Early Post-WWII US Carrier Aircraft II





Attack Aircraft

After World War II the Navy combined its separate torpedo and bomber squadrons into a new category of “attack” aircraft. Although it entered service too late to see combat in that war, the Douglas AD Skyraider, a propeller-driven “dump truck with wings,” served admirably in the Korean War and was known as the “Able Dog” (a play on the phonetic code for AD). Redesignated as the A-1, the “Spad,” as it later became known, soldiered on into the 1960s on the large carriers and continued to operate from the smaller Essex-class carriers after that. The Skyraider also served with many other air forces and special variants were developed for electronic warfare, airborne early warning, and night attack.

The Douglas A3D Skywarrior was the result of the Navy’s efforts to find a pure jet successor to the North American piston-jet AJ Savage. The Navy initially assumed that an aircraft capable of launching from a large carrier to deliver a nuclear weapon over distances and at speeds comparable to land-based jet bombers would have a gross weight of about 100,000 pounds. When Ed Heineman, chief engineer at Douglas, came up with a design that was under 70,000 pounds, the Navy was at first skeptical, but the Skywarrior went on to become a most successful aircraft, the largest carrier aircraft developed at the time. The Skywarrior had shoulder-mounted wings swept at 36 degrees with the engines slung beneath them in nacelles. The wings folded outboard of the jet engines and the tail folded down to starboard. (As part of the weight-saving measures, the three man crew did not have ejection seats, but bailed out by sliding down a hatch in the bottom of the fuselage.) The prototype XA3D-1 first flew in October 1952 and the first squadrons were equipped in 1956. Heavy Attack Squadrons (VAHs) of seven to ten aircraft operated from the Forrestal-and Midway-class carriers to give the fleet an all-weather nuclear strike capability.7 Electronic warfare and photo versions were also developed. As the Navy developed its Polaris-equipped ballistic missile submarines, the A-3, as it was redesignated in 1962, transitioned to other roles, primarily as electronic warfare and tanker aircraft. Because of its size, the A-3 was known as the “whale.” The last EA-3B electronic warfare versions served until 1991.

Before the Skywarrior, the Navy’s nuclear heavy attack capability was provided by the North American AJ Savage, an aircraft powered by two piston engines for normal operations with a jet engine for bursts of speed during combat. In practice, the Savages, which entered service in 1951, did not operate on board the carriers for extended periods, but were kept ready at advanced land bases and flown out to the carriers if the situation required. As the Skywarrior joined the fleet it replaced the Savage in the heavy attack role, but a few served into the early 1960s as aerial tankers and photo planes.

The Douglas A4D Skyhawk and the A3D Skywarrior were the Navy’s first jet attack aircraft and were literally at opposite ends of the scale, even though both were developed by the same designer, Ed Heineman. In an era when carrier aircraft were getting bigger and heavier, the Skyhawk, remarkable for its small size, was known as the “scooter” or “Heineman’s Hot Rod.” (It was small enough that it did not need to have folding wings.) The A-4, as it was later designated, was a single engine delta wing jet with tall tricycle landing gear that allowed it to carry a wide variety of ordnance, including the new, smaller nuclear weapons. Through various improved versions, and adaptations to other roles, the Skyhawk was in production until 1979 and went on to serve with many air forces. TA-4J training versions of the Skyhawk remained in Navy service as target-towing, adversary, and combat training aircraft until 2003 and the Skyhawk continues to serve in some foreign air forces.

