U.S. Navy Aircraft History

By Tommy H. Thomason

Friday, July 3, 2015

Call Sign Boron?

A couple of people have asked me about the picture of the VA-55 A-4C above. It was reportedly taken at Danang circa 1967 when the squadron was deployed with Constellation.

Although guesses included a call sign, it was a composite-structure test specimen, installed on a fleet aircraft for a evaluation in operational usage.

From the AIAA paper by A.V. Hawley and M. Ashizawa presented in October 1968 (see HERE for a link to the PDF, which was found by Phil Friddell):

"The (A-4) flap was initially selected as a suitable component for obtaining flight experience with boron filaments. The existing production aluminum flap was redesigned utilizing boron skins supported by a full-depth honeycomb core, while retaining some of the basic component aluminum parts for interchangeability reasons. A second flap design, utilizing graphite as the composite reinforcement and developed in accordance with advanced structural element concepts such as molded graphite parts to replace aluminum rib and hinge fittings was developed. The choice of skin layup and core geometry is explained. It is shown to depend not only on the strength and stability of the skin but also on the temperature and pressure conditions that exist during the cure and secondary bonding. Emphasis is placed on the problems encountered during the design and development phases rather than on those which came to light during the final detailed analysis."

The test specimen was prominently identified, in part because of the health hazards presented by boron fibers when they are burned, and since it was non-standard from a repair standpoint. "Boron" was also a reminder that the component, even damaged, was of interest to the Bureau of Aeronautics and its creators.

Aircraft structure incorporating boron composites were subsequently used in the F-14 among other aircraft.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Back from Space, But Not Home Yet

Jodie Peeler is my go-to person for the Sikorsky SH-3 (H-3) Sea King. She graciously volunteered to be the guest blogger for this post, distilling the information that she's collected over the past two and a half decades on one notable H-3 assignment:

The Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King as Recovery Helicopter by Jodie Peeler

From Scott Carpenter's Mercury mission in May 1962 to the end of the Apollo lunar program in December 1972, every NASA spacecraft crew retrieved by helicopter was recovered by a Sikorsky Sea King (1). The big, twin-turbine Sea King offered additional interior space, more power, more safety and more versatility than the HUS-1s that recovered Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom after their Mercury flights. Besides, it was natural that the Sea King be pressed into service as a recovery helicopter.

Throughout most of NASA's "expendable era," the prime recovery ships were typically anti-submarine warfare carriers (CVS), with Sea King squadrons already part of their air group. Sending a CVS allowed the Navy to provide NASA a large, capable recovery ship without diverting a scarce "big deck." (2) Although an LPH might be pressed into service with an HS detachment aboard for some missions (3), the CVS became the classic recovery ship, immortalized in countless pictures, film clips, and even model kits.

One particular SH-3 itself became an icon. In particular, an SH-3D with the Bureau Number 152711 became a celebrity for its recovery of the first five Apollo flights to the Moon. You may not know the number 152711, but chances are you've seen pictures of "Old 66," a helicopter so famous it even inspired a love song. (4)

Over the years the saga of "Old 66" has been told time and again, and a certain mythology has built up - as have some misconceptions. What follows is my attempt to assemble some things I've learned, based on what I've found in readings and research.


For an Apollo recovery mission, a prime recovery ship embarked eight SH-3A or SH-3D aircraft and associated personnel from the squadron. This provided plenty of aircraft for the recovery mission, as well as spare aircraft in the event one or more had an issue. The aircraft were maintained in excellent condition and logged many hours in simulation exercises (SIMEX) prior to splashdown day. On a typical recovery, four helicopters participated, with one remaining aboard ship ready to go if needed. Each had a four-person aircrew, plus additional personnel as indicated. This is the deployment for Apollo 11 in July 1969:

 - RECOVERY ONE: The prime recovery helicopter, responsible for picking up the astronauts and bringing them back aboard the ship. RECOVERY also carried a NASA flight surgeon, who would make initial assessments of the astronauts once they were aboard; RECOVERY also carried the leader of the Underwater Demolition Team to the recovery site. On flights that observed quarantine protocol, RECOVERY also carried the Biological Isolation Garments (BIGs) and decontamination equipment to the splashdown site.

