American Warplanes – Cold War Naval Aircraft

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American Warplanes – Cold War Naval Aircraft

With the beginnings of the Cold War in 1948, nobody could conceive of any future wars between the two new super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, which did not involve the use of nuclear weapons. This left the US Navy as a service that had no way of participating in the next global conflict, as it then lacked any long-range carrier aircraft capable of delivering the 10,000 lbs nuclear bombs of the day. The largest ordnance payload for a Second World War single-engine US Navy carrier-based aircraft was only 2,000 lbs.

As a stop-gap measure to prove that a long-range, multi-engine, nuclear-capable aircraft could be launched from a carrier, the US Navy pulled twelve of its brand-new Lockheed P2V-2 land-based Neptune maritime patrol planes from service and modified them into one-way, long-range, nuclear-capable, carrier takeoff bombers that could attack the Soviet Union. They were powered by two prop-driven engines, supplemented by two jet pods for help when being launched from land bases. In their new role they became the P2V-3C.

Dedicated Nuclear-Capable Bombers

Even as the first squadron of nuclear-capable Neptune bombers was being formed, the US Navy had a replacement aircraft ready to come off the production line. That plane was the North American AJ Savage. The letter ‘A’ in the aircraft prefix designation code stood for ‘attack’, a term introduced in 1946, replacing the pre-Second World War and wartime use of the letter ‘T’ for torpedo, and the letter ‘B’ for bomber. The letter ‘J’ in the aircraft prefix code was the builder’s letter code.

The various versions of the nuclear-capable Savage, the AJ-1 and AJ-2, were in service with the US Navy from 1950 until 1958, with 140 units built. There was also a photo-reconnaissance version of the aircraft designated the AJ-2P, which the AJ-2 model was based on. Like the nuclear-capable Neptune, the nuclear-capable Savage had two large prop-driven engines, but supplemented by a small jet engine to aid in launching it from a carrier flight deck and providing it with dash speed when being chased by enemy aircraft.

The Savage’s successor was the nuclear-capable, jet-engine-powered Douglas A-3A Skywarrior bomber that entered US Navy service in 1956. It was at the time the largest and heaviest aircraft to operate off a carrier. The initial production model, the A3D-1 was soon superseded by an improved version, designated the A3D-2 that first reached the fleet in 1957. A total of 283 units of the Skywarrior were built. The aircraft was relabelled the A-3 Skywarrior in 1962 as part of the Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System mandate.

For the sake of brevity, it will be assumed in the remainder of the text that the reader will understand that all US Navy and US Marine Corps aircraft were relabelled in 1962 with new designations to conform to the Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System mandate imposed by the US Congress.

The Skywarrior was replaced in 1961 by another jet-powered, nuclear-capable bomber, the North American A3J Vigilante. A total of 156 units were built. Less than a year after the Vigilante entered service it was relabelled the A-5 Vigilante. At the same time, its role of delivering nuclear ordnance to the Soviet Union was transferred to the US Navy’s new inventory of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) equipped with the long-range, nuclear-armed, Polaris missile system.

Nuclear bombs did not disappear from the arsenal of possible weapons carried by carrier aircraft in 1962. Rather they had progressively gotten small enough to be carried by existing attack aircraft. This did away with the need for large specialized bombers such as the Savage, Skywarrior, and Vigilante.

New Roles

Not wanting to waste perfectly fine aircraft upon passing the long-range nuclear strike role against the Soviet Union to its submarines, the US Navy converted all of its existing, and yet to be delivered A-5 Vigilante nuclear-capable bombers into photo-reconnaissance aircraft and assigned them the designation RA-5C. The letter ‘R’ in the aircraft’s prefix designation code represented reconnaissance. In US Navy service in this latter role the Vigilante lasted until 1979.

