Naval Aviation in the Jet Age

By Dr. Gerald E. Wheeler

Between the first jet flight in October, 1942, and the spring day in May, 1948, when Commander Ralph A. Fuoss led Fighting 17 A from Quonset Point to the CVL Saipan for a day's operations, a lot of experimental work had to be done, and a lot of important questions had to be solved. While opening the gates to greater speeds and higher altitude operations, skeptics wondered whether jet aircraft would have sufficient range, load capability, and flexibility to operate at sea. Many believed it would be years before carriers could handle jets with any degree of safety; and others wrote learnedly of how high performance flight operations would now impose physical stresses on pilots beyond human endurance.

One of the earliest problems to be faced was that of slow deceleration and acceleration inherent in jets. A propeller-driven plane slows precipitately with power reduction, the engine and propeller acting as a braking device; likewise, when the throttle is "fire-walled," acceleration is rapid. As a result, the conventional carrier plane could be flown to a landing with the engine at reduced throttle, and were emergencies to occur, or a poor approach require a "wave-off," full power could be applied and another approach made. Without a propeller in front the jet has a tendency to decelerate slowly. This meant that carrier approaches up the "groove" had to be at minimum speeds with the engine developing very little thrust. Emergencies and wave-offs found early jet aircraft embarrassingly slow to respond to the throttle. Timid pilots began to add a little extra speed in the approaches, and the inevitable results were dangerously high-speed arrestments with hook losses and landing gear damage, barrier crashes, and often tragic losses in aircraft and personnel when a jet "floated" over all arresting devices and smashed into planes parked in the forward flight deck area.

Consistent with the policy to proceed slowly with the adoption of jets, and as a partial solution to the deceleration-acceleration problem, the Navy experimented with a variety of combination or "hybrid" planes with both reciprocating and jet engines. The next step was elimination of the radial engine and having the jet power a gas turbine which turned the propeller. This principle is employed by the R3Y transport, used today by the Navy for logistic support.

By the opening of the Korean War in June, 1950, the Navy had largely abandoned the idea of the combination aircraft and was concentrating on the development of pure jets and jet turbine-driven propellered planes (turbo-props). In terms of jets, naval aviators fought with the Grumman F9F Panther line and McDonnell's F2H Banshee. Both types were delivered to the Navy in the spring of 1949 and have had long and useful service careers. A third jet, the F3D, was used by the Marines. The Grumman Panther went through live early modifications, the basic change being in engine power; but in late 1952, VF-32 brought the F9F-6 Cougar to the fleet sporting a "new look." VF-32's Cougars had 35-degree swept-back wings and a speed in the 600-mph class. Capable of carrying a variety of external stores (bombs, rockets, napalm , etc.) , the Cougar was designed for combat air patrol, armed reconnaissance, flak suppression, photo, and rocket, bombing, or strafing missions. The current modification of the Cougar in the fleet is the F9F -8. Sharing honors with the Panther jets in Korean waters were the F2H-2 Banshees. These "Super Spooks" looked a lot like the earlier Phantom, but under their skins the Banshees were a quite different animal.

Before examining the latest jet additions to naval aviation, it might be well to note other developments in ships, planes, and materiel that are directly related to the use of jet aircraft by the Navy. One fact stands out among all others, and that is that aircraft size increases have had the greatest influence in forcing materiel changes on the air Navy. This increase has been the result of a constant growth in the weight of the jet engine and its thrust. Jets consume fuel at prodigious rates, especially at low altitudes, and this consumption becomes enormously greater when afterburners are used for extra thrust. Thus as engine output potential has risen, so has its weight and the need for fuel capacity in the aircraft.

Fuel and engines are not the only source of added weight in the new military jets. High speeds and high altitude operations have forced manufacturers to install a host of auxiliary equipment, all adding gross weight. Ejection seats, refrigeration and pressurization systems, armor, and control boosters of various types have become standard and necessary features. Along with these items, the ever-increasing reliance on electronics equipment to guide the aircraft, seek out targets, and control the aircraft armament has likewise resulted in more weight per plane. And finally, as planes have become weightier, "beefed-up" (and thus heavier) landing gears and stronger arresting hook units have been necessary for safe catapulting and recovery operations.

With more powerful turbojet engines and higher speeds, aircraft wing areas have decreased and the wing-loading (ratio of weight to wing area) has risen. This has meant higher landing speeds and a bevy of new questions to answer. While Air Force planes are faster and heavier, the problem of landing the planes has been met by using longer and thicker runways plus drag parachutes that are "popped" after touch-down. Quite obviously the same solutions could not be used for carrier-based aircraft; instead, changes in carriers, their equipment, and landing techniques were needed.

