Biographical / Historical
Philip Van Horn (P.V.H.) Weems was born on March 29, 1889, on a farm in Tennessee. By age 13, both of Weems' parents died, leaving him and his six siblings to run the family farm with a minimum of help from adult neighbors. In spite of a poor primary education. Weems was able to secure admission into the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1908. Academically, he performed at a slightly above average grade level but excelled in athletics, being on the varsity crew, football and wrestling teams. Upon graduation from the Naval Academy in 1912, Weems started his sea duty aboard the USS North Dakota. Following that assignment, he served aboard the survey vessel Leonidas, Nevada and Georgia. During World War I, Weems acted as chief engineer for the troop transport Orizaba (for which he received the Navy Commendation Medal for his excellent service aboard this ship).After the war, he served aboard the destroyers Murray and O'Brien. Weems' sea duty aboard the latter vessel proved significant as the O'Brien was employed by the Navy as a picket ship for the first trans-Atlantic flight by the Curtiss NC-4 flying boat in 1919. During this major achievement in aviation, he served as ship's executive officer and thus, began his long association with aerial navigation.
As Weems' naval career advanced, so too did other aspects of his life. In 1915, he married Margaret Thackray. This marriage would prove durable as it would last until his death over 60 years later. Additionally, three children resulted from this union: Philip, Jr. (born in 1916), Margaret (born in 1919), and George (born in 1921). Eventually, both sons followed their father into military careers with the older of the two serving with the U.S. Marine Corps while the younger one made his career with the Navy. Another aspect of Weems' personal life was his great athletic prowess. During his days at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, he was an All-American center for the football team, as well as an outstanding wrestler, being awarded the Athletic Association's Sword for excellence in athletics upon graduation. After graduation, and for years thereafter, Weems continued on as a competitive athlete. In 1920, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team that traveled to Antwerp, Belgium. Five years later, at age 36, he won the U.S. Navy's South Atlantic light-heavyweight wrestling championship. Even 30 years later, Weems would still challenge varsity wrestlers at the Naval Academy gymnasium.
By the end of World War I, Weems had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander. From 1922-24, he served as navigator aboard the USS Rochester. It was during this tour of duty that he started in earnest to study the field of navigation. Such efforts included not only marine but also aerial navigation techniques and practices. He further honed his knowledge and skills on this subject by acting as an instructor of navigation at the Naval Academy from 1925-26.
During this time as an instructor at Annapolis, Weems came across a set of Japanese navigational tables. With assistance from a fellow naval officer, Weems greatly improved upon this innovative yet incomplete method of navigation. Upon receiving permission from the original author in Japan, he eventually published this new version of these navigational tables in conjunction with the Naval Institute. This work, called the Line of Position Book, proved very popular and promptly sold out within a matter of months. Thus, by 1927, Weems was developing into one of the world's leading experts in modern navigation techniques. He would go on to exploit his navigational knowledge for the benefit of the burgeoning aviation field. This process began in earnest in late 1927 to early 1928 when he was ordered to the U.S. west coast to serve with the Pacific Fleet's Aircraft Squadron. Once there, Weems started extensive research into air navigation, later publishing a textbook with that actual title. During this time, he – along with his wife, founded the Weems System of Navigation (WSN). This business enterprise not only incorporated his thoughts, techniques and practices; it also operated as a clearing house for new theories and technologies pertaining to marine and aerial navigation. Further, WSN functioned as a navigational school (including a correspondence school format) for thousands of pilots throughout the U.S. and around the world. Such aviation luminaries as Charles Lindbergh, Douglas 'Wrong-Way' Corrigan, Amy Johnson, Dick Merrill, Admiral Richard Byrd, Harold Gatty, Fred Noonan, Wiley Post and Lincoln Ellsworth availed themselves of Weems' navigational instruction. In the years leading up to her disappearance during an around-the-world flight attempt in 1937, he had repeatedly offered such assistance to Amelia Earhart who – for the reason of scheduling conflicts, could never take advantage of such opportunities. Additionally, WSN churned out numerous articles, instructional handbooks and books on all matters revolving around aerial navigation.
With extensive assistance from his wife, Weems operated WSN while still on active duty with the U.S. Navy, during the period 1928-33. As he continued to perfect his navigational techniques, he served as executive officer aboard the fuel ship, USS Cuyama, from early 1928 through the summer of 1930. A year later, he was assigned to the Naval Academy on shore duty at the Postgraduate School. Subsequently, he was ordered to the Navy Department as Research Officer in Air Navigation – the first such officer tasked with this position. In late 1932, Weems took command of the destroyer, USS Hopkins and then was retired from the service in May, 1933.
