A Son and Granddaughter Deliver Long Overdue Biography of Naval Aviation’s ‘Godfather’
Frederick Trapnell Jr. had always resisted writing a biography of his father, who left little material on which to base his life’s story. As a result, the legacy of Frederick “Trap” Trapnell as one of the U.S. Navy’s pioneering aviators and its foremost test pilot had been preserved only in the archives and memories of those who served beside him, but not in print.
And yet, Trapnell Jr. and his daughter, Dana Tibbitts, knew it was a story worth telling. It just took a little prodding from friends who knew something of Trap’s story and “browbeat me into thinking this was important,” said Trapnell Jr., who alongside Tibbitts began researching and writing the book in 2010—a process that culminated this year with the publishing of “Harnessing the Sky: Frederick ‘Trap’ Trapnell, the U.S. Navy’s Aviation Pioneer, 1923-1952.”
A must-read for aviation and World War II buffs alike, the book spends a couple brief chapters reviewing both Naval Aviation’s infancy and Trapnell’s early years as a New Jersey youth before diving headlong into his career shepherding the service through one aviation advancement after another. In many ways, in telling Trapnell’s story, his son and granddaughter have also written a history of Naval Aviation.
Trapnell graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1923 and served as a line officer on two vessels before enrolling in the Navy’s flight school in 1926. Upon graduation, he flew in various squadrons aboard carrier USS Lexington (CV 2), where he distinguished himself as an outstanding pilot with a special skill in diagnosing quirks and problems in the flying characteristics of airplanes. This earned him a 1930 assignment to the Flight Test Section at Naval Air Station Anacostia in Washington, D.C., where he established himself as one of the Navy’s top test pilots, pioneering an approach to flight testing that called for the in-flight collection of quantitative data and laid the foundation for a new concept in aviation—the engineering test pilot.
Trapnell spent 19 months in the section’s five-member flight test unit before transferring to the airplane unit aboard airships USS Akron (ZRS 4) and Macon (ZRS 5). Beginning in 1932, he spent two years as an aviator aboard a heavy cruiser and then four more as the executive and commanding officer of patrol squadrons in the Pacific.
By May 1940, with the country preparing for war, the Navy was facing the cold reality that its fighter planes did not have the performance or fire power of counterparts in the German Luftwaffe or the British Royal Air Force. Needing to develop a new roster of warplanes and with little time to do so, the Bureau of Aeronautics, a precursor to Naval Air Systems Command, called Trapnell back to Anacostia to head up Flight Test and overhaul the Navy’s process for testing and evaluating new aircraft.
“They simply did not have the luxury of four years to develop the airplanes needed to win the impending war,” the book states. “Trap would have to figure out a way to streamline the process without compromising integrity, a radical change for the muscle-bound Navy culture.”
Trapnell instilled in his protégé test pilots the methods and data-driven concepts he had helped establish a decade prior. “Get the numbers” became their credo.
As the leader of Flight Test, Trapnell left his largest mark on the war in the critical role he played in developing the Navy’s two preeminent World War II-era fighters— the Chance Vought F4U Corsair and Grumman F6F Hellcat.
The Corsair was one of three fighter prototypes ordered by the Navy in the run-up to the war, and though he found none of them impressive during testing, Trapnell determined the Vought airplane was the most fit to move forward. The best performer of the group, it became the first U.S. fighter to exceed 400 mph during a speed run piloted by Trapnell in 1940. But the plane also had serious flaws including poor pilot visibility, a dangerous power-on stall, inadequate firepower, insufficient fuel capacity and, chief among Trapnell’s concerns, a dismal roll rate, which could prove lethal in combat. Vought executives doubted whether they could address every shortcoming.
“There was, they insisted, simply not enough room in the airframe to do everything the Navy was asking for,” the book states.
So, Trapnell and his team sketched out a redesign on their own, making “major alterations” that moved the cockpit to both increase fuel capacity and enhance pilot visibility and called for longer-span ailerons and shorter-length flaps to improve the roll rate. Although taken aback by the proposals, which amounted to a complete overhaul of the aircraft, Vought ultimately accepted the challenge.
Much of the redesign was a reconfiguring of the airframe’s layout, but getting the plane to roll to Trapnell’s satisfaction required a redesign of the wing and aileron. His demands ultimately proved prophetic, as they forced Vought’s engineers to make a laborious series of changes to improve the Corsair’s maneuverability.
“I don’t know whether the Navy already had advanced knowledge of the still-secretive Japanese Zero and its incredible maneuverability,” former Vought test pilot Boone Guyton wrote in a book excerpted by Trapnell Jr. and Tibbitts. “Perhaps they did—for their request was right on the mark, and timely. Later in the war, the Corsair’s maneuvering performance would receive the highest praise from fighter pilots who had their lives on the line. Its fast rate of roll, especially at extremely high speeds, was to become legendary.”
Though designed as a carrier-based aircraft, the Corsair initially proved too difficult to land aboard a ship due to the power-on stall and wheel struts that made the aircraft bounce upon a hard landing. Thus, the Corsair began its career as a land-based fighter in the Marine and Navy campaign in the Solomons before going aboard ship as a high-performance fighter in 1944. It racked up an 11-to-1 kill ratio during the war.