- SWIM ONE and SWIM TWO: Each carried three Underwater Demolition Team swimmers to the recovery site. These swimmers would secure the spacecraft and assist the astronauts during recovery, then stay with the spacecraft until it was retrieved. On Apollo 11, SWIM TWO deployed its swimmers, while SWIM ONE hovered nearby with its swimmers as a waiting backup. After the astronauts were aboard RECOVERY, SWIM ONE flew wing with RECOVERY back to the recovery ship as a precaution, while SWIM TWO "babysat" the spacecraft and swimmers until the PRS arrived. (5)

- PHOTO ONE: Carried two cameramen to capture still and motion picture images of the recovery operation. Live television capability became possible starting with Apollo 13 in April 1970. (6)

- In addition, SWIM THREE, with a crew of four plus a UDT swimmer, stood by aboard the recovery ship ready to go if needed. - Recovery ships with fixed-wing capability also launched two Grumman E-1 Tracers, one to serve as on-scene commander (call sign AIR BOSS) while another (call sign RELAY) relayed on-scene communications back to the task force headquarters in Hawaii. (7)


In spite of what has been written elsewhere, none of the SH-3s used by HS units for spacecraft recovery were purpose-built rescue helicopters. They were on temporary duty from their normal ASW/SAR mission, and none of the aircraft were specialized rescue aircraft. (This changed starting with Apollo 15, when recovery duty became the task of HC-1 and its SH-3Gs.) (8)

Instead, temporary modifications were made to the SH-3A/SH-3D aircraft used in recovery operations. It became typical to remove the AN/AQS-13 sonar equipment in most of the embarked helicopters and cover the top of the sonar well. (9) This opened up space in the cabin for crewmembers to move around, room for recovery gear, and to provide space for the astronauts and the NASA physician to move around aboard the recovery helicopter.

Removing the sonar also made room for the SARAH (Search and Rescue and Homing) equipment. This system provided a radio-detection system for locating the spacecraft. It used Yagi-type antennas mounted at the top of the port and starboard sponson struts; the first recovery helicopter to sport these antenna was the Gemini 12 recovery helicopter in November 1966. The signals were fed to receivers in the helicopter's cabin, and crewmen could use the signals to direct the pilots toward the spacecraft's location. (10)

Not every aircraft embarked aboard a recovery ship would be modified. Of the eight SH-3Ds embarked aboard USS Yorktown for the Apollo 8 recovery in 1968, six aircraft had their sonar equipment removed, and five of those had SARAH equipment installed. These modifications were performed aboard ship by squadron personnel, using parts supplied to the squadron. (11)

Starting with Apollo 10, the recovery helicopter was equipped with an uprighting sling made of half-inch nylon line. One end of the sling was attached to a weapons shackle; the other end was taped in place below the starboard cabin door. If the command module was apex-down (Stable II) after splashdown, a helicopter crewman could lower the free end of the sling to a swimmer in the water, who would attach the sling to the spacecraft. The helicopter could then pull the spacecraft over to upright (Stable I) position. (12)

Other modifications to the prime recovery helicopter included installation of photo and film cameras on the starboard side. Two 70mm motion picture cameras and a 35mm still camera were carried on a specially-made mount on the starboard aft weapons position, and at least one camera was mounted on the starboard side between the sponson and the fuselage that was used to take this picture of Apollo 13 Astronaut Jack Swigert.
These cameras were pointed down to capture images of the recovery operation that could be analyzed after the mission. These supplemented the still photos and motion pictures captured by the PHOTO helicopter.

