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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of the eight U.S. aircraft carriers placed in service prior to 7 December 1941, the longest-serving as a carrier was USS Saratoga (CV 3). She was placed in commission in 1927 and after a career of two decades the “Sara” had the dubious distinction of being the only carrier sunk by an atomic bomb. Saratoga and sister ship USS Lexington (CV 2) were the world’s largest aircraft carriers until late in World War II and the “Sara” was the world’s fastest capital ship of her era, reaching 34.99 knots.
Shortly before the United States’ entry into World War I, Congress authorized the construction of six large battle cruisers—each to be 35,300-ton, 874-foot warships mounting 10 14-inch guns. Massive turboelectric machinery, with exhaust gases carried away by seven funnels, was to drive the ships at 35 knots. None of the six ships had commenced construction before hostilities ceased in November 1918, and none had been launched when construction was halted on 8 February 1922, in accordance with the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty. The treaty, however, permitted two capital ships to be converted to aircraft carriers. On 1 July 1922, Congress authorized the completion of the battlecruisers Lexington (33.8 percent complete) and Saratoga (35.4 percent) as carriers. Their four unfinished sister ships were scrapped on the building ways.
“Lex” and “Sara” each measured 888 feet overall in length and had an official standard displacement of 33,000 tons. In reality, each displaced some 3,000 tons more as the Navy Department claimed that additional tonnage was allowed under a provision of the Washington treaty that did not count weight for defenses against air and submarine attacks. At full load, Saratoga eventually displaced some 41,000 tons. The carriers had turboelectric propulsion designed to produce 180,000 horsepower, or six times that of a contemporary battleship. This type of propulsion was larger, heavier, and more expensive than an equivalent steam turbine plant. Still, turboelectric drive permitted more compartmentalization for damage control and was, in theory, more resistant to damage. In practice, however, turboelectric drive was highly vulnerable to electrical short circuits from battle damage. The “Lex” and “Sara” were the world’s largest warships built with electric propulsion during the 20th century. The carriers’ design speed was 33.25 knots, but both ships exceeded that figure. Lexington once attained a speed of 34.5 knots for one hour; Saratoga exceeded that speed by almost half a knot.
At first it was proposed to leave the flight decks of the huge carriers unobstructed by superstructures, but after wind tests with ship models it was decided to have their control stations, funnels, and guns combined into massive island structures on the starboard side of each ship’s flight deck. These structures stretched almost one-third the length of the ship and included a funnel to carry away exhaust gases from the ship’s 16 boilers, venting the gases high above the flight deck where they would not interfere with landing operations.
As completed, “Lex” and “Sara” each had a main battery of eight 8-inch guns arranged in twin turrets, two forward and two abaft the island structure. These were to defend the carriers should they be attacked by enemy cruisers when their aircraft were off on missions. Each carrier also had a dozen 5-inch anti-aircraft guns in galleries along the edge of the flight deck, plus several machine guns.
Both carriers were completed in 1927, late and over cost. Initially, they were each assigned 83 aircraft: 36 fighters, 32 bombers, 12 observation planes, and three utility aircraft. Although the squadrons were collectively referred to as the Lexington Air Group and Saratoga Air Group, there were no air group commanders. Instead, the squadrons were commanded by the carrier commanding officer, with the senior squadron commander aloft taking charge of a given formation.
Rear Adm. Joseph M. Reeves, the Navy’s first carrier division commander, was dissatisfied with the number of aircraft embarked. Soon after the two ships came under his command, he set to work to increase their capacities. More planes were brought aboard Lexington until the ship could put to sea with 120 fighters and bombers. He also considered a plan whereby each of his three carriers—Lexington, Saratoga, and USS Langley (CV 1)—would handle only one type of plane (i.e., fighter, scout-dive bomber, or torpedo bomber). This would avoid the delay of reshuffling planes on the flight deck to have a certain type ready to launch. A series of trials convinced him that the “Sara” could embark 200 fighters. Reeves ultimately decided against such an arrangement, however, because the loss of one carrier would deprive the fleet of all of its aircraft of one type.
The “Sara” participated in fleet exercises in the 1930s, usually conducting simulated air attacks against Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal. When six Japanese carriers attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Saratoga was on the West Coast. She arrived at San Diego’s North Island Naval Air Station on the morning of 7 December and departed the next morning for Pearl Harbor. As she loaded her aircraft, the Army provided fighter aircraft over San Diego in the event the Japanese carriers attacked the West Coast. Besides 66 aircraft of her air group, the “Sara” carried 14 F2A Buffalo fighters of a Marine squadron, and 23 cargo and training planes.
Saratoga arrived off Pearl Harbor on 14 December, but because of a submarine scare she did not enter the harbor until the following morning. On the afternoon of the 15th the big carrier left the harbor and headed for Wake Island, where the small Marine garrison was being besieged by the Japanese. Accompanied by a seaplane tender, an oiler, and destroyers, the force’s progress was excruciatingly slow (about 12 knots) because of the oiler and the need to zig-zag because of the submarine threat. Wake was being bombed almost daily by Japanese twin-engine bombers from Kwajalein Atoll, but reports soon arrived that carrier planes began bombing the island as well. With no knowledge of the strength or location of the new Japanese force (the planes came from the carriers Hiryu and Soryu) the Saratoga task force was ordered to turn back approximately 425 miles from the island, sealing the fate of the Marines and Sailors on Wake.