The Skywarrior was converted into a photo-reconnaissance aircraft, designated the RA-3B or an inflight tanker designated the KA-3B. The letter ‘K’ in the aircraft designation code represented tanker. During the early part of the Vietnam War the Skywarrior was pushed into new roles, such as performing conventional bombing missions, as well as being configured as an electronic reconnaissance plane (EA-3B), with the letter ‘E’ standing for special electronics installation. The aircraft was phased out of US Navy service in 1991.

First-Generation Fighters

The first of the postwar carrier-capable jet fighters was the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom. A total of sixty-two were built and they served from 1947 until 1954 with both the US Navy and US Marine Corps. At the same time the Phantom entered service, the North American FJ-1 Fury showed up. Only thirty-one were built and it served with the US Navy until 1953.

On the heels of the Phantom and the Fury came other first-generation jet fighters, such as the McDonnell F2H Banshee, a larger improved fighter based on the design of their earlier Phantom. A total of 895 were built and it was in service with the US Navy and US Marine Corps from 1948 until 1961. In the same time frame, the Vought F6U Pirate began undergoing testing in 1946, however it failed to meet expectations and was cancelled in 1950, after only thirty-three were built.

Other first-generation carrier jet fighters included the Grumman F9F Panther, the Douglas F3D Skynight (intended as an all-weather dedicated night fighter) and the Vought F7U-1 Cutlass. A total of 1,382 units of the Panther were built and it served from 1949 until 1958 with the US Navy and Marine Corps. It would be numerically the most important US Navy jet during the Korean War. Two hundred and sixty-five units of the Skynight were built and it served from 1950 until 1970 with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. In 1962, the Skynight was re-labelled the F-10. Three hundred and twenty units of the Vought F7U-1 Cutlass were constructed. The plane itself was considered difficult to fly and underpowered, which resulted in a great many crashes. It would last in service only from 1951 until 1959.

The Banshee, Panther, and Skynight saw combat during the Korean War, the first two as ground attack aircraft, and the latter in its intended role as a night fighter. The Skynight also saw action during the Vietnam War as an electronic warfare bird in its EF-10 guise, the only US Navy fighter to see service in both conflicts. The other first-generation fighters were not employed during the Korean War or Vietnam War for a number of different reasons, including design faults and operational performance limitations.

Second-Generation Fighters

Key design features of the second-generation carrier jet fighters were their supersonic speed, new radar, air-to-air missiles, and swept wings. The swept wing design was based on German jet aircraft research during the Second World War. All the first-generation carrier jet fighters were sub-sonic and had straight wings, except the Cutlass that had a unique swept-wing design.

Second-generation carrier fighter jets included various models of the McDonnell F3H Demon, the Douglass F4D Skyray, and the Grumman F9F Cougar, which was a swept-wing version of the first-generation Grumman F9F Panther, with a more powerful engine.

The Demon, of which 559 units were built, saw service between 1956 and 1964. The Skyray, of which 422 units were built, entered service in 1956 and it lasted until 1964. A total of 1,392 units of the Cougar were constructed and it served from 1952 until 1974 with the US Navy and US Marine Corps mainly as a ground-attack aircraft.

In 1962, the Demon was re-labelled the F-3, the Skyray the F-6, and the F9F-6 the F-9. Of the three aircraft, only four training versions of the latter, designated the TF9J Cougar, saw action during the Vietnam War, as command and control aircraft for the US Marine Corps. The letter ‘T’ in the aircraft’s designation stood for trainer.

Another second-generation US Navy jet was the North American FJ-2/3 Fury series, a navalized version of the North American F-86 Sabre fighter series, employed by the US Air Force with great success during the Korean War. The US Navy and US Marine Corps took 741 units of the Fury into service, starting in 1954. It lasted in US Navy service until 1956 and with the US Marine Corps until 1962.

A second-generation design failure was the Grumman F-11F Tiger that entered the US Navy inventory in 1954; 199 were constructed. However, it lasted only four years on carriers, due to unsurmounted design problems, before being relegated to training duties between 1961 and 1967. It served with the US Navy’s demonstration team, the Blue Angels, until 1969. In 1962, the F-11F Tiger became the F-11 Tiger.

