100 Years of Naval Aviation
The Navy's first pilot and 10 more milestones.
- By The Editors
- Air & Space magazine, March 2011
US Navy/Lt. Cmdr. Tam Pham
(Page 3 of 5)
2. BLUE ANGELS June 15, 1946: The Blue Angels Flight Exhibition team, named by its pilots after a Manhattan nightclub, makes its first public performance, at Craig Field in Jacksonville, Florida, in three Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats, led by Lieutenant Commander Roy “Butch” Voris. The team’s purpose was largely recruiting; despite postwar cuts in military service, the Navy needed young men—naval aviators—to staff its aircraft carriers. And the Navy wanted a bigger piece of the defense appropriations pie to build more carriers. Voris told the authors of Blue Angels: 50 Years of Precision Flight he had his own motivation: “Beat Army [Air Forces].” He choreographed flashy aerial maneuvering, reasoning: “This should give [Army] something to jump at.” In a “combat segment” of the show, the team downed a North American SNJ trainer in Japanese Zero livery.
In May, the Blue Angels had performed for Vice Admiral Frank Wagner, who would give the new team a thumbs-up or -down. Says Voris: “The admiral was there and about four or five captains, horse-holders, and so forth…in folding chairs, pretty close to the flight line. We shoot down the Zero and out goes the dummy pilot. The static cord fails, and the parachute does not open. The dummy full of sand and sawdust, chute still packed, hits about 5 feet in front of the admiral’s group. It could have killed half of them if it had hit them…. We finished the show and landed, pulled up, and got out. I knelt down on one knee in front of them because they were still seated, and the admiral was shaking his head…. I thought I was looking at a court-martial, and he said, ‘Voris, I’ve got one suggestion: Move it out a little further on the field just in case that happens again.’ ” —Patricia Trenner
3. DOUGLAS DAUNTLESS It was a mediocre airplane. Even with its pedigree—it was an early design of Douglas Aircraft brainiac Ed Heinemann, later a Collier Trophy winner—the SBD Dauntless dive bomber was sluggish enough to make its crews spend at least a few of their flight hours daydreaming about its replacement. Though historians have noted that the pilot-gunner pairs who sat back to back in the SBD were the ones deserving the label “dauntless”—for flying an unremarkable aircraft in such a way that it destroyed more enemy ships in the war than any other type—its pilots trusted it. In the shipboard humor of World War II, they changed SBD from “Scout Bomber—Douglas” to “Slow But Deadly.”
The Dauntless earned its glory at the 1942 Battle of Midway. The four Japanese carriers sunk were attacked by six different types of aircraft, including B-17s, and most of the attackers simply missed. With deadly aim, Dauntlesses dealt the fatal blows. Today there is a slight disagreement over whether the SBDs slipped in because the Japanese defenders made mistakes, or because the unlucky crews of the torpedo bombers drew the defenders away from the dive bombers that followed. One is tempted to say: Whatever. Four carriers gone. The Dauntless changed the momentum in the Pacific. —Linda Shiner
4. P-3 ORION “ ‘Adored’ would not be too strong a word to describe how most of us feel about a bird who did so much and always got us home,” says Vince Mazzola about the Lockheed P-3 Orion. Mazzola, a retired U.S. Navy pilot, flew the long-range patrol aircraft on dozens of flights over the Pacific, searching for Soviet submarines during the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
The P-3 has been flying maritime surveillance and anti-submarine warfare missions for more than 45 years. In the last decade, though, the aircraft has expanded its scope, flying general battlespace reconnaissance missions over land and sea, and providing real-time assessments of combat conditions to U.S. ground forces in Iraq.
Pilots love the P-3’s maneuverability. “You can haul it into a 60-degree angle of bank to get back to a sub contact at slow maneuver speeds,” says Mazzola, “then turn around and accelerate like a sports car to quickly dash to another contact point.” To aid in low-level flying, P-3 pilots rely on a robust autopilot, which includes a radar altimeter to precisely measure altitude and lock the aircraft at a constant setting (200 feet above the water for sub-hunting missions). Wing kit modifications will keep at least 40 P-3Cs flying well past 2019. —Diane Tedeschi
5. SUB HUNTING Whether mounted on blimps or on long-range patrol airplanes, Air to Surface Vessel (ASV) radar and Magnetic Airborne Detectors (MAD—later Magnetic Anomaly Detector) transformed naval aviation by making submarines vulnerable to aircraft. During the first years of World War II, the tenuous Allied supply line to Great Britain came under savage and sustained U-boat attack, and a desperate search for countermeasures began. British efforts at the start of the war resulted in ASV radar capable of detecting surfaced U-boats at night or in poor weather, while MAD allowed detection of submerged U-boats after 1942. Combined with intelligence from Ultra code breaking, these systems eliminated German Admiral Karl Dönitz’s submarine force as a significant threat to Allied supply lines.
The U.S. Navy assumed prime responsibility for the anti-submarine role in 1943 and began employing ASV radar on blimps and carrier-based aircraft as well as its PB4Y-1s. In early 1944, PBY-5 Catalinas of Patrol Squadron 63, equipped with magnetic detectors, closed the Straits of Gibraltar to U-boat traffic.