Subsequently, the “Sara” operated in a defensive posture in the Hawaiian area until 11 January 1942, when she was struck by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-16, about 500 miles southwest of Oahu. Six men were killed in the explosion and three of the ship’s 16 firerooms were flooded. The “Sara” limped back to Pearl Harbor under her own power and then proceeded to Bremerton, Wash., for repairs and modernization. She would be out of service for five critical months. The I-boat escaped.
While at Bremerton, Saratoga missed participating in the Doolittle raid on Tokyo and the Battle of Coral Sea, in which the carriers Lexington and USS Yorktown (CV 5) took part in history’s first carrier-versus-carrier battle. When the decisive Battle of Midway was fought in early June 1942, Saratoga was racing from the West Coast but arrived too late for the battle.
Saratoga, along with two other carriers, participated in the landings at Guadalcanal in August 1942, the first U.S. offensive of the war. Later that month the “Sara” was a key player in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, when her planes sank the Japanese light carrier Ryujo. Retribution came on the morning of 31 August when the Japanese submarine I-26 torpedoed Saratoga. The submarine had been detected moments before firing six torpedoes at the carrier, and she actually brushed against a U.S. destroyer. After hitting the “Sara,” I-26 successfully evaded several destroyers that tried to sink her.
The torpedo blast injured 12 men, including Vice Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, and damaged the ship’s turboelectric propulsion system. The carrier was in no danger of sinking, but her speed was reduced considerably and she would require three months in a shipyard before she could return to the battle line. Most of her fighters and bombers flew ashore and were later sent on to Guadalcanal to join the Marine and Navy planes at Henderson Field. It was the second time in eight months that the “Sara” had been torpedoed by a submarine.
Saratoga returned to the war in the summer of 1943 when she and the British fleet carrier HMS Victorious operated together. The “Sara” was the only U.S. large carrier in the Southwest Pacific. The two ships worked well together and even swapped aircraft at times. They carried out raids against Japanese bases in the Solomons Islands in May-July 1943, encountering no major opposition from enemy ships or aircraft. During those operations Saratoga would operate all bomber aircraft—including Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm No. 832 Squadron flying Avengers—while Victorious operated the 60 U.S. and British F4F / FM Wildcat fighters. To avoid confusion among the many U.S. ships in the area, the British aircraft had U.S. insignia.
The “Sara” then joined the growing fleet of U.S. carriers in operations against the Japanese in the Central Pacific. In late 1943, she took part in the Tarawa invasion and the Marshall Islands campaign. Saratoga then left the main Pacific conflict for almost a year to support British operations against the Japanese in the Indian Ocean and Southwest Pacific. In August 1944, she became a “night carrier,” first for training pilots and then in combat in early 1945. In February 1945, her night-flying aircraft supported the landings on Iwo Jima. On the third day of the landings, Japanese planes scored several bomb hits, starting large fires. The ship suffered 123 men dead and missing. She withdrew to Bremerton for repairs.
By late May 1945, “Sara” was again in Hawaiian waters serving as a training carrier, a role she filled until the end of the war in the Pacific. On 9 September, she began participating in Operation Magic Carpet, eventually returning 29,204 war veterans back to the United States—more than any other ship.
With peace there was little need for the veteran “Sara.” The carrier force now consisted of a score of fleet carriers of the new Essex class, almost a dozen light carriers built and building, more than 60 escort carriers, and the first of the new Midway class, ships even larger than Saratoga.
In July 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, the United States detonated the world’s fourth and fifth atomic bombs in tests to evaluate their effect against warships. Saratoga was anchored in the Bikini lagoon with scores of mostly American ships, but also the Japanese battleship Nagato and cruiser Sakawa, and the German cruiser Prinz Eugen. The “Sara” survived the air-dropped atomic bomb on 1 July with only minor damage.
For the second test the atomic bomb was suspended 90 feet beneath an LSM landing ship moored in the lagoon. At 0835 on the morning of 25 July the bomb was detonated, sending a spectacular column of water 6,000 feet into the air. Then a wall of spray and steam rushed out from the base of the column to envelop the target ships. When the spray and steam dissipated there was no question that the gallant Saratoga was dying. She had been moored only 500 feet from the landing ship under which the bomb had been suspended. Saratoga’s distinctive funnel had collapsed across her flight deck, all tied-down aircraft and equipment on her deck had been swept away, and the ship listed heavily to starboard. Tugs were directed to secure lines to her and to beach her if possible. This effort was halted because the carrier and the water around her were too radioactive to permit safe approach. Slowly the “Sara” sank, disappearing beneath the surface of the lagoon 7½ hours after the explosion. Thus died a gallant ship.
A Hornet squadron was embarked for carrier qualifications in support of carrier sea trials. The day quals period was challenging, with high winds and significant deck movement. A nugget who had flown during the day was also scheduled for the night period. Approaching the “in-close” position during the mishap pass, the pilot overcorrected a slightly above glide slope position with a significant power reduction while simultaneously making a large lineup and nose-down correction. The reduction of power, lowering of the nose, and loss of lift caused by the lineup correction caused an excessive sink rate. This gross and inappropriate correction inside of the waveoff window caused the Hornet to strike the flight deck rounddown at the point where the tailhook is attached to the aircraft. The hook and parts of the aircraft’s variable exhaust nozzle assembly were severed from the aircraft. The Hornet slid through and off the end of the landing area. The pilot ejected and landed on the flight deck, sustaining major injuries; the aircraft was lost.
