U.S. Navy Aircraft Development, 1922–1945 Part I

The sun shone brightly in the Panama sky as the fighter planes from the aircraft carrier Saratoga (CV-3) roared aloft as part of fleet exercises off the coast of the Central American nation. A few days earlier these same planes had launched a surprise “attack” against the Panama Canal that foreshadowed the independent operations of carrier task forces during World War II. On this day, they were part of a mock fleet engagement, with fighter planes escorting bombing and torpedo aircraft. “Climbed so high we near froze to death [and] cruised over to the enemy [battle] line where we discovered all the Lexington planes below us,” wrote Lieutenant Austin K. Doyle of Fighting Squadron (VF) 2B. With the benefits of altitude and surprise, ideal for fighter pilots ready to do battle, Doyle and his division dove into the “enemy” planes, twisting and turning in dogfights. “When we broke off we rendezvoused . . . [and] strafed every ship in the fleet. . . . No other plane came near us.”

The events of a February day in 1929 described above occurred in the midst of a watershed era in naval aviation, the interwar years bringing a host of momentous advancements on multiple levels. From a technological and operational standpoint, none were as important as the aircraft carrier and the tactical and strategic implications of this new weapon of war. Arguably, the key element of the carrier’s success was its main battery in the form of the aircraft that launched from its decks, the unparalleled progress made in the design and operation of carrier aircraft providing the foundation for the flattop’s success during World War II. Similar progress marked other areas of naval aviation as well. Such was the lasting influence of interwar aircraft development that Lieutenant Doyle, who as a Naval Academy plebe during 1916–1917 served in a Navy with just fifty-eight aircraft of assorted types, could in 1929 write of a carrier strike against the Panama Canal and, later in his career as a carrier skipper, order planes designed on drawing boards of the 1930s to attack Japanese-held beachheads and strike enemy ships over the horizon.

On the day World War I ended, the U.S. Navy’s inventory totaled 2,337 aircraft, including heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air types. While this is an impressive total, given the aforementioned aircraft total of fifty-eight when America entered World War I, the number is deceiving. It is true that flying boats built by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company operated extensively from overseas coastal bases in the antisubmarine role. Yet, when it came to combat types flown at the front, the majority of naval aviators who deployed overseas trained and logged their operational missions in the cockpits of foreign-built airplanes. As the U.S. Navy developed its plan for aircraft production, the realization of the superiority of foreign designs was apparent to, among others, Commander John H. Towers, the Navy’s third aviator, who before U.S. entry into the war had observed firsthand operations of British aircraft during a stint in England as assistant naval attaché. Even after the signing of the Armistice, foreign types retained their importance to the U.S. Navy’s operations. With overseas observers having witnessed the launching of wheeled aircraft from flight decks built on board British ships, aircraft like Sopwith Camels, Hanriot HD-1s, and Nieuport 29s were procured for use in Navy experiments flying landplanes from temporary wooden platforms erected atop the turrets of fleet battleships. Ironically, the performance of these aircraft, built in the factories of England and France, proved a key factor in the shaping of the interwar aircraft building program.

Indeed, if there was one driving force behind the development of aircraft for the U.S. Navy during the 1920s and 1930s, it was the realization of the importance of shipboard aircraft to naval aviation operations. While this had been on the minds of naval aviation personnel from the beginning—among the earliest experiments conducted were the testing of catapults for launching aircraft from ships—most naval aviators were initially wedded to seaplanes. Upon arriving in Pensacola, Florida, to establish the Navy’s first aeronautical station there in January 1914, Lieutenant Commander Henry Mustin wrote to his wife of the difficulties of finding a suitable site for an airfield from which to operated landplanes and dirigibles: “Personally, I don’t approve of the Naval flying corps going in for those two branches because I think they both belong to the Army.” This philosophy would guide aircraft operations during naval aviation’s first decade and beyond, with naval aviator training and operations centered on seaplane operations.

British experience in World War I, namely the operation of wheeled-aircraft from ships, coupled with the aforementioned experiments on U.S. Navy battleships carried out during winter maneuvers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 1919, prompted a shift in thinking. Weighed down by pontoons, floatplanes simply could not compare with landplanes when it came to speed and maneuverability. Also, ships operating floatplanes, while they could launch them relatively quickly, had to disrupt operations to come alongside a returning aircraft and crane it back aboard. The aircraft carrier, with a deck devoted to the launching and recovery of aircraft, offered the most promise of maximizing the potential of aircraft in fleet operations.

By 1927, three aircraft carriers—Langley (CV-1), Lexington (CV-2), and Saratoga (CV-3)—had been placed in commission, their presence giving naval aviation heretofore unrealized capabilities in fleet operations and a potential as offensive weapons at sea or against land targets. “The value of aircraft acting on the defensive as a protective group against enemy aircraft is doubtful unless it is in connection with an offensive move,” wrote naval aviator Commander Patrick N. L. Bellinger in his Naval War College thesis in 1925.

The most effective defensive against air attack is offensive action against the source, that is enemy vessels carrying aircraft and therefore, enemy aircraft carriers, or their bases and hangars on shore as well as the factories in which they are built. The air force that first strikes its enemy a serious blow will reap a tremendous initial advantage. The opposing force cannot hope to surely prevent such a blow by the mere placing of aircraft in certain protective screens or by patrolling certain areas. There is no certainty, even with preponderance in numbers, of making contact with enemy aircraft, before they have reached the proper area and delivered their attack, and there is no certainty even if contact is made, of being able to stop them.

Nine years later, the Navy’s war instructions for 1934 emphasized the importance of seizing the offensive during a fleet engagement. “If the enemy aircraft carriers have not been located, our fleet is in danger of an air attack. In this situation, enemy carriers should be located and destroyed,” the document read. It further stated that if enemy carriers had been located, either with their aircraft on board or their strike groups having been launched, U.S. carrier planes would “vigorously” attack them, “destroy[ing] their flying decks.”

This realization of the threat of enemy air power in a fleet action stimulated tactical thought, which in turn influenced the design of the planes tasked with delivering the blows against enemy carriers. Initially, it was conventional wisdom that torpedoes would be the most effective method of attack against enemy ships, but whether an aerial torpedo or a bomb, the struggle facing aircraft designers was developing aircraft that could carry the weight of the ordnance without compromising too much in the way of speed, maneuverability, and range. The first successful torpedo plane design introduced into fleet service was Douglas Aircraft Company’s DT, which was important in more than one respect. First, it was the maiden military plane produced by the company, symbolizing the emergence of a postwar aircraft manufacturing base marked by the opening of such companies as Douglas and Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation. These firms, founded after World War I, joined such wartime entities as the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, Boeing Company, Glenn L. Martin Company, and the Naval Aircraft Factory—the latter a Navy-owned center for manufacturing and testing of airplanes—in meeting the demands of the Navy’s aircraft programs. Second, due to the weight of aerial torpedoes, while earlier torpedo plane designs were twin-engine ones that were unsuitable for carrier use, the single-engine DT was capable of shipboard operations and of carrying a payload of 1,835 pounds. In fact, on 2 May 1924, a DT-2 version of the design carrying a dummy torpedo successfully catapult launched from Langley anchored at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida. Finally, the DT pointed to the future in its composition, the traditional wood and fabric used in aircraft, while still present, accompanied by sections of welded steel.

Following the DT into production was Martin’s T3M/T4M torpedo planes (versions were also built by Great Lakes with the designation TG), which boasted a higher speed than the DT and could carry versions of the Mk-VII torpedo that was in the Navy’s weapons arsenal during the late 1920s. Its introduction coincided with the first significant involvement of aircraft carriers in fleet exercises, which revealed much about the employment of torpedo planes. Fleet pilots all too quickly found that the operational parameters of their torpedoes left much to be desired, any hope of a successful attack necessitating that the weapon be dropped at an altitude of no more than twenty-five feet with the aircraft flying at a maximum speed of eighty-six miles per hour. Malfunctioning torpedoes were the norm rather than the exception, and the survivability of torpedo planes flying “low and slow” was questionable. Noted a section of the Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet document “Aircraft Tactics—Development of” dated 3 February 1927: “Even with anti-aircraft gunfire in its present underdeveloped stage, torpedo planes cannot hope to successfully launch [an] attack from 2,000 yards and less.” By 1930, there were serious questions as to the wisdom of operating torpedo planes at all.

The introduction of the Mark XIII torpedo held enough promise for the continuation of the torpedo mission, the weapon capable of being launched at a range of 6,300 yards from altitudes of between 40 and 90 feet and at a speed of 115 mph. The weapon’s weight of 1,927 pounds mandated the introduction of a more capable torpedo plane, the Navy selecting another Douglas design, the TBD Devastator. First flown in 1935, the TBD was cutting edge for its era given the fact that it was a monoplane of all-metal construction with a top speed of over 200 mph. It would be upon the wings of the TBD that torpedo squadrons went to war in 1941 and 1942.

Developing alongside airborne torpedo attack as an element of naval aviation’s offensive arsenal was aerial bombing. Before World War I and in the years immediately following, battleship officers remained skeptical of the ability of an aircraft to sink a capital ship with bombs. Though bombing tests conducted by Army and Navy airplanes against antiquated U.S. ships and captured German vessels during 1921 proved a success in the damage they inflicted, the fact that the target ships were at anchor with no anti-aircraft defenses left many Navy officers skeptical. Yet, as the first decade of the 1920s progressed, bombing offered increasing promise. “The relative merits of the torpedo plane and the bombing plane has [sic] been a much mooted question recently,” Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics Rear Admiral William A. Moffett told an audience at the Army War College in 1925. “Potentially, the aircraft bomb is, I believe, the most serious menace which the surface craft has to face at the present time.” The following year, operations in the fleet focused on a particular type of bombing attack that offered the best chance to make Moffett’s potential menace a real one. On an October day off the coast of San Pedro, California, sailors on the decks of the battleships of the Pacific Fleet heard the whine of aircraft engines and spotted dark specks diving toward them. What they saw and heard were F6C Hawks of Fighting VF Squadron 2 making a simulated attack, the pilots positioning their planes in steep dives as they roared down on their targets. The event marked the first fleet demonstration of the tactic of dive-bombing, and less than two months later squadrons of Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet completed their first dive-bombing exercise.

