U.S. Navy Aircraft History

By Tommy H. Thomason

Saturday, April 19, 2014

CVS Carrier Self Defense

In the mid-1950s, several Essex-class carriers were repurposed from attack to antisubmarine warfare and redesignated CVS. Although the air groups primarily consisted of ASW and AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft, some deployments were made with a fighter detachment for self defense. The first few of these were provided by the VC squadons that operated all-weather fighters, which in this case was the propeller-driven F4U-5N.

It was recognized, however, that jets were more appropriate and a few detachments of different jet fighter types were provided by attack squadrons in the late 1950s. The mission was then assigned to attack squadrons (and in a couple of instances, Marine Headquarters & Maintenance Squadrons) operating A4D Skyhawks. These detachments were equipped with Skyhawks that had been modified with Sidewinder missile capability.

The requirement was eventually formalized with the creation of two VSF squadrons operating A4Ds.
 Note that VSF-3 appears to have borrowed a VSF-1 external fuel tank.

For more on the A4D fighter assignment and the VSF squadrons, see Scooter!

The last detachment before the assumption of the role by squadrons operating Skyhawks was the most unusual. VAW-11, a large squadron providing AEW and radar countermeasures detachments to deploying air groups, was assigned a dozen F2H-3/4 Banshee all-weather fighters. As far as I know, the only deployed detachment, P, went out with Hornet, a newly designated CVS, from April to October 1959.

Note that the Banshees have Sidewinder capability and are marked with the VAW-11 tail code RR. For some reason, there were no AEW airplanes provided for the deployment, which would have reduced the Banshee's effectiveness at defending the carrier. However, they at least had all-weather interception capability, something the A4Ds lacked entirely.

More photos can be found on the Hornet Museum's excellent website here: http://www.usshornetmuseum.org/PhotoGallery/gallery.php?galleryFolder=1959_CVS12_Ballenger_Collection (to go to the home page or an index for the rest of the photo gallery, click on the icons at the top of that webpage).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Navy Aircraft Designation Suffixes Redux

While in the process of preparing a set of notes and illustrations about the F4U-4 configuration changes, I was somewhat surprised to find that the cannon-armed variant was designated both F4U-4B, the one I am familiar with, and F4U-4C, which didn't ring a bell right away other than C has been taken to mean a modification to add cannon armament, as in F4U-1C, SB2C -1C, and as it turns out, F8F-1C. My first thought was that the F4U-4C designation might be bogus until I discovered this photograph of BuNo 97448 in my files. It is clearly cannon-armed and almost certainly fresh off the Vought production line at Stratford, CT.
 This is a closeup of the markings on the vertical fin; you may have to take my word for it, but F4U-4C is marked on the rudder:

I have written about the confusing conflation of Navy designation suffix meanings used during different time periods (see http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2013/06/navy-aircraft-designation-suffixes.html). Basically, the meaning of a letter not only changed over time but should be separated into two categories, a specific added/changed capability (C for cannon armament) and a simple revision letter (C as the third minor change but one worthy of differentiating the airplane from its predecessors). Actually, I argued that C, at least early in the war, was used for the first notable change because the suffixes A and B were reserved at the time for a Navy airplane delivered to the U.S. Army and one delivered to Britain, respectively.

As it turns out, the use of suffixes by BuAer and its airplane manufacturers during the war was not well regulated and more specifically, there was no published definition for suffixes C or D as there came to be over time for A, B, E, F (briefly and replaced in effect by Z), H (except for the PBJ-1H), N,  P, R, and S. After the war, in January 1946, definitions were added for the suffixes J, K, L, Q and W.

In March 1946, however, BuAer decreed in Aviation Circular Letter 43-46 that henceforth—among other additions, deletions, and changes—that the suffix B would be used for "Special armament version" and C for "Carrier operating version of a non-carrier aircraft". In the case of the cannon-armed F4U-4C and the F8F-1C, the change was made retroactive so they became the better-known F4U-4B and F8F-1B. In the case of the F4U-4B, at least, speculation resulted decades later that these were Corsairs destined for Britain but taken by the U.S. Navy instead (or in one account on the interweb, dumped at sea by the Brits in lieu of expending the cost to return them to the U.S. after the war in compliance with the terms of use).