The post-mishap investigation revealed the pilot was weak behind the ship with a significant history of lineup problems dating back to Training Command carrier quals. In addition, the pilot stated that his carrier landing technique was to use his Automated Carrier Landing System (ACLS) needles as his primary reference and use the Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System, or meatball, as a backup for glide slope information. The report also cited several supervisory errors. The squadron and wing landing signal officers (LSOs) failed to provide NATOPS-required pre-embarkation training on high-wind and pitching-deck operations. The squadron and air group commanding officers failed to staff the squadron adequately, causing the squadron LSO to be overtaxed with other responsibilities during a critical pre-embarkation work up for the inexperienced squadron’s first at-sea period. The squadron commanding officer and both LSOs failed to recognize the pilot lacked sufficient ball flying skills and was not prepared for the highly demanding environment encountered that night.
Grampaw Pettibone says:
Holy jalapeños! They set this kid up for failure and he took the ball and ran with it! We lost a jet, and we were durned lucky we didn’t lose the pilot or some of the good folks up there on the flight deck.
Let’s start with the preparation—or lack thereof—to go to sea. The squadron paddles was working too many jobs to get them boys ready for flying on the great briny. The squadron commanding officer overburdened his LSO because the air group didn’t give him enough experienced bodies. The wing LSO was there to help, but between him and the squadron LSO, they only did half a job. LSO NATOPS says you gotta talk about that stuff every time you get ready to go to sea, and they plum forgot. We shot that kid off the pointy end on a dark and stormy night without all the tools he needed in his bag. Anyone smell what I’m cookin’ here?
And our intrepid aviator? Well, Ol’ Gramps knows that every pilot has his way to do stuff, but using the ACLS needles in close instead of flying the ball is about as dumb as skinny dippin’ with snapping turtles. Gouge is great, but it’s no substitute for knowing the right way to do things and stickin’ to what’s worked for a long, long time. Gramps knows that none of this fella’s LSOs taught him that ACLS technique—he should have stuck with what he’d learned.
So here are today’s lessons, kids. First, you older fellas who are in charge gotta be in charge. Make the hard call. If you ain’t got what you need to do the training, either get it or don’t do the training. Stay ahead of the game and don’t let your folks get in over their heads.
You young whippersnappers, gather ’round and let’s make sure we got today’s lesson. Learn the right way to do it, and do it that way. Don’t make up procedures and don’t give in to bad habits. Shortcuts and unproven personal techniques have no place in big-time carrier aviation!
Now you kids get back to work. Gramps is gonna see if he can get the ol’ SNJ fired up for a trip around the patch.
A Trip Down Memory Lane
…Well, let’s just say your gramps came THIS close to making his last flight long before even your daddy was a twinkle in my eye.
I was barely a pollywog back then, but I had darned near wrecked every plane I could get my hands on. When ol’ grampaw was over in England back in the First War (that’s World War I, little man), those Brits gave me the nickname of “Prango,” which was their way of sayin’ I was prone to accidents. Those were the days when you could put her down hard, fix her up with fishin’ line and chewing gum, and be back in time for mornin’ chow. But this last one was a doozie, and it sure screwed my head on straight, and it ain’t been nothing but straight ever since. I was at Pensacola flying around in my N-9, a beaut’ of a seaplane, but I made the mistake of not giving myself enough water to land on, and I went right up onto the beach, over a car (that pesky float stayed back there, and the plane and I kept going), and then right through the admiral’s beach house. Some helpful gents got me out of there, and luckily I was all in one piece. But mark my words, on that day “Prango” Pettibone had to change his ways (and not just ‘cause the admiral said so!). From then on, safety was my number one priority. And people started to listen, too, ‘cause I knew everything that could go wrong (mostly ‘cause I’d already done it myself first!).
Before you walk, you have to learn to crawl. And before some U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen take to the skies as naval aviators, they’re collaborating together to soar.
The Naval Academy initiated a new summer soaring program in 2009 that initially provided basic flight training to 150 midshipmen. The Naval Academy Training Squadron (VTNA) is the academy’s only midshipmen-led professional development aviation extracurricular activity.
“I started the club in August of 2008 as a way to set up a foundation for helping midshipmen get an exposure to flying,” said Ens. Sean Noronha, a student pilot with VT-28. “After earning my flight instructor certification in the summer of 2008, finding an officer who would become our club rep, and finding several midshipmen, things just started rolling to put a club together.”
According to Noronha, the Naval Academy disestablished the previous soaring club in 2004, citing concerns over funding and liability. In 2008, however, the academy began funding VT-NA as a summer student-run club, while the midshipmen would pick up the tab for any flights made during the academic year.
Since then, more than 600 midshipmen have relished taking to the sky in ultra-light sailplanes.
“Nowhere else at the academy can you find a program where midshipmen and ensigns are given so much latitude to train, lead, and learn,” said Noronha. “The experience gave me a stepping stone to also become a better flight instructor, showing me the many ways in which students learn and deal with situations.”
The Naval Academy is the Navy and Marine Corps’ largest aviation accession source, with more than 40 percent of each graduating class selecting aviation. The academy, however, does not provide any formal flight programs for midshipmen prior to service selection.