As was the case with the development of torpedo aircraft, the evolution of bomber designs during the interwar years was in part driven by the increasing weight of the ordnance, their reason for being. Yet, most of the aircraft initially filling the “light bombing” role were not employed solely in that mission, the Bureau of Aeronautics as late as 1927 issuing the opinion that there was no need for a specialized aircraft for that task alone. Four years later the air groups in Lexington and Saratoga did not even include a bombing squadron, each carrier instead embarking two fighting squadrons with one devoted to the fighting mission and one to light bombing. Even the aircraft considered the first Navy design built specifically for dive-bombing, the Curtiss F8C, was a dual mission aircraft that operated in the fleet as a fighter bomber.

During the prewar years the fleet would never divest itself of using a multi-mission aircraft as a dive-bomber, but during the early 1930s the Bureau of Aeronautics issued requests for proposal for a new classification of aircraft called the scout-bomber to equip carrier-based scouting and bombing squadrons. This aircraft would fulfill the missions outlined in the war instructions of attacking enemy surface ships and scouting tactically. Among naval aircraft, the scout-bombers designed in the decade preceding World War II were among the most technologically advanced. The SBU was the first capable of exceeding 200 mph, its wings reinforced to handle the stress of steep dives carrying a 500-pound bomb, while the BF2C-1 Goshawk possessed an all-metal wing structure that made it even more durable in a dive. The SB2U Vindicator, ordered in 1934, was the sea service’s first monoplane scout-bomber. However, the greatest developments came with the Northrop BT-1 and the SBD Dauntless. The former, delivered in 1937, incorporated unique split flaps, the upper and lower flaps opening when the airplane was in a dive. When flight tests revealed extreme buffeting in the horizontal stabilizer, engineers added holes to the flaps, which remedied the problem and in dive-bombing runs slowed the aircraft and made it a stable bombing platform. This technology carried over to Douglas Aircraft Company’s SBD Dauntless, which boasted a top speed of 256 mph, could carry a 1,000-pound bomb, and had a maximum range of 1,370 miles in the scouting configuration. Enhancing the capabilities of these aircraft as dive-bombers was equipment such as telescopic sights and a bomb crutch, the ladder swinging ordnance away from the fuselage during a dive so that falling bombs did not strike the aircraft’s propeller.

In comparison to dive-bombers and torpedo planes, fighter aircraft had a sound foundation upon which to build during the interwar years, air-to-air combat having advanced more during World War I than other arenas of air warfare. Fighters provided cover for bases and ships against enemy air attack and protected bombing and torpedo planes en route to bomb enemy targets, their missions also including clearing the skies of enemy fighters and shooting down enemy scouting planes to deny information to enemy commanders. In short, on the wings of fighter planes rested the responsibility of gaining control of the air and maintaining air superiority, the ideal characteristics for aircraft tasked with this mission being speed, rate of climb, and maneuverability. These characteristics were greatly enhanced in naval aircraft by the introduction of air-cooled engines, embodied by the Pratt & Whitney Wasp. Unencumbered by a radiator that was standard on water-cooled engines, the Wasp was lighter, the savings in weight translating into improved performance. Endurance tests also revealed that air-cooled engines were more reliable, which was appealing for naval aircraft that operated over open ocean far removed from land bases.

As mentioned above, Navy fighters of the interwar era were viewed as multi-mission platforms, as evidenced by the fact that it was fighters that delivered the first successful fleet demonstration of a dive-bombing attack. The Bureau of Aeronautics, in issuing specifications to aircraft companies for the design of new fighter planes, routinely included parameters for the aircraft in the bombing role. As tactics developed during the 1920s and 1930s, however, air-minded officers came to the realization that saddling fighters with a bomb diminished their ability to provide air superiority. As Rear Admiral Harry E. Yarnell commented in 1932 during his tour as Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Force, “It is becoming increasingly evident that if the performance of fighters is to be improved . . . bombing characteristics of fighters must be made secondary to fighting characteristics.”

Yarnell’s letter coincided with the emergence of the first fighter designed by the relatively new Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, the FF-1. Delivered in 1933, the airplane boasted features new to Navy fighters, including an enclosed cockpit canopy, an all-metal fuselage, and retractable landing gear. Though its forward fuselage was bulbous in order to house the latter, the FF-1 had a top speed of 207 mph, this attribute becoming readily apparent to a U.S. Army Air Service squadron commander, who upon seeing one of the “Fifis” during a tactical exercise over Hawaii in 1933 decided to make a run on it. “Great was his amazement when his dive upon the innocent looking target failed to close the range.” One other aspect of the FF-1’s design was that it was a two-seater, with room for a pilot and observer, an arrangement more in line with torpedo and bombing planes. This fact sparked a debate among fighter pilots over the direction of design of future aircraft. In a 1935 memorandum to the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, the commanding officer of VF-5B noted the two-seat fighter’s superiority in escorting strike groups was possible because of the observer’s ability to scan the skies for enemy aircraft and proclaimed it less vulnerable to diving attack by enemy fighters for the same reason. The VF-5B skipper argued that the two-seater was equal to or superior to the single-seater in all tactical missions required of fighter aircraft. Conceding the general advantage of smaller, single-seat fighters in speed and maneuverability, he concluded that in naval warfare control of the air was obtained not by air-to-air superiority over enemy aircraft formations, but by knocking out the carriers from which the enemy planes operated. “In this the superior characteristic of the single-seater fighter can play little or no part.”

A tactical board convened by Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Force issued a report on the issue the following January, defining a fighter plane as a “high speed weapon of destruction against other aircraft.” The board criticized the dismissal of this fundamental mission of Navy carrier fighters, writing that the VF-5B commander’s report “gives undue importance to secondary fields of employment . . . emphasizing the suitability of the airplane for a function which is not one for which a VF [fighter plane] is properly suited.” The board concluded that “present VF aircraft in service are of practically no value as VF. They lack either necessary speed superiority over other types or necessary offensive armament, or both.”

This quest for speed would endure, with Grumman following up the FF-1 with first the F2F and then the F3F biplanes, each faster but limited in capability when compared with the Japanese A6M Zero also under development in the late 1930s (the A6M-2, which was operational in 1940, had a top speed of 331 mph compared to 264 mph for the F3F-3). Throughout the late 1930s the Bureau of Aeronautics initiated requests for proposals to the nation’s aircraft industry for fighter designs that emphasized speed and improved armament. In this approach of casting a wide net, the Navy received a variety of designs. Some, including the unorthodox twin-engine F5F Skyrocket, did not enter production, while others, namely Brewster’s F2A Buffalo monoplane, were put into production, but proved disappointing. The aircraft that emerged as the best that could be placed in production most quickly was Grumman’s F4F Wildcat, a monoplane successor to the company’s earlier biplane fighter designs, which with its super-charged engine achieved a maximum speed of 333.5 mph at an altitude of 21,300 feet and boasted four .50-caliber machine guns for armament. On it would rest the fortunes of Navy and Marine fighter squadrons until 1943.

The aircraft carrier and the airplanes that flew from her deck represented the cutting edge of naval aviation operations of the interwar years, with New York Times reporter Lewis R. Freeman capturing the public’s excitement over the ship’s unique operations in an article written in the aftermath of Fleet Problem IX. “Just about the most spectacular show in the world today . . . is the handling and manoevering [sic] of the great carriers Lexington and Saratoga,” he wrote. “The spectacle of launching and landing planes is fully up to the superlative scale of the ship itself. . . . In the darkness of early morning the effect is heightened by circles of spitting fire from the exhausts and the colored lights of the wings and tail.” However, the foundation upon which the airplane entered naval service was seaplanes and flying boats, and in the immediate postwar years they provided naval aviation’s first real integration with fleet operations.

Established in early 1919, Fleet Air Detachment, Atlantic Fleet, put to sea in exercises with surface forces, part of its operations being flights of wheeled aircraft from improvised decks on board battleships. However, significant attention was also devoted to flying boat operations and their support of surface ships, particularly in the spotting of naval gunfire. “For the first time in the history of the Navy, the actual setting of the sights was, to a large extent, controlled by the officers of the Airboat squadron,” read an air detachment report of 1920. “This marks the beginning of a new era in our naval gunnery.” Success in this role, the spotting of naval gunfire, led to the eventual assignment of detachments of seaplanes to cruisers and battleships as part of cruiser scouting (VCS) and observation (VO) squadrons, respectively. To fill this requirement, a number of aircraft procured by the Navy during the interwar years, including the VE-7, UO/FU, and O2U, could be operated in both the landplane and floatplane configuration. By the time the United States entered World War II, the principal aircraft flying in the scouting and observation roles were the Curtiss SOC Seagull and Vought OS2U Kingfisher, the latter a monoplane of which over a thousand were eventually produced.

Long-range scouting would become the domain of flying boats, the detachment demonstrating their endurance in a lengthy seven-month cruise with the fleet, logging 12,731 nautical miles, some 4,000 of which were in direct maneuvers with the fleet. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, flying boats and seaplane tenders formed Air Force, Pacific Fleet in July 1920, putting to sea for joint fleet exercises that demonstrated the scouting capabilities of Navy flying boats. During the cruise, wartime F-5L flying boats covered a distance of 6,076 miles in operations between California and Central America. Wrote Admiral Hugh Rodman, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, at the conclusion of the exercises, “The scouting work performed by the seaplanes was carried out to a distance of about one hundred and sixty-five miles from the bases and in weather which, except under war conditions, might have caused the commander of the force to hesitate about sending the planes into the air.”

U.S. Navy Aircraft Development, 1922–1945 Part II

During the late 1920s flying boat operations in the Navy began to stagnate as increasing emphasis and funding was devoted to aircraft carrier development. Though over the course of the ensuing years new designs appeared, they were, in the words of Rear Admiral A. W. Johnson in a paper on the development and use of patrol planes, “of no useful purpose except for training and utility services.” In contrast to the seagoing force that had demonstrated so much the potential of the flying boat in fleet operations in the immediate postwar years, Johnson, who commanded Aircraft, Base Force, noted that “patrol plane squadrons became in reality a shore based force,” with cruising reports of seaplane tenders during the late 1920s and early 1930s proof of the diminished employment of flying boats in fleet operations. Even the Consolidated Aircraft Company’s P2Y, which achieved fame when it equipped Patrol VP Squadron 10F in a record-setting non-stop flight between California and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in January 1934, had limitations: “[It] must operate from sheltered harbors, and can do nothing in the way of scouting and bombing that cannot be as equally well done by large land planes operating from established shore bases equipped with good flying fields.” Yet, landplanes for distant overwater flights were the exclusive domain of the Army Air Corps, a 1931 agreement between Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William V. Pratt preventing the Navy from operating long-range land-based aircraft.