This suffix history is described in full in a draft monograph apparently prepared by the history section at BuAer in May 1955. See http://www.alternatewars.com/SAC/Use_of_Suffix_Letters_in_Model_Designation_of_Naval_Aircraft_-_May_1955_Monograph.pdf

Monday, February 17, 2014

Who's Your Daddy?

The amount of organization information displayed on U.S. Navy carrier aircraft underwent some interesting changes between the Korean War and the Vietnam War. For example, the F2H-2 Banshee in the early 1950s displayed the branch of service (Navy), a tail code (F) that represented the air group it was assigned to, and a three digit number on the nose, the first of which indicated in this case that it was an airplane in the first squadron in the air group.

Toward the late 1950s, the basic color scheme had changed from overall blue to gray over white and identification of the squadron that the airplane was assigned to was generally being marked on it, as shown on this VF-61 F3H.

Finally, in the early 1960s, the name of the carrier to which the air group was nominally assigned was usually added to the markings, as in the first F4H deployment, which was VF-102 on Enterprise.

I hadn't paid much attention to when the carrier name first began to appear on the airplanes, although it was clear that there was a time when it wasn't and then it was. I found the answer by happenstance in an excellent monograph by Angelo Romano, NAVA 1 Naval Air Weapons Meet, 1956-1959.


These meets were competitions between selected east coast and west coast fighter and attack squadrons (fighters only the first year) for aerial gunnery (fighter) and bombing accuracy (attack). They were held annually from 1956 through 1959 and then never again.

This monograph is beautifully illustrated with high-quality reproductions, many in color, of images taken by noted aviation photographer William L. Swisher at the competitions in each of the four years.

It can be purchased here, http://www.aeroslides.com/modelpublishing/book-store.html. Also note the availability of an illustrated history of Carrier Air Wing One: Part Two 1957-1973, which is also highly recommended, at a discount if you buy it along with NAVA 1. (Too bad for you that NAVA 2 is sold out, at least from Model Publishing, if you don't have it.)

What caught my eye was that in the fourth and last year of the competition, the name of the carrier that each east coast squadron was assigned to was prominently marked in red on the aft fuselage, apparently specifically for this event.

I don't know whether the Commander Naval Air Forces Atlantic decreed the addition for the morale benefit to the ships company or the east coast squadrons got together and decided to do it for their esprit de corps but in any event, the added marking became almost immediately fashionable on both coasts.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The A-12 Program is History

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-navy-jet-suit-20140125,0,4137919.story#axzz2ryLV5DCe

For my previous posts on the tortuous path of the settlement through the courts and negotiations:

http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-12-avenger-ii-program-end-is-near.html

For a Naval Aviation News article on the A-12 Avenger when it still had a bright future, albeit for only a matter of weeks, see:
http://www.history.navy.mil/nan/backissues/1990s/1990/nd90.pdf

This is an illustration from that article:
 More Ordnance! Farther! And Stealthy!

Unfortunately, the Navy lost credibility with the Secretary of Defense with respect to the program's cost and schedule and the airplane's weight and capability, which resulted in its cancellation in early January 1991.*

Instead of this great leap forward in carrier-based strike, the Navy eventually decided to buy the F-18E/F and a player to be named later, UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike).

*For a very detailed account of the A-12 program's rise and fall, see The $5 Billion Misunderstanding by James P. Stevenson. For a much shorter and more readable one, buy my book, Strike from the Sea (see the sidebar).

Monday, January 13, 2014

Finding the Way Home

Anybody can find their way nowadays with GPS, even back to a carrier far at sea, never having caught sight of land. It took considerably more skill in World War II, although the naval aviator was provided with electronic tools to do so.

For more on each of these tools, see http://tailspintopics.blogspot.com/2014/01/world-war-ii-navy-carrier-airplane.html

However, if all else (or simply the electricity) failed, the pilot had a fallback, his plotting board. (The pilot also needed to be sure that he didn't fly farther from the carrier than he had fuel for the return; none of his electronic aids provided that information.)
This is famed Jame H. Flatley Jr., about to man his F6F with his plotting board under his arm.

It was removable, like a kitchen drawer, sliding in and out of a slot in the lower side of the instrument panel.