In 1943, the Navy turned to the Grumman F6F Hellcat to replace the Grumman F4F Wildcat in carrier air wings. The first prototype Hellcat flew in June 1942, and a production-level airplane rolled out in October.
To expedite production of the much-needed fighter rather than put the Hellcat through the Navy’s standard 6- to 8-month approval process, Grumman founder Leroy “Roy” Grumman proposed that the Navy simply allow Trapnell to personally test the aircraft and determine whether it was fit for service. Largely based on Trapnell’s reputation, the Navy agreed.
Trapnell flew and approved the Hellcat in October 1942, sending the fighter into immediate production. Four months later, the airplane was aboard USS Essex (CV 9) in the Pacific. It finished the war as the most successful fighter in Navy history, recording nearly 5,200 kills.
Trapnell left Flight Test in 1943, one month before its relocation to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. He commanded patrol wings and USS Breton (CVE 23) before serving as Rear Adm. Arthur Radford’s chief of staff for the last year of the war.
After the war, when Radford took over as the deputy chief of naval operations for air, the Navy was just beginning its transition from propeller planes to jet aircraft. The admiral needed someone to command the redubbed Naval Air Test Center (NATC) at Patuxent River and lead the way on jets, and he knew exactly who to call.
Trapnell had already become the Navy’s first jet pilot when he flew the Bell P-59A Airacomet in April 1943. His report on the flight noted that he had just witnessed the future of aviation, and of course, he turned out to be right.
Serving as the NATC’s second commanding officer from June 1946 until April 1950, Trapnell assembled a crack team of elite test pilots and successfully pushed for the establishment of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. He established the service’s requirements for its jet aircraft and insisted on personally test-flying every newly proposed prototype. He worked with the nation’s largest aircraft manufacturers in a collaborative effort that ultimately produced the Navy’s first jet fighters—the North American FJ-1 Fury, Grumman F9F Panther, McDonnell F2H-1 Banshee and the Douglas F3D-1 Skyknight.
“Trap insisted that the Navy wanted airplanes that were stable and controllable in all requisite flight regimes. He did not want hot rods that sacrificed safety for speed,” Trapnell Jr. said in an interview. “Most losses in World War II were operational, not from enemy action; he wanted to minimize these.”
Trapnell left NATC to command the big carrier USS Coral Sea (CV 43) for one year, earning the rank of rear admiral. He suffered a heart attack in April 1952 and, following an extended hospitalization, retired that September, having accumulated more than 6,200 flight hours during 5,000-plus flights in 162 different airplanes. Upon retirement, he was promoted one rank to vice admiral.
Quite the career, one whose details the authors mostly had to hunt down inside Trapnell’s flight logs and in oral histories of his colleagues filed away at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington Navy Yard, and the U.S. Naval Institute’s research library in Annapolis.
“My father left practically nothing in writing,” Trapnell Jr. said. “Like many military people in that day, he also didn’t talk about what he did. He just didn’t think his work was interesting to other people. If you tried to pin him down about it, you’d likely get a very brief answer. But he was an open conversationalist and would talk about anything else.”
Trapnell’s legacy is perhaps best related in the book’s many quotations from his colleagues. In 1994, 20 years after Trap died, retired Vice Adm. Donald Egan, who would go on to serve as director of the National Air and Space Museum from July 1996 until his death three years later, called Trapnell the “godfather of current naval aviation.”
In April 1975, a few months after his father’s death from flu complications, Trapnell Jr. received a letter from retired Adm. Arleigh Burke, former chief of naval operations and Trapnell’s classmate at the Naval Academy, who wrote, “It is unusual for any man to be universally acclaimed as being the best in his field of work, but Trapnell had the unique distinction of having the reputation of being just that—the very best flight test engineer there was.”
Though there are times when the chronology can become confusing—many of Trapnell’s career milestones occurred simultaneously—the book wonderfully weaves the narrative with technical descriptions of aircraft that even the most nescient can comprehend.
“Our intent was to write a book that just about anybody could read and enjoy, whether you’re an aviation enthusiast or not, you could still read the book and get it,” Trapnell Jr. said.
And though there comes an obvious sense of pride with writing your father’s deserved biography, Trapnell Jr. said he and Tibbitts did their best to approach the story as unbiased outsiders.
“We were trying to write a story that was worth telling, and of course I’m proud of his career, but that wasn’t the motivating factor,” he said. “The motivating factor was we found so many interesting things that nobody knew about. We just think it’s an important story.”
Jeff Newman is a staff writer and contributing editor to Naval Aviation News magazine.
‘Labor of Love’: Authors Visit Trapnell Memorial
Co-authors Frederick Trapnell Jr. and his daughter Dana Tibbitts visit the Trapnell airfield memorial Nov. 12 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. The airfield was dedicated in honor of Frederick “Trap” Trapnell in April 1976.
Trapnell’s leadership paved the way for Naval Aviation, flight test and the formal establishment of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Pax River. He was the Naval Air Test Center’s second commanding officer and assigned to Pax from June 1946 through April 1950 during a critical time in Naval Aviation as aircraft shifted from propeller to jet propulsion.
“If you and your father don’t tell the story of Trap, it will never be told,” Bill Allen, founder of the Allen Airways Flying Museum at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, California, told Tibbitts.