Johnson’s comments came at a critical juncture for both the development of flying boats and the strategic requirements for their employment in the event of war. By the early 1930s, those officers working on War Plan Orange, the constantly evolving American strategy in the event of war with Japan, had begun to more appreciate the role of air power in a fleet engagement. With ships able to engage at greater distances, advance scouting, particularly in the open expanses of the Central Pacific, could prove a deciding factor between victory and defeat.35 For proponents of patrol aviation, this tactical and strategic requirement for flying boats coincided with the introduction of a plane that represented a tremendous advance in flying boat technology—the PBY Catalina.

With a maze of struts and wires between wings limiting the performance of earlier biplane designs, Consolidated Aircraft Company engineers drew up a flying boat built around a high-mounted parasol wing with minimal struts necessary because of internal bracing; this reduced drag, as did wing floats that retracted once airborne to form wingtips. Despite a gross weight that exceeded that of the P2Y it replaced, the PBY boasted a top speed nearly 40 miles per hour faster than that of the P2Y. Deliveries of the PBY began in 1936, and two years later fourteen Navy patrol squadrons operated the type. “I feel very strongly that when the PBY’s [sic] come into service, the Fleet will begin to realize the potentialities of VP’s [sic] [patrol planes],” wrote Rear Admiral Ernest J. King on the eve of the aircraft’s delivery, “and will begin to demand their services.”

Performance in fleet exercises validated the PBY’s capabilities as a long-range scout. Comments on patrol plane activities in Fleet Problem XVIII held in early 1937 concluded that they were capable of locating an enemy force within a five hundred- to one thousand-mile radius of their bases, night tracking, and high-altitude bombing. “Your patrol planes have certainly changed the whole picture in regard to tactics and even strategy,” Captain W. R. Furlong of the Bureau of Ordnance wrote King. Such was the range that the newly arrived Catalinas could reach; planners of future war games would have to “put the brakes on the patrol planes to keep them from finding out everything long before we could get the information from the cruisers and other scouts.”

The capabilities of the PBY, coupled with fatal crashes, spelled the end of the use of rigid airships as long-range scouts, an idea long championed by Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, the first chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. However, non-rigid airships, notably of the K-class would prove effective in long-range antisubmarine patrols during World War II.

Not as clear in discussions about patrol aviation was the advisability of using flying boats in a bombing role. There was indeed a precedent in the practice, F-5Ls having participated in the famous 1921 bombing tests against captured German warships and stricken U.S. Navy vessels. In 1934, while serving as Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral Ernest J. King had suggested that flying boats could serve as a first strike weapon in an engagement at sea, their attacks preceding those of carrier planes and surface forces. Correspondence between Captain John Hoover and Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves, the latter Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, the following year illuminated the problems with flying boats operating in this capacity. Umpires in fleet exercises determined that patrol planes would incur heavy losses and inflict insignificant damage to capital ships when used in the strike role, with Hoover pointing to the fact that the slow speeds and low service ceilings of patrol planes then in operation (the Consolidated P2Y and Martin PM) made attacks by them “suicidal.” “The way to utilize patrol planes for attacking must by re-studied from a practical viewpoint.” The introduction of the PBY Catalina (“PB” being the Navy designation for patrol bomber), which incorporated a nose compartment for a bombardier and provision to carry the Norden bombsight, offered more promise when it came to patrol bombing operations. However, as the author of the foremost study of planning for the war against Japan has noted, by 1940 the notion of operating flying boats as patrol bombers had been discounted. Yet, wartime necessity would awaken interest in flying boat offensive operations for the PBY and other flying boat designs of the 1930s, including the PBM Mariner and PB2Y Coronado.

By mid-1941, the year in which naval aviation entered the world’s second global war, the Secretary of the Navy could report a net increase of 82 percent over the previous fiscal year in the number of service aircraft on hand in the Navy’s inventory. His annual report noted emphasis being placed on development of dive-bombing and fighting aircraft of greater power, which was “vindicated in the service reports received from belligerents abroad.” Other technical adaptations based on wartime observations included such equipment as self-sealing fuel tanks and improved armor and firepower. “With the present international situation,” the secretary concluded, “it is imperative that all construction work on ships, aircraft and bases be kept at the highest possible tempo in order that the prospective two-ocean Navy become a reality at the earliest possible date.” The sudden events of the morning of 7 December 1941 shifted this tempo into previously unimagined levels, the events that occurred between that day and September 1945 representing the ultimate test for the technology and tactics that evolved during the previous two decades.

“When war comes,” Captain John Hoover wrote in 1935, “we will have just what is on hand at the time, not planes on the drafting board or projected.” For naval aviation, the combat aircraft flying from carrier decks, fleet anchorages, and airfields when war came had entered service between 1936 and 1940. Fortunately, however, the planes that eventually would replace or complement them were far removed from the drafting board. The prototype of the F6F Hellcat made its first flight just months after the Pearl Harbor attack, while the XF4U-1 Corsair had already demonstrated speeds of over four hundred mph during test flights in 1940. Similarly, prototypes of the SB2C Helldiver and TBF Avenger had already taken to the air by the time the United States entered World War II. And with the coming of war, the mobilization of industry translated into rapid transformation of prototypes into production versions of airplanes ready for combat, with American factories turning out an average of 170 airplanes per day from 1942 to 1945.

How did these airplanes fare in the crucible of combat? A telling statistic is found in an examination of air-to-air combat: During the period 1 September 1944–15 August 1945, the zenith of naval aviation power in the Pacific, in engagements with enemy aircraft, a total of 218 naval carrier–based and land-based fighters were lost in aerial combat, while Navy and Marine Corps FM Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, and F4U Corsair fighters destroyed 4,937 enemy fighters and bombers. Even during the period 1942–1943, when naval aviators flew the F4F Wildcat, which in comparison to the heralded Japanese Zero had an advantage only in its defensive armor and self-sealing fuel tanks, carrier-based and land-based Wildcat pilots splashed 905 enemy fighters and bombers. This came at a cost of 178 Wildcats destroyed and 83 damaged. Comparing the two eras, in all the action sorties flown by naval aircraft during 1942, 5 percent ended in the loss of the aircraft. In 1945, less than one-eighth of 1 percent of all action sorties resulted in a combat loss. While direct comparisons are not possible with other classes of aircraft, a look at the total number of sorties flown against land and ship targets by year is revealing. In the first two years of the war, 19,701 sorties were directed against ship and shore, a figure that for the years 1944–1945 jumped to 239,386!

A key reason for this increase was aircraft development. The carrier Enterprise (CV-6), at sea when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, had none of the same aircraft types on board when she operated off Japan in 1945. The F4U Corsair and F6F Hellcat by that time in the war boasted better top speeds, rate of climb, and performance at altitude than the most advanced versions of the Japanese navy’s Zero fighter. Similarly, the SB2C Helldiver and TBF/TBM Avenger, particularly once technical maladies were corrected in the former, proved to be more than comparable to the aircraft operated by the Japanese in the torpedo and bombing roles. In addition, Japanese aircraft to a great extent suffered from deficiencies in their armor protection, making them more susceptible to being shot down by Allied aircraft and antiaircraft gunners. Even though the Japanese did produce some very capable aircraft as the war progressed—among them the all-metal Yokosuka D4Y Suisei bomber that had a top speed comparable to many fighters and the Kawanishi N1K1-J/N1K5-J Shiden and Shiden Kai fighter, which in the hands of an experienced pilot could be more than a match for an Allied fighter—they appeared in too few numbers to have much effect on the outcome of the war. In addition, due to increasing Allied superiority in material, the successful campaign against Japanese merchant and combat ships, and the increasing conquest of territory, Japanese planes were at a strategic and tactical disadvantage before they even left the ground.

There is more to the story behind the statistics. First, sortie rates and the number of enemy aircraft destroyed rose in direct proportion to the growth of U.S. naval aviation. In 1941 there were 1,774 combat aircraft on hand in the U.S. Navy. By 1945 that figure had grown to 29,125. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Navy had a total of seven fleet carriers and one escort carrier in commission. Between that time and the end of the war, the Navy commissioned 102 flattops of all classes. Then there was the human factor. Imperial Japanese Navy and Army pilots generally remained in combat squadrons until they were killed or suffered wounds that rendered them unable to fly, this policy of attrition steadily reducing the quality of enemy pilots faced as the war progressed. This was apparent as early as late 1942, a Report of Action of Fighting Squadron (VF) 10 in November 1942 noting that the “ability of the enemy VF [fighter] pilots encountered in the vicinity of Guadalcanal is considered to be much inferior to the pilots encountered earlier in the war.” In contrast, experienced U.S. naval aviators rotated in and out of combat squadrons. For example, Lieutenant Tom Provost, designated a naval aviator during the late 1930s, flew fighting planes from the carrier Enterprise (CV-6) during the early months of World War II, including service at the Battle of Midway. His next tour was as a flight instructor, imparting knowledge to fledgling pilots before returning to the fleet in 1944 and 1945 to fly F6F Hellcat fighters off an Essex-class carrier. These naval aviators were well led and well trained. Fighter squadron commanders during the early months of the war, notably Lieutenant Commanders John S. Thach and James Flatley, proved adept at developing tactics to maximize the advantages of their aircraft over those of the enemy while the U.S. Navy’s longtime emphasis on teaching deflection shooting paid dividends in actual combat. The same imparting of lessons learned was standard in other types of squadrons as tactics developed throughout the war.

During World War II, were U.S. Navy aircraft employed in a manner envisioned during the interwar years and how did the ever-changing tactical environment affect the operations of naval aircraft? The answers to these questions provide an important framework in which to assess the history of aircraft development between 1922 and 1945.