According to statistics from the Air Force Academy’s cadetrun “soar for all” program, sailplane training is the safest and most relevant and cost-effective initial flight training method available. Because of sailplanes’ inherent simplicity, glider flight training operating costs are usually less than one-third that of powered aircraft. The long, efficient wings of sailplanes allow for very low stall speeds and benign handling qualities, as well as being particularly sensitive to adverse yaw. A sailplane pilot must quickly learn to precede any lateral stick movements with appropriate pedal inputs. This combination of qualities renders sailplanes the most appropriate platforms for new students to learn the fundamental “stick and rudder” skills required for safe, coordinated flight.
VT-NA’s goal is to screen aviation-motivated 3/C and 2/C midshipmen prior to service selection through the academic year and summer soaring programs. Successful screeners are able to advance to powered flight, where they gain further exposure to the complexities of the airspace environment.
“When you train to the standards which we set in the soaring club, it only gives the students an edge when they prepare for their career as a naval aviator,” said Ens. Josh Mann, operations and logistics manager for VT-NA. “That’s what our goal here is: to put out a better quality applicant for flight school and to train better pilots for the Navy.”
Armed with the favorable exit surveys from the first 150 participating midshipmen, VT-NA approached Rear Adm. Mathew Klunder, a former commandant of midshipmen, with a proposal to increase the scope of the soaring program. A new contract was signed with the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association (MASA) to provide aircraft and use of its Fairfield, Pa., glider port for the exclusive purpose of training midshipmen and staff members during weekdays over the summer months.
Along with MASA, the Skyline Soaring Club provided voluntary flight instructors and tow pilots to augment VTNA’s flight staff. These Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified flight instructors helped VT-NA qualify additional tow pilots and flight instructors from among the ranks of military-winged aviators and midshipmen.
“Most tow planes are Piper Pawnees, which were once used for agricultural work but are now almost solely dedicated to soaring operations,” said Noronha. “The single-seat Pawnee is quite the workhorse and is quickly able to tow the glider up to whatever altitude the pilot desires.”
From inception through completion, the program is led by midshipmen. They run the daily flight schedules and are in charge of the logistics, billeting, and transportation issues. Midshipmen coordinate with academy staff and volunteers to maintain the watch bills required for safe glider port operations, tow piloting, and flight and ground instruction.
After successfully completing the program, qualified participants earn a logbook endorsement to take their FAA private pilot written exam. A sheet reflecting their exam scores and flight performance is entered into their midshipman aviation service selection board packet for future consideration.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to see midshipmen successfully complete a program that is only two years old,” said soaring club member Midshipman 1/C George Meszaros. “In those two years, we’ve completed hundreds of glider flights safely, all while providing aviation-relevant training to future naval aviators.”
In the fall of 1910, the elites of New York descended on Belmont Park, the horse-racing mecca in Long Island’s Nassau County, to be part of the International Aviation Tournament. One of the biggest and most sensational airmeets in the country at that time, the event attracted nearly 30 aviators from five countries vying for more than $72,000 in prizes for distance, altitude, speed, and endurance.
One of the featured competitors at Belmont was 32-year-old Glenn Hammond Curtiss. A native of the village of Hammondsport on Lake Keuka in upstate New York, Curtiss had burst on the aviation scene the year before at an aviation contest in Rheims, France, where he established a new speed record in winning the prestigious Gordon Bennett trophy. He further burnished his reputation as one of the world’s most celebrated aviators in May 1910 by flying more than 150 miles down the Hudson from the state capital of Albany to New York City, adding a distance record to his resume and capturing a lucrative prize offered by the New York World. Curtiss was as accomplished an entrepreneur as he was a flier. He built on his lofty reputation and his winnings to create the Curtiss Exhibition Company in July 1910 and hired some of the nation’s premier aviators to perform at aviation events across the country.1
When Curtiss arrived with his squad two months later on 22 September for the official start of the events, his chief rivals, Wilbur and Orville Wright, were already there with three machines. From France came a three-member Blériot team, and from England came Claude Grahame-White (also flying a Blériot), who was certain to place high in the competition. Determined to defend the Gordon Bennett prize, Curtiss entered a new V-8-powered machine, to be flown by one of his most promising young fliers, Eugene Ely. Prepped for the contest, too, were Curtiss’ long-time friend J.A.D. McCurdy and team members James C. Mars and Charles F. Willard. The Belmont meet also attracted three naval officers from Washington, D.C.: Lt. Nathaniel H. Wright, who was selected to survey aviation for the Bureau of Steam Engineering; Lt. William McEntee, representing the Bureau of Construction and Repair; and Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, recently detailed as assistant to the aide for material in the Office of the Secretary of the Navy to advise the Navy Department on the potential applications of aviation.2
An 1876 Naval Academy graduate, Chambers earned a reputation in the service as an engineer knowledgeable about torpedoes, mines, submarines, and the design of all-big-gun dreadnought-type battleships. He also had operational experience, having come to Washington, D.C., in December 1909 fresh from command of the battleship USS Louisiana. Far from a dreamer, and with a clear vision of what advanced technology could bring to the service and its missions, Chambers had the full support of Adm. George Dewey, president of the Navy’s General Board, who endorsed his appointment and insisted that “the value of aeroplanes for use in naval warfare should be investigated without delay.”3 If the Navy wanted someone who could provide a thorough and unbiased appraisal of the present state of the art in aviation and an honest assessment of its implications for the future, the service needed to look no further; Chambers was the ideal person for the job.