In the late 1950s, the last of the second-generation jet fighters appeared in US Navy and also US Marine Corps service. The first was the Vought F-8U Crusader in 1957, which became the F-8 Crusader in 1962. The aircraft saw combat during the Vietnam War as both a fighter and as a light attack aircraft. It lasted in US Navy service until 1987 in the photo-reconnaissance variant, the fighter models being retired from US Navy and US Marine Corps service by 1976. A total of 1,219 units of the Crusader were built.

Third-Generation Fighters

The replacement for the F-8 Crusader in US Navy and US Marine Corps service was the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II series that first appeared on carriers in 1960. In 1962, the plane was designated the F-4B Phantom II. The US Air Force was so impressed by the F-4B Phantom II that they adopted a land-based version for their own use in 1964 and designated it the F-4C Phantom II.

In 1967, the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation acquired Douglas Aircraft, and the combined firms became known as the McDonnell Douglas Corporation. As their business faded in the 1990s with the end of the Cold War in 1991 and a dramatic cut in defense funding, the firm was acquired by the Boeing Corporation in 1997, and the corporate name McDonnell Douglas disappeared.

Like all the first- and second-generation jet fighters that preceded it into service, the Phantom II was originally intended solely for the role of interceptor, but was later pressed into other roles, such as ground attack during the Vietnam War, and photo reconnaissance and suppression of enemy air defenses. There were countless models of the Phantom II placed into service during its long service career. By the time the production run of the Phantom II ended in 1981, a total of 1,264 units had been acquired by the US Navy and the US Marine Corps, with hundreds more exported to US allies.

A Design Dead End

Prior to the entry of the Phantom II into service, the US Navy began exploring concept development of a more capable Fleet Air Defense fighter to protect carrier battle groups from long-range Soviet bombers. The USAF, at the same time, desired a new deep strike aircraft. Secretary of Defense McNamara forced both services to study purchasing a common aircraft as a way to save money, calling the program the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX). In the end, the services failed to reconcile their requirements.

The US Navy version of the TFX program was the General Dynamics F-111B. General Dynamics (GD) had entered into the military aircraft field in 1953 by acquiring ownership of Convair, which then became the Convair Division of GD. In 1994, GD sold its Convair Division to Lockheed. The corporate name Convair disappeared in 1996.

The first test flight of the F-111B took place in 1965. Additional testing of the aircraft was a disappointment to many in the US Navy, who felt it was too heavy and underpowered for operating off carriers. The project was cancelled in 1968 with just eight of the aircraft being built, however key elements of the TFX were used in the next generation US Navy fighter. The US Air Force did take a different version into service as the F-111 Aardvark in 1967 and employed it as a deep strike, electronic warfare, and tactical nuclear delivery aircraft until 1998.

Fourth-Generation Fighters

The fourth generation of supersonic jet fighters acquired by the US Navy began with the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The twin-engine, two-seat aircraft entered US Navy service in 1974 and was the replacement for the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. It came in two major versions during the Cold War; the ‘A’ and ‘B’ variants. The US Navy took into service 478 F-14A Tomcats beginning in 1970. The improved F- 14B Tomcat appeared in 1987 and consisted of thirty-eight new-built aircraft and forty-eight A-model Tomcats brought up to the B-model standard.

The Tomcat was not adopted by the US Marine Corps because it had not been configured in the original model for a secondary ground attack role. Instead, the US Marine Corps acquired the McDonnell Douglas/British Aerospace AV-8A Harrier. A handful of F-14As still serve in the Iranian Air Force.