Much prewar discussion centered on how naval aircraft could be most effective in a fleet engagement, and concerns expressed at that time about the vulnerability of torpedo planes proved well founded, with carrier-based torpedo squadrons at Midway suffering grievous losses. Despite the fact that even as late as May 1945, experienced carrier task force commander Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher still considered the torpedo “the major weapon for use against surface ships,” the number of torpedoes dropped at sea decreased as the war progressed. For carrier-based aircraft and land-based aircraft, during the first year of the war torpedoes accounted for 73 percent and 94 percent, respectively, of the total ordnance expended on shipping by weight. By 1945, those figures had dropped to 16 percent and 0 percent, respectively, and throughout the war only 1,460 torpedoes were dropped by naval aircraft. Factors contributing to these low numbers included the problematic aerial torpedoes in the U.S. inventory early in the war and the focus of carrier strikes in the war’s latter months being increasingly centered on hitting land targets. During 1945 the total tonnage of bombs dropped on land targets by Navy and Marine Corps aircraft was 41,555 as compared to just 4,261 tons of ordnance dropped on ships of all types during the same period.

Dive-bombing lived up to expectations as a tactic that could influence the outcome of a sea battle, a fact demonstrated in dramatic fashion in the sinking of four Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway. However, as evidenced by the statistic above, as the war moved ever closer to the Japanese home islands, targets for carrier-based dive-bombers were increasingly located ashore rather than afloat, with planes attacking harbor areas, transportation networks, and enemy airfields. It was in the bombing mission that wartime experience shuffled the prewar and early war composition of carrier air groups. Scouting squadrons, which in 1942 were equipped with the same airplane—the SBD Dauntless—as bombing squadrons on board carriers, were eliminated from carrier air groups by 1943. In addition, torpedo planes and fighters increasingly assumed some of the ground attack mission, the latter reawakening the fighter versus fighter bomber debate of the 1930s. Commanders had no choice but to use fighters in the bombing role during 1944 and 1945 when the advent of the kamikazes necessitated that the number of fighter planes in a carrier air group be increased dramatically. By war’s end, their numbers were double that of the combined number of torpedo and scout-bombers. In the fighter-bomber role, naval single-engine fighters from land and ship logged a comparable number of ground attack missions as that of airplanes designed as bombers. However, on these missions they expended primarily rockets and machine gun ammunition. The SBD Dauntless, SB2C Helldiver, and TBF/TBM Avenger proved the mainstay of the bombing mission, the latter aircraft proving to be one of the most versatile naval aircraft of the entire war. The dive-bombers carried 34 percent of all naval aviation’s bomb tonnage, while Avengers delivered 32 percent of the bomb tonnage and launched 29 percent of all rockets.

The employment of fighters in the bombing role was central to the debate about the composition of carrier air groups, the subject of much discussion as the war drew to a close. A 1944 survey of carrier division commanders on the subject revealed a consensus that the majority of airplanes on deck should be fighters, the problematic SB2C Helldiver perhaps influencing calls for fighters to assume a ground attack role in addition to the air-to-air mission. Vice Admiral Mitscher preferred dive-bombers over fighter bombers, telling Captain Seldon Spangler, who was on an inspection tour of the Pacific in 1945, that dive-bombers, even given the inadequacies of the SB2C, were better than the F4U Corsair in the bombing role. Wrote Spangler, “He thought it would be most desirable to get down to two airplane types aboard carriers, one to be the best fighter we can build, the other to be a high performance torpedo dive bomber.” Rear Admiral Gerald F. Bogan concurred to some degree. Although favoring the intensification of dive-bombing for fighting planes, he wrote “Do not emasculate the VF plane.” Interestingly, in production were two airframes that met Mitscher’s requirements, the BT2D (later AD) Skyraider, which combined the torpedo and bombing missions into one attack mission, and a pure fighter in the form of the F8F Bearcat. Interestingly, the F4U Corsair, which, after some technical problems were solved, became an excellent carrier plane and served for years after World War II on the basis of its capabilities as a fighter bomber.

“The Fleet is well satisfied with PBY-5A airplanes for use at Guadalcanal for night reconnaissance, bombing, torpedo attack, mining, etc.,” read an 28 April 1943, report to the Director of Material in the Bureau of Aeronautics. “They are not using these airplanes in the daytime except in bad visibility.” This concise summary of operations in the first part of the Pacific War reveals that in their decision to remove the flying boat from consideration as a long-range daylight bomber, prewar officers were correct about the platform’s capabilities. Action in the war’s early weeks proved the vulnerability of the lumbering PBYs to enemy fighters, with four of six PBYs of VP Patrol Squadron 101 shot down on a 27 December 1941, raid on Jolo in the central Philippines. However, under the cover of darkness, the aircraft proved highly effective in the ground attack mission. As prewar exercises demonstrated, PBYs performed well as long-range scouts, most notably in their locating elements of the Japanese fleet at Midway. Their ability to patrol wide expanses of ocean also made them effective as antisubmarine platforms against German U-boats as well as very capable search and rescue aircraft.

What could not have been foreseen during the 1930s in light of the division of roles and missions between the armed services was the successful operation of long-range multi-engine landplanes in naval aviation. As noted above, the Pratt-MacArthur agreement had given the Army Air Corps exclusive use of long-range land-based bombers to fill their role in coast defense, but with flying boats limited in daylight bombing, the Navy began pressing for the ability to operate multi-engine bombers from land bases. In July 1942 the Sea Service reached an agreement with the Army Air Forces (re-designation of Army Air Corps in 1941) to divert some production B-24 Liberators to the Navy for use as patrol bombers. The first of these airplanes, designated PB4Y- 1s, were delivered to the Navy in August, and the following year, with its focus on the strategic bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific, the Army Air Forces relinquished its role in antisubmarine warfare. Other aircraft eventually joined the PB4Y-1 in the patrol bombing role in both the European and Pacific theaters, including a modified Liberator designated the PB4Y-2 Privateer, the PBJ (Army Air Forces B-25) Mitchell, and the PV Ventura/Harpoon.

While the Army Air Forces employed their bombers in primarily in horizontal attacks, which were also carried out by Navy and Marine Corps medium bombers, many Navy crews specialized in low-level bombing, oftentimes dropping on enemy shipping at masthead level. A review of 870 PB4Y attacks against shipping revealed that over 40 percent of them resulted in hits. In addition, they were credited with downing over three hundred enemy planes, the PB4Ys being heavily armed with machine guns. Marine PBJs proved the workhorse of land-based patrol bombers, flying more than half of all action sorties flown. All told, patrol bombers, while flying just 6 percent of naval aviation’s action sorties, dropped 12 percent of all bomb tonnage delivered on targets during World War II.

A number of other operations involving naval aircraft are worthy of discussion in drawing conclusions about the development of naval aircraft through World War II. Radar-equipped aircraft made tremendous strides in operations after dark during World War II, completing some 5,800 action sorties from carriers and land bases. From a total of only 76 attacks (air-to-ground and air-to-air) against enemy targets in 1942, naval aviation night operations grew to include 2,654 nocturnal attacks in 1944. The PBYs would not have been able to have as much of an offensive impact as they did without their night attack capability. Carrier aircraft, despite fears about tying carriers to beachheads in support of amphibious operations, achieved a great deal of success in providing close air support to assault forces, primarily flying from escort carriers. Naval aircraft, including carrier-based ones, proved that they could neutralize land-based air power, with fighter sweeps focusing on enemy airfields on island chains and the Japanese homeland serving the purpose of striking potential attackers at their source. “Pilots must be impressed with the double profit feature of destruction of enemy aircraft,” read a June 1945 memorandum on target selection for Task Force 38 carriers operating off Japan. “Pilots must understand the principles involved in executing a blanket attack. The Blanket Operation is NOT a defensive assignment. It is a strike against air strength.” Finally, in the field of weapons development, the advances like electronic countermeasures equipment to thwart enemy radar and the introduction of high-velocity aircraft rockets (HVAR) made carrier aircraft more capable platforms, the latter yielding positive results particularly in close air support against enemy defensive positions.

In a speech delivered during the 1920s, Admiral William S. Sims remarked, “One of the outstanding lessons of the overseas problems played each year is that to advance in a hostile zone, the fleet must carry with it an air force that will assure, beyond a doubt, command of the air. This means not only superiority to enemy fleet aircraft, but also to his fleet and shore-based aircraft combined.” This statement reflected the essence of naval air power, and it can be argued that during the interwar years all aspects of aircraft development, from design to tactics, supported the drive of naval aviation advocates toward a fleet that reflected this vision. By 1945, at the end of the greatest war the world has ever known, a triumphant flight of hundreds of carrier planes over the battleship Missouri (BB 63) as the instrument of surrender was being signed on her deck was proof that the vision had been realized.

Coastal Command Post War I

Coastal Command had really earned its spurs during the Second World War; not only were its allocated squadrons involved hunting U-boats, they also carried out attacks on surface shipping and introduced a fully fledged search and rescue service to the great benefit of those it rescued. Having risen greatly throughout the war Coastal Command would be afflicted by a great contraction immediately afterwards. As many of the command’s aircraft were American Lend Lease, such as the Catalina, their operating units quickly disappeared. Also disappearing almost overnight were those units whose personnel were mainly drawn from the Commonwealth; they decamped home in many cases taking their aircraft with them. Changes were also wrought upon the strike squadrons as they disbanded very quickly.

These changes also set the course for the command’s future thus anti-submarine, search and rescue plus meteorological fights became the post-war duties of Coastal Command. The majority of service aircraft would also be scrapped as the majority were war weary. Beaufighters, Mosquitoes and Halifax patrol aircraft would be rounded up and reduced to produce. These aircraft were replaced by new build Avro Lancasters for use in the General Reconnaissance and air-sea rescue roles while the Short Sunderland was used in a similar role over longer ranges. Joining the Lancaster and Sunderland would be the Handley Page Hastings MR1, which equipped No. 202 Squadron based at Aldergrove while detachments were undertaken to North Front, Gibraltar. Originally the maritime reconnaissance tasks were assigned codenames, which were Epicure from St Eval, Nocturnal from Gibraltar and Bismuth from Aldergrove. When the eight Hastings came into service only the Bismuth task force remained and these were divided into tracks labelled A to O. Sorties were selected by the Chief Meteorological Officer and, on a normal day, only one track was selected and flown. Things changed during exercises and alerts when more missions were undertaken, some of them at night. The Bismuth sorties were being flown when weather satellites were no more than just a dream thus the Met flights were providing very important data not only to the military, but to the nascent and burgeoning airlines starting to cross the Atlantic en masse. The squadron continued to provide this service until August 1964 when it was disbanded.

