Philip Van Horn Weems began his multi-faceted career as a mere 13-year old. He, along with six of his siblings, ran the family farm in rural Tennessee upon the deaths of his mother and father. Ultimately, a career in farming was not for young Philip. Instead, he secured a slot for himself at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. As a cadet, Weems excelled in athletics. He was an All-American center for the academy’s football team, was an outstanding wrestler and participated on the varsity crew team. Years later, he was selected as a member for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team that travelled to Antwerp, Belgium in 1920. Decades later, Weems stayed active in Olympics-related issues by his involvement with a retired U.S. Olympian organization.
Upon graduation from the Naval Academy in 1912, young Ensign Weems began his military career in earnest. For the next 21 years, he served aboard several U.S. naval vessels. During the start of this period, his sea duty was typical for a naval officer, including acting as chief engineer of one vessel during World War I. Following the war, Weems became increasingly fascinated with the field of navigation (in particular, aerial). As a result of his study of this subject, Weems became a world’s leading expert in navigational techniques for aviators by the late 1920s. So much so that such aviation luminaries as Amy Johnson, Dick Merrill, Admiral Richard Byrd, Harold Gatty, Fred Noonan, Douglas “Wrong-Way” Corrigan, Wiley Post, Lincoln Ellsworth and Charles Lindbergh availed themselves of his navigational instruction. Before her disappearance during an around-the-world flight attempt in 1937, Weems repeatedly offered similar assistance to Amelia Earhart. Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, this famed aviatrix could never take advantage of these opportunities.
In conjunction with his vast knowledge base in aerial navigation, Weems also invented actual navigational devices. One example was his Second-Setting Navigation Watch. By the 1930s, his inventions and patents ran the gamut from the Mark II Plotter to Star Altitude Curves (published navigation tables).
Shortly after his retirement from the U.S. Navy in 1933 as a Lieutenant Commander, Weems established a chain of aerial navigation schools under the banner of the Weems System of Navigation (WSN). As a result, thousands of men and women became accomplished in navigating aircraft, including many who flew for the armed forces during World War II.
Speaking of World War II, after America’s entry into the war in 1941, Weems was recalled to active duty. Until war’s end in 1945, he served with distinction as a convoy commodore for the Atlantic Ocean theater of operations. Weems (eventually promoted to Captain) safely shepherded every merchant convoy on the trans-Atlantic run, guaranteeing that necessary supplies, arms and troops arrived safely at European and African ports. By the time he retired from active duty again in early 1946, he was awarded the Bronze Star medal for his actions during the war. Also, during this time, the Captain earned his wings as a Naval Air Navigator.
Upon his second retirement from the U.S. Navy, Weems started a new phase of life. Besides his continued operating of WSN (along with his wife, Margaret), he helped to establish new business ventures such as Aeronautical Services, Inc., as well as Weems and Plath, Inc. The former enterprise focused on aviation-related matters while the latter stressed marine navigation. Beyond these activities, Weems actively participated in aerial voyages that were high-risk in nature at the time. He made a flight over the North Pole in 1948 and an around-the-world flight two years later – both times performing the navigation for these flights. Moreover, he and his naval pilot son, George, made a long aerial journey in a light aircraft from London, England to Alice Springs, Australia, with the elder Weems again as navigator and the younger Weems as pilot. Shortly afterwards, his son was killed in the test flight of a U.S. Navy airplane.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Weems pursued other interests, including underwater archeology. He teamed up with Ed Link (of flight simulator and submersible design fame) to explore certain undersea sites. This included an expedition to Jamaica in 1959 to explore the sunken city of Port Royal, lost during an earthquake in 1692. The following year, he participated in another adventure with Link in Israel by examining another sunken city, Caesarea. Thus, Weems displayed his unique understanding and capabilities as an expert in marine, aerial and underwater navigation. Very shortly, he would reveal his developing knowledge of navigating in outer space.
Captain Weems was recalled to naval duty (in his early 70s) once again in 1961. This time, the U.S. Navy tasked him with teaching a pilot class in space navigation, as well as to produce a Space Navigation Handbook. With the aid from several of his young students (all U.S. Navy ensigns), Weems published this handbook in 1962. The timing for this feat was perfect as the U.S. was just starting to place humans into Earth orbit and preparing to venture to the Moon. He continued his contributions to space navigation by serving as a consultant to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Beyond all the above examples, 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, history of all sorts, and genealogy. Moreover, he expressed great interest in museum affairs, including donating navigation-related artifacts and archival documents to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air Museum (and, later, the National Air and Space Museum), as well as in various historical associations and libraries from his home state of Tennessee. Hand in hand with his numerous areas of expertise and varied interests, he was also a devoted husband and father of two sons and a daughter. Certainly, Weems packed a lot of varied activity and achievement into his life, by the time he died in 1979 at age 90.