The aircraft carrier has been increased in size to meet the new problem of handling jet aircraft, and it promises to become larger. Before the Forrestal- class carriers were launched, increased displacement meant longer decks for aircraft launching and recovery, and greater capacity for plane storage. Today carrier aircraft launching is by catapult, and the room necessary for recovery is gained by the cleared, angled deck. Increased carrier displacement presently means more hangar deck storage space for the much larger aircraft of today, and greater jet fuel capacity for the replenishment of the carrier's planes. Greater displacement also means larger catapult and arresting gear machinery, higher capacity aircraft elevators, and strengthened flight decks to handle such planes as the 25-ton AJ Savage and the 35-ton A3D Skywarrior. It should also be added that greater carrier displacement means more powerful main propulsion machinery, increased armor, and greater cruising radius for the carrier and its escort.

Recovering naval aircraft after a mission has always been a major problem in carrier routine, and the introduction of jets did little to simplify matters. The rise in jet aircraft landing speeds, plus the growth in size of the planes, has driven home the meaning of momentum formulae-particularly when the arrestment distance is so short. A constant worry to the carrier captain, flight deck officer, and pilot has been the ever present possibility of a plane failing to engage an arresting wire, or , even worse, for the aircraft to float or leap-frog over the flight deck barriers during landing operations. To save parked planes, barriers were erected, but a high speed barrier engagement often meant "strike" damage to the plane and injury to the pilot. None of this added to the mental well-being of pilot or flight deck personnel, and the high momentum jets with tricycle landing gears made matters worse.

To meet these recovery problems, the Navy increased the capacity of its arresting gear machinery, added web barriers and barricades to the flight decks, and rebuilt the after part of the carrier flight decks to include a deck running at a 10° angle to the regular or axial flight deck. During 1952 the Antietam had such a deck installed, and during early 1953 all types of naval carrier aircraft were tested on it. The reaction was overwhelmingly in support of the angled flight deck. A pilot approaching the after ramp no longer saw a maze of barriers and parked planes ahead. By installing better arresting gear equipment, more power could be used on the approach and wave-offs were easily taken. A missed hook engagement merely meant adding full power and a second try. On night landing approaches, now routine aboard carriers, more speed in the approach meant better control. On those carriers not possessing angled decks, the danger of tricycle jets scooting under the barriers and careening into parked planes was met by the web barrier. This barrier was low enough to engage the wheels and wings of the low-slung jets as they nosed down when brakes were applied. Later 21-foot web barricades were installed to catch planes that had vaulted the barriers and to handle the tall F7U Cutlass and the AJ Savage. However, barriers and barricades have become less important as the angled deck has replaced the axial deck for recovery operations. It might be noted here parenthetically that the Marines have made great strides in using mobile arresting gear equipment (MOREST) to stop jet aircraft on runways when water or ice could lead to landing accidents.

The latest carrier installation to make jet landings safer has been the mirror landing system. Developed by the British, the mirror was tested aboard the Bennington and accepted for operational use by the Navy. Use of the mirror eliminates the long and low night approaches to the carrier stern, and shortens the pattern for day operations. By allowing a power-on approach, utilizing a constant sink-rate along a four degree approach path from 400 feet altitude, the jet pilot can approach with enough power flexibility to take a wave-off if he "loses the meatball" from the mirror, or the landing signal officer (LSO) turns on the red wave-off lights. For many carrier pilots the complete control of the landing from the cockpit, and the lessening of dependence on the LSO, has been a giant stride forward. Today mirror landings have become a part of student training, and field carrier landing practice (FCLP) in preparation for carrier qualification includes lining up the "meatball."

The size and weight of the Navy's jets have caused other changes in their handling at sea. With the new all-jet air groups operating, deck launching has become passé . To whip its new 7- to 35-ton jets into the air, the Navy adopted the British steam catapult in April, 1952. Tests aboard the Hancock proved that it was now possible to catapult jets from the carriers lying dead in the water or possibly steaming downwind. Were it possible to rig the plane, the Navy's old reliable multi-engined R5D transport could be catapulted by the "steam sling-shots" on the carriers today. The new Forrestal- class carriers have two bow catapults and two angled-deck catapults to expedite launchings. Flexibility and speed in handling jets have also been increased on the Forrestal s by the adoption of four deck-edge elevators. This permits larger unfolded wing areas on the planes, and allows direct access to the launching sites for aircraft brought up from below. Taxiing of today's jets is enormously expensive in terms of fuel consumed and minutes of radius lost to the aircraft.