While the Avro Lancaster GR3 was undertaking sterling work it had become obvious that it was becoming long in the tooth thus a more capable replacement was sought. Initially a version of the Avro Lincoln was mooted, however the potential lack of growth in what was basically a bomber design saw this idea sent back to the drawing board. To fill the gap between the Lancaster and its replacement an approach was made to the United States to provide Lockheed Neptunes under the Mutual Defence Aid Programme (MDAP). The version of Neptune supplied to the RAF was equivalent to the US Navy P2V-5 and came complete with nose and tail gun turrets although these were soon improved by the fitment of a clear Plexiglas nose while the tail turret was replaced by a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), sting tail. The first of fifty-two Neptunes were delivered to No. 217 Squadron based at St Eval in January 1952, although by April the squadron had moved to Kinloss. This first Neptune squadron was quickly joined by No. 210 Squadron based at Topcliffe in February 1953 while No. 203 Squadron, also at Topcliffe, received its complement by March 1953. No. 36 Squadron was the final unit to form, also at Topcliffe, was reforming in July 1953.

Although the Neptune squadrons were declared operational there were numerous technical problems experienced with the aircraft. Not only did the weapons systems fail to work correctly but some of the electronic systems were not fitted before delivery and the Americans were slow to deliver the missing boxes preferring to give priority to their own forces. By 1955 the Neptunes were fully modified and operational thus they were able to take part in a major exercise over the Bay of Biscay called Centre Board. While the majority of Neptunes concentrated on the maritime reconnaissance role four were utilized for a completely different role that would have far reaching consequences for the future. On 1 November 1952, four Lockheed Neptune MR Mk 1s formed the inventory of Vanguard Flight of Fighter Command based at RAF Kinloss. Their purpose was to research and develop tactics for use by Airborne Early Warning aircraft.

Although disbanded in June 1953 the four Neptune aircraft of Vanguard Flight were reformed as No. 1453 (Early Warning) Flight at RAF Topcliffe in Yorkshire. Despite their anonymous role the Neptunes of No. 1453 Flight appeared like normal aircraft to the public as they retained the full armament of the P2V-5 variant with nose, dorsal and tail turrets. Details of No. 1453 Flight’s operations are scant, leading to speculation that they may have been involved in highly classified reconnaissance missions over or near the Eastern Bloc countries in a similar manner to the US Navy’s Martin P4M Mercator ELectronic INTelligence (ELINT) aircraft, and the ‘Ghost’ North American RB-45 Tornados that flew with RAF crews and markings from RAF Sculthorpe, over eastern Europe to provide radar images of potential targets for RAF and Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers.

By 1957 there were sufficient replacements available to allow the Neptunes to be returned to America. No. 36 Squadron would disband in February 1957, although No. 203 had gone by August 1956. Other 1957 disbandments included No. 210 Squadron in January while No. 217 Squadron relinquished its aircraft two months later. No. 1453 Flight would end its mission in June 1956 with its machines returning home first.

Not only were the aircraft of Coastal Command changing so were its areas of responsibility. When NATO became operational in April 1951 the AOC-in-C Coast Command also became Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Atlantic. This change resulted in HQ Command issuing its projected mid-1953 deployment and equipment. The planned eight Shackleton squadrons covering long-range patrol and maritime reconnaissance were deployed thus: four were allocated to South Western Approaches, three to North West Approaches and a single unit to Gibraltar. All eight units had an aircraft inventory of eight aircraft each. The Short Sunderland was still in service at this time and its deployment included two squadrons each deployed to the southern and northern approaches. As all four units were due to be disbanded or re-equipped their inventory stood at five aircraft each. The Neptune squadrons were concentrated to the east; one was allocated to the north-eastern approaches while the remainder covered the Eastern approaches. In common with the Shackleton units each Neptune squadron was equipped with eight aircraft. Meteorological duties were covered by five Hastings aircraft based at Aldergrove and their duties were set by the Chief Meteorological Officer. By this time the command was operating helicopters for short-range rescue and communications duties, as the operating squadron was divided into flights the sixteen helicopters were dispersed around the country.

Coastal Command also had an extensive support network; most of it was active during peacetime although some organizations were wartime only. Providing training for the front-line squadrons was the School of Maritime Reconnaissance (SoMR) and the Anti-Submarine Warfare Development Unit, both of which moved into St Mawgan when it reopened in January 1951. Should war break out No. 16 Group would be reformed at Chatham to manage the three Neptune units charged with patrolling the eastern approaches while No. 17 Group would reform at Benson for training purposes with No. 19 Group moving to Liverpool to cover the port facilities. The duties of the SoMR included giving sprog maritime aircrew their initial training during a three-month period when 100 hours of training were flown, leaving the Operational Conversion Units to concentrate upon the individual aircraft.

It would be the arrival of the Shackleton that would bring a great leap in capability to Coastal Command. The progenitor of the Shackleton was designed by Roy Chadwick as the Avro Type 696. It was based on the Lincoln bomber and Tudor airliner, both derivatives of the successful wartime Lancaster heavy bomber, one of Chadwick’s earlier designs, which was the current MR aircraft. The design utilized the Lincoln centre wing section and tail unit assemblies bolted to which were the Tudor outer wings and landing gear. These in turn were married to a new wider and deeper fuselage while power was provided by four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. It was initially referred to during development as the Lincoln ASR3. The design was accepted by the Air Ministry as Specification R.5/46. The tail unit for the Shackleton differed from that of the Lincoln while the Merlin engines were replaced by the more powerful Rolls-Royce Griffons driving contra-rotating propellers. The Griffons were necessary due to the increased weight and drag and having a lower engine speed; they provided greater fuel efficiency for the long periods in the denser air at low altitudes that the Shackleton was intended for when hunting submarines better known as loitering.

The first test flight of the prototype Shackleton GR1, VW135, was undertaken on 9 March 1949 at the hands of Avro’s Chief Test Pilot J.H. Jimmy Orrell. In the antisubmarine warfare role, the Shackleton carried sonobuoys, electronic warfare support measures, an Autolycus diesel fume detection system and for a short time an unreliable magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) system. Available weaponry included nine bombs, three torpedoes or depth charges, while defensive armament included two 20mm cannon in a Bristol dorsal turret. The aircraft was originally designated GR1, although it was later redesignated the MR1. The Shackleton MR2 was an improved design incorporating feedback from the crews’ operational experience. The radome was moved from the earlier position in the nose to a ventral position, which improved radar coverage and minimized the risk of bird-strikes. Both the nose and tail sections were lengthened while the tailplanes were redesigned and the undercarriage was strengthened.

The Avro Type 716 Shackleton MR3 was a radical redesign of the aircraft in response to crew complaints. A new tricycle undercarriage was introduced while the fuselage was lengthened. Redesigned wings with better ailerons and tip tanks were introduced, although the span was slightly reduced. To improve the crews’ working conditions on fifteen-hour flights, the sound proofing was improved and a proper galley and sleeping space were included. Due to these upgrades the take-off weight of the RAF’s MR3s had risen by over 30,000lb and assistance from Armstrong Siddeley Viper Mk 203 turbojets was needed on take-off, although these extra engines were not added until the aircraft went through the Phase 3 upgrade. This extra weight and increased fatigue consumption took a toll on the airframe thus the service life of the RAF MR3s was sufficiently reduced that they were outlived by the MR2s. In an attempt to take the design further the Avro Type 719 Shackleton IV was proposed. Later redesignated as the MR4 this was a projected variant using the extremely fuel efficient Napier Nomad compound engine. Unfortunately for Avro the Shackleton IV was cancelled in 1955 as the RAF was shrinking as financial cuts and a contraction of responsibilities was taking place.

The Shackleton MR1 entered service with the Coastal Command Operational Conversion Unit at Kinloss in February 1951. Even as the first Shackletons were entering service with the newly created No. 236 OCU the Royal Navy was trying to scupper the whole of Coastal Command. Their plan was to scrap Avro’s finest and replace them with a fleet of Fairey Gannets operating off small aircraft carriers in midocean while further aircraft would cover the inshore areas. Once the idea had been fully costed it was obvious that the whole plan was fundamentally flawed. Within the command itself the flying boat lobby was also reacting vociferously putting forward the type as a more flexible design, however this too was shot down in flames when it was pointed out that rough sea conditions would either stop them flying or actually wreck the aircraft. Also, flying boats were inherently slow and heavy and the proliferation of runways of sufficient length were springing up all over the world and many of these countries were still susceptible to British entreaties.

No. 224 Squadron based at Aldergrove would be the first unit to receive the Shackleton MR1 in July 1951 replacing the unit’s weary Handley Page Halifax GR6s. Other units that received the Shackleton MR1 included No. 220 Squadron, which initially formed at Kinloss in September 1951 although the unit moved to St Eval in November. In May 1952 No. 269 Squadron based in Gibraltar received its allocation of MR1s while its crews were formed from the nucleus of No. 224 Squadron. By March, however, the entire squadron had returned to Britain taking up residence at Ballykelly. No. 120 Squadron had already been equipped with the Shackleton MR1 in March 1951 while based at Kinloss, although this tenure was short as the entire unit decamped to Aldergrove in April 1952. While at Aldergrove No. 120 Squadron provided the nucleus for No. 240 Squadron, which was also based there. The squadron quickly moved to its new base at St Eval for a few weeks before settling at Ballykelly. No. 240 Squadron would later be renumbered as No. 203 Squadron in November 1958, although this unit would be equipped with the MR1A version that featured slightly more powerful engines amongst other improvements. The Shackleton MR1A was also used by No. 42 Squadron based at St Eval retaining this model until July 1954. No. 206 Squadron was also based at St Eval when it re-equipped with the MR1A in September 1952; the squadron retained this model until May 1958. The last unit to equip with the MR1A was No. 204 Squadron, which traded in its more advanced Shackleton MR2s for the less capable MR1As in May 1958 while stationed at Ballykelly. The MR1As remained in use until February 1960, although by this time the squadron had received some MR2Cs that it retained until March 1971.