Once retired from naval service, Weems expanded his business enterprises. His base of operations was in Annapolis, where he, Margaret and their children lived. He established a chain of schools under the banner of WSN. In tandem with his educational program, he developed and patented a number of methods and devices that greatly facilitated marine and aerial navigation. Even before leaving the service, Weems had already invented the highly prized Second-Setting Navigation Watch. Throughout the 1930s, his inventions/patents ran the gamut from Star Altitude Curves (which were published navigation tables), Mark II Plotter, Line of Position and Wind Drift Plotters to Drift and Ground Speed Meters. Weems also authored or co-authored numerous books, handbooks, manuals and articles on a variety of navigation themes. Besides his previously published Line of Position Book, he authored Air Navigation in 1931, updated editions of his Star Altitude Curves (1938, 1940 and 1950), Instrument Flying in 1940 (with co-author, Charles Zweng), Marine Navigation in 1940 and Learning to Navigate in 1943.
America's entry into World War II resulted in WSN becoming even busier with its educational programs and sales of its various navigational devices and publications. In addition, the outbreak of war meant a major change in Weems' life. Due to a shortage of naval officers, he was recalled to active duty (as a Lieutenant Commander) in July, 1942. Two months later, Weems was made a convoy commodore for the Atlantic Ocean theater of operations. For the next three years, he served with distinction in this position, having safely shepherded every merchant convoy on the trans-Atlantic run, guaranteeing that necessary supplies, arms and troops arrived safely at European and African ports. As a result of this outstanding performance, Weems was quickly promoted to Commander and then Captain. By the time he retired from active duty again in early 1946, Weems was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his actions in World War II. Before the war ended, he was also awarded his wings as a Naval Air Navigator. During his wartime service, his wife once again took the lead in managing WSN. Also, during this period, the Weemses lost their son, Philip, Jr. He was killed while serving as a Major with the U.S. Marine Corps in the Southwest Pacific in June, 1943.
After World War II and upon his second retirement from naval service, Weems continued with WSN and other business ventures. This included helping to establish Aeronautical Services, Inc., as well as Weems and Plath, Inc. The former enterprise focused on aviation-related matters while the latter stressed marine navigation. In addition, he continued with his writing about various navigational topics and inventing new techniques and devices pertaining to marine and aerial navigation. This included the Weems Position Finder in 1959 and a revising of his earlier publication, Air Navigation, in 1958. Beyond this, he co-founded and became president of the U.S. Institute of Navigation in 1952, made a flight over the North Pole in 1948 and an around-the-world flight two years later – both times actively participating in the aerial navigation of these risky (at the time) ventures. Shortly before his son's death during a test flight of a U.S. Navy aircraft in 1951, he and George made a long aerial journey in a light plane from London, England to Alice Springs, Australia, with the elder Weems performing the navigation and the younger Weems acting as pilot. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Weems even found time to participate in various underwater archeological expeditions with Ed Link (of flight simulator and submersible design fame). In 1959, he joined with Link, the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution to conduct an undersea exploration of the sunken city of Port Royal, Jamaica, lost during an earthquake in 1692. The following year, Weems participated in another adventure with Link in Israel by exploring another sunken city, Caesaria. The 'inner space' navigation techniques he developed were employed during all such underwater archeological expeditions.
In 1960, Weems received a grant from the American Philosophical Society to develop practical methods of space navigation, to be described in a handbook for use in space operations as the U.S. initiated its attempt to place humans in Earth orbit. Most of the work on this book was completed when the Navy Department ordered the Captain to active duty for a third, and last, time in 1961. He was assigned the task of conducting a pilot class in space navigation (held at the Naval Academy), as well as to produce a Space Navigation Handbook. With the assistance from several of his young students (all U.S. Navy ensigns), Weems published this handbook in early 1962. His research proved invaluable as he developed a quick way for astronauts to determine their position relative to Earth by utilizing a few visual sightings. He continued his contributions to space navigation by serving as a consultant for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Thus, by his seventies, Weems was an established expert in undersea, marine, aerial and space navigation. He had few peers anywhere on Earth in such fields of study.
Besides medals earned for his years of service in the U.S. Navy during World War I and World War II, Weems garnered many other awards and honors for his work in navigation. Among them are the following: The Thomas Gray Award from the Royal Society of Arts, England; the Gold Medal from the Aero Club of France; Fellow, Institute of Aeronautical Sciences; Fellow, American Geographical Society; the Magellanic Premium (Gold Medal) of the American Philosophical Society; the LaGorce Medal from the National Geographic Society; the Thurlow Award from the Institute of Navigation; and the Gold Medal of the British Institute of Navigation.
Beyond his career, Weems possessed a keen interest in many other subjects. Throughout most of his life, he stayed active and engaged in city of Annapolis politics, the U.S. Naval Academy, boating, yachting, retired Olympian affairs, history of all sorts, and genealogy. Furthermore, he was a regular donor of navigation-related artifacts and documents to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air Museum (and, later on, the National Air and Space Museum), as well as various historical associations and libraries from his home state of Tennessee. After a brief illness, Weems died at Annapolis' Anne Arundel Hospital on June 2, 1979, at the age of 90.