Chambers arrived at Belmont on 28 October to find a veritable aeronautical bazaar jammed with foreign and homegrown airplanes, aviators, and manufacturers, both amateur and professional. He liked the French Blériots, speedy monoplanes, and the Antoinettes (also monoplanes, which he found “the most graceful of all” and models of expert craftsmanship). Among the American airplanes, Johnstone’s powerful Wright Baby Grand set a new altitude record, while Walter Brookins’ Wright machine suffered from chronic engine problems. The Curtisses also drew Chambers’ attention, although regrettably they did not perform up to expectations. McCurdy failed to complete one of the distance events, and the new Curtiss airplane was a disappointment, considered too tricky and dangerous to fly. Curtiss wisely decided to withdraw from the Gordon Bennett contest, won by Grahame-White on 29 October in one of the Blériots.4
No one would have been surprised had Chambers looked to one of Curtiss’ rivals to introduce aviation to the Navy given the poor showing of the Curtiss machines at Belmont, but that was not to be the case. Chambers attended another big air meet at Halethorpe, Md., a short distance southwest of Baltimore, featuring Wright, Antoinette, Blériot, and Curtiss machines. There, on 2 November, he finally met Curtiss, who was present with Eugene Ely and Charles Willard. Chambers watched the fliers drop flour-bag “bombs” on a target and saw Willard put on a show of speed over a mile-long course. Chambers came away from the Halethorpe exhibition “deeply impressed with what he saw” and confident the Navy leadership could be convinced of the efficacy of the new technology “demonstration by demonstration.”5
Chambers found Curtiss receptive to the idea of working with the Navy on an experiment showing the feasibility of flying an airplane from a ship. In fact, Curtiss and McCurdy were already involved in just such a project. Following the Belmont exhibition, Curtiss arranged with the Hamburg-American Line to have McCurdy try for a prize offered by the New York World by flying from a liner at sea and landing in Manhattan with a bag of mail from the ship. Curtiss oversaw construction of a platform over the bow of the Hamburg-American SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria. He told the press that he was “confident of the success of the experiment,” which if implemented on a regular basis, would save a day each way on priority mail deliveries. Chambers was to be an official observer. Bad weather postponed the tests, forcing Curtiss to transfer the platform to the smaller SS Pennsylvania. Damage to the airplane while testing the machine’s engine ended any chance to effect repairs before the ship sailed.6
There was some consolation in the cancellation of the experiment, for now Chambers had the opportunity to pursue his own plans for a takeoff from the deck of a ship; this time with the Navy’s full support. Chambers contacted Capt. Frank F. Fletcher, aide for material to the secretary of the navy, to borrow the 2,750-ton scout cruiser USS Birmingham for the experiments. Chambers also secured the use of Curtiss’ record-setting Hudson Flier and the services of Ely for the planned tests. On 9 November, workers under McEntee’s direction at the Norfolk Navy Yard began erecting a wood deck over Birmingham’s bow. Generally resembling the Hamburg-American platform, the structure was 83 feet long and 24 feet wide, with a slope of five degrees. It was 37 feet above the water at its extreme end.7
As soon as the Halethorpe exhibition ended on 12 November, Ely headed for Norfolk, arriving with the airplane the next day. Chambers’ plan was to have Birmingham stand out into Chesapeake Bay, and at about 50 miles offshore launch Ely while making about 10 knots. Four torpedo boat destroyers would be stationed along the flight path back to the Norfolk Navy Yard. On the morning of 14 November, sailors lifted Ely’s airplane onto the platform, and Birmingham got under way about 1130. As the ship pulled up not far off Old Point Comfort, the big question was the weather. The wind was light and chilly, with fog, a few rain showers, and even some hail moving through the area. Because the forecast called for even worse conditions, the consensus was to go ahead with the demonstration as soon as possible, but heavy rain through the early afternoon held things up until about 1500, when it finally let up. Ely quickly got into the machine, and decided to make the attempt even though the ship was still at anchor. Sixteen minutes later, Ely rolled down the deck and off the forward edge of the platform. As he dove to gain as much flying speed as possible, his wheels and propeller touched the water before he climbed to a safe altitude. It was a near thing, because the impact damaged the propeller and Ely was partially blinded by the salt water spray.8
Ely was experienced enough to know his limits; he would not attempt the flight to Norfolk with a potentially crippled airplane and under such poor weather conditions. Nearly getting lost as the rain “beat into his face,” Ely first turned out into the bay, and then back toward the shore. He spotted the beach on the north side of Willoughby Spit, not far from Fort Monroe, and landed without further damage to the airplane. A launch from the torpedo boat destroyer USS Roe quickly picked him up. The flight lasted only about four minutes and covered two and a half miles, nothing close to the original ambitious objectives.9
The ship experiments were only one dimension of Curtiss’ plans to bring aviation into the Navy. On 29 November, he wrote to Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer: “My own experiences and the results attained by several of the aviators operating machines for me justify me in venturing to prophesy that the military branches of the government, in the very near future, will find an aeroplane equipment absolutely essential.” Curtiss explained that he was “prepared to instruct an officer of the navy in the operation and construction of the Curtiss aeroplane,” adding that “I am making this offer with the understanding that it involves no expense for the Navy Department” other than what it would cost to assign such an officer to aviation duty. The Navy accepted the offer on 13 December.10
The Navy’s quick and positive response to Curtiss’ proposal was not surprising. Less than two weeks earlier, Lt. Wright had proposed the Navy buy two airplanes each from the principal American manufacturers, and Chambers made it known he wanted to have officers trained by Wright and Curtiss before the Navy took possession of its first airplanes.11
Chambers’ choice for flight instruction with Curtiss was Theodore C. (“Spuds”) Ellyson, a 1905 Annapolis graduate who was just entering the submarine service. Kenneth Whiting, a friend and fellow Academy classmate and a convert to flying, had sounded him out on aviation earlier in December. Discouraged by delays in completing the sub he was slated to command, and figuring he had nothing to lose at that stage of his career, Ellyson put in for aviation duty on 16 December.