The cameras mounted on recovery helicopters had no capability to transmit live television pictures. Television audiences were limited to what the cameras aboard the recovery ship could see. Live television direct from the recovery scene did not happen until Apollo 13 in 1970, when a live television relay from the PHOTO helicopter finally became a reality. (13)


Bureau Number 152711 (Sikorsky serial number 61-377) was constructed as an SH-3D and completed on March 4, 1967. It appears to have spent its entire career with the "Black Knights" of HS-4.

At this point I have not found out why 152711 was selected as prime recovery helicopter for Apollo 8; perhaps it was the aircraft in best condition, the squadron CO's preferred aircraft, that its side number—66—had a certain something, or just luck of the draw. Regardless, it was 152711 that brought the astronauts aboard Yorktown on December 27, 1968, as live television from the recovery ship presented the historic moment to a worldwide audience.

As it happened, 152711 was also used for the Apollo 10, 11, 12, and 13 recoveries. By late 1969, even though it had received a different, three-digit side number, for the Apollo 12 mission that was painted out and replaced with "66"!

For a online gallery of pictures from the Apollo 11 recovery at the USS Hornet Museum web site, see http://usshornetmuseum.org/PhotoGallery/gallery.php?galleryFolder=1969_CVS_12_Apollo_11

The USS Hornet Museum staff has also posted a gallery for the Apollo 12 recovery: http://usshornetmuseum.org/PhotoGallery/gallery.php?galleryFolder=1969_CVS_12_Apollo_12

Although 152711 was repainted and renumbered a few times after its last spacecraft recovery mission, it always bore five Apollo spacecraft symbols on both sides of the nose.

Old 66 was reportedly slated to be presented to the Smithsonian Institution when after it was no longer needed by the Navy. Unfortunately, it did not survive to be so honored for its prominent role in the Apollo program. On 4 June 1975, during a night training mission using its dipping sonar, 152711 crashed into the ocean off NALF Imperial Beach, California and sank. All four crewmen were rescued although the pilot subsequently died of his injuries.

At the time of the accident, 152711 had logged 3,245.2 flight hours and flown from at least seven aircraft carriers and helicopter landing craft. Although there has been interest in locating and raising it for restoration, the effort and expense of doing so from 800 fathoms deep have so far been prohibitive.

At least three SH-3s now on display have been repainted to resemble "Old 66".  Two of these aircraft, BuNo 148999 aboard Hornet (http://www.uss-hornet.org/) and BuNo 149006 in the Evergreen Aviation Museum(http://evergreenmuseum.org/), are themselves actual recovery helicopters, Gemini 4 and 7 respectively. (148999 was repainted for the 1995 motion picture Apollo 13.) The third is BuNo 149711 aboard Midway in San Diego.


1. Several spaceflights ended with the astronauts coming aboard the recovery ship by means other than helicopter. This includes Mercury 6, Mercury 8, Mercury 9, Gemini 6A, Gemini 8, Gemini 9, all three Skylab missions, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. This was sometimes due to the spacecraft being retrieved by a smaller backup recovery ship; other times, it was because the spacecraft landed close enough to the carrier. The long duration of the Skylab missions meant keeping the astronauts aboard the spacecraft until it was aboard ship was a safer move.

2. One myth that will not die is that USS John F. Kennedy was to have recovered Apollo 11 in order to honor the late President who sent us to the Moon, but that President Nixon vetoed this plan for political reasons. In reality, diverting JFK from the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific just for the recovery mission would have been a logistical and operational nightmare, impractical for many reasons. Correspondence between CNO Thomas Moorer and NASA Administrator George Mueller details that a CVS was chosen over an LPH because the CVS was a more prestigious ship for such a high-profile mission. Hornet herself was selected because she was readily available; had been training for related missions; was more capable than an LPH; and would not have diverted a larger carrier from duty off Vietnam. The historical record more than justifies Hornet's selection, as ship, crew and squadrons performed magnificently on a challenging mission.