The second of the fourth-generation fighters was the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The prefix ‘F/A’ reflects the Hornet’s dual role as both a fighter and a strike aircraft. The term ‘strike’ is employed by the US Navy to describe a multi-mission aircraft and was adopted by the US Navy for the Hornet, in lieu of the older term ‘attack’, which had been adopted in 1946 and was meant for specially-designed aircraft intended primarily for the ground attack role.

In 1983, the US Navy renamed its existing Hornet-equipped units as ‘strike fighter squadrons’, the previous name being ‘fighter attack squadrons’. A somewhat older, now generic term, for fighters capable of a ground attack role is ‘fighter-bomber’.

The F/A-18 Hornet appeared in US Navy and US Marine Corps squadron service in 1983. It was the replacement for a number of aircraft including the A-6 Intruder, the A-7 Corsair, and the F-4 Phantom. The Hornet first flew combat missions during the 1986 attack on Libya. It also saw action during America’s two wars with Iraq, known as Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. It also flew combat missions over Afghanistan.

The F/A-18 originally came in a single-seat model, designated the F/A-18A and a two-seat model designated the F/A-18B. Approximately 400 units of the F/A-18A and F/A-18B entered into US Navy and US Marine Corps service. Beginning In 1987, the A and B models of the Hornet were progressively replaced by the much more capable C and D versions. Today, besides being employed as a training aircraft, the two-seat versions of the Hornet retains the ability to perform combat roles; in particular, the US Marine Corps uses the two-seat F/A-18D for the demanding night attack mission. Production of the F/A-18C model ended in 1999 and the D-model in 2000.

Due to a shortage of the F/A-18C Hornet version, a least one US Navy squadron flew the F/A-18A model into the early part of the twenty-first century. To keep the ‘A’ model of the Hornet a viable combat aircraft, sixty-one units were upgraded. Positive results achieved with the upgrading process resulted in fifty-four units being subsequently upgraded to an even more capable standard, which brought them up to the same operational capabilities as the F/A-18C model.

As of 2014, the US Navy and Marine Corps inventory of the A, B, C and D models of the Hornet consists of approximately 600 units. Current plans call for twenty-five units of the F/A-18C to be upgraded to a version referred to as the F/A-18C plus that will replace twenty-five aging units of the upgraded F/A-18A. Due to delays in the operational deployment of the post-Cold War replacement for the A, B, C and D model Hornets, it is envisioned that 150 upgraded units of the aircraft will remain in service for a number of years.

Attack Planes

Before the Hornet appeared on US Navy carriers, there were a number of aircraft dedicated to the attack role that flew from carriers during the postwar years. The first of these was the Douglas Skyraider that came in numerous models, AD-1 through AD-7, with sub-variants of each model, not all being employed by the US Navy and US Marine Corps. In 1962, the last three models of the Skyraider built were re-labelled. The AD-5 became the A-1E, the AD-6 became the A-1H, and the last model, originally designated the AD-7, was re-labelled as the A-1J.

The Skyraider was a prop-driven aircraft originally designed during the Second World War, but did not begin appearing on US Navy carriers until 1949. It saw service in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before being retired by the US Navy in 1968. Total production of the Skyraider numbered 3,180 units, with many being employed by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, but not the Korean War.

The Skyraider was not the only prop-driven specialized ground attack aircraft adopted by the US Navy in the early postwar years. There was the Martin AM-1 Mauler, but it did not live up to expectations and was in service only from 1948 until 1953, before the US Navy withdrew it in favor of the better performing Skyraider. Only 151 units of the Mauler were built.

The jet-powered follow-on to the Skyraider in the light attack aircraft category was the subsonic Douglas Skyhawk series that first showed up in US Navy and US Marine Corps service in 1956. It eventually served in a variety of versions. The pre-1962 designation system labelled them the A4D-1, the A4D-2, A4D-2N, and the A4D-5. In 1962, they became respectively the A4-A, the A-4B, A-4C, and the A-4E.

