Grampaw Pettibone: A Crosswind Battle

Illustrations by Ted Wilbur.

An F/A-18 Hornet crew launched as part of a multi-aircraft flight from a strategic expeditionary landing facility to take part in a combined-arms exercise. Prior to launch, the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) included a wind warning for wind gusts of up to 25 knots at 50 degrees from runway heading. During takeoff both the pilot and weapon systems officer noted a significant crosswind.

The mission went as planned and the flight set up to return to the landing facility. A few minutes prior to landing, the flight lead checked ATIS. Winds were still reported in a crosswind, this time with gusts up to 40 knots. The mishap pilot did not recall hearing the flight lead pass the ATIS information to the rest of the flight.

The flight had pre-briefed a battle break of 450 knots at 1,000 feet. The actual speed at the break was 30 knots faster and the break was executed just past the approach end numbers. The mishap pilot had to wait until the 45 degree position to lower the gear and flaps because of the aircraft’s excessive speed. Fighting an overshooting crosswind, the aircraft touched down more than 40 knots fast and 2,000 feet past the intended landing point.

The mishap pilot felt that the aircraft was not slowing normally and added power with the intent of executing a go-around, but did not feel the amount of acceleration he expected and decided to attempt a long field arrestment. The hook missed the long field gear and the aircraft left the end of the runway. After jumping the first of a series of berms at the end of the runway, the pilot called for ejection.

The pilot ejected successfully. The weapon systems officer died as a result of injuries sustained during the ejection.

The mishap investigation showed the crosswind was very slightly over the F/A-18 NATOPS crosswind landing limit. In addition, at the time of the mishap all aircraft in the flight had sufficient fuel either to hold or Bingo to one of two suitable airfields.

GramPaw Pettibone saysGrampaw Pettibone said:

Kids, I’m gonna say this right up front. I know that pilot will carry a heavy load for the rest of his life. I’m not trying to pick on a fellow aviator, but I am going to ask you to take a look-see with me and find out how we could have averted this tragedy. If we ain’t gonna collectively learn from our mistakes, then shoot, I’ll hang up my spurs and, as that punch drunk fighter once said, “Fade off into Bolivian.”!

These aviators came rippin’ into the break and must have put on a good show—but durnit, this wasn’t showtime. The conditions were challenging and these fellas were behind their jet. There is really only one thing to do in that situation—WAVE OFF! Trying to salvage an unsalvageable situation is like selling your mule to buy a plow; it just don’t make sense!

Look kids, Gramps knows how it goes. We think a waveoff is a sign of weakness, a minor failure in a profession that doesn’t suffer any amount of failure well. What’s the first thing a naval aviator does after he trips and falls? He looks around to see who saw it happen. We don’t like to look bad, it ain’t in our nature. I understand not wanting to admit you ain’t gonna make it this time. Shoot, why do you think we have LSOs on the ship? (It ain’t just for the comedy!)

My poncho is a little puffed at the flight lead too—why didn’t he convey the seriousness of the situation he was about to lead his wingies into? Was there even a discussion about how much crosswind there was? Did these intrepid aviators have any idea what they were getting into? They had the gas to hold or Bingo and come back, so why the rush? I’ve said it before: flight leads need to LEAD!!

So look here kids. We all make mistakes, and every once in a while we even get a do-over on our mistakes. Make a school circle kids, and learn a lesson. Waveoffs are free. Don’t be afraid to use one every once in a while! Whether it is a “can do” attitude or just pride that is motivating you, don’t give in and try to make a bad approach into a good one. Add the juice, wave off, assess what you did wrong last time, and fix it.

Now you kids go on back outside and play, Gramps is gonna go sharpen his knife.

Vintage Shootdown: Fast Eagle 102 and 107 Splash Two over the Gulf of Sidra

By Lt. Graham C. Scarbro, USN.

Lt. Lawrence Muczynski and Lt. j.g. James Anderson in Fast Eagle 107 shoot down a Libyan Su-22 Fitter on 19 August 1981. (“Air Battle over the Gulf of Sidra,” Copyright John W. Clark)

As U.S. combat aircraft went into harm’s way during March’s Operation Odyssey Dawn in support of U.N. Resolution 1973, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps again locked horns with longtime Libyan strongman, Moammar Gadhafi. The more than two-centuries-old relationship between the United States and Libya has long been punctuated by moments of unfortunate conflict. In the opening years of the 19th century, the young U.S. Navy battled the Barbary state of Tripoli to stop the holding of American ships and seamen for ransom. In the 1980s, several incidents in the air and at sea involved renewed efforts by the United States to assert the freedom of navigation and punish Libya for its support of terrorism. One of those incidents marks its 30th anniversary this year.