Because of their enormous fuel consumption, operation of jet aircraft at sea forced the introduction of many new techniques and changes into carrier routine. When operating mixed air groups requiring aviation gasoline (avgas) and jet fuel, carriers required frequent replenishment because the jet fuel was rapidly exhausted. After the Korean War, fuel mixing devices were installed on the carriers. This allowed the jets to use a mixture of avgas and the new jet fuel, JP-5. Today, with further refinements in jet fuels and the presence of all-jet air groups, carriers can now carry mostly JP-S with just enough avgas to run the carrier's helicopters. JP-5 is rather low in volatility and flash point, therefore less protected bunkers can be used on the ships for storage. This has meant a positive increase in the aircraft fuel capacity of the carriers. Under emergency conditions, the carriers may burn JP-5 in their boilers by making a few minor adjustments.

To add radius to its jets, the Navy has turned to several in-flight refueling systems. The AJ Savage has proved to be a useful plane for shipboard operation as an aerial tanker for thirsty fighters. When high speed refueling is desired on a strike, jets can now be equipped with a "buddy refueling package." An F7U Cutlass accompanies another Cutlass with a "package" to the limit of its radius, refuels from the "package," and continues the strike while the tanker Cutlass returns. Refueling of four jets simultaneously from R3Y Tradewind tankers has also proved successful.

Not only at sea but also ashore, the addition of jets to the Navy has meant sweeping changes. In January, 1951, the Navy began organizing and building a series of master jet bases. These bases had 8,000 X 200-feet runways, were a bit removed from industrial areas, and were close to a series of satellite naval air stations that served for supply and training purposes. Naval Air Station Moffett Field with NAS Alameda as a supporting seaport base, and NAS Oceana with NAS Norfolk as a supporting base are examples of master jet bases. These master jet complexes serve as coastal defense bases and as fleet training centers for air groups ashore. A feature of the master jet bases, now becoming more common, has been the introduction of high speed refueling equipment capable of servicing at least eight jets simultaneously.

In basic training and fleet air training jets are now occupying an important role. Student training from the first day is now practicable in the new TT-1 Temco jet trainer, and complete training from the first ride through carrier qualifications is the goal for the projected North American T2J. Transitional, instruments, and advanced training in the past has been given in the old standby TV-2 "Tee-bird" and in modified Cougars, the F9F-8T. Increased deliveries of the new Lockheed T2V Seas tar will mean that advanced students and transitioning pilots can fly in a high performance carrier-suited trainer, featuring all of the latest equipment including boundary layer control, leading edge slats, ejection seats, and drag chutes when coming in ashore. To bring older officers up to date and train new commanding officers taking over jet commands, several special transitional training schools have been established at older bases.

In turning to the latest of the Navy's jets, there is a great temptation to dwell on the speed and spectacular achievements of these planes. The A3D Skywarrior did break the transcontinental round-trip speed record in March, 1957; in July, 1957, an F8U Crusader shattered the transcontinental mark by making the trip at a supersonic speed; and in October, 1955, an A4D Skyhawk piloted by Lieutenant Gordon Gray broke the closed course 500-kilometer record with a new mark of 695.163 mph; but speed is merely a part of a plane's equipment. Today, when planes are discussed around the Bureau of Aeronautics, the phrase often heard is "weapons system." This term means more than the airplane, its weapons, or its electronics system; it means all of these plus the ship or land base that supports the plane, the manufacturers that produce the spare parts, and the mission the plane is toperform. Therefore, the Navy now has jet day- and night-fighters for air superiority, standard and heavy attack bombers for attack missions, anti-submarine warfare squadrons, and giant turboprop cargo planes for fleet tactical support operations. To support these missions, carriers are being integrated into the weapons system. The fleet today has attack carriers, heavy attack carriers, anti-submarine warfare carriers, and even helicopter assault carriers. Essex-class carriers in reserve can readily become night attack or defensive carriers, and the Bureau of Ships is now at work on plans for a CVAN—an 85,000-ton nuclear-powdered carrier.

Since taking a Ph.D. in history at the University of California, Dr . Wheeler has been an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, History and Government at the U. S. Naval Academy, and is now a member of the faculty of the History Department at San Jose State College, California. During World War II be served as a N aval Aviator (Airship), an Air Navigator, and as an Assistant N avigator of the Bunker Hill (CV-17). Now a lieutenant commander in the Naval Air Reserve, he is an Aviation Technical Training Officer in reserve squadron VP-871 at NAS , Oakl a nd.

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

Wed, 2014-10-01

The 2014 Naval History Conference is hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academywith support from The William M...

Maritime Security Dialogue

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

View All

From the Press

Taped Radio Interview

Mon, 2014-09-22

Guest Speaker

Tue, 2014-09-30

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership