U.S. Navy Aircraft History

By Tommy H. Thomason

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Extravagantly Illustrated and Detailed VQ-2 History!

Click on the image to better see the preorder offer for this cradle-to-grave history of one of the earliest and most  used electronic reconnaissance squadrons, which went in harm's way to obtain the intelligence necessary to minimize harm to those that might have to follow.

This collage illustrates the breath and depth of this monograph from noted naval aviation historian, author, and photographer, Angelo Romano and his coauthor, VQ-2's John Herndon:

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Short, Tragic Operation of the F-4 Phantom by the Blue Angels


In the process of doing some fact checking on the operation of the F-4 Phantom by the Blue Angels, I discovered that many of the online articles about it are somewhat incorrect, beginning with the statement that it served with them from 1969 to 1974. In fact, the 1973 season was tragically terminated early and the Blues resumed flight demonstrations in early 1974 flying Douglas A-4 Skyhawks.

In 1968, the Grumman F11F Tigers, which had served the Blues well for a decade, were increasingly hard to campaign with. Various alternatives were evaluated, but by chance the seemingly ideal candidate was the so-called lead-nosed F-4J. The F-4J was succeeding the F-4B on the production line in St. Louis. The major changes were the AWG-10 radar and fire control system and the J79-GE-10 engine (the identical dash numbers were coincidental). As it happened, both were government furnished equipment and deliveries were behind schedule. The Navy agreed to let McDonnell complete and deliver the first of the Js with lead ballast in the nose (hence the nickname) and the B's -8 engines. Otherwise the airplanes were identical to the J configuration: removal of the IR detector under the radome, bulged inner wing for the bigger main landing gear tires introduced with the Air Force F-4C, lift improvements introduced late in F-4B production, etc. (see http://tailspintopics.blogspot.com/2012/12/you-cant-tell-phantoms-without-score.html)

There were 18 of these built, five in production block 26 and 13 in production block 27, BuNos 153071-153088. Although the Navy had other non-deployable uses for them, their assignment to the Blues was logical since neither the lack of a radar (which allowed the nose to be used as a baggage compartment) or the slightly lower engine thrust of the -8 engine was a drawback. The only external difference apparent from a -10 powered J was the visible portion of the afterburner nozzle (also see http://tailspintopics.blogspot.com/2012/12/j79-exhaust-nozzles.html).
The difference between the nozzles was more apparent when the engine was running but not in afterburner because of the different way the reduction in area for "dry" thrust was mechanized.

Many modifications were made to convert most of these Js to the Blue Angels configuration. These included installation of the Air Force anti-skid braking system, additional radio and navigation avionics, the smoke system, a gaseous oxygen system, etc. The flight control and throttle systems were also modified to provide more precise control in formation and early activation of afterburning. (Joe Debronski, McAir's chief test pilot at the time, flew a formation flight on the wing of the Blues leader at the time, CDR Bill Wheat, in 1968 as the latter put his F11F through the maneuvers required: "(Bill) had requested that I do this to help me understand the need for changes they wanted in the longitudinal control-feel system".)

Wheat accepted the first of an initial seven Blues F-4Js on 23 December 1968. Twelve of the lead-nose Js were eventually converted to the Blue Angels configuration and flown by them at air shows. Ten of them, plus one of the two replacement, -10 powered, Js were destroyed:
Half were the result of three midair collisions. Although trading paint was not unknown because of the extremely close formation flying that the Blues were famous for, actual collisions resulting in a crash had been rare up until then. However, up until the last midair only one of the crashes had been fatal.