Appearing in US Navy and US Marine Corps service after 1967 was the A-4F model of the Skyhawk that can be easily identified by the upper fuselage hump pod that contained additional avionics. One hundred units of the A-4C were later rebuilt to the A-4F model standard and designated the A-4L. They served only with US Navy Reserve squadrons. The US Marine Corps employed 158 units of the aircraft designated A-4M Skyhawk, that had a more powerful engine and improved avionics.

The last production unit of the A-4M was delivered to the US Marine Corps in 1979, with the Skyhawk series being withdrawn from US Marine Corps service in 1998, and US Navy use in 2003. A total of 2,960 units of the aircraft were built, with over 550 being two-seat trainers.

The eventual replacement for the Skyhawk on US Navy carriers in 1966 was the Vought A-7 Corsair II. It saw combat in the Vietnam War and remained in service long enough to be employed during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. It was retired soon after that Middle Eastern conflict. In total, the US Navy acquired 997 units of the Corsair II, with 60 being two-seat trainers, designated the TA-7C. The Corsair II was not adopted by the US Marine Corps, which preferred to stay with the Skyhawk, until it could be replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet. The Corsair II also served with the USAF and several US allies.

Supplementing the light attack Skyhawk and Corsair II, beginning in 1963, and eventually replacing them on US Navy carriers was the Grumman A-6 Intruder, classified as a medium attack aircraft. The Intruder was an all-weather aircraft that could also operate at night. Its baptism in combat was the Vietnam War, with the initial model labelled the A-6A. Later versions included the A-6B, A-6C, and the final model, the A-6E that entered service in 1970.

Over 700 units of the Intruder eventually entered service with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. The latter retired their Intruder inventory in 1993 and the US Navy in 1996. It was the last dedicated attack aircraft in US Navy and US Marine Corps service.

A variant of the Intruder still in service is the EA-6B Prowler, which is an electronic-warfare (EW) aircraft intended to degrade enemy air-defense systems by jamming their electronic signals or killing them with anti-radiation missiles. The aircraft first entered service in 1971 with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. It will be retired from US Navy service in 2015, but retained by the US Marine Corps until 2019.

There was also an aerial refuelling version of the A-6 Intruder, designated the KA-6D. It could carry over 3,200 gallons of jet fuel that was transferred to other aircraft by hose-and-drogue pods. In total, ninety units of the KA-6D were placed into service by converting older model Intruders to the new role. Due to age-related fatigue problems, the aircraft is no longer in service with the US Navy.


With the cancellation in 1949 of the first planned super carrier, the USS United States (CVA-58), the US Navy feared that it would have no way to deliver nuclear weapons onto targets in the Soviet Union. It quickly looked at a number of options, one of them a long-range, nuclear-capable seaplane bomber. What eventually resulted from this concept was the four-engine, jet-powered Martin P6M-2 Seamaster that appeared in early 1959. However, serious design problems plagued the aircraft and it was cancelled in late 1959, after only eight were built.

In 1948, there was an unfounded concern that supersonic jet aircraft might not be able to operate off the US Navy’s carriers. This led the US Navy to believe that a supersonic seaplane fighter might fill the void. Convair provided the US Navy with an aircraft they thought would meet their needs, labelled the XF2Y-1 Sea Dart.

The first prototype of the Sea Dart flew in January 1953, with unimpressive results. The following year, a test model of the Sea Dart disintegrated in flight, killing the pilot. At the same time it was shown that supersonic aircraft could fly off carriers and the Sea Dart program was quickly cancelled.

A number of pre-war and wartime seaplanes saw early Cold War service with the US Navy before being retired. The only Cold War-era seaplanes acquired by the US Navy were both twin-engine, prop-driven aircraft; the Grumman JR2F-1 Albatross in 1949, and the Martin P5M Marlin in 1951. Whereas the Albatross was primarily a search and rescue aircraft, the Marlin was a maritime patrol aircraft, with a secondary ASW (Anti-submarine warfare) role. The Marlin was derived from the pre-war Martin PBM Mariner employed by the US Navy during the Second World War.

