Elmer Fudd's Flying Cousin
Late in World War II, the U.S. Navy began developing airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, primarily to help defeat Japanese kamikaze attacks against the Pacific Fleet. The first of the new breed were carrier-based TBM-3W Avengers and land-based PB-1W Flying Fortresses (the latter modifications of the Army Air Forces B-17G).
These airplanes had major operational limitations, especially the TBM-3W with its restricted cockpit space and the performance penalties imposed by the large AN/APS-20 radar. The subsequent AEW versions of the Douglas AD Skyraider—fitted with the same radar—provided improved performance and carrier capability, but their effectiveness was still restricted.
It fell to the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp., the major producer of World War II-era U.S. carrier planes, to provide a realistic solution to the problem. In 1951 both the Grumman and Vought firms sought to develop an AEW aircraft based on their proposals for an antisubmarine aircraft, the XS2F-1 and XS2U-1, respectively.1 The Grumman-proposed XWF-1 was to be a development of the S2F Tracker design, with minor changes and a large radome for the ubiquitous AN/APS-20A radar to be mounted on a pylon above the fuselage. (All previous AEW aircraft had the radome beneath the fuselage.)
The Navy ordered two prototypes of the XWF-1, and a partial mockup was built. But interest waned and the project was halted in 1953 while AD-4W and AD-5W Skyraiders filled the AEW role on U.S. and British carriers.
After a lapse of two years, Grumman again proposed a carrier-based AEW aircraft. Its interest was renewed by avionics engineer Samuel Rogers and aerodynamic engineer Joseph Lippert Jr. seeking ways to install the new Hazeltine search radar in a carrier plane.2 Progress was rapid, and by 1956 the Grumman TF-1 Trader had replaced the S2F as the airframe for the AEW proposal. Although based on the S2F design, the TF-1 variant had a larger fuselage, being designed to carry nine passengers or 3,500 pounds of cargo, primarily spare parts and airplane engines, in the carrier on-board delivery (COD) role. The new radar—given the military designation AN/APS-82—was to be housed in a parasol radome atop the fuselage, and the S2F/TF single vertical fin was replaced by a twin-tail configuration.
The Navy took delivery of 82 TF-1s; another four of the planes were completed to a TF-1Q electronic countermeasures configuration, and a fifth became the aerodynamic prototype for the WF-2 Tracer. The last, designated TF-1W, first flew on 17 December 1956.
The TF-1W test flights proved the feasibility of the parasol radome concept. However, the Navy proceeded cautiously and slowly, and the first of an initial order of 40 aircraft did not fly until 1 March 1958. Beyond the improved radar surveillance provided by the Tracer's Hazeltine AN/APS-82 radar in comparison to the earlier AN/APS-20, the plane had advanced identification friend or foe (IFF) to quickly segregate friendly and enemy aircraft; the Bellhop system, which could relay its radar presentation to surface ships; and Autocat, which relayed communications between widely dispersed surface ships. Flown by a four-man crew—pilot, copilot, and two radar operators—the WF-2 had on-station time in excess of five hours.
A total of 88 WF-2s were produced by Grumman, the first entering service with AEW Squadron (VAW) 12 in November 1959. Four-plane detachments were assigned to attack carriers, and subsequently, the Tracers also replaced the AD-5W Skyraiders on board antisubmarine (ASW) carriers. These planes greatly increased the Fleet's capabilities, both for offensive and defensive operations. The last of the production WF-2s was delivered in September 1961.
In the tradition of naval aviation, the plane was rarely referred to as its assigned and apropos name, Tracer, but as the "Willie Fudd," derived from its WF designation.3 The name "Fudd" was based on the widely known Looney Tunes cartoon character Elmer J. Fudd. Although only superficially resembling the S2F Tracker, the AEW aircraft was also called a "stoof with a roof," a reference to its large overhead radome.
Even as the first WF-2/E-1 entered service, it was known that the plane was but an interim AEW platform pending delivery of the more-capable Grumman W2F (later E-2) Hawkeye. The newer plane joined the Fleet in 1964, with the Tracer continuing to fly from attack carriers for several more years as well as from the antisubmarine carriers of the modernized Essex (CV-9) series. Although initial Navy requirements directed that the E-2 be capable of operating from modernized Essex-class ships, the cost as well as the plane's size prohibited it being used on board the smaller carriers. The E-1B had a wing span of 72 feet, 4 inches and a length of 45 feet, 4 inches; the E-2's wing span is 80 feet, 7 inches and length is 56 feet, 4 inches. Thus the Essex attack carriers as well as ASW carriers continued to use the E-1B Tracer.
The last Willie Fudd detachment operated on board the Oriskany (CV-34) in 1976, and the last E-1 was formally retired from the Navy late in 1977, being "piped over the side" from reserve squadron VAW-78 at Norfolk, Virginia. Official Navy records show the aircraft in inventory until March 1978.
J. Francillon, Grumman Aircraft since 1929 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), pp. 401-405, 554-556.
2. Ibid., p. 401.
3. On 1 October 1962, the WF-2 designator was changed to E-1B, the first airplane in the new, joint designation series for U.S. electronic aircraft. At the same time the TF-1 became the C-1A and the TF-1Q the EC-1A.