Chambers wanted an officer who was young, technically inclined, energetic (preferably with athletic ability), and who would help establish the legitimacy of aviation. “I remind you,” he wrote to Ellyson in early 1911, “that you were selected because you were not regarded as a crank but as a well balanced man who would be able to assist in building up a system of aviation training in the Navy. I’ve no doubt you see the importance of avoiding the hippodrome part of the business and will not do stunts just for the sake of notoriety or to thrill the crowd.” Ellyson was available immediately to travel to the West Coast to join Curtiss, who, among other things, was getting his team ready for two major California aviation exhibitions.12
Ellyson arrived in Los Angeles on 2 January 1911 and went straight to Dominguez Field outside the city, where he met Curtiss for the first time. He found Curtiss busy with the Los Angeles meet and another one in San Francisco, as well as with plans to lease a portion of North Island in San Diego Bay, where he planned to continue his aviation experiments and flight instruction in a more salubrious climate than wintertime Hammondsport. Ellyson liked Curtiss from the start and relished the opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge of airplane construction and operation.13
While Curtiss made arrangements for his aviation camp at San Diego, he began working with Chambers on another dramatic Navy ship-flying experiment to be held in conjunction with the San Francisco air meet beginning 7 January at the Tanforan racetrack south of the city. Curtiss and Chambers understood that for the airplane to prove itself in naval warfare not only did it have to take off from a ship at sea, it also had to be recovered. There were two alternatives. The first, and the most hazardous, was to land on board the ship, which involved expert flying and a specially constructed platform. The second was easier: land on the water next to the ship and be hauled aboard. This required a craft, later known as a hydroairplane, that was capable of taking off from and landing on the water. Curtiss was hard at work on a hydroairplane, but it was far from perfected. So both he and Chambers agreed that, despite the risk, the first experiment should be to land on a ship with a conventional airplane. Because Curtiss and Ely had committed to perform at the San Francisco exhibition and since Ellyson was also there, it made sense to plan a ship flight at the same time. Ely, the only aviator in the world to have flown off a ship, was the natural choice for the challenging new assignment, which Curtiss understood to be “most difficult of accomplishment.”14
The ship this time was USS Pennsylvania, a five-year-old, 13,400-ton armored cruiser commanded by Capt. Charles F. (“Frog”) Pond. The ship went into the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo on San Francisco Bay on 4 January, where workers erected a wood platform over the cruiser’s stern. The 31½-foot-wide deck was gently inclined toward the stern and stretched more than 119 feet from the superstructure to the fantail. It fully covered the aft 8-inch gun turret and had a 14-foot extension angled at 30 degrees that overhung the stern. One-foot-high rails and awnings, stretched from the sides of the platform to the boat davits, provided some protection from going overboard. The slope of the deck was intended to help slow the airplane, and canvas screens at the end of the platform ensured against the possibility of colliding with the ship’s superstructure. Still, Curtiss, Ely, and others were uncertain about bringing the airplane safely to a halt. Ellyson may have suggested a method that bore a striking resemblance to later carrier arresting gear—22 lines, stretched between pairs of sand-filled sea bags and held a few inches above the deck by longitudinal wood runners spaced 12 feet apart, were to engage hooks attached to a skid on the bottom of the airplane. Pond vetoed the idea of having his ship under way for the test, fearing a collision in the crowded anchorage.15
Poor weather delayed the attempt until 18 January, by which time Curtiss and Ellyson had left to get the North Island operation going. Dawn brought clouds and mist with light winds, and there was an iciness in the air that Ely found “uncomfortable.” Donning a pair of bicycle inner tubes as a substitute for the pneumatic life-preserver Chambers had lent him for the Birmingham flight, and with “never a doubt” that he could pull off the dangerous feat, Ely took off from Tanforan at 1045. He found a “good stiff breeze” at a height of about 1,500 feet and some haze obscuring Pennsylvania as he sped along at 60 miles per hour. A half mile or so from the ship, Ely wheeled toward Pennsylvania, dropped down, and lined up with the deck when he was about 100 yards out. As he cleared the end of the platform Ely encountered a wind gust that tipped the airplane slightly, but he quickly adjusted, cut the engine, and touched down, the hooks seizing the 11th athwartships line and bringing the machine to a rest in about 30 feet. The time was 1101. Ely had made the whole evolution look easy, but Chambers knew better. In his follow-up report, he remarked on the “marvelous skill, accuracy of judgment, and quickness of brain” the aviator needed to pull off the landing.16
