By Tommy H. Thomason

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Truculent(?) Turtle

An acquaintance recently asked me why the Lockheed P2V-1 Neptune that set a distance record in late 1946 was called the Truculent Turtle when the name on its nose was just "The Turtle". Moreover, the cartoon character on the nose, a turtle smoking a pipe and pedaling the propeller-driven equivalent of a unicycle, was anything but truculent.

In many places (copies of the Wikipedia entry), the interweb incorrectly states that "With time, the aircraft has come to be called 'Truculent Turtle'..." In fact, in press releases before the flight, the Navy was already referring to it as The Truculent Turtle as evidenced by a New York Times article dated the day that the flight began.

The name The Turtle and the cartoon character doubtless originated with the Navy/Lockheed plan, "Operation Turtle," to counter the publicity being garnered by the Army Air Force with long-range B-29 StratoFortress flights, one setting the long-distance record in November 1945. The Navy was concerned that the President and Congress might well overvalue the Army's ability to deliver the newly demonstrated atomic bomb and underfund the Navy's ship and airplane programs. "Turtle" was probably used by the engineers in recognition of the fact that the maximum-range cruise speed of a propeller-driven airplane, even high performance fighters, is slower than most people would think, only about 150 knots or 170 mph. They can cruise at higher speeds, of course, but not go as far.

The addition of Truculent was probably belated recognition that The Turtle did not convey the impression of long-range weapon delivery capability that the Navy wished to make with this record-setting flight even though this was not its stated purpose.

It was, no question, a publicity stunt. Few if any airplanes were as modified for speed records as The Turtle was for the distance record. Lockheed removed as much equipment as possible to minimize the empty weight and parasite drag and then added as many fuel tanks as there was space available until the aircraft gross weight was almost 50% greater than the maximum allowed operationally. In addition to new tip tanks, there were additional tanks in the outboard wing panels, the forward fuselage, and the aft fuselage. The standard internal fuel capacity of the P2V-1, not counting auxiliary tanks in the bomb bay, was 2,350 gallons. The Turtle's fuel capacity, including bomb bay tanks, was 8,541 gallons, well over than three times more.

Hal Andrews collection via Jim Sullivan (The lower radome was removed prior to the record flight and the tip tanks were  dropped when empty.)

In order to accommodate an engine failure shortly after takeoff, a fuel jettison capability was developed to fairly quickly reduce the airplane's weight. The tip tanks were simply dropped. The fuselage tanks were ganged to a dump station manned by one of the relief pilots during the takeoff. In theory, once the P2V had climbed to 1,000 feet above the ground, he could empty those tanks while maintaining the center of gravity within an acceptable range and thereby reduce the gross weight to that permitting a climb before they lost more than 800 feet.

Even a new, well-broken-in piston engine burns oil. The engine oil capacity was therefore increased by 64 gallons. The oil in the tank added in the nose wheel well was pumped manually as required to one or the other of the standard 78-gallon tanks located in each engine nacelle.

Four JATO bottles were added for the takeoff. These minimized both the length of the takeoff roll and the time it would take to reach the minimum single-engine control speed. Another change was the substitution of heavier duty main landing gear tires because of the higher takeoff speed required at the higher gross weight. The resulting takeoff roll was 4,700 feet on a 6,000-foot long runway. (The normal takeoff distance was less than half that.)

JATO Takeoff Test at Lockheed Burbank

The takeoff from Perth, on the west coast of Australia, was made at dusk local time. One reason given was the desire to begin at night to allow celestial navigation. However, as plane commander CDR Thomas D. Davies admitted to the press before takeoff, a far more important consideration was minimization of the level of turbulence likely to be encountered. At its design gross weight of 54,000 pounds, the P2V was designed for a limit load factor of 2.6. At a takeoff weight of 85,500 pounds, the structure was theoretically capable of being loaded to only 1.64 gs before being damaged. Of course, catastrophic failure of the structure was not supposed to occur before a 50% higher load was encountered, with the likelihood that it would sustain even more than that, but it was best to avoid turbulent conditions until some fuel had been burned off.

