100 Years of Naval Aviation

The Navy’s first pilot and 10 more milestones.

(US Navy/Lt. Cmdr. Tam Pham)
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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.

Before 1943, only one in 40 U-boat sightings resulted in a sinking. As ASV radar and MAD became effective, the ratio became one sinking per four sightings. In May and June 1943, the U-boat service lost nearly 100 submarines in the Atlantic. German countermeasures like the Metox radar detector and the Schnorkel system (which allowed diesel engine operation while submerged) temporarily slowed the U-boat’s death spiral, but not before the Allies’ crucial innovations had decisively altered the course of the war. —Roger Connor, Curator, Instruments and Avionics, National Air and Space Museum

6. FIRST CARRIER LANDING To prove the concept of carrier-based aviation, someone had to confirm two possibilities: that you can land an airplane on a ship, and that you can take off from one. One pilot did both. Eugene Ely was a member of Glenn Curtiss’ exhibition team, flying a four-cylinder-engine biplane. In 1910, at the International Air Meet at Belmont Park, New York, Curtiss and Ely met Captain Washington Irving Chambers, the U.S. Navy’s point man on integrating aviation into naval operations. They discussed demonstrating an airplane taking off from a ship (the Navy had first offered the opportunity to the Wright brothers, but they said no). Chambers had a platform built on the USS Birmingham, and on November 14, while the cruiser was off the coast of Virginia, Ely took off from it. After that success, Chambers, hoping to prove a ship landing was possible, had a larger deck constructed on the cruiser Pennsylvania. Twenty-two lines of manila fiber were strung across the deck, with each line anchored by two sandbags. Ely’s airplane was fitted with steel hooks to catch in the lines.

On January 18, 1911, Ely, flying at about 40 mph, approached the Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay. His hooks missed the first 11 ropes, but caught on the next.

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