed one during the 1913 Great Lakes Reliability Cruise. (SDASM AL17_Warren Eaton Photo_000487|

In 1913, Martin also built himself a simple, cross-hair bombsight. So when a US Army ordnance officer asked him to demonstrate aerial bombing for real, Martin was ready.

The private demonstration was given in May that year, the officer sheltering behind an earth bank on the range. It’s probably fair to say that both he and Glenn Martin were disappointed by the accuracy of the bombing, although Martin claimed he’d just been trying not to kill the colonel.

It didn’t matter anyway. Within days, news came from Mexico that an airplane had appeared over the besieged city of Guaymas and bombed government forces sheltering behind its walls. In an instant, the airplane was proven effective as a weapon of war – just as Glenn Martin had been advocating. And Martin quickly figured out whose plane it was.

This dragon of war

Some weeks before, French aviator Didier Masson had purchased a Martin Model 1, claiming it was for a stunt flying tour of the southwest’s county fairs and carnivals. But when Wells Fargo delivered the crated plane to Masson at Tuscon, AZ, he immediately had it hauled south to the Mexican border town of Naco, Sonora.

Labelled as a photo of the ‘Sonora’, the lack of a second seat and the abundance of powerlines below makes me suspect this may just be a Martin Type 1.

There, Mexican revolutionaries loyal to Governor Adolfo de la Huerta helped reassemble the aircraft and fit a second seat for a bombardier. They named it ‘Sonora’ after their home state.

Masson and the ‘Sonora’ next appeared on Mexico’s west coast. According to the reports, the Mexican army were holding rebels at the gates of Guaymas when ‘there had suddenly appeared from behind the rebel lines an aeroplane which flew at an astonishing rate of  speed.’

As soldiers and citizens looked on in astonishment, Masson and his sidekick proceeded to drop clusters of crude 3-inch pipe bombs ‘…in the principal streets, causing some loss of life and much damage.’

The attack terrorised the citizens of Guaymas and broke the morale of its defending soldiers. ‘The attack of this dragon of war,’ claimed Mexican papers, ‘created a reign of terror such as the city has never seen.’

Days later Masson set another precedent in military aviation, by bombing Mexican federal gunships at anchor in Guaymas Bay.

A new modus belli

A new modus belli had been established and Glenn Martin, for one, saw exactly what it meant.

By the end of 1913 he had designed and built the world’s first armoured attack plane – covered in treated, stiffened canvas when most aircraft still had bare struts, and with transparent wing covering instead of linen, to make the plane harder to spot from the ground.

Glenn Martin (centre) with his crew and a US Army officer, demonstrating the new Martin Model TT trainer in 1914.

He also designed the first two-seat military trainer.

However, as the Great Powers of Europe spiralled hopelessly into war in August 1914, Generals on both sides of the Atlantic failed to share Martin’s vision.

Undaunted, he predicted in one magazine that ‘The aeroplane will practically decide the war in Europe. Veritable flying death will smash armies, wreck mammoth battleships, and bring the whole world to a vivid realization of the awful possibilities of a few men and a few swift aerial demons. For the old-time war tactics are no more. The generals who realize this quickest and fight first with flying death, will win.’

Like a plummet

His faith in the airplane may have been a little too far-sighted, but he was being proved right by the final battles of 1918.

A large bomb, dropped by a Martin NBS-1 explodes just off the bow of the burnt and battered ex-SMS Ostfriesland, during the US Army-Navy bombing demonstrations, July 1921. (US Air Force)

Later in the same 1914 article, Martin went on to leave a prophetic note for the future’s Billy Mitchell, Andrew Cunningham, Isoroku Yamato, et al. He wrote:

‘It is possible for one man, driving an aeroplane laden with high explosives, to dive like a plummet upon the bows of a great warship and destroy it.’

That’s right – in 1914.

And when Billy Mitchell’s 1st Provisional Air Brigade famously sunk the Frankfurt and Ostfriesland in a July 1921 demonstration, they did it flying Martin bombers.

Eight years on… A Martin NBS-1 drops its white phosphorus bomb on the ex-USS Alabama during Army-Navy bombing trials, September 1921. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

8 thoughts on “First strike

  1. I’ve always wondered how people back then could teach themselves to fly . . . But I suppose that the airplanes were a lot more simple back then, too.

    I really enjoyed reading about Glenn Martin, especially since I’ve never heard of him! And the picture at the end of the USS Alabama is a personal favorite of mine. Weird, I know. 😛

    1. Pioneers like the Wrights, Curtiss, Bleriot and Martin were all quick to set themselves up as flying schools, so the cadré of pilots who taught themselves is actually very small. (I’m trying to compile a list if anyone has names to include…) I guess it comes down to throwing yourself at the ground until you miss…
      Even among those famous names, Glenn Martin was a real giant and my short history hardly does him justice. Along with the firsts I mentioned, he also employed Donald Douglas as his Chief Engineer, taught William Boeing how to fly, sold Boeing his first airplane, built US Army’s first twin engined plane and more. Martin also built B-29s during WW2 – including both the Enola Gay (Hiroshima) and Bock’s Car (Nagasaki).
      All round, an amazing legacy!

      1. Oh my word, it just struck me! This is the Martin that Martin Company is named after! Am I dumb.
        But that’s really cool that he built Enola Gay and Bock’s Car. He truly does have an amazing legacy. 🙂

      2. LOL – that’s the one. The Glenn L Martin Company, Wright-Martin Aircraft Company, Glenn L Martin Company (again), Martin-Marietta, Lockheed Martin. 🙂

  2. The area where I live is unincorporated, but it has long been referred to as Santa Ana. In fact, there’s still a Martin Aviation at John Wayne Airport (SNA). Most people around here don’t realize all the aviation history which surrounds them. If you ever come out this way, be sure to visit the Catalina Island Airport. There are a variety of historic photos in the terminal, including one of Glenn Martin flying over the island in 1912.

    1. I understand the hop out to Catalina is one of those essential GA flights. I don’t see it on my bucket list, but I imagine it’s a sub-bullet of my enormous fly-drive adventure to Oshkosh and every aviation museum I can think of. Don’t worry, WHEN I come out that way, you’ll be one of the first to know…
      Meanwhile, I wonder how we can channel that rich aviation history into civic pride and ongoing grassroots support for aviation?

      1. Like most things, I think the answer is exposure and education, two things sorely lacking in aviation. The barbed wire fences and stern warnings about trespassing don’t help 🙂

      2. I think you’re right. Bring back viewing balconies!!! Seriously – updated with cafe services, a playground, outside viewing/photography, a desk for me…
        And off-airport, there’s so much emphasis on STEM subjects in schools these days, and I can’t think of a more STEMmy topic than aviation. Add the local history as a point of entry, and it seems like an easy path to inspiration.

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