The arrival of the Shackleton MR2 would improve the capabilities of the MR squadrons and, in most cases, this new marque would replace the MR1/1A in use. Deliveries to operational units began in 1953 with first deliveries being made to No. 42 Squadron. Initially the squadron retained some of its complement of MR1As until July 1954 as the entry of the MR2 into service was slow, although once the technical problems had been ironed out the type served until 1966. No. 206 Squadron would receive some MR2s in February 1953, although they were dispensed with in June 1954, the unit retaining its complement of MR1As throughout this period. In January 1958 No. 206 Squadron departed St Eval for St Mawgan, remaining there until July 1965 when a further transfer was made to Kinloss. In March 1953 two units would start to accept deliveries of Shackleton MR2s. The first would be No. 240 Squadron based at Ballykelly, although their tenure was short as they were dispensed with in August 1954, the unit resuming operations with MR1s. By November 1958 No. 204 Squadron had been renumbered as No. 203 Squadron still at Ballykelly. No. 203 Squadron would later receive MR2s in April 1962, retaining them until December 1966. The other unit that gained MR2s would be No. 269 Squadron, also based at Ballykelly. The initial allocation lasted until August 1954, the squadron resuming operations flying its original MR1s, which remained the case until October 1958 when a new batch of Shackleton MR2s was received. By December No. 269 Squadron had been renumbered as No. 210 Squadron as part of the contraction of the RAF and the desire of Coastal Command to retain significant unit number plates. No. 210 Squadron would remain as part of Coastal Command and into the early days of Strike Command before disbanding on 31 October 1970 only to reappear the following day as a Near East Air Force squadron.

No. 120 Squadron was based at Aldergrove and had a bit of a hit and miss affair with the Shackleton MR2. The first deliveries were made in April 1953, although all had been returned by August 1954, the unit resuming operations with its MR1s. The squadron received another allocation of MR2s in October 1956 and retained these until November 1958. No. 224 Squadron had slightly better luck with its MR2 allocation that was taken on charge in May 1953, retaining them until disbandment in October 1966.

Ballykelly would also be home to No. 204 Squadron, which had last been in existence as a Vickers Valetta unit before renumbering as No. 84 Squadron in February 1953. The squadron would receive its complement of MR2s in January 1954, which remained in use until May 1958 when they were replaced by Shackleton MR1As. These remained in service until February 1960 by which time the first of the replacement MR2s had arrived. No. 204 Squadron retained its MR2Cs until disbandment in March 1971. The MR2C model differed from the basic MR2 in that it was fitted with the avionics suite from the later MR3. Instead of a base transfer No. 204 Squadron would be disbanded on 1 April 1971 reforming on the same date at Honington. The squadron would supply detachments to Majunga, Tengah and Masirah – the unit had originally been known as the Majunga Detachment Support Unit. The purpose of the Majunga, Madagascar, detachment was to provide aircraft for the blockade of Rhodesia. When the Rhodesian blockade was withdrawn in 1972 No. 204 Squadron was disbanded, its Tengah and Masirah patrols being covered by other units on rotation.

The Shackleton MR2 underwent extensive trials of its avionics and remedial work on its engines, which had a tendency to throw spark plugs from their cylinder heads and required an overhaul every 400 hours. Trials were carried out with the MR2 at the Anti Submarine Warfare Development Unit (ASWDU) covering the performance of the ASV Mk 13 and extensive trials of the RCM/ECM suite before they were cleared for use. The Autolycos diesel fume detection system was also put through its paces before being cleared for service use. Other trials undertaken by the MR2 included the Glow Worm illuminating rocket system, the Shackleton replacing the last Lancaster in operational use. At least one MR2 was utilized for MAD sting trials, although both it and the rocket were dropped. However, the former would equip the later MR3 once all the bugs had been ironed out. Fortunately, the Orange Harvest ECM system, homing torpedoes and the various sonic buoys at least were successful.

The genesis of the Shackleton MR3 would rest upon the need for Coastal Command to cover its projected strength of 180 front-line aircraft by 1956. Although other projects had been put forward the Air Staff finally plumped for the Avro product, issuing OR.320 in January 1953. The first Shackleton MR3 made its maiden flight on 2 September 1955, although production aircraft did not reach service until 1957 by which time some of the contracts had been cancelled. The MR3 was a complete contrast to the earlier models in that it was carried on a tricycle undercarriage, had wing-tip mounted fuel tanks, modified ailerons, a clear view canopy and a sound proofed wardroom to help alleviate the effects of long patrols. Defensive armament consisted of a pair of nose-mounted 20mm cannon, the upper turret being deleted. During 1966 a programme was instituted to upgrade the MR3, the most obvious change being the fitment of a Bristol-Siddeley Viper engine in each outboard engine nacelle resulting in the type being designated the MR3/3.

First deliveries were made to No. 220 Squadron based at St Mawgan in August 1957, although the unit retained some of its MR2s. The squadron had a short existence as it was renumbered as No. 201 Squadron in October 1958. This unit would last a lot longer than its predecessor as it remained as a Shackleton operator until 1970 having moved to Kinloss in December 1965. Close on the heels of No. 220 Squadron to equip with the Shackleton MR3 was No. 206 Squadron, also based at St Mawgan. This unit traded in its 5/3 mix of MR1As and MR2s for a similar number of the new model in January 1958. No. 206 Squadron would also move to Kinloss, departing St Mawgan in July 1965 and remaining there until re-equipping in August 1970.

St Mawgan was also the home for No. 42 Squadron, although this unit would continue to fly some of its MR2s alongside the MR3s after their delivery in November 1965, retaining them until replacement in September 1971. Ballykelly and No. 203 Squadron would be the final recipient of the Shackleton MR3 in June 1966 having first used this model between December 1958 and July 1962. No. 202 Squadron would leave Coastal Command in February 1969 when it was transferred to Luqa, Malta, as part of Near East Air Force (NEAF).

Development of weaponry for the Shackletons continued apace with the Mk 30 Homing Torpedo finally being cleared for service in March 1955 after a period spent trying to get the delicate mechanisms to work properly under operational conditions. With this weapon in service it would see the final demise of the depth charge as the primary anti-submarine weapon. To complement the Mk 30 development work was also taking place on an active homing torpedo codenamed Petane. Unfortunately, delays in clearing the torpedo for service use would result in cancellation and its replacement by the American Mk 43 weapon although the latter’s strike rate was less than that of the British weapon. Also missing from the Shackleton fleet was an airborne lifeboat that had been prominent under the Lancaster GR3s. Although a boat was planned for the Shackleton it was never developed and the fleet was supplied with Lindholme gear that became a standard throughout the command. Avionics for the Shackleton were also under continual improvement, Orange Harvest was constantly being improved while a Doppler system known as Blue Silk was also developed, which was an improvement on the Green Satin system. The primary radar system installed in the Shackleton was the AN/ASV-21 developed for submarine detection; this too was in a state of constant development in order to improve its capability and its ease of operation.

Coastal Command Post War II

Avro Shackleton MR3

This period was also one of confusion, while the Neptunes and Shackletons remained a constant Coastal Command was also looking at extending the lives of ten of the command’s Short Sunderlands however as the type would need extensive and expensive upgrades to its avionics and weapons systems. Another Short product, the Seamew, was also intended for Coastal Command use, the intention being to base flights at St Mawgan and Ballykelly. However, this was a period of defence cuts thus all programmes were put under close scrutiny. The result of this was the cancellation of the Sunderland life extension while the Seamew programme was cancelled as its handling, performance and overall usefulness was questioned.

The Shackleton was also accumulating secondary roles such as trooping, which was tested to the full during Operation Encompass undertaken during January when 1,200 troops were flown to Cyprus to counter terrorist activity. Colonial policing also became a Shackleton role, being allocated to No. 42 Squadron, which took over the task from Bomber Command. These extra duties helped the AOC-in-C to counter the desire of the Air Ministry to reduce the overall strength. Initially it was proposed that the entire force would be four active units although Coastal Command would counter with a need for a minimum of nine squadrons operating in the MR role, one covering MR and Met while sixteen older MR1/T4s would be operated by the Maritime Operational Training Unit, formed from No. 236 OCU and the SMR at Kinloss on 1 October 1956, while a further three aircraft would be used for trials work.

1957 was a tumultous year for Coastal Command. The Sunderlands had finally retired resulting in the final closure of Pembroke Dock while St Eval would suffer a similar fate as Nos 220 and 228 Squadrons would move to St Mawgan to prepare for the Shackleton Mk 3 as St Eval was not capable of supporting this model. When No. 42 Squadron departed for colonial policing duties in Aden this sounded the death knell thus St Eval was finally closed in 1959.

The genesis of the Shackleton MR3 would rest upon the need for Coastal Command to cover its projected strength of 180 front-line aircraft by 1956. Although other projects had been put forward the Air Staff finally plumped for the Avro product, issuing OR.320 in January 1953. The first Shackleton MR3 made its maiden flight on 2 September 1955, although production aircraft did not reach service until 1957 by which time some of the contracts had been cancelled. The MR3 was a complete contrast to the earlier models in that it was carried on a tricycle undercarriage, had wing-tip mounted fuel tanks, modified ailerons, a clear view canopy and a sound proofed wardroom to help alleviate the effects of long patrols. Defensive armament consisted of a pair of nose-mounted 20mm cannon, the upper turret being deleted. During 1966 a programme was instituted to upgrade the MR3, the most obvious change being the fitment of a Bristol-Siddeley Viper engine in each outboard engine nacelle resulting in the type being designated the MR3/3.

First deliveries were made to No. 220 Squadron based at St Mawgan in August 1957, although the unit retained some of its MR2s. The squadron had a short existence as it was renumbered as No. 201 Squadron in October 1958. This unit would last a lot longer than its predecessor as it remained as a Shackleton operator until 1970 having moved to Kinloss in December 1965. Close on the heels of No. 220 Squadron to equip with the Shackleton MR3 was No. 206 Squadron, also based at St Mawgan. This unit traded in its 5/3 mix of MR1As and MR2s for a similar number of the new model in January 1958. No. 206 Squadron would also move to Kinloss, departing St Mawgan in July 1965 and remaining there until re-equipping in August 1970.

St Mawgan was also the home for No. 42 Squadron, although this unit would continue to fly some of its MR2s alongside the MR3s after their delivery in November 1965, retaining them until replacement in September 1971. Ballykelly and No. 203 Squadron would be the final recipient of the Shackleton MR3 in June 1966 having first used this model between December 1958 and July 1962. No. 202 Squadron would leave Coastal Command in February 1969 when it was transferred to Luqa, Malta, as part of Near East Air Force (NEAF).