In August 1981, two American aircraft carriers, USS Forrestal (CV 59) and USS Nimitz (CV 68), patrolled the Gulf of Sidra—claimed in its entirety by Gadhafi. Proclaiming that moving into the gulf would constitute crossing a “line of death,” the Libyan dictator began a dangerous game with America’s new president, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan ordered Forrestal and Nimitz to enforce the American doctrine of freedom of navigation. The “line of death” was far in excess of the traditional territorial waters recognized by international law. On 19 August 1981, that belief would be put to the test when two Nimitz F-14A Tomcats from the VF-41 Black Aces intercepted two Libyan Su-22 Fitters. The U.S. aircraft, “Fast Eagle 102” and “Fast Eagle 107,” were fired on by the Libyans, turning what had been a game of cat and mouse into a deadly encounter.

The aviators on that fateful day were the squadron’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Hank Kleeman, and his radar intercept officer, Lt. David Venlet, in Fast Eagle 102, and Lt. Lawrence Muczynski and Lt. j.g. James Anderson in Fast Eagle 107.

Kleeman and Venlet fired first, successfully splashing their target. The junior aviators in 107 radioed their skipper, asking for permission to fire. “That’s affirm[ative],” came the reply. Muczynski’s next words were “Fox 2,” as a Sidewinder missile streaked toward the second bandit. “Did you get him?” the skipper calmly queried his wingman. “Yes, sir, I did,” Muczynski responded.1

Kleeman informed Nimitz’s radar controllers that they had scored “two enemy kills.” It was the Navy’s first air-to-air engagement since the Vietnam War and the first air-to-air victory for the F-14 Tomcat.

A few months after the incident, Kleeman reflected on what he and his fellow aviators had accomplished. “People are very ready to call somebody a hero,” he said. “What we did was the mission of the airplane. Its only mission is to shoot down other airplanes.”2

Three sailors from VFA-41 (from left to right, AM2 Rachel Verwys, AM2 Daniel Price, and AMAN Keith Griego) gave the F-14 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum a new coat of paint in preparation for a number of anniversaries in 2011. The aircraft, BuNo 162592, is painted to look like 160403, the F-14 flown by Cmdr. Henry Kleeman and Lt. David Venlet. (Photos by John Lehne)

Twenty-four years after the F-14’s first dogfight, the historic moment was enshrined at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif. When the F-14 was retired from active service, one was donated to the library and repainted as Fast Eagle 102, complete with a Su-22 silhouette and the names of Kleeman (who, sadly, was killed in a flight mishap in 1985) and Venlet (now a vice admiral and program executive officer for the F-35 program) on the canopy. The original paint job was later complemented by the addition of the AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-9 Sidewinder, and AIM-54 Phoenix missiles to the aircraft.

2011 is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Ronald Reagan as well as of Naval Aviation. In preparation for these multiple milestones, the aircraft received a fresh coat of paint in fall 2010. Led by the squadron’s corrosion control specialist, AM2 Daniel Price, a team of Sailors from VFA-41 worked long hours stripping, sanding, and repainting the F-14 with a new, durable coat of paint to help it weather the elements. The team also included AM2 Rachael Verwys and AMAN Keith Griego.

Lt. Scarbro is an instructor weapon systems officer with VFA-122 and is a former weapons tactics officer with VFA-41.

1 Mike Sasser, “Clash With Kadaffi,” http://home.flash.net/~treadwaj/HardCharger/Clash.htm.
2 Chicago Tribune, 1 Mar. 1982, p. 18.

The Corps Goes Vertical with The Harrier

By Ben Kristy.

An AV-8B Harrier II with the VMA-513 Nightmares lands aboard USS Essex (LHD 2). The Harrier celebrates 40 years of service in 2011. The Nightmares were the first squadron to receive the aircraft in 1971. (Photo by MC3 Gabriel S. Weber)

January 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) tactical aviation in the United States—four decades since the Marine Corps received its first AV-8A Harriers and inaugurated a new age of U.S. Naval Aviation. Today, the AV-8B Harrier II remains one of Marine Corps aviation’s primary weapons and the only V/STOL attack aircraft ever fielded by the U.S. military. As the Corps awaits the arrival of its third generation V/STOL aircraft—the F-35B Lighting II—the story of how this technology came to be such a crucial part of Marine aviation is all the more remarkable.