Airborne Early Warning

The Navy’s experience with the Japanese kamikaze attacks in World War II and the concern over the increased threat posed to carrier task forces by jet aircraft and missiles in the postwar era, led to the development of carrier-based airborne early warning aircraft, starting with the TBM Avenger during World War II, through the Grumman Guardian and radar-equipped variants of the Skyraider in the postwar era. These were modifications of existing single engine carrier aircraft and provided only a capability for early warning. With the continuous improvements in early airborne radars, the Navy decided in 1956 to develop an airborne early warning and command and control aircraft, the Grumman WF Tracer. The WF, as the Navy’s first purpose-built carrier airborne early warning aircraft, entered service in 1958. The Tracer was a derivative of the Grumman TF Trader, which in turn was derived from the Grumman S2F Tracker, a twin piston engine carrier-based antisubmarine aircraft. Major changes included replacing the single large vertical tail with a twin tail and folding the wings back along the fuselage in typical Grumman style (the wings of both the Tracker and Trader folded upwards over the fuselage), but the most distinctive feature was the large aerodynamically shaped radome that housed the APS-82 radar. This radar had many new features for the time, such as a stabilized antenna and an Airborne Moving Target Indicator (AMTI) capability that allowed the radar to detect low-flying targets against the clutter of radar reflections from the ocean. The Tracker was initially designated the S2F (later S-2) and was known as the “Stoof.” The Tracer was initially designated the WF (later E-1) so it became known as the “Willy Fudd” or, because of its large antenna radome above the fuselage, the “Stoof With a Roof.” The Tracer began to be replaced by the more modern Grumman E-2 Hawkeye in the early 1970s, but continued to serve on carriers until 1977.


At the time the first ships of the Forrestal class were entering service, the standard shipboard helicopter for plane guard and utility work on carriers was the Piasecki HUP Retriever, a compact single-engine, twin-tandem-rotor utility helicopter that was introduced in the early 1950s and served until 1964.

In the late 1950s the Navy awarded Kaman Aircraft Corporation a contract to develop a fast, all-weather utility helicopter. The Kaman HU2K-1 design featured four blades on the main rotor and three blades on the tailrotor with a single turboshaft engine. By the time it entered service in late 1962 it was designated the UH-2 Seasprite and was primarily deployed on board carriers in search-and-rescue (SAR) and plane guard roles. (The UH-2 was selected to be the basis for the interim Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System [LAMPS] helicopter in October 1970 and later versions served until 1993.)

Introduced in 1961 as the HSS, the Sikorsky Sea King was one of the most successful helicopter designs in history. It was the first ASW helicopter to use turboshaft engines, as well as the world’s first amphibious helicopter. Sikorsky built over a thousand and it was produced under license by Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The SH-3, as it was later known, has been adapted for many other roles, such as search and rescue, transport, anti-shipping, and airborne early warning as well as plane guard. The last SH-3 was retired from U.S. service in 2006, but continues to serve with other countries.

The Boeing Vertol H-46 Sea Knight twin-tandem-rotor helicopter was introduced in 1964 as a medium-lift helicopter to replace the earlier single-rotor Sikorsky designs for the Marines. Powered by twin turboshaft engines, it was capable of carrying up to 25 troops and had a hook beneath the fuselage capable of carrying up to 10,000 pounds as a sling load. Experimentation by the Navy in vertical replenishment (VERTREP) of ships under way at sea with single rotor helicopters had proven disappointing, but the twin-tandem design of the H-46 showed that it could operate in a wider range of wind conditions. Known as the “Phrog” by the Marines, it was extremely maneuverable and responsive and was selected by the Navy in its UH-46 configuration to operate from replenishment ships supporting the carriers. The first VERTREPs were conducted in the Mediterranean in 1965 and have become standard operations since then. While the Navy retired the UH-46 in 2004, replacing it with the H-60, the Marines will continue to operate them until the MV-22 Osprey is fully fielded.


The original Sparrow evolved from a Navy program of the late 1940s to develop an air-to-air guided rocket. After protracted development, the first AAM-N-2 Sparrows entered limited operational service in 1954 and, in 1956, were carried by the F3H-2M Demon and F7U Cutlass. The Sparrow I was a limited and crude weapon. Its beam-riding guidance restricted the missile to attacks against targets flying a straight course and it was useless against a maneuvering target. The AAM-N-6 Sparrow III, developed concurrently with the Sparrow I, was a semi-active radar homing version that entered Navy service in 1958 and became the basis for later missiles. In 1963 the Navy and Air Force agreed on a common naming system for their missiles and the Sparrow became the AIM-7.