Development of weaponry for the Shackletons continued apace with the Mk 30 Homing Torpedo finally being cleared for service in March 1955 after a period spent trying to get the delicate mechanisms to work properly under operational conditions. With this weapon in service it would see the final demise of the depth charge as the primary anti-submarine weapon. To complement the Mk 30 development work was also taking place on an active homing torpedo codenamed Petane. Unfortunately, delays in clearing the torpedo for service use would result in cancellation and its replacement by the American Mk 43 weapon although the latter’s strike rate was less than that of the British weapon. Also missing from the Shackleton fleet was an airborne lifeboat that had been prominent under the Lancaster GR3s. Although a boat was planned for the Shackleton it was never developed and the fleet was supplied with Lindholme gear that became a standard throughout the command. Avionics for the Shackleton were also under continual improvement, Orange Harvest was constantly being improved while a Doppler system known as Blue Silk was also developed, which was an improvement on the Green Satin system. The primary radar system installed in the Shackleton was the AN/ASV-21 developed for submarine detection; this too was in a state of constant development in order to improve its capability and its ease of operation.

This period was also one of confusion, while the Neptunes and Shackletons remained a constant Coastal Command was also looking at extending the lives of ten of the command’s Short Sunderlands however as the type would need extensive and expensive upgrades to its avionics and weapons systems. Another Short product, the Seamew, was also intended for Coastal Command use, the intention being to base flights at St Mawgan and Ballykelly. However, this was a period of defence cuts thus all programmes were put under close scrutiny. The result of this was the cancellation of the Sunderland life extension while the Seamew programme was cancelled as its handling, performance and overall usefulness was questioned.

The Shackleton was also accumulating secondary roles such as trooping, which was tested to the full during Operation Encompass undertaken during January when 1,200 troops were flown to Cyprus to counter terrorist activity. Colonial policing also became a Shackleton role, being allocated to No. 42 Squadron, which took over the task from Bomber Command. These extra duties helped the AOC-in-C to counter the desire of the Air Ministry to reduce the overall strength. Initially it was proposed that the entire force would be four active units although Coastal Command would counter with a need for a minimum of nine squadrons operating in the MR role, one covering MR and Met while sixteen older MR1/T4s would be operated by the Maritime Operational Training Unit, formed from No. 236 OCU and the SMR at Kinloss on 1 October 1956, while a further three aircraft would be used for trials work.

1957 was a tumultous year for Coastal Command. The Sunderlands had finally retired resulting in the final closure of Pembroke Dock while St Eval would suffer a similar fate as Nos 220 and 228 Squadrons would move to St Mawgan to prepare for the Shackleton Mk 3 as St Eval was not capable of supporting this model. When No. 42 Squadron departed for colonial policing duties in Aden this sounded the death knell thus St Eval was finally closed in 1959.

Coastal Command underwent further contractions as some of the Shackleton MR1s were converted to T4 trainers, although some aircraft were gained when the Joint Anti-Submarine School was disbanded releasing a handful of aircraft for front-line duties. Although the MR3 had been cleared for squadron use it was restricted until some of the problems such as hydraulic malfunctions and engine fading were ironed out. It had been intended that No. 228 Squadron would be the first to re-equip, although the deteriorating state of the aircraft flown by No. 220 Squadron hastened their replacement. Even so, given the problems experienced with the MR3 the squadron continued to operate the MR1 alongside the newer machine. Maintaining the operational front-line strength for Coastal Command was becoming more difficult as the extra duties piled up. Not only were colonial duties carrying on longer than expected, other aircraft were being diverted to protect the zone in the Hebrides missile range.

In March 1957 the Jordanian government severed the long-standing treaty ties with Britain therefore over the next few months the British started to remove stores from the two RAF bases and from Aqaba. By 6 July 1957 a ceremonial guard from the 10th Hussars and the Middlesex Regiment handed over the base to the Jordan Arab Army. During July 1958 a call for assistance came from King Hussein of Jordan and the 16th Para Brigade responded sending the 2nd Battalion Para to Amman airfield on 17 July courtesy of some Coastal Command Shackletons. A flight of Hawker Hunter fighters followed in the afternoon, followed by Blackburn Beverly transports with the 33rd Para Field Regiment aboard. Their task was to defend the hills overlooking the runway of Amman’s aerodrome. By mid-October the situation had eased thus the paratroops were withdrawn on 2 November.

In June 1958 intensive flying trials began with the Shackleton MR3, the plan being to fly 1,000 hours in nine weeks. Taken into consideration was the projected fatigue life of 3,000 airframe hours, although it was thought that none of the airframes would ever reach that figure. Even so, it was planned that modifications to the MR3 would include airframe strengthening when the Phase 1 modification programme was undertaken. While the MR3 was undertaking its flight trials revised fatigue life figures for the earlier models had been calculated. Unlike more modern aircraft the fatigue life for such aircraft was calculated on the life of the main spar structure. Without any modifications the spar life for both the MR1 and MR2 would be limited to between 2,500 and 2,700 hours. This put Coastal Command in a difficult position as the MR3 was still not fully up to speed while the earlier models required major upgrading to continue in service. Adding to the woes of the AOC-in-C Coastal Command had been informed that it was intended to reduce the command to only six squadrons flying thirty-six aircraft with a handful of spares to cover overhauls.

At the beginning of 1959 No. 42 Squadron was replaced by No. 224 Squadron for colonial policing duties the former returning home to St Mawgan. By March 1959 the Coastal Command strength had dropped to twenty-four aircraft but nevertheless No. 120 Squadron despatched aircraft to take part in Exercise Dawn Breeze IV, which was followed by preparations for Calypso Strait, a tour of the Caribbean, although this was extended due to unrest in British Honduras, better known as Belize. By mid June the Shackleton fleet was in trouble again as all those aircraft that had more than 2,150 hours on the clock were grounded due to cracks in the main spars. This affected all of the earlier versions thus a substitute had to be found to keep the pilots current. To that end the squadrons were supplied with a handful of Vickers Varsities while MOTU crew training was carried out using Shackleton MR3s that were still cleared for flying. With no replacement in sight an accelerated programme of modifications was put in place, the intention being to relife the spar for a total life of 5,000 hours. This programme saw the first reworked aircraft return to their squadrons in August 1959 with the entire fleet being back in service by October.

The early months of 1960 saw the Phase I update programme completed, which was immediately followed by the start of Phase II, although this concentrated on updating the aircraft’s avionics and the weapons capability, with the American Mk 44 torpedo being added to the incumbent Mk 30 torpedo. Even as the Shackleton fleet was being upgraded the Air Ministry was undertaking the machinations of selecting a replacement. However, this was not the easy task as it first seemed, as not only was the RAF looking for a replacement, NATO and the US Navy were also on the hunt for a replacement for the venerable Lockheed P-2 Neptune. Like many of the proposed joint programmes none of the participants could agree on exactly what was required. The outcome was that the United States selected another Lockheed product, the P-3 Orion, while those interested parties in NATO selected the Breguet 1150 Atlantique. Both these designs were rejected by the RAF and Air Ministry; the P-3 was considered too slow while the Atlantique was rejected as it only had two engines and was considered to have too low a safety margin for long-range operations. Eventually OR.350 was issued, requesting a new aircraft to be ready for service in 1960, although as with most projects it would be subject to time slip.

Exercises would occupy the Shackleton squadrons during the 1960s. In July 1960 three Shackletons from No. 204 Squadron departed Ballykelly to undertake Operation Calypso Stream III that involved visiting Bermuda, Jamaica, British Honduras and Trinidad, the distance covered being 10,000 miles. Having returned home to Ballykelly No. 204 Squadron would join the rest of Coastal Command and Bomber Command in preparing for Exercise Fallex 60. This was a large NATO exercise that combined numerous exercises into one. This involved Blue Shield First/Second Watch, antisubmarine and shipping exercises, Sword Thrust, Bomber Command attacks plus Coffer Dam and Ballast One. Also involved in this exercise were units from the RCAF plus the carriers USS Saratoga and Shangri La from the US Navy. The Fallex exercises that followed were all of a similar nature, however Fallex 62 was a completely different matter. This was a full simulation of an all-out attack against NATO complete with an armoured attack backed up by a full range of nuclear weapons. Within the first few days the entire exercise had come to a shuddering halt as the projected loss of life inflicted by the enemy orange forces, between 19–15 million dead in Britain alone, revealed that NATO was completely unprepared for such an assault.

On a lighter note the Aird Whyte Competition between the squadrons of Coastal Command was revamped as the Fincastle Trophy. This would, and still does, involve crews and aircraft from Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. 1961 was also notable for a threatened invasion of Kuwait by an unstable Iraq regime. As Britain was still providing security for the country Operation Vantage was launched to provide troops, aircraft and naval forces. For the Shackleton squadrons this meant that No. 42 Squadron would be placed on standby while Nos 203 and 204 Squadrons would be used to transport some equipment for Bomber Command. Fortunately for the Iraqis they had the sense to withdraw from the border while the Arab League would take over the security of Kuwait.

1963 was also an exciting year for the Shackleton squadrons. In August No. 201 Squadron sent a detachment to Nassau their brief being to deter Cuban forces attempting to capture refugees seeking political asylum. During their eight-week detachment the squadron undertook general surveillance and anti-smuggling patrols plus flew relief supplies into Mayaguana Island after it was devastated by a hurricane. A further detachment, this time provided by No. 210 Squadron, was deployed to Cyprus in December due to yet another round of trouble between the Greeks and the Turks. The trouble between the two ethnic groups continued until August 1964, resulting in the squadron having to send a rotating detachment to keep the aircraft flying. During this same period the Shackletons of Nos 120, 201, 204 and 206 Squadrons undertook Operation Adjutant, which was intended to assess the movements of Russian submarines passing through the choke area to the north of Britain. During this period over 2,000 hours were flown until August when the operation was completed.

September 1964 would see the whole of Coastal Command involved in Exercise Teamwork, which included the crews and senior students from MOTU that became the shadow unit No. 220 Squadron for the period. Most of the squadrons operated around Britain although No. 204 Squadron would fly to Norway from Gibraltar and operate out of Bodø while part of No. 203 Squadron would also travel north but only as far as Kinloss. A reshuffle of the Shackleton squadrons would take place in early 1965 as it had been determined that the greatest threat to shipping approaching the British Isles was from the Soviet Northern Fleet. To that end No. 201 Squadron was transferred from St Mawgan to Kinloss in July 1965 while MOTU came the other way. Kinloss thus became the home for No. 18 Group’s assets while St Mawgan was home to No. 42 Squadron, the sole operational unit of No. 19 Group. From October the Kinloss-based squadrons took over the Affluent detachments, incorporating the Hornet Moth patrols. To Coastal Command these patrols in this undeclared war with Indonesia were a drain of resources. Fortunately the confrontation would eventually end in August 1966.