In 1962, the Albatross was re-designated as the HU-16 and the Marlin became the P-5. The last flight of a US Navy Albatross occurred in 1976 when it was flown to a museum for display. In Coast Guard service, the Albatross lasted until 1983 before being replaced by more modern aircraft. The latter remained in US Navy service until 1967 and did see action during the early part of the Vietnam War. A total of 449 units of the Albatross were built, with 285 units of the Marlin constructed.

Land-Based Maritime Patrol Aircraft

In the immediate postwar years, the Soviet Navy began to greatly expand its inventory of submarines, initially diesel-electric and then nuclear-powered. Their job was the destruction of NATO resupply convoys, US Navy carriers and their supporting ships, in the case of a third World War. To counter this very serious threat, the US Navy looked at two different land-based maritime patrol aircraft capable of an ASW role during the Cold War.

The land-based maritime patrol aircraft that the US Navy initially chose in 1947 was the Lockheed P2V Neptune. Power for the aircraft was provided by two prop-driven engines. It was built in seven major models, labelled P2V-1 through P2V-7. New designations appeared in 1962, with the P2V-4 through P2V-7 becoming respectively the P-2D, P-2E, P-2F, and the P-2H. Beginning with the P-2E version, the aircraft was fitted with two jet engine pods to assist in takeoffs.

The Neptune remained in US Navy service until 1984 and came in a wide range of models, including a version configured as a nuclear-capable bomber as previously mentioned in the text. In total, 1,181 units of the Neptune were constructed. The Neptune was also used by the US Army in small numbers during the Vietnam War for the electronic surveillance role.

The US Navy replacement for the P-2 Neptune series was the Lockheed P-3 Orion series that first appeared in 1962, and has appeared in a large number of models over the years, with 734 units completed. It is a four-engine prop-driven aircraft still in service with the US Navy. The P-3 Orion was based on the design of the Lockheed L-188 passenger plane. There is also an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) version of the aircraft in US Navy service, labelled the EP-3E ARIES (Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System).

Carrier ASW Aircraft

Reflecting the serious threat posed to US Navy carriers by Soviet Navy submarines during the Cold War, a number of aircraft configured for the ASW role operated off US Navy carriers during that time period. These included wartime and early postwar prop-driven aircraft modified for the role, followed later by specially-designed aircraft configured for the job.

Following the wartime aircraft modified for the ASW role came the postwar, prop-driven, Grumman AF Guardian. Originally intended as a torpedo-bomber it was decided to configure it for the ASW role. It worked in pairs, with the plane equipped with the detection gear labelled the AF-2W, and the second Guardian armed with weapons labelled the AF-2S. These aircraft entered service in 1950 and remained in carrier use until 1955.

The two-aircraft ASW combination was far from the optimum arrangement for carriers, which were always hard-pressed for space. The solution arrived in the form of a new prop-driven, twin-engine aircraft especially designed for the ASW role, which combined the detection gear and weapons needed to destroy enemy submarines in a single airframe. That aircraft was the Grumman S2F Tracker, which appeared in service in 1954, as the replacement for the Guardian.

The original production version of the Tracker was designated the S2F-1 and the last model constructed the S2F-3. A total of 1,284 units of the aircraft were built. The plane was re-designated in 1962, with the S2F-1 becoming the S-2A and the S2F-3 becoming the S-2D. All the various models of the Tracker were withdrawn from US Navy service by 1976.

The replacement for the Tracker was the Lockheed S-3A Viking that began appearing on carriers in 1974. A total of 186 were built. Between 1987 and 1994 a total of 119 units of the S-3A were upgraded to prolong their useful service life and became the S-3B.

Unlike the Tracker that was prop-driven, the Viking was powered by two jet engines. With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the pressing need for ASW aircraft on US Navy carriers diminished. The Viking was re-configured for the surface warfare role and as a carrier-onboard-delivery (COD) plane. With the arrival of newer aircraft to fulfill those roles, the Viking was retired from service in 2009.