Between 1946 and 1956, the Marine Corps reorganized to meet the challenges of amphibious warfare in the atomic age. World War II-style amphibious operations, which were supported by numerous ships anchored closely off shore, appeared to be no longer possible against a foe possessing atomic weapons. Amphibious landings would now depend on the Corps’ ability to disembark troops from ships dispersed over the horizon from the targeted beachhead. The Marine Corps altered its divisional table of organization, making the force lighter and more easily transportable by sea, air, and land by stripping away most of its heavy weapons. The helicopter, itself a new technology at the time, provided the means of delivering and resupplying the initial wave of troops.

The integrated use of Marine close air support would make up for the loss of organic firepower. Thus, the Marines needed a tactical attack aircraft that could be based as close to the front lines as possible. It was against this background that in 1957 Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Randolph McCall Pate committed the service to fielding a fleet of V/STOL aircraft. Unfortunately, there were no such aircraft available at that time. American aircraft manufacturers spent millions of dollars attempting to develop functioning V/STOL aircraft between 1946 and the early 1960s, but no projects progressed beyond the technology demonstration stage.

In the United Kingdom, however, Hawker Siddeley was working on a revolutionary aircraft that showed promise—the XV-6A Kestrel. The Kestrel was much closer to being an operational tactical aircraft than anything produced by the American aviation industry. The Army, Air Force, and Navy all expressed some initial interest in the Kestrel, which was extensively tested in the early 1960s in the United States. Interest in the XV-6A waned, however, following the flight tests primarily because the aircraft was limited to subsonic speeds.

In 1966, Gen. Keith McCutcheon, the Corps’ leading expert on close air support, served as the Deputy Chief of Staff, Air. McCutcheon had developed the close air support tactics and procedures that allowed Marine aviation to support Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces in the Philippines during World War II. He later became an early helicopter advocate, helping to craft the vertical assault doctrine while commanding both HMX-1, the Corps’ first helicopter squadron, and HMR-161 during the Korean War. Working for McCutcheon was Col. Thomas Miller Jr., who had his own formidable list of credentials including combat missions in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Miller headed the Air Weapons Requirement Branch and was responsible for finding aircraft suitable for Marine Corps operations.

Miller was not impressed with the Royal Air Force’s new GR MK-1 Harrier—the operational aircraft developed from the Kestrel—because its 19,500-lb.-thrust Pegasus MK- 101 engine did not offer the Marine Corps enough of a performance advantage over the Douglas A-4 Skyhawks already in service. Miller’s interest in the aircraft increased, however, after learning that the next generation Pegasus engine offered 2,000 additional pounds of thrust—all of which could be converted directly into carrying more ordnance.

Miller worked with Hawker Siddeley to arrange for a series of flight tests in England, but did so carefully to avoid upsetting Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) and Congress, and used his attendance at the 1968 Farnborough Air Show as a cover story. Miller, Lt. Col. Clarence ‘Bud’ Baker, and Brig. Gen. W.G. Johnson visited Farnborough in civilian clothes so as not to arouse suspicion from the ever-present trade press. After the close of the air show, Miller and Baker completed 20 flights in the Harrier.

They were delighted with the aircraft, and told McCutcheon that the Harrier was the V/STOL aircraft the Marines had long desired. After Miller and McCutcheon briefed and received approval from Chapman, McCutcheon created a small team comprised of himself, Miller, Baker, and Ed Harper (the program manager for the A-4) to begin the process of formulating a change to the Corps’ FY1970 budget request for the purchase of an initial batch of 12 Harriers. The challenge was to convince NAVAIR, the Pentagon, and Congress to purchase an unproven first-generation revolutionary aircraft, of foreign design, that was undesired by the Navy.

McCutcheon and Miller’s team initiated a period of public and private briefings to justify the Corps’ purchase of the Harrier. Miller gained the support of the aircraft procurement sub-section of the President’s advisory committee. Other committee members helped to deflect opposition to the Harrier in various quarters of the Defense Department. The Navy agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to support the purchase on the condition that the Marine Corps would not ask for additional funding to pay for the aircraft. The Corps canceled the purchase of 17 McDonnell Douglas F-4Js to free up the required $57.6 million for the first production batch of Harriers.