It would take almost 60 hours to burn this much fuel at the maximum range cruise speed. To reduce weight, the crew therefore consisted of only four pilots instead of the regular crew of eight, with two resting and two flying at any given time. The flight was not uneventful. The crew had to deal with bad weather crossing the equator northeast of Australia, turbulence and icing in the western US, and unexpected headwinds. The stated destination prior to takeoff was Seattle, Washington*, which would have set the record, but it seems clear that they intended to fly as far as they could, preferably all the way to Washington, D.C. However, after reviewing their fuel status and approaching Columbus, Ohio they prudently decided to land there after 55 hours in the air rather than pressing on to Anacostia where officials and family were waiting. That would set the record at 11,236 statue miles, almost halfway around the world.
New York Times

The flight had the hoped-for impact and specific comparison with the Army Air Force B-29 flights. On 2 October 1946, a New York Times editorial stated "The 7,916-mile record that it shattered was that made by the Army's Boeing Super-Fortress Dreamboat. A plane like the P2V can carry an atomic warhead from any point on the earth's surface to a point half-way round the globe."

Of course, the Times neglected to note that delivering a bomb to a target 12,000 miles away would be a one-way trip for a P2V, it couldn't be a very big bomb (the crew debated the last-minute addition of a 37-pound kangaroo), and the enemy would have a couple of days to get ready to greet it...

*Seattle, Washington was on the great circle route to Washington, D.C. as shown here.
The great circle route is the shortest distance between two points on the globe, which does not appear as a straight line here because it is the depiction of the globe with a Mercator projection. However, winds aloft might (and did) dictate a deviation from this line, which on a long flight is established by a concept called pressure pattern flying (feel free to Google that). Moreover, the reported weather in Seattle dictated a mid-flight deviation to the south as shown on the map of the actual route of flight.


john said...

does the route straighten out when applied to a sphere?

Tailspin said...

Good question to which the answer is yes - also see my footnote addition to the entry.

joseph scarlott said...

As a boy, I remember the Truculent Turtle guarding one of the main approach roads to NAS Norfolk,Virginia.The nose art had been changed to reflect a Tougher looking, more truculent turtle. It was there for many years,and served as one of the most well known landmarks in the city.

al baer said...

While in the Navy my father was once a crew member on the 'Turtle'. He also spent 22 years in the Air Force and one of the bases we were stationed on ws Langley AFb in Hampton. It was realy neat as kid to go and see the plane at the Norfolk Naval Air Museum. I had hopes of seeing it this summer on a trip there, but will have to plan a trip to Florida.

Cy Stapleton said...

My late father was in the OSS and for a short time he was stationed in DC and we lived in Silver Springs, MD. Our next door neighbor was a Navy pilot and pilot of the Truculent Turtle.

Walter Neumann said...

I was on the USS Rehoboth sent to Australia to prepare for the flight. I was one of the radiomen who copied code weather broadcasts for over a month before the flight to determine the flight path. I have the flight cover & letter in it which I sent to my parents. It was postmarked on the ship, just before Perth Australia take-off and right after landing in Columbus Ohio.

Walter Neumann

Walter Neumann said...

Additional comments referring to the website article. With regard to “Turtle” or “Truculent Turtle“. On website VPNAVY & going to "stories" you will find a picture of my flight cover on the P2V Turtle and my letter to my parents. Note, on the flight cover made only had “Turtle” on it. I do not remember hearing Truculent until later. In the letter to my parents I stated Seattle as the destination although we were told it would go as far as the fuel that it took off with permitted. There were about 200 triple postmarked covers on the flight, one allowed by each of us involved in the preparation of the flight. Also on the stated website is a clipping I had from The Dallas Morning News about it now Flying High at Pensacola Museum. The paper clipping had said a reason for the flight, quote “The Army Air Force was mounting a push in Congress to obtain control of all land-based air operations and the Navy needed some PR to counter it. On the stated website is also what was in the Tampa Tribune 48 years after the flight “History Takes Flight” It is a great memory for this ex-sailor who copied a couple hundred hours of coded weather broadcasts the aerographers used to make weather maps for preparation of the flight 67 years ago.

Walter Neumann

Bob said...

In 1960 my friend Johnny and I being 12 at the time use to go to the Norfolk Naval Base and tour ships open on weekends. Well.... we were always up to something one day we went to the corner of the perimeter of the base where the Turtle was parked. Would you believe the wooden doors in the belly of the plane opened up when pushed. We were in..... in seconds. The interior, to include the cockpit was covered in pigeon droppings. The smell was intense since the plane had been static for a long time. But we can say we went inside that famous plane. Also, the vertical "Pogo Plane" was on static display on NAS at the same time.