The Sidewinder was the result of an in-house effort on the part of the Naval Ordnance Test Station (now the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake) to develop a heat-seeking missile with the “electronic complexity of a table model radio and the mechanical complexity of a washing machine.” The result was a reliable and effective missile that has improved over time and has become one of the most widely used air-to-air missiles in the world. Originally designated the AAM-N-7, the Sidewinder went operational in 1956. (The missile was named for a variety of rattlesnake common in the American southwest that hunts by sensing its warm blooded prey. The corkscrew path of the early missiles as they made their course corrections also resembled the way the snake moves in the sand.) Redesignated as the AIM-9, the Air Force also developed their own versions of the Sidewinder, and, over time, the missile has been improved for enhanced performance in dog fights, resistance to countermeasures, and increased lethality.


As a result of its experiences trying to destroy heavily defended targets during the Korean War, the Navy developed the first mass produced air-to-surface command guided missile, the ASM-N-7 Bullpup (later redesignated as the AGM-12B). Using a flare attached to the rear of the missile for visual tracking, the pilot or operator sent commands by a control joystick to guide the missile to the target. The Bullpup first deployed with the Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific in 1959 with the Rampant Raiders of VA-212, an FJ-4B Fury squadron on the Lexington. The following August, VA-34, the Blue Blasters, an A4D squadron on the Saratoga joined the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the Bullpup worked best when the delivering aircraft and the missile were on the same track. Once in combat use in Vietnam, however, enemy gunners quickly learned that firing into the path of the flare’s smoke trail would often hit the delivering aircraft. Another problem was that with only a 250-pound warhead, the Bullpup could not take out hard targets, like concrete and steel bridges. Later versions had improved motors and guidance with a larger 1,000-pound warhead. (There was even a nuclear warhead version.) The Bullpup was phased out of U.S. service in the 1970s but continued to be used by foreign air forces for some years later.


The Zuni rocket was another successful product of the Navy’s China Lake team. Originally developed for both air-to-air and air-to-ground applications, the Zuni is a 5″ unguided folding fin rocket that is launched from the LAU-10 launcher, an aluminum cylinder with frangible end caps that carries four launch tubes. The Zuni has been produced since 1957 and replaced the “Holy Moses” 5″ High Velocity Aircraft Rocket (HVAR). (The HVAR was also developed at China Lake during World War II and remained in service into the 1960s.) Although accidents involving the Zuni have played a significant role in a number of carrier fires, the Zuni has been successively improved over time and is still in use.


The AGM-62 Walleye was a television-guided glide bomb used in the 1960s. Most had a 250-pound high-explosive warhead, some had a nuclear warhead, and there was a 1,000-pound version. Even though it was officially an “air-to-ground missile” that was misleading, since it was an unpowered bomb with guidance avionics. It was used with some early success in Vietnam in 1967 against softer targets, but sturdier targets such as railroad bridges could not be brought down even with the 1,000-pound version. Accordingly, China Lake developed the 2,000-pound Walleye II “Fat Albert” version, which was used during the 1972 Linebacker strikes against Hanoi and Haiphong. (The Walleye was superseded by the AGM-65 Maverick).

Rockeye II

The Mark 20 Rockeye II is a free-fall, unguided cluster bomb designed to kill tanks and armored vehicles developed by China Lake and fielded in 1968. It uses 247 Mark 118 dual-purpose armor-piercing shaped-charge bomblets, each of which weighs 1.32 pounds, in a Mark 7 dispenser. Rockeye is most effective against area targets requiring penetration to kill. Fielded in 1968, Rockeyes were not widely used until Desert Storm when the Marines used them extensively against armor, artillery, and antipersonnel targets. (The rest were dropped by the Air Force and Navy.)

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