Carrier and Land-Based AEW Aircraft

The need for an airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft was brought home to the US Navy during the last few months of the Second World War in the Pacific when large numbers of kamikazes began overwhelming the fleet’s existing air-defense system. To rectify this problem, a number of options were explored. One involved mounting a radar system in a suitable aircraft that once aloft, could provide over-the-horizon radar coverage. The aircraft chosen for that role was the Grumman-designed TBM Avenger torpedo-bomber, re-designated in its new role as the TBM-3W.

The TBM-3W showed up too late to see action in the Second World War, but did lay the groundwork for successor AEW aircraft. Following in the footsteps of the TBM-3W, the US Navy took into service a number of US Army Air Force B-17 four-engine, land-based bombers, configured as AEW aircraft, and designated them as the PB-1W. Besides the radar, they carried aloft a fighter-director team to assist in vectoring US Navy fighters onto threats identified by the plane’s radar system.

The PB-1W was soon replaced in the AEW role by the conversion in 1954 of the four-engine, prop-driven, land-based Lockheed Constellation passenger plane. In its new role, it became the PO-1W Warning Star and in 1962 the EC-121 Warning Star, with the last Constellation variant remaining in US Navy service until 1982. The US Navy also employed fifty units of a cargo/passenger version of the Super Constellation originally labelled the R7V-1. It became the C-121G in 1962 and lasted in service until the 1970s.

Still, the US Navy needed a newer generation dedicated carrier-launched AEW aircraft. For a time, they employed a version of the Skyraider in that role, designated the AD-4W. One hundred and sixty-eight were built, with the US Navy eventually transferring fifty to the Royal Navy. As more capable AEW aircraft entered the US Navy inventory, the AD-4W was assigned to ASW duties and remained in service until 1965.

The US Navy replacement for the AD-4W Skyraider was the twin-engine, prop-driven Grumman WF-2 Tracer, which entered service in 1958. It was a variant of the Grumman S-2 Tracker ASW aircraft. The WF-2 Tracer became the E-1B Tracer in 1962. A total of eighty-eight units of the Tracer were built with the last retired from service in 1976. From the Tracer was derived the Grumman C-1 Trader COD aircraft that was in service between 1958 and 1988. The Trader became the TF-1 in 1962.

The Tracer was replaced by the Grumman twin-engine, prop-driven, E-2 Hawkeye series that initially entered service in 1964. Beset by early design problems, the aircraft has been continuously upgraded over the decades to improve its effectiveness and remains today an important part of every US Navy carrier. One hundred and thirty-three units of the Hawkeye have been built, in three versions; labelled E-2A, E-2B, and E-2C. All of the ‘A’ models of the aircraft were retired in 1967. With the miniaturization of electronics, the E-2 evolved from its early role as AEW, to include battle management and command and control.


The first helicopter in immediate postwar use by the US Navy was the wartime-built Sikorsky HNS-1 and the very similar Sikorsky HOS-1, developed by the US Coast Guard. In total, Sikorsky built 131 units of the HNS-1 and HOS-1 for a variety of customers, not just the US Navy. Some served with the Royal Navy.

Positive feedback from the testing of the wartime-built Sikorsky helicopters, as well as postwar Piasecki helicopter designs such as the HRP-1 Rescuer, of which the US Navy acquired twenty, resulted in improved models being acquired by the US Navy, designated the HUP-1 and HUP-2 Retrievers. Piasecki built a total of 339 units of the Retrievers for several customers, including the US Navy.

In US Navy service, the Retrievers served in both the utility and search and rescue (SAR) roles, as well as performing an ASW role. They remained in US Navy service until 1964. In 1962, the HUP-1 and HUP-2 respectively became the UH-25B and the UH-25C.