3. Missions recovered by an LPH included Gemini 10 (USS Guadalcanal, with HS-3 detachment), Gemini 11 (USS Guam, with HS-3 detachment), Apollo 9 (USS Guadalcanal, with HS-3 detachment), Apollo 10 (USS Princeton, with HS-4 detachment), Apollo 13 (USS Iwo Jima, with HS-4 detachment), and Apollo 14 (USS New Orleans, with HS-6 detachment). In addition, an HC-1 detachment with SH-3Gs was deployed aboard USS Okinawa for Apollo 15, and aboard USS New Orleans for its three recoveries during the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz era. Gemini 8 would have been retrieved by USS Boxer had the mission gone as planned.

4. The lyrics for "Helicopter U.S. Navy 66" may be read here, among other places: http://www.songcoleta.com/lyrics/helicopter_us_navy_%2766_%28samantha%29

5. Several accounts tell the story of how SWIM TWO got the call, including Scott Carmichael's "Moon Men Return: USS Hornet and the Recovery of the Apollo 11 Astronauts" (Naval Institute Press, 2011), p. 178-183. Live TV coverage of the Apollo 11 recovery also shows SWIM ONE flying RECOVERY's wing on the way back to Hornet.

6. The live coverage of the Apollo 13 splashdown, with plenty of live video from the photo helicopter, may be seen starting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swTUBotqTRk

7. Much of this is adapted from Bob Fish, "Hornet Plus Three: The Story of the Apollo 11 Recovery" (Creative Minds Press, 2010), p. 107.

8. Al Adcock's "H-3 Sea King In Action" (Squadron/Signal Publications, 1995) implies that the SH-3s that recovered Apollo astronauts were specialized SAR variants. However, multiple sources from the period confirm the SH-3A and SH-3D aircraft from HS squadrons were fully-capable sub hunters whose primary mission was antisubmarine warfare. Had it not been, there would have been no need to remove the dipping sonar from these aircraft; and had it not been, 152711 would have not crashed during a night ASW training exercise in 1975.

9. Removal of the AN/AQS-13 equipment and installation of the SARAH equipment is mentioned in the HS-4 summary from USS Yorktown's Apollo 8 post-recovery report, provided to the author by the Naval Historical Center.

10. The first mission with Yagi-equipped recovery helicopters was the Gemini 12 recovery in November 1966, as can be seen in contemporary photos and films of the recovery. Details on the SARAH installation aboard the helicopters comes from Fish, p. 79-80.

11. USS Yorktown Apollo 8 post-recovery report.

12. Fish, p. 80.

13. Ben Kocivar's article "Waiting for Apollo 13" in the August 1970 "Popular Science" mentions the live television from the recovery scene: https://books.google.com/books?id=kgEAAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PP1&pg=PA44

Thursday, June 11, 2015

FDR Circa 1951, Turning Into the Wind

John J. McKenna brought this photograph to my attention.

He found it on the excellent FDR website—http://ussfranklindroosevelt.com/—that I had not seen before. It was in this section of photographs—http://ussfranklindroosevelt.com/?page_id=2351—contributed by Don Savercool, FDR Photo Lab 1951-1952.

At first glance, it is a picture of an air group readied for launch (the Panthers are manned, most of the propeller-driven airplanes are running)  as Roosevelt turns into the wind. Most of the Panthers are in the experimental natural metal scheme (see http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2009/12/it-seemed-like-good-idea-at-time-vii.html).

But on closer inspection, the "air group" gets far more interesting.