Sailors, officers, and civilians alike applauded and cheered, and the ships let out blasts from their sirens as Ely triumphantly set foot on the deck. His wife Mabel was the first to congratulate him; Pond remarked that Ely was the “coolest man on board” his vessel. Following interviews, photographs, and lunch with Pond in his quarters, he climbed back into his airplane and took off just before noon on the return flight to the Tanforan field, landing at 1213. Ely told reporters that the flight had been “easy enough. . . . I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.” Curtiss wrote to Ely to “congratulate you on your success with the flights to and from the PENNSYLVANIA and regret very much I was unable to be there.” Later, Curtiss reflected: “I don’t think there has ever been so remarkable a landing made with an aeroplane as Ely’s. . . . [A] few feet either way, a sudden puff of wind . . . or any one of a dozen other things, might have spelled disaster for the whole undertaking, deprived the daring aviator of a well earned success, and the world of a remarkable, spectacular demonstration of practical aviation.”17
Ely’s Birmingham and Pennsylvania flights, though obvious successes, were in reality little more than stunts. Superficially resembling modern carrier takeoffs and landings, Ely’s flights took place under circumstances unlikely to occur in wartime or even in peacetime maneuvers. Moreover, the platforms were rudimentary affairs that interfered with the vessels’ armament and would have been, at minimum, nuisances during routine operations at sea. No one understood this better than Chambers, who saw the hydroairplane as more promising for the immediate future. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the Pennsylvania experiment was enough for him “to place myself on record as positively assured of the importance of the aeroplane in future naval warfare.”18
Ely’s ship flights of 1910 and 1911 heralded things to come. What had begun only three months before at the Belmont racetrack as an informal partnership between Curtiss and Chambers had grown into a full-scale collaboration aimed at determining where and how the new technology of the airplane would fit into the Navy’s immediate and future requirements. At Belmont a century ago, the aviator from Hammondsport and the senior officer from Washington, D.C. had set in motion a chain of events that within a generation would yield one of the Navy’s and the world’s most powerful weapons.
1 For Curtiss’ early career, see the author’s Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation (Annapolis, MD.: Naval Institute Press, 2010). Parts of this article are derived from that book, with permission.
2 Clifford L. Lord, “The History of Naval Aviation, 1898-1939,” microfilm, Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air) (Washington, D.C. Naval Aviation History Unit, 1946), p. 24; Louis S. Casey, Curtiss: The Hammondsport Era, 1907-1915 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1981), p. 72; Hammondsport Herald, 19 Oct. 1910; New York Times, 21, 22 Oct. 1910.
3 Stephen K. Stein, From Torpedoes to Aviation: Washington Irving Chambers and Technological Innovation in the New Navy, 1876-1913 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2007), esp. pp. 1-2, 59-66, 117-25, 134-45, 155-59; Dewey endorsement, 7 Oct. 1910, on H. I. Cone to SecNav, 7 Oct. 1910, Corresp. 1910-1919, Aviation Progress folder, box 10, Gen. Corresp., Washington Irving Chambers Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (hereafter cited as Chambers Papers, MDLC).
4 New York Times, 26, 27, 29 Oct. 1910; Washington Irving Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings 37 (March 1911): pp. 163-69.
5 Lord, “History of Naval Aviation,” pp. 24-25, 90; New York Times, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10 Nov. 1910.
6 New York Times, 3, 4, 5, 10, 12, 13 Nov. 1910.
7 Lord, “History of Naval Aviation,” p. 28 ; Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” p. 174.
8 New York Times, 12, 14, 15 Nov. 1910; Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” pp. 174-76.
9 New York Times, 15 Nov. 1910; Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” p. 176.
10 Lord, “History of Naval Aviation,” p. 32.
11 Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” p. 184; Archibald D. Turnbull and Clifford L. Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949), p. 11; C. R. Roseberry, Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight (Reprint, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991), pp. 257-58, 337-38.
12 Chambers to Ellyson, 11 Jan. 1911, Corresp. 1910-1919, Ellyson, T. G., 1911, Jan. 3 to Feb. 27 folder, box 14, Gen. Corresp., Chambers Papers, MDLC; George van Deurs, Anchors in the Sky: Spuds Ellyson the First Naval Aviator (San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1978), pp. 13-14, 54-56.
13 Van Deurs, Anchors in the Sky, p. 56; Hammondsport Herald, 30 Nov. 1910; Roseberry, Glenn Curtiss, p. 310; Jerome S. Fanciulli to Chambers, 10 Dec. 1910, Corresp. 1910-1919, Curtiss, Glenn H., Nov. 1910-Dec. 1911 folder, box 13; Ellyson to SecNav, 31 Jan. 1911, Corresp. 1910-1919, Ellyson, T. G., 1911 Jan. 3- Feb. 27 folder, box 14; both in Gen. Corresp., Chambers Papers, MDLC.
14 Ellyson to Chambers, 18 Jan. 1911, Corresp. 1910-1919, Ellyson, T.G., 1911 Jan. 3- Feb. 27 folder, box 14, Gen. Corresp., Chambers Papers, MDLC; Glenn H. Curtiss and Augustus Post, The Curtiss Aviation Book (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912), p. 120.