The first Sikorsky Cold War-era helicopter acquired by the US Navy and the US Marine Corps were eighty-eight units designated the HO3S-1 that lasted in service until 1957. It was followed by the HO4S utility helicopter, which the US Marine Corps designated the HRS. All HO4S variants in American military service became the H-19 series in 1962 with 1,000 units built for the American military.

The Sikorsky H-19 series was replaced in US Navy service in 1953 by a lengthened and more powerful version of the helicopter that was designated the HSS Seabat. It was configured for the ASW role. Another version that went to the US Marine Corps was labelled the HSS Seahorse and served in the utility and troop transport role. In 1962, the HSS Seabat became the SH-34 series with 382 units being built for the US Navy while the HSS Seahorse became the UH-34 series.

The early 1970s replacement for the HSS Seabat in the ASW role was the Kaman twin-engine SH-2 Seasprite. The helicopter started its service life with the US Navy as a single-engine utility helicopter in 1962, and was then designated UH-2. However, the demand for an ASW helicopter that could fly off the US Navy’s non-carrier ships resulted in the service having the UH-2 rebuilt for the new role. One hundred and eighty-four units of the Seasprite, in various models, were built and the ASW version lasted in US Navy service until 2001. Kaman also supplied the US Navy twenty-four units of a utility helicopter designated the HUK-1 in the late 1950s.

The first-generation Sikorsky helicopters would be gone from US Navy use by the early 1970s. In their place came the Sikorsky twin-engine helicopter named the Sea King. Entering service with the US Navy in 1964, it was primarily an ASW helicopter that could also perform a variety of other roles such as surface warfare, SAR, aerial mine-sweeping, transport, and general utility duties. This is reflected in the various models of the helicopter built that would remain in US Navy service until 2006.

Entering into service the same year as the Sikorsky Sea King with the US Navy was the Vertol Sea Knight transport helicopter. Piasecki had become Vertol in 1955. Like the previous helicopters the US Navy had acquired from Piasecki, the Sea Knight was a tandem rotor helicopter. However, unlike its earlier cousins it was powered by two engines and not one.

The initial version of the Sea Knight acquired by the US Navy was designated the UH-46A. It remained in US Navy service until 2004. The bulk of the over 500 units of the Sea Knight constructed went to the US Marine Corps, with the last planned to be retired in 2015.

Initially acquired by the US Marine Corps as a twin-engine heavy transport helicopter was the Sikorsky Sea Stallion, designated the CH-53A. The US Navy acquired fifteen from the US Marine Corps in 1971 for the aerial mine-sweeping role and labelled them the RH-53A. In 1973, the US Navy took into its inventory thirty units of a more advanced version of the twin-engine Sea Stallion, configured as an aerial minesweeper and designated the RH-53D.

Because the services wanted a more powerful version of the Sea Stallion, Sikorsky came up with an enlarged version with three engines instead of two, which the US Navy and US Marine Corps took into service in 1980 as the CH-53E Super Stallion. A total of 177 units of the Super Stallion were built. In 1986, the US Navy acquired the first of forty-six units of a specialized aerial mine-sweeping model of the Super Stallion, referred to as the MH-53E Sea Dragon.

Since the early 1980s, the bulk of the US Navy’s helicopter inventory has been made up of a large variety of different models of the Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk series, which was based on the US Army’s UH-60 Blackhawk series helicopter also designed and built by Sikorsky.

The first of the SH-60 Seahawk series to enter US Navy service in 1984 was the SH-60B configured for the ASW and anti-surface role. It flew off frigates, destroyers, and cruisers. It replaced the Kaman Seasprite SH-2 ASW helicopter. A version of the Seahawk, labelled the HH-60H, was optimized for combat search and rescue (CSAR) and naval special warfare (NSW) missions and also appeared in the early 1980s.

Another version of the Seahawk was designated the SH-60F and intended for operation off carriers with the same job description as the SH-60B. It was the replacement for the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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