Miller and Baker gained the support of the major American aircraft manufacturers with the promise that after the initial batch of British-produced aircraft the rest of the Marine Harriers would be produced under license in the United States. Miller used his relationship with the head of McDonnell Douglas, Sandy McDonnell, and the founder of the company, James McDonnell, to convince the aviation industry giant that the Harrier was good for both the Marine Corps and the American aviation industry. Congressional hearings on the Corps’ acquisition of the Harrier began in March 1969, leading to the purchase of the initial batch of 12 AV-8A Harriers. The remaining aircraft would be manufactured in the United States.

In the winter of 1976-1977, 14 VMA-231 AV-8As deployed aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV 42) to test the ability of a V/STOL aircraft to operate as part of a full carrier air wing. The tests showed the Harrier was fully capable of operating alongside non-V/STOL aircraft. (Photo from National Marine Corps Museum)

Hawker Siddeley selected McDonnell Douglas, which was completing production on the similarly sized A-4 Skyhawk, as its future production partner. The estimated costs of establishing a Harrier assembly line in America were prohibitive, however, and would have added at least an additional year to the procurement schedule. Congress dropped the requirement for the Harrier to be produced domestically; the entire production run of 110 AV-8As and their engines were produced in the United Kingdom. After hearings in fall 1971 on the relative merits of the Army, Air Force, and Marine methodology of conducting close air support, the Senate Armed Services Committee threatened to cut off funding for the Harrier program at 60 aircraft. Once again, Marine political prowess paid off and full funding for the entire AV-8A fleet was secured in the FY1973 budget.

The first AV-8As were officially accepted by the Marine Corps in January 1971, with VMA-513 beginning flight operations that April. Operational tests at Camp Lejeune and aboard USS Guam (LPH 9) demonstrated the AV-8A performed as expected. By the late 1970s, three attack squadrons and a training squadron were operating the AV-8A and TAV-8A. Efforts to develop a follow-on supersonic V/STOL aircraft, the AV-16, were stopped in the face of massive costs associated with development of the required engine. In 1975, however, the Chief of Naval Operations executive board approved a plan to use existing funds to explore future improvements to the AV-8A airframe proposed by McDonnell Douglas, thus beginning the development of the AV-8B Harrier II. Miller, now a general and the Marine Corps’ Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation, spearheaded the effort to acquire funding for the new aircraft. Through his exertions, the more advanced American-produced Boeing AV-8B entered service in 1985.

The first Marine Corps V/STOL combat air strike occurred on 17 January 1991 when a flight of VMA-311 AV-8Bs destroyed an Iraqi artillery battery near the Saudi Arabian town of Khafji. Subsequent operations flown by the enhanced AV-8B Plus and Night Attack variants in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan further demonstrated the combat capabilities of the Harrier II. In March 2011, AV-8Bs with the 26th MEU were among the first aircraft to attack ground targets in Libya at the beginning of Operation Odyssey Dawn. Writing after his retirement from the Marine Corps in 1979, Miller, the first Marine to fly the Harrier, described the value of V/STOL aviation for the Marine Corps: “This improvement would be the saving of many Marines’ lives while in combat and would add significantly to the probability of their success in battle.” As the Marine Corps marks four decades of V/STOL operations, the Harrier continues to live up to Miller’s expectations.

An AV-8A with VMA-542 taxis from onto Lyman Road, Camp Lejeune, during exercises in 1978. The ability to operate from such austere locations was the main reason why the Marine Corps acquired the Harrier. (Photo from National Marine Corps Museum)

Ben Kristy is the aviation curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.

Grampaw Pettibone: A Loopy Flyby

Illustrations by Ted Wilbur.

A helicopter crew was performing a flyby of a ship. The ship’s captain joked on the radio that the pilot could not fly a loop. After passing the ship, the helo entered a nose up attitude. Climbing to approximately 300 feet, with a right angle of bank greater than 90 degrees, the pilot then reversed and descended in a left angle of bank and nose-down attitude approaching 50 degrees. The aircraft struck the water slightly nose low with a slight left angle of bank. The pilot and sensor operator egressed underwater; the co-pilot was lost at sea.