Some internet articles also incorrectly identify the specific Phantoms operated by the Blue Angels. One of my F-4 subject-matter experts, Peter Greengrass, provided the following list based on F-4 Aircraft History Cards and other sources;

153072: Midair with 153081 26 July 1973, Lakehurst, NJ
153075: Fuel exhaustion near El Paso, TX 6 November 1969
153076: Reassigned 25 September 1973
153078: Midair with 153081 19 September 1969 (081 did not crash)
153079: Midair with 153080 and 083 at El Centro, 8 March 1973
153080: Midair with 153079 and 083 at El Centro, 8 March 1973
153081: Midair with 153072 26 July 1973, Lakehurst, NJ
153082: In-flight fire 4 June 1971 at Quonset, RI
153083: Midair with 153079 and 080 at El Centro, 8 March 1973
153084: Reassigned 25 September 1973
153085: Gear-up landing 30 August 1970 at Cedar Rapids, IA
153086: Crashed 14 February 1972 in Superstition Mountains, AZ
153839: Reassigned 25 September 1973
153876: Crashed 8 July 1973 at Lake Charles, LA

Note that 153077 is not on this list although it is sometimes identified as a former Blue Angels F-4J; Peter wrote that it was assigned for its entire service life to NATC, Patuxent River. There were also only two later Js assigned. In this picture of the two solos in formation, the -10 powered F-4J is inverted and the -8 powered one is right side up.

Peter also identified three F-4Bs that were briefly assigned to the Blues early on for training/proficiency/hack duties: 150996, 152982, and 153068. These were stock and did not sport the Blues livery.

1973 was both a triumph and a tragedy for the Blue Angels. It began ominously with a three-plane collision during training in March at El Centro. All three pilots ejected successfully but leader LCDR Don Bently was injured and had to be replaced by former Blue Angel LCDR Skip Umstead. In June, he led them on a multi-venue European tour including performances at the prestigious Paris Air Show. Tragically, he was killed along with Marine CAPT Mike Murphy and Ronald Thomas, one of the two Petty Officers flying with them when they collided during arrival at Lakehurst, NJ for a show.

That disaster ended the Phantoms use by the Blues and the 1973 season. It also almost resulted in the Blues being disbanded but in part due to the support of the Chief of Naval Operations, the team was reformed that winter with Douglas A-4F "Super Fox" Skyhawks (see http://tailspintopics.blogspot.com/2011/02/super-fox.html) that had been made redundant with the introduction of the Vought A-7 Corsair. A successful 1974 season resulted.

For more information on the F-4 Phantom with the Blue Angels, see the following on Ron Downey's excellent blog:

McAir Flight Test Report

Information and Markings

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Carrier-Based Zipper?

In early 1953, Lockheed proposed its Model L-242 in response to the Navy's requests for proposals meeting its Outline Specification 130.
The design was similar to the Model L-246, which won the USAF competition for an F-100 day fighter replacement and was designated XF-104. Lockheed projected that it would easily meet or even better all of the Navy's requirements, including takeoffs from and landings to an aircraft carrier. With the same wing area (not much) and thickness (three inches) as the Air Force's version.

One reason that this was plausible was that the original XF-104 had a shorter fuselage that the production F-104 overlay shown here in gray, which reduced empty weight.
Another was that what little wing there was had features to maximize lift. Spoilers were the primary roll control with the inboard segment of the full-span flaps doubling as roll trim. A new low-speed lift concept, boundary layer control, was also incorporated to increase trailing-edge flap effectiveness.

Although the proposed design had zero dihedral,  subsequent wind tunnel testing would have resulted in five degrees of anhedral.

It was of course, very unlikely that the Navy would have trusted Lockheed, which had essentially zero carrier-based fighter experience (there was a modified P-80 that was evaluated at-sea*) with a contract for one even if none of its favored suppliers bid. As it happened, Vought won the competition with what was to be the F8U Crusader. And that bet was hedged by contracts to North American for the FJ-4 Fury, Grumman for the F11F Tiger, and Douglas for the F4D-2 (F5D) Skylancer. Only McDonnell was left out, which was worrisome for a time in St. Louis, but the consolation prize led to the F4H Phantom.

