By Tommy H. Thomason

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Oh, Never Mind...

In 1946, both the Air Force and the Navy realized that they needed to develop long-range escort fighters to protect the strategic bombers in the next war, if it came to that. Neither service was actually successful in that regard, but the Air Force's efforts to develop parasite fighters (the McDonnell F-85) and long-range fighters (the McDonnell F-88 and Lockheed F-90) are well known and documented. Not so the Navy's. I had only heard about studies but seen nothing specific until diligent researcher Ryan Crierie found two Curtiss-Wright proposals in George Spangenberg's papers at the National Archives.

I'm still a little fuzzy on the details, but it appears that the Navy issued OS-112 to define the requirements for a carrier-based fighter to accompany its planned force of long-range, carrier-based, atomic bombers. The most significant number was the combat radius: 1,200 nautical miles, roughly twice that of existing carrier-based fighters. As envisioned by Curtiss-Wright, it was to be a big airplane with a four-man crew. The armament consisted of a forward and aft facing radar-directed turrets. The large pods on the wing tips were not fuel tanks, but housed search radars, one covering the upper hemisphere and the other the lower. (An alternate approach had one covering the right hemisphere and the other the left.)

The crew consisted of a pilot and copilot and two gunners, one facing aft and one forward across from each other in a compartment aft of the cockpit. Presumably the copilot was there as a relief pilot, since the mission time was over six hours for the jet version and almost eight hours for the turboprop. (As it happened, all the Navy's strategic bombers were single-piloted, with the crew consisting of a bombardier and a third man whose duties varied over time and with the aircraft type.)

The artist's concept above is the Curtiss Wright 551, which was powered by four Westinghouse J46 engines with afterburners and had a takeoff gross weight of 68,500 pounds. The turboprop version, the 538, was powered by two Allison T40s and only weighed 51,000 pounds. By way of comparison, the biggest Navy carrier-based jet fighter at the time, the Douglas two-seat F3D Skynight, weighed about half that and had a combat range, not radius, of 1,200 nautical miles. (It was actually used to escort Air Force B-29s on night missions during the Korean War.)

The operational concept appears to have been that the crew of the escort "fighter" would detect the approaching enemy interceptors with its search radars, get into position to block them from approaching the bombers, and shoot them down when they came within range of either the forward or aft turrets.

After a review of the proposals and a rethink, the Navy decided to send its bombers out on their own, protected only by speed in the case of the AJ Savage, the placeholder for the A2J and A3D that were both designed with tail turrets.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

What does the "V" stand for?

If you look closely at the above picture (click on it to make it bigger), you'll note that the KA-6D tanker is assigned to squadron VA-165 and the F-4J, VF-96. The A is short for Attack and the F, Fighter. So what's with the V?

The V means that it's a fixed-wing heavier-than-air squadron (as opposed to H for a rotary wing, i.e. helicopter, heavier-than-air squadron). Why V? It turns out that not even the Navy knows for sure, although its historians think it might have represented volplane, a French word for an aircraft sustained in the air by lifting surfaces as opposed to a bag of a gas that is lighter than air. In the beginning, since the usage predates helicopters by more than 20 years, it stood for heavier-than-air, period, with the designation for lighter-than-air being Z. It seems very likely that the Z is based on Zeppelin, the name of the Count who pioneered rigid airships before World War I, although the Navy applied it to non-rigid as well as rigid airships. See:

My understanding is that the designations first appeared in General Order No. 541 (see approved by the Secretary of the Navy on 17 July 1920. It provided two-letter (and in some cases, three-letter) designations for all the Navy's ships and airplanes. The first letter of the ship designation was its basic type, e.g. battleship, cruiser, destroyer, submarine, etc. The second letter was a modifier as to class within that type, e.g. a light cruiser was designated CL and a battle cruiser, CC. The aircraft carrier, the first of which was in the process of being converted from a collier (AC), was considered to be a type of cruiser, probably by default since it resembled any of the other six types even less. For some reason, an ordinary cruiser was a CA, which eliminated the use of A for aeroplane for the aircraft carrier, which was designated CV. Almost every letter in the alphabet was used for the second letter in the various designations, most being logical like SF for Fleet Submarine. V, whether for volplane or not, was probably as good as any other letter available once A was not.

Heavier-than-air airplane designations were to begin with V as well, with the secondary letters been F for fighting, O for observation, S for scouting, P for patrol, and T for torpedo and bombing. As it turned out, however, the V system was used to designate squadrons as shown above rather than airplane types, whereas ships were identified by the two-letter designation and sequential numbers, e.g. CV-1 was Langley, CV-2 was Lexington, and so forth.

Your guess is as good as mine as to why a battle cruiser wasn't a CB and an ordinary cruiser a CC (a battleship was a BB, a destroyer a DD, and a submarine an SS, for example), making CA available for the aircraft carrier. Better, actually, since I don't have one...