 A circular slide rule, fondly known as a whiz wheel, was mounted in the lower right-hand corner of the plotting board. This was used to calculate ground speed, fuel burn, etc. The big circular grid was used to plot the carrier's projected track and the airplane's actual track. A plastic cover allowed the pilot to mark on the board and erase it for subsequent use.

Before takeoff, the pilots would be briefed on the carrier's intended course and speed and the forecast wind aloft at various altitudes. Since missions might last three hours or more, the carrier might be long gone and out of sight relative to its position at takeoff. Wind aloft was also critical because airplanes, like balloons, drift with the wind and do not necessarily go in the direction that they are headed or at the speed being flown through the air.

After takeoff, the pilot could resort to the same navigation technique of captains on sailing ships in centuries past, keeping close track of airspeed, heading, and time at the different speeds and heading, the manual equivalent of an inertial navigation system. Wind aloft then had to be factored in to determine the ground speed, track, and distance made good. (Pilots were taught how to estimate the strength and direction of the wind from various clues like the appearance of the waves.)

The result was a continuous record of the approximate position of the airplane relative to that of the aircraft carrier. When the time came to return, a course back to home plate could quickly be determined.

Of course, the pilot might not know exactly where he had been, since a lot of maneuvering might have been involved so his plot was not complete or accurate, the wind might have been different from forecast and checking it not possible, etc. The carrier also might not have made good its intended plan of movement. So if the carrier was not in sight when he got to where he thought it was, he would execute an expanding square search.

The Brits considered the workload and degree of difficulty in finding the way back to the carrier to be so high that their front-line fighter at the start of World War II, the Fairey Fulmar, had a two-man crew, pilot and navigator.

On or about the time that jets were introduced, the plotting boards were removed and no longer required in favor of knee boards and presumably an increased reliance on the electronic aids.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Composite Squadrons and Detachments

I've mentioned composite squadrons and detachments before. See http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2012/12/hellcats-on-cves.html for a summary description of WW II composite squadrons and http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2009/11/air-groups-and-markings-in-transition.html for a brief discussion of detachments from a markings standpoint.

These units arose from the need to properly manage much smaller groups of airplanes and people than assigned to the existing squadrons in a carrier air group. For example, the first helicopter deployments aboard carriers typically only involved two aircraft and a handful of personnel. As a result, two helicopter utility squadrons were formed, one (HU-1) based on the west coast and one (HU-2) on the east coast, that supplied detachments to aircraft carriers, cruisers, etc. These were big squadrons from the standpoint of aircraft, naval aviators, and maintainers. (They were reportedly even overstaffed, as some naval aviators were reluctant to transition from props to jets and sought an alternative assignment in the burgeoning need for helicopter pilots.)

HU-1 used the tail code UP:
HU-2 was assigned UR:

Similarly, so-called composite squadrons were formed to provide small detachments of specialized mission airplanes (night attack, night fighter, airborne early warning, reconnaissance, etc.) to deploying air groups. These were different in usage from the World War II composite squadrons, which deployed as a unit.

One example is VC-35, which was eventually redesignated VA(AW)-35. As the subsequent designation indicates, it was an all-weather squadron.  However, initially it was assigned more missions than simply attack, including ASW, hence the use of C for composite. During the Korean War, it provided detachments to attack carrier air groups deploying from the west coast, flying AD-4Bs, AD-4Ns, and NLs with the squadron tail code NR.
These consisted of VAN (airplane/attack/night) teams of four airplanes, six officers, and 40 enlisted men. There were usually five or six VAN teams deployed at any one time. The squadron itself consisted of more than 100 officers and 650 enlisted men.

Another example is VFP-62, the east coast photo-reconnaissance squadron. It was assigned tail code GA.

 Note that by this time, the early 1960s, the tail code on the detachment airplane was changed to that of the air group it deployed with.

In October 1962, VFP-62 had 29 RF-8As (redesignated from F8U-1P the month before) assigned, 20 of which were deployed with seven detachments. Seven of the remainder were flyable when the squadron was tasked with providing photo-reconnaissance of suspected ballistic missile sites in Cuba with an eighth detachment of eight airplanes. The squadron rose to the occasion and received a Presidential Unit Citation, along with a four-RF-8A VMCJ-2 detachment, personally presented by President Kennedy.
For much more on the missions flown by VFP-62 and VMCJ-2 over Cuba, see http://www.vfp62.com/cuban.html