Several factors surfaced during the post-mishap investigation. Photos taken of the flyby clearly indicated the pilot exceeded NATOPS pitch and roll limitations for the aircraft. There was no indication the aircraft did anything the pilot did not command, and there were no obvious contributing aeromedical factors for any of the crew members.

The sensor operator stated that the pilot had performed the maneuver on previous flights with the same crew with no objections from either crew member. In addition, several squadron members reported flying with or witnessing similar unbriefed, high-angle-of-bank maneuvers several times on flights prior to the mishap flight.

GramPaw Pettibone saysGrampaw Pettibone said:

Jumpin’ jehosaphat, what was that pilot thinking?!? Gramps loves hard chargers and thinks aggressiveness is one of the basic traits that make naval aviators a breed apart. But gee whiz, kids, this was nothin’ but plain old stupid. There is only one time where I’ll nod at someone flyin’ their machine beyond the limits that Momma Navy gives us, and that’s when you are gonna hit something or something is gonna hit you. As this young’un proved, once again, there otherwise ain’t nothing good that comes from flying outside the envelope. This feller was feeling his oats and wanted to prove to that commanding officer on the radio that he was Sierra Hotel. The cost was beyond reason: one of our well-trained hard chargers, and an air machine to boot.

And what in tarnation was that ship’s captain thinking? Challenging a pilot, on the radio for all to hear, to do something that he knows is wrong? Encouraging that kind of behavior don’t make sense to Old Gramps. Commanding officers are supposed to look after their flocks and protect them like they were their own kids, because when you get to the heart of what command is really about, they are his kids! Shame on him.

This pilot was showing signs of what those geeks who study safety call “Failing Aviator Syndrome.” Gramps ain’t got no Ph.D., but I can tell you that someone—anyone—in that squadron should have spoken up about what this fella was doing. We don’t teach naval officers to accept this kind of erratic behavior, so why didn’t someone have the courage to speak up? You got to look after your buddies so one day they can look after you.

And finally, where in the world was this kid’s squadron commanding officer? Teachers, moms, hoot owls, and commanding officers are always supposed to keep one eye open and know everything going on around them. He’s got one of his gang who is straying farther and farther off the beaten path, and yet he either doesn’t know or doesn’t take action. Either way, it’s unacceptable!

You kids know Gramps gets his dander up when we lose one of our finest, especially to something as gol-darned brainless as this. Let’s at least learn a lesson from this one, shall we? C’mere kids, this is Gramp’s wisdom distilled like a fine sippin’ whiskey: Don’t fly your machine out of limits unless your life depends on it, and don’t accept someone who puts you in a bad spot by flyin’ crazy. Look out for your squadronmates, because outside of your family, they are the best family you got.

Now you kids get back to work, Gramps is going to catch me some Rockfish for dinner.

“I don’t care what Grampaw Pettibone predicts, the one thing we can be sure of is that there can never be an UNMANNED airplane!”

Navy Wings Helped Bring Victory in Europe

By Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.)

An F4F Wildcat launches from USS Ranger (CV 4) off the coast of French Morocco on 8 November 1942. Note the two L-4 Grasshoppers in flight above the Wildcat.

The story of U.S. Naval Aviation in the Pacific during World War II is very well known, but perhaps less known is the story of naval aircraft and crews that served with distinction in Europe against Germany and its Axis allies. This article will look at actions and campaigns that ranged from northwest Africa to the cold, damp airfields of England and beyond.

Operation Torch

In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his military advisers began planning offensive operations in both the Pacific and Europe. The offensive in the Solomon Islands, beginning in August 1942, began the long trek to Japan. The Allies, however, decided to focus the majority of their resources to take care of Germany first. It was out of this “Europe first” policy that the first action involving U.S. Naval Aviation forces in Europe was executed against the Vichy French territories of French Morocco and Algeria in North Africa in November 1942.

The Americans and British wanted to land in Africa to strike German and Italian forces in Libya from behind and prepare for the invasion of Italy. The French remained angry that the British had attacked the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in July 1940 and at Dakar two months later. As a result, there was concern that the Vichy forces would fight, if only as a point of honor. What made the matter even more awkward was the fact that France had bought several fighters and light bombers from the United States just before the war. The Curtiss and Martin aircraft were used against the Germans in 1940, and in 1942 the puppet Vichy government continued to operate these aircraft, which were painted with conspicuous red-and-yellow stripes on the engine cowlings and tail surfaces. Overall, the Allies faced approximately 500 French aircraft of varying numbers and quality.

