By Tommy H. Thomason

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Project Steam

The superiority of airplanes powered by jet engines was bad news for the carrier navy. Jets required a lot of fuel, which meant bigger and heavier airplanes, and didn't provide much thrust at low speeds. Both dictated the need for a more powerful catapult.  Unfortunately, the hydraulic catapult was pretty much at the top end of its capability. The U.S. Navy had evaluated a German design for a hydrogen peroxide powered catapult (it was used to launch the V-1 pulse-jet surface-to-surface missile) using both hydrogen peroxide and steam but dropped it in favor of developing one that used gun powder. An explosive charge had been used to launch seaplanes from cruisers and battleships since 1925 and was projected to be the simpler and require less space and weight.

Just in time, Colin Mitchell perfected the steam catapult. See After a demonstration, the Navy immediately bought five, one for test at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and two each for Hancock and Ticonderoga. Hancock was completed first, recommissioned on 15 February 1954, and so it was that only a few months later, in June, she sailed out into the Pacific waters off San Diego in support of Project Steam, an at-sea evaluation of its new catapults.

There was no question that the steam catapult was superior in throw weight.  The question was the compatibility of jet engines with the steam catapult among other operational issues. So the Navy gathered up samples of the newest versions of carrier-capable aircraft they had and launched them from Hancock, including sending a couple of F7U-3s cross country from Patuxent River.
(Photo by Maurice Duke)
Many of the test subjects, however, were from West coast squadrons, flown by fleet pilots, not NATC pilots. Although FJ-2s were assigned to the Marines and almost never deployed on aircraft carriers, this VMF-235 Fury could be considered a stand-in for the FJ-3, which was to be assigned to Navy fighter squadrons:
(Photo by Maurice Duke)
The F9F-6 was evaluated as well.

Similarly, although F3Ds only rarely deployed on aircraft carriers, this VX-4 F3D-2M carrying four Sparrow I missiles made for a relatively heavy test subject:

Propeller-driven airplanes were included in addition to the jets. An NATC Flight Test S2F (note that the catapult pendant has been tied on so as to minimize the number required and shorten the time to hook up for the next launch):
(Photo by Maurice Duke)
Other aircraft launched included the AD-5 and F2H-3/4.

And just recently, duh, I discovered that AJ Savages were also part of the trials, albeit later in the year (this picture was dated 28 September 1954):

The trials were extremely successful. One of the significant attributes of the steam catapult was that it provided acceleration for most of its stroke and there was little snatch load at the beginning of the stoke, making for a much more comfortable launch. This was particularly appreciated at night.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would like to tell about my uncle
Lt Cmdr L W Erickson. He was the first to ever be shot off an American carrier with the steam catapult. He was involved with Project Steam flying the AD Skyraider. We have a picture of him just leaving the carrier. He had his hands full. Quite a story, if you want to hear more let me know