One footnote to the Navy Zipper (the sound and impression it made on a low, fast flyby) story was a modeler's April Fools article about the Navy modifying two F-104s for carrier operation, for which photos of two F-104s being used to test the Sidewinder at China Lake (or maybe just to get some flight time in one) added plausibility.
That sucked in more than one publication. For an example: http://www.warbirdsnews.com/warbirds-news/fun-facts/lockheeds-navy-f-104-u-s-navy-markings.html

* See http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2012/02/navy-shooting-stars.html

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Complete and Illustrated LSO Guide and Much More

Once upon a time, I posted a brief summary of the history of Landing Signal Officers here:
http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2012/11/waving-them-aboard-lso.html (also see http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2017/01/1946-royal-navy-deck-landing-training.html).

Boom Powell, Naval Aviator and LSO, has written a much more entertaining and informative book on LSOs, published by Specialty Press:

You can read the rave reviews on Amazon here:
https://www.amazon.com/Wave-Off-History-LSOs-Ship-Board-Landings/dp/1580072356

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Carrier Plane Guard by Helicopter

This is a work in progress...

The carrier plane-guard role dates from the very first operation of airplanes from ships. The destroyer Roe was reportedly assigned that duty for Eugene Ely's takeoff from Birmingham on 14 December 1910.

The plane-guard ship trails and/or leads the carrier in order to be into position to heave to and lower a boat for pickup of an airplane's crew when a crash occurs. Here, an OL-8 is landing aboard the first Lexington in 1929 with the plane-guard seen maintaining station in the lower right-hand corner of the picture.
Even experienced aviators occasionally had need of rescue. Here, LCDR Lindsey, CO of VT-6, has crashed his TBD Devastator while attempting to land on Enterprise on 28 May 1942, just prior to the Battle of Midway. The plane guard, Monaghan, is maneuvering into position to launch a boat to pick up Lindsey and his crew.

What is surprising is that it took so long for the Navy to realize that the helicopter was a much better solution for plane guard. Sikorsky had already added a rescue hoist to one of its helicopters in 1944. Igor himself was one of the first to evaluate it.

On 29 November 1945, a hoist-equipped Army helicopter piloted by Sikorsky chief test pilot Dimitry D. (Jimmy) Viner and crewed by Army Captain Jackson E. Beighle was used to make a daring rescue of two crewmen in stormy conditions from a barge aground on a reef off Fairfield, Connecticut.

The Navy did buy and utilize these early helicopters immediately after the war for utility missions but these did not include plane guard. Sikorsky finally volunteered the use of one of its new, civil-registered S-51 helicopters piloted by Jimmy Viner for an at-sea trial.
His first rescue was of LT Robert A. Shields on 9 February 1947, after he had to ditch following the failure of his SB2C's engine. A second rescue was required when Viner was flying plane guard and an SB2C crashed on approach to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Two more rescues would be accomplished before the end of the month.

After that, virtually every Air Group Commander wanted an HO3S, the Navy designation for the S-51, assigned to his carrier for plane-guard duty. However, the HO3S was constrained both by payload and center of gravity limitations (its cabin was well forward of the rotor) for the role. As a result, the Navy had a competition for a bespoke plane-guard helicopter that was won by Piasecki with a variant of its two-rotor configuration. It was designated HUP.
For a hoist, the right seat was removed the hatch below it opened through which the rescue sling was lowered and the rescuee was retrieved.

The crewman stood ready to assist the rescued man into the helicopter and keep him from grabbing the engine controls on the center console.

As Alex noted in his comment below, the Kaman HUK (UH-43C) was also used occasionally for plane guard.
Its intermeshing two-rotor system provided the benefits of the twin-rotor helicopter (excellent hover efficiency and indifference to wind direction) but was much more compact.

As Alex also noted in a comment, the ASW air groups would use one or more of their helicopters for plane guard, since they could be readily equipped with the requisite hoist. This is an HO4S hovering for a pickup in a training/familiarization exercise. Note the dye marker in the water and the smoke float in the background to indicate wind direction.

When the HO4S was replaced by the HSS in the ASW helicopter squadrons, it was similarly utilized. Note the large warning to "Abandon Chute" under the cabin door.

This was dictated after a failed attempt to hoist a pilot after his parachute inadvertently deployed.
The pilot either released himself from the sling or got pulled out. He was subsequently rescued by a whaleboat from the carrier.