15 Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” pp. 191-93; Ellyson to Chambers, 18 Jan. 1911; Ellyson to Chambers, 1 Feb. 1911; both in Corresp.1910-1919, Ellyson, T. G., 1911, Jan. 3-Feb 27 folder, box 14, Gen. Corresp., Chambers Papers, MDLC; New York Times, 19 Jan. 1911.
16 New York Times, 19 Jan. 1911; Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” pp. 193-95.
17 New York Times, 19 Jan. 1911; San Diego Union, 19 Jan. 1911; Curtiss to Ely, 9 Feb. 1911, Corresp.1910-1919, Ely, Eugene folder, box 15, Gen. Corresp., Chambers Papers, MDLC; Curtiss and Post, Curtiss Aviation Book, p. 122.
18 Lord, “History of Naval Aviation,” p. 33; Washington I. Chambers, “Aviation in the Navy,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings 38 (June 1912), p. 745.
In the late afternoon of 12 January 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the island nation of Haiti. The quake’s epicenter was 16 miles to the west and more than eight miles underneath the capital of Port-au-Prince, a city of more than a million people. In response to the devastation—an estimated 230,000 dead, more than 300,000 injured, and 1 million made homeless—governments and organizations from around the world sent aid. Naval Aviation played a crucial part in the overall U.S. response to the disaster—entitled Operation Unified Response—with 32 aircraft and 57 helicopters providing mobility to materiel and personnel that simply could not be moved any other way over Haiti’s rugged terrain. More than 20 Navy vessels, centered on USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), participated in the operation. In total, U.S. military forces brought more than 17 million pounds of food, 2.6 million liters of water, and treated nearly 10,000 patients. This special section presents the role Naval Aviation played in Unified Response from several perspectives.
Ironhorse Does the Heavy Lifting By Capt. Paul Clarkson, USMC
On 12 January 2010 an earthquake devastated Haiti, bringing chaos to what was already the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. The next day, II Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) reformed the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) with HMH-461 as the aviation combat element and ordered an immediate deployment to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. A composite squadron was built around the CH-53E and its heavy-lift capabilities: Marines from HMH-461 and HMLA-467 embarked eight CH-53Es, four UH-1Ns, and detachments from Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 29, Marine Wing Support Squadron 272, and Marine Air Control Group 28 aboard USS Bataan (LHD5) to form HMH-461 (-)(Rein) within 72 hours. The squadron was placed under the command of Lt. Col. Sean Salene, commanding officer of HMH-461. HMH-464 also provided two of the eight Super Stallions that comprised the aviation combat element.
The extremely brief period of mobilization and the nature of the mission presented Ironhorse Marines and Sailors of HMH-461(-)(Rein) with a tremendous challenge. Flight operations began on 18 January with the launch of a section of CH-53Es conducting a reconnaissance of Haiti’s devastation. The following day, the squadron launched a division of CH-53Es and a section of UH-1Ns into an earthquake ravaged area, assessing the damage and delivering much needed relief supplies. UH-1Ns and CH-53Es worked hand in hand throughout the operation. The Hueys provided vital aerial reconnaissance to leaders and planners, helping to maximize assistance by identifying tenable landing zones that could facilitate safe landings for CH-53Es where rotor wash would not harm people on the ground. “Big Iron” transported palletized cargo that included water, MREs, and medical supplies to people in need throughout Haiti. Maintainers and combat cargo loaders who internally loaded and unloaded five to six pallets per aircraft each time wheels hit the flight deck and the ramp came down on a Super Stallion.
Effective crew resource management was critical in the dynamic flight environment in Haiti. With the rapid influx of aid and military assets from around the world, and consequent the difficulties in coordinating different agencies, the pilots and aircrews of HMH-461(-)(Rein) quickly realized they were operating in over-crowded and under-regulated airspace. This situation required them to be at the top of their game every time they pulled power in their aircraft. The demands of operating at high gross weights in the country’s sweltering heat called for weight and power numbers to be checked and rechecked constantly to ensure aircraft were operating within safe power margins.
Flight operations were continuous for HMH-461(-)(Rein) until the end of March. The unit conducted a variety of missions throughout what would eventually be called Operation Unified Response. In particular was the CH-53Es’ transport of special operations sport utility vehicles to more remote regions of the country. The vehicles proved to be valuable assets to military and civilian teams that were on the ground assessing the impact the disaster and identifying areas in need of more aid. Both CH-53Es and UH-1Ns transported large numbers of medical professionals and aid workers to areas that were difficult to reach by ground because of Haiti’s damaged roads.
Aircrews and maintainers excelled in employing and maintaining their aircraft during this intense operational tempo, ensuring all missions were on time and successful. The contribution HMH-461(-)(Rein) made to Unified Response was significant: pilots and aircrews flew nearly 650 hours, moved almost 3,500 passengers, and delivered more than 530,000 pounds of relief supplies to Marines and aid workers on the ground for distribution to the people of Haiti. In addition, the squadron’s maintainers performed more than 7,000 maintenance man-hours on the aircraft to ensure all assets were available to support every mission, every day, for nearly three months.
The success of this mission also signified a historic deployment for the heavy lift community. HMH-461 was the first East Coast CH-53 squadron to assume the command element of a composite squadron. The performance of the Marines and Sailors of HMH-461(-)(Rein) was nothing short of spectacular, and was in keeping with the professionalism and proficiency the Marine Corps has come to expect from the “Big Iron.”
Capt. Clarkson is the aviation safety officer for HMH-461.