Vichy French air units that greeted Allied forces in November 1942 included American-built Curtiss Hawk 75s, such as these with Groupe de Chasse 1/5. The Hawk was the export version of the P-36. (Photo from Musee de l’Air et de l’Espace)

The assembled Allied task force included nine American and British carriers: USS Ranger (CV 4), USS Sangamon (CVE 26), USS Chenango (CVE 28), USS Suwanee (CVE 27), USS Santee (CVE 29), HMS Avenger, HMS Argus, HMS Furious, and HMS Dasher. As the first troops hit the beach on 8 November 1942, the carriers launched strikes against targets and met some resistance, mainly light antiaircraft fire from shore-based batteries. The French battleship Jean Bart, bottled up in Casablanca harbor, added its 15-inch guns to the mix of enemy fire until a response from the USS Massachusetts (BB 59) struck the French ship’s one working turret. Several Vichy destroyers and submarines sortied from the harbor as F4F Wildcats and SBD Dauntlesses from Ranger and the U.S. escort carriers bombed and strafed targets.

The first major aerial resistance appeared in the form of American-built Curtiss Hawk 75s, the export version of the U.S. Army’s P-36. Although the French aviators were reluctant to fight their erstwhile American allies, they did, shooting down four Wildcats while losing 16 of their own. Even a lumbering SOC biplane, usually used for artillery spotting, got into the action by bombing a tank column with depth charges.

During the landings at Casablanca, aircraft from Ranger and U.S. escort carriers hit the battleship Jean Bart. The French ship would later be repaired and serve until 1961.

Another oddly placed little Army plane also participated in the fight. An L-4 Grasshopper, the Army’s version of the Piper Cub, launched from Ranger to offer spotting services. The little Grasshoppers were in the thick of it, and some of them were struck by enemy fire. Added to this mix were a number of P-40s that launched from the escort carrier Chenango. A few Americans were shot down and captured, although their internment proved to be brief. While the fighters were engaged, squadrons of SBDs and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers attacked various targets, including Jean Bart, now badly damaged at her berth.

Overwhelmed, French resistance collapsed on 10 November. An armistice was signed on 11 November, the day on which a similar action brought World War I to a close 24 years earlier. Operation Torch served several purposes, not the least of which was the beginning of the expulsion of German and Italian forces from North Africa. It also provided valuable experience for further Allied operations that would eventually lead to the landing in France on 6 June 1944.

A Scandinavian Diversion

Rangerreturned to the United States and spent several months on anti-submarine (ASW) and maritime patrol. Eventually, the carrier and its air group were sent back across the Atlantic to help with Operation Leader, the Royal Navy’s plan to attack German targets at Bodø on Norway’s west central coast, just above the Arctic Circle, on the Norwegian Sea.

In August 1943, Ranger reached the main Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow and began training flights so the aircrews could get the feel of their new theater of operations. There were occasional mishaps involving the loss of aircraft, but soon Ranger joined the main Royal Navy task force as it headed for Bodø. Targets included enemy shipping along the rocky Norwegian coast, oil tanks, the aerodrome at Bodø, and radar facilities near the city itself. Ranger launched its first aircraft shortly after 0600 on 4 October, an ASW patrol of two SBDs and four F4Fs as a combat air patrol. Other sorties followed, including by TBF Avengers carrying bombs instead of torpedoes in their internal bays.

The first target of opportunity turned out to be a German cargo ship. A section of Wildcats pealed off to strafe the little steamer, encountering a surprisingly stout defense of antiaircraft fire, which struck one of the U.S. fighters. Although his cockpit was filled with smoke, the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Moore Jr., took his Wildcat down to masthead height and made several runs strafing the German ship’s deck, leaving it so badly damaged that the SBD pilots who followed decided to save their ordnance for another target. Another was quickly found.

The Dauntlesses attacked a small convoy of ships, and the accompanying Wildcats made another strafing run. Bombs struck a cargo vessel but flak rose from the burning ship, hitting the American attackers with some success. The ship showed signs of serious damage, but still offered surprisingly dangerous resistance. Several Wildcats and Dauntlesses sustained hits. Attacks on other ships met with similar enemy fire.