Even without the pull of an open parachute, the HUP was underpowered. What's worse, what power that there was provided by a former tank engine that was failure prone. The ultimate solution for the helicopter in general and the plane-guard helicopter in particular was the turbine engine. It was light relative to the piston engine and small, which allowed for the cabin to be located directly under the rotor, eliminating the center-of-gravity concern. Kaman won that competition with its first single-rotor design. It was designated the HU2K, which in 1962 was changed to H-2.
It was sleek and fast, with a retractable rescue hoist in the cowling above the cockpit. One innovation, which did not prove lasting, was a boom-deployed rescue net for scooping up a rescuee.

Although there were teething problems, these were overcome and the Seasprite eventually was powered by two engines. However, the elimination of the ASW-dedicated aircraft carriers resulted in the addition of ASW helicopters to a big carrier's air wing. Since the SH-3 came with a rescue hoist, the HS squadrons were assigned the collateral duty of plane guard, resulting in the retirement of the H-2s.


The H-3s, in turn, were eventually replaced by multi-mission Sikorsky H-60s.

Angelo Romano Photo

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

1946 Royal Navy Deck-Landing Training

"England and America are two countries divided by a common language." Before the U.S. Navy took a close look at postwar Royal Navy innovations like the steam catapult, angled deck, and mirror landing system and adopted them, it pursued a very independent course in developing aircraft carrier operations. This is a brilliant 1946 Royal Navy training film focused on the deck-landing phase of carrier flying: https://youtu.be/qxtXDDShjGs

In particular, note that the signals given by the Deck Landing Control Officer (i.e. LSO) at the time were not only very different in almost all cases, they are actually reversed in the case of the high and low signals used by the U.S. Navy LSOs. See http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2012/11/waving-them-aboard-lso.html

Most of the airplanes in the film are Corsairs:
No mention is made of difficulty landing them, although in the first landing shown, the pilot does appear to be skidding a bit in the groove to maintain sight of the DLCO.

The film also includes clips of the first jet landing (British, as were most carrier firsts) and the unusual position of the DLCO when waving the twin-engine Mosquito, necessitated by the need to not be hidden from the pilot's view by the engine nacelle:

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Horses for Courses: Intruder vs. Buccaneer

If you're familiar with both U.S. Navy and Royal Navy airplane programs from the early 1960s, you may have wondered why the former developed a bigish carrier-based, subsonic, two-seat attack airplane when the latter already had one in development, the Blackburn Buccaneer:
Via Tony Buttler

Certainly the U.S. Navy was paying close attention to the Royal Navy during the early 1950s when the Buccaneer program was initiated, as evidenced by its adoption of the steam catapult, the angled deck, and the mirror-landing system.

The answer is basically requirements. The U.S. Navy wanted a replacement for the obsolescent Douglas AD-5N Skyraider that it and the Marines used for all-weather attack and to a limited extent, antisubmarine warfare.

Some of the requirements overlapped, for example range, payload, carrier-compatibility. However, the Navy wanted to be able to find and accurately bomb a land target while the Brits had in mind a strike against ships at sea or naval bases. As a result, the Buccaneer was optimized for near-sonic speed at sea level for a survivable run-in against a heavily armed target: tandem cockpits, a small radar dish (but adequate to find a big target), an internal bomb bay, a relatively small wing, a retractable inflight refueling probe (also see comment below), and unusually for a subsonic airplane, area ruling. The Intruder, on the other hand, had not one but two radars, side-by-side seating (not a handicap given the size of the nose required for the radars) five stores pylons, a relatively high-aspect-ratio wing (required in part for the Marines desire for short takeoffs and landing ashore), etc. It was definitely not area ruled and its refueling probe was always extended.

For more on the development of U.S. Navy attack airplanes including the A-6, see my book, Strike from the Sea, available from Specialty Press or Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Strike-Sea-Aircraft-Skyraider-1948-Present/dp/1580071325):


Note that there are other books with the same title...