1. This F9F-2 is painted blue on top but what appears to be light gray on the bottom instead of being overall blue. In-fight experiments were conducted with different paint schemes because when viewed from below at high altitude, blue airplanes were very conspicuous. This is one of the schemes:

2. All the -2s appear to numbered sequentially in the 2XX squadron series but don't have any tailcodes (in a comment below, "bigredlancer" notes that the badge is between the national insignia and the front of the windscreen is the Jolly Roger of VF-61, which was assigned to FDR for its early 1951 Med deployment). The highest number is 217, which is unusually an high number for a single squadron. Moreover, the natural metal experiment involved 100 F9F-5s, not 2s (although I have seen one picture of an unpainted F9F-2, which has also has the Jolly Roger badge in the same location as the FDR picture and moreover is a 2XX airplane); the airplanes were parceled out a few to a squadron rather than equipping an entire squadron; and most significantly, the experiment began in April 1952. Note that all the Panthers are spread (normally the wings would be unfolded as they taxi forward to the catapult).

3. There are four F8F Bearcats arrayed behind the Panthers. I had thought that this was rather late in the day for them but it turns out that in addition to being flown in the reserves and for advanced training at the time, VC-62 was still providing detachments of F8F-2Ps to the carriers then deploying to the Med like FDR. The external stores under the wing also seemed unusual (when required, F8F external fuel was almost always provided by a single centerline tank) but it turns out that two 100-gallon tanks were not uncommon on the -2Ps. (Thanks to John J. McKenna for straightening me out on that.)

4. There are five Douglas AD Guppies behind the Bearcats. That's more than a standard air-group complement.

5. There are three JDs behind the ADs. It looked at first like they might be B-25/PBJs but what looks like an H-tail on the one on the right is the vertical blade of the left and right propellers on the one behind it. Obviously these are not carrier-based aircraft (they were used to tow or launch gunnery targets) and have been craned aboard. However, they could easily be deck launched, which may be why they are at the back of the pack.

So what's going on here? My guess was that in mid-1951, FDR was being used between its deployments to the Med to transport this collection of airplanes from somewhere (Norfolk Overhaul and Repair?) to somewhere on the east coast. They have been craned aboard and are being deck launched to get to their ultimate destinations. The Panthers are probably part of the early inflight paint-scheme evaluation accomplished before the decision was made to do an extended durability test. However, see the comments on this post for more informed opinions...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

American Military Training Aircraft

This latest book from E.R. Johnson, published by McFarland, is a comprehensive encyclopedia for aviation enthusiasts of U.S. military trainers, including gliders and helicopters. While perusing its 480 pages, you’re pretty much assured of coming across more than one aircraft of which you were previously unaware. In the event that you hear or read about a trainer with which you are unfamiliar, you’re almost certain to find a summary description of its career—however short or even non-existent—along with a data table, at least one photograph, and a multi-view drawing (by Lloyd S. Jones) of the type in this book

As a handy reference, it is a suitable companion to Johnson’s American Military Transport Aircraft Since 1925, reviewed by me here: http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2013/04/american-military-transport-aircraft.html, and United States Naval Aviation 1919-1941, http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2011/06/united-states-naval-aviation-1919-1941.html

Like Military Transport Aircraft and United States Naval Aviation, it is soft cover and there are no color pictures. It does include an appendix describing the U.S. military trainer designation systems, which changed over time. There is also a very useful glossary and a comprehensive index, which will be invaluable in a search for a particular type covered by the book.

Try as we authors might, it’s virtually impossible to have a book published without error or typo, particularly one of this extraordinary breadth. For example, I only recently realized that the T (for trainer) designation of the Grumman TF (C-1A) Trader was based on its original justification in large part as a trainer rather than being “anomalous” as Johnson reports. See http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2012/06/designation-story-redux.html. Jones’ drawing labeled as the T-37A has tip tanks that were only present on the T-37C (procured by foreign governments but not the USAF) and the A-37A and B Dragonflies, which were not trainers, per se. Hopefully these slips are few and far between. I believe that they do not detract from the overall usefulness of the book. (I was particularly pleased to note that Johnson avoided a common error by not ascribing dual controls to the Douglas A3D-2T (TA-3B).)