Seven ships were eventually sunk by the two morning strikes, and later in the day air-to-air encounters saw two German aircraft—a Ju 88 attack bomber and an He 115 floatplane bomber—shot down by Wildcats. They were the first German kills of the war by the U.S. Navy. The Ju 88 had been on a snooper mission, and the big Heinkel floatplane had probably been caught in a rain squall and had the bad luck to run into an American patrol of seven young fighter pilots aching for a fight. They disposed of the He 115 only 13 miles from Ranger. One of the pilots, Lt. j.g. Dean “Diz” Laird, would eventually go to the Pacific and score five kills against the Japanese. He became the only U.S. Navy ace to claim kills against the two main Axis powers.

Prior to the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, 17 U.S. Navy pilots from various OS2U and SOC units from Navy cruisers and battleships in the European theater formed Cruiser Scouting Squadron (VCS) 7, which flew Spitfire VBs. In less than a month of combatafter 6 June against German shore defenses, the short-lived squadron lost nine Spitfires while flying 209 sorties. Here, Lt. Francis Cayhill, originally from USS Augusta (CA 31), gets ready for a sortie with the help of Sailor John F. Mulreany.(Photo from National Archives)

The Invasion of Southern France

The landings of 6 June 1944 were intended to gain an Allied foothold in northern France and  to forge a path to the population and political centers of Germany. To protect the flank of this advance, landings were planned for the south of France as well. Initially named Operation Anvil (later changed to Dragoon—according to rumors at the time—because British Prime Minister Winston Churchill claimed he had been “dragooned” into participating) the U.S.-led invasion began on 15 August 1944, with two task forces combining British and American ships, including seven British CVEs and two U.S. CVEs (USS Tulagi [CVE 72] and USS Kasaan Bay [CVE 69]). These small but extremely useful flattops together carried 216 fighters, mainly Grumman F6F Hellcats and Supermarine Seafires.

The landings went off without much trouble, unlike the bloody operations at Normandy more than two months earlier. And it was not until 19 August that German aircraft put in an appearance. Tulagi’s  squadron was Observation-Fighter Squadron (VOF) 1. This oddly named squadron’s mission was spotting for naval gunfire. At first equipped with F4U-1 Corsairs, the unit exchanged its “U-birds” for F6F-3s, then F6F-5s.

During Dragoon, VOF-1 flew hundreds of reconnaissance and interdiction sorties against German rolling stock and also called in strikes for U.S. Army troops. Of the eight German aircraft shot down in aerial combat, VOF-1 aviators accounted for six, losing five Hellcats in the process. Ens. Ed Olszewski scored two kills—two Ju 52 transports—on 21 August. That same day, two He 111 bombers were spotted and the VOF-1 Hellcats gave chase. The Germans split up, heading in two different directions. Lieutenants Rene E. Poucel and Archie R. Wood went after one of the Heinkels, eventually shooting it down. Lt. Cmdr. John H. Sandor and Ens. David E. Robinson went after the southbound bomber, eventually shooting it down as well. A third bomber was soon spotted and Wood gave chase, pumping .50-caliber bullets into the German aircraft until it, too, crashed. The four VOF-1 fighters were not finished, however. On the way back to their ship, they strafed an airfield (damaging a Ju 88) and attacked a locomotive, which they left smoking and burning along with its train of boxcars.

Ensigns Alfred Wood and Edward Olszewski of VOF-1 pose by the kill markings on the F6F they used to shoot down four German aircraft during the campaign in southern France in August 1944.

Over the following week, the port cities of Marseilles and Toulon were liberated, and the main German forces in the south of France retreated northward. After Dragoon, U.S. Navy carrier forces were no longer needed for the drive to Germany, and many aircraft and ships that had served in Europe eventually were used in combat against the Japanese in the Pacific. In the end, U.S. Naval Aviation contributed its fair share to the victory that would come on VE Day on 8 May 1945.

Cmdr. Mersky has written more than 15 books and 100 magazine articles on military aviation. He received the Admiral Arthur Radford Award in 1999 and the 2003 Contributor of the Year Award from the Tailhook Association. The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of photographs from Alan C. Carey, Eddie Creek, Robert J. Cressman, Maryrose Grossman, Marrisa Joseph, Tony Holmes, Kate Moore, and Barrett Tillman.

The Flagship Publication of Naval Aviation