By Tommy H. Thomason

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Halcyon Days IV

In the summer of 1951 when this picture was taken by VF-51 squadron mate John Moore, Neil Armstrong was not yet 21 and had just been promoted to Ensign.  Air Group Five, of which VF-51 was a part, had just deployed on Essex and they were enjoying a day at the beach in Hawaii on their way to the Korean War.

Armstrong had completed four semesters of college at Purdue University, financed by the Navy under the Holloway Plan that obligated him to three years of service at that point before completing his degree. He was designated a Naval Aviator in August 1950, two weeks after his 20th birthday and two months after the start of the Korean War. Although still only a Midshipman, he had the good fortune to be assigned to VF-51 in November. The squadron was in the process of reforming with new personnel and equipment following a deployment on Valley Forge. Although jet transition units had been established to check out pilots, Neil's first flight in a jet was solo in a VF-51 F9F-2B Panther on 5 January 1951. (The Navy was more casual about training then and yet to realize that more rigor was necessary to avoid a horrendous loss of pilots and airplanes.)

Here, Midshipman Armstrong is flying F9F-2B number 116 as the wing man of Lt(jg) Ernie Russell in 107. John Moore took the picture.

Air Group Five deployed aboard Essex on 26 June 1951. The picture of young Armstrong at the beach was taken during final workups in July in Hawaii. On 29 August, little more than a year after becoming a Naval Aviator, he flew his first combat mission. Less than a week later, a cable strung between two hills as a crude antiaircraft booby trap cut off six feet of one of his wings. He managed to herd the badly damaged jet out over the water where he could eject without much risk of capture. He went on to fly a total of 78 combat missions.

Armstrong left the active Navy in the fall of 1952—although he  continued to fly in the Naval Reserve through late 1960—and returned to Purdue. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Aeronautical Engineering and joined NACA. It was a most satisfactory beginning to a storied career.

Thanks to the staff at the Emil Buehler Library at the National Naval Aviation Museum for the pictures. Many of the facts included above were taken from First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen.

1 comment:

Tony Chong said...

Nice article, Tommy.

One of the former-TRW folks I work with at Northrop Grumman is a fellow named Les Hromas. Les also went to Purdue and got his PhD there. He talks about being a teaching assistant after getting his b.s. and having Neil Armstrong in his class after Armstrong returned from Korea and resumed his studies at Purdue. Les said it was very strange teaching basic aerodynamics to a seasoned naval aviator, but Armstrong was very gracious and did all his assignments without reluctance or complaint.

Later, when Armstrong began his walk on the Moon, Les says his son likes to tell the story of how Les raced to his closet and rummaged out his grade book to see what he had given the astronaut in his class. Fortunately for Les and posterity it was an "A" grade.

Les joined TRW in 1959 and is still there part-time. He's quite an interesting guy full of great stories and is considered the unofficial TRW historian.