McFarland's website to order books is www.mcfarlandpub.com; the order line is 800-253-2187. American Military Trainers is also available from Amazon both in hardcopy and as an ebook (see www.mcfarlandpub.com/customers/ebooks for other providers).

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fitting In V

All U.S. Navy carrier-based airplanes being developed at the beginning of World War II had folding wings and there was only one exception thereafter, the A4D Skyhawk; its span was specifically limited to the maximum dimension generally acceptable for a folded airplane. See http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2012/12/fitting-in-iv.html

There were, however, airplanes with specific limitations or issues that meant they weren't always folded at all times on deck. For example, the McDonnell F2H-2 (and reportedly the -3 and -4) Banshee's wings could not be folded or unfolded with full tip tanks. As a result, they had to be spotted with the wings unfolded for fueling before flight if the tip tanks were to be filled.

In order to minimize weight, the North American AJ Savage's wings and vertical fin could only be folded after the deck crew bolted a hinge to the fold joints along with a folding device, hydraulic for the wings and manual for the vertical fin. As a result, they weren't often folded.
U.S. Navy via Greg Bishop

Although the Douglas AD Skyraider's wings could be loaded with bombs and rockets when folded, it was sometimes more convenient to arm one with the wings spread.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Carrier Landings: Visibility Over the Nose

One of the differences between a land-based airplane and a carrier-based one is the need for over-the-nose visibility down and to the left. In the beginning, it was to be able to see the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) on the approach until the cut or wave off.
Here, the LSO is either signaling high or wave off (for the signals, see http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2012/11/waving-them-aboard-lso.html

There was a more relaxed approach to the requirement when airplanes were pulled by propellers. Douglas stuck an antenna mast squarely in the pilot's line of sight to the LSO on the SBD.

When Vought moved the F4U Corsair's cockpit back in the production redesign, the loss of visibility was significant.
Pilots, however, coped by approaching the carrier in a turn, only straightening out when the LSO would stay in view.

Jets approached somewhat faster than propeller-driven fighters so a visibility requirement was instituted. It failed to take into account the extreme nose-high attitude required at slow speed by the F7U Cutlass, since it could not have flaps.
The lack of visibility was recognized early on.

Nevertheless, the Navy proceeded with at-sea trials, which were accomplished by using a side slip on a straight approach.
(The LSO is signaling high.)

As a result of the experience, a redesign of the F7U's cockpit and forward fuselage was required.

The first version was also deemed to be unacceptable, requiring another redesign of the cockpit, canopy, and radome before at-sea trials.
Douglas almost made the same mistake with its F4D but recognized it before beginning detail design. A quick and dirty modification of the mockup was evaluated.

When the Navy was forced by the delays in its fighter development programs to adapt the Air Force's F-86 to the carrier-based FJ-2 Fury, BuAer stipulated "that the angle of the approach sight line with the airplane in the static attitude not be less than 17 degrees below the horizontal with the seat in the full-up position." This required a redesign of the windscreen.
This change proved to be inadequate during the at-sea trials.
As a result, the windscreen was redesigned for production.
 In addition, the interface between the sliding canopy and the fuselage was changed. The XFJ-2 used the same sliding canopy as the F-86.
For production, the first two feet of the canopy movement was angled upward, providing for a higher seat position that did not require the pilot to duck his head when the canopy opened and closed.

This change further improved over-the-nose visibility and was continued forward to the FJ-3.

Perhaps the ultimate in over-the-nose visibility in a carrier-based fighter was achieved by McDonnell with its F3H Demon.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

New A3D/A-3 Skywarrior Monograph

If you have any interest in Whales, naval aviation, or the Vietnam War, you should buy this book. While the title seems to limit it to the Vietnam War, Rick also summarizes the airplane's origin story and post-Vietnam career. For more of what it includes and some five-star reviews by people who know what they're talking about, look it up on Amazon.