Exercise Calpurnia held during December 1965 involved all of the Coastal Command squadrons and required the crews to detect and carry out mock attacks against submarines provided by the Royal Navy. As ever the command was operating under financial constraints thus the planning staff had to contend with the day-to-day running and increasing overseas commitments, very much a case of doing more with even less. To that end more overseas detachments were undertaken in order to give the crews as much experience as possible. 1966 would also see No. 42 Squadron undertaking the final Exercise Capex to South Africa; these detachments were discontinued due to increasing pressure from the rest of the world concerning apartheid. No. 42 Squadron would also take over the Mizar patrols operating from Majunga in support of the Rhodesian blockade during which they acted in conjunction with Royal Navy patrols.

The operational squadrons had already received their initial allocation of Phase III Shackletons, which allowed some of the earlier MR2s to be modified to Phase III standard. Some of these aircraft would be transferred to MOTU to replace the outmoded Shackleton T4s. It was also at this time that centralized servicing and wing pooling of aircraft became a fact of life. Conceived as yet another means to save money both these ideas would result in loss of morale in both aircrew and ground crew. Adding to the work load of the Coastal Command stations was the news that Britain would withdraw from Aden in 1967. This news would see internecine fighting between the various tribal factions and increased attacks on British forces in theatre. As with all such conflicts in the Middle East the trouble soon spread to the remainder of the Persian Gulf. In order to monitor the possibility of illegal weaponry entering the area a MARDET (Maritime Detachment) was established at Sharjah, the crews and aircraft coming from the Kinloss wing. Not aiding the situation was further trouble in Cyprus that required more reinforcements from Britain.

From January 1968 the Shackleton T2 Phase IIIs entered service with MOTU, although the last T4 would hang onto July. The re-equipment of MOTU would bring benefits to Coastal Command as the new aircraft were equipped to the same standard as the operational units as No. 38 Squadron had just disbanded. This coupled with an increase in Soviet naval activity in the Mediterranean required that a detachment be sent to Luqa, Malta, from No. 42 Squadron for three months before No. 203 Squadron was permanently transferred to NEAF in February 1969.

On the re-equipment front both the British Aircraft Corporation and Hawker Siddeley Aircraft presented responses to OR.350. By June 1963 it had been revamped by the Ministry of Defence as Air Staff Target 357 and this was to be based upon existing designs thus the Trident and VC 10 and the Comet were in the running. Eventually, Hawker Siddeley won the competition and utilized two redundant Comet 4 airframes to create the HS801 prototypes. Both airframes flew in 1967, although the Nimrod did not enter service until 1968.

Coastal Command would be a pioneer in the use of the helicopter in the role of airsea rescue. The first machine utilized was the Bristol Sycamore, a small batch of four being delivered to St Mawgan for trials with the ASWDU for anti-submarine and rescue trials. No. 22 Squadron would reform at Thorney Island in March 1955 and take over the four Sycamore HC12s as their first equipment, retaining them until January 1956. While No. 22 Squadron was developing search and rescue techniques the Air Ministry was authorizing the use of the Westland Whirlwind as the primary aircraft in this role. The squadron received its first Whirlwind HAR2s in June 1955 while still based at Thorney Island. The HQ and A Flight were based at Thorney Island while B Flight was based at Martlesham Heath and Felixstowe with C Flight located at Valley. Twelve months later the HQ and A Flight had moved to St Mawgan with an outstation at Chivenor that had originally been part of No. 257 Squadron. The other flights were located at Felixstowe, Tangmere and Coltishall, all part of B Flight. C Flight had aircraft based at Valley while D Flight had aircraft operating at Thorney Island, Manston and Brawdy. The HAR2s were retained until August 1962 when the turbine-powered Whirlwind HAR10s were received, remaining in service until November 1981. On 27 November 1969 Air Marshal Sir John Lapsley would take the flypast salute at St Mawgan on the disbandment of Coastal Command, comprising two Westland Whirlwinds, nine Shackletons and a single Nimrod. The following day No. 18 (Maritime) Group took over the assets at Northwood while the existing headquarters at Pitreavie Castle, 18 Group, and Mount Devon, No. 19 Group, became the headquarters of the Northern and Southern Maritime Air Regions respectively.

Late-WWII Luftwaffe Training

At this stage the Jagdflieger was of very mixed worth; undertrained and inexperienced pilots, leavened with old stagers who were very dangerous but too few in number, equipped with fighters that were basically good, and in some cases excellent, but were only effective in the right hands. From October 1944, they were increasingly handicapped by a shortage of fuel.

Wars of attrition against both Britain and the Soviets overwhelmed the Luftwaffe’s relatively small training system. Training programmes were truncated to speed up the flow of replacements. By July 1944 the average new Luftwaffe pilot was arriving on the front line with around 120 flying hours, just 15- 20 of them on his operational type. By contrast, American pilots were receiving 400 hours training, nearly half of it on their operational type, and RAF pilots around 350 hours, 100 of them on operational types.

The training accident rate soared until sometimes a third of each intake was lost before even qualifying, wasting not only personnel but also aircraft. Oil shortages also cut training hours, until the flow of pilots was reduced to just 30 per cent of the system’s theoretical monthly capacity. Personnel were not taught basic skills in instrument flying or tactics. From mid-1942, the strengths of front-line units gradually declined, reaching around 60 per cent of authorised pilots and 70 per cent of authorised aircraft by September 1944. It is telling that of the 107 German pilots credited with shooting down 100 or more enemy aircraft, only eight of them entered front line service after June 1942. The quality of German aircrew was decreasing and the quality of their foes improving.

When the Ardennes offensive was launched on 16 December 1944, appalling weather kept the Luftwaffe grounded. Instead, they became dragged into a piecemeal war of attrition, flying when the weather allowed, and losing 891 aircraft and 478 aircrew in just ten days of operations.

By 31 December 1944, the German fighter force on the Western Front stood at 1,446 aircraft, just 990 of which were serviceable and ready to fly. Although 1,825 pilots were on strength, only 1,139 of these were deemed combat ready.

Fuel was the main concern within the Luftwaffe with aircraft availability a close second. The general policy was one of a concerted effort to conserve fuel and assets. This resulted in a stockage of reserve fuel and ammunition as well as an increase in serviceable aircraft. The past few months of near uninterrupted Allied air superiority caused many problems for the Luftwaffe. Despite these problems, Marshal Herman Göring, Commander of the Luftwaffe, was able to equip and recommitted fifteen decimated Luftwaffe units by the end of October. The strength of twin-engine fighters increased by 25 percent from the beginning of the year, however, monthly German losses averaged 1,800 single-engine fighters in the West alone. This, along with the increase in deliveries, resulted in only a slight increase in actual availability of aircraft. The readiness emphasis on fighters was accomplished at the expense of the bomber and reconnaissance arms of the Luftwaffe.

Regardless of the number of planes, the desperate situation in aviation fuel limited use of the new planes. As mentioned earlier, aviation fuel production was suffering and stocks were being depleted. The shortage of fuel had two primary effects. First, pilot training was cut from 250 hours to 110 hours. Secondly, as a result of pilot and fuel shortages, Luftwaffe planes were only able to engage Allied missions over Germany on an average of four days a month compared to the Allies who conducted missions on a daily basis.

Additionally, the Germans wanted these forward airbases to conserve fuel and provide maximum time on station for ground support. This consolidation resulted in overcrowding of aircraft and gave Allied aircraft a target-rich environment when attacking these airbases.

By December 1944, the Luftwaffe received 527 Me-262 jet fighters. The Luftwaffe fielded the first Me-262 units this same month. However, technical problems and an effort to conserve aviation fuel resulted in a lack of pilot training. This would result in the Me-262 having no significant influence on the war.

What amounted to the last throw of the Luftwaffe came at dawn on 1 January 1945, with Operation Bodenplatte. This was an all-out assault on Allied airfields on the continent by 800 or more fighters. While this destroyed almost 300 Allied aircraft, Jagdflieger losses were horrendous; many irreplaceable fighter leaders went down during this operation. The attack caused a hiatus in Allied fighter operations, the brunt of the air fighting for the next week or so being borne by the Tempests of 122 Wing, which had escaped the onslaught. The Jagdflieger never recovered. From this moment on they were encountered in the air only infrequently, though the fuel shortages meant that those met with were more than likely to be Experten. In spite of this, a handful of Allied fighter pilots managed to build up respectable scores, even though opportunities were few.

The Build-Up of the Luftwaffe I

More than the rearmament of the army and the navy, the spectacular development of the Luftwaffe in the six years from 1933 until the outbreak of the war aroused the boundless admiration as well as the dark forebodings of contemporaries. Even today the inventions and brilliant technical achievements of those years in the area of aircraft and rocket construction are still surrounded by myths which lend the brief history of the Luftwaffe a special glory, in spite of its ultimate failure. The change from the biplane to the first jet fighter in the world, from the three ‘aerial advertising squadrons’ of 1933 to the 4,093 front-line aircraft at the beginning of the war was indeed without parallel in the short history of military aviation. It inevitably reminds one of the German fleet programme under William II and Admiral von Tirpitz between 1897 and 1914, but not of the work of Tirpitz’s epigone Raeder. Above all, the immediate secondary effects of the fleet and the Luftwaffe, both of them eminently the products of modern industrial technology, were very similar. In both cases fascination with new possibilities opened up by a new weapon combined with a nationalistic claim to great-power status to produce an awareness of power that led to quite similar consequences in foreign policy. The diplomatic, political, and military reaction of Britain to the perceived threat of the German naval and later the Luftwaffe build-up demonstrates this fact with startling clarity. But this similarity probably did not extend to the political and military motives behind the Luftwaffe build-up. Moreover, it must be asked whether this build-up did not differ fundamentally from the imperial fleet construction programme of the turn of the century, because of its greater dependence on technology and the resulting planning and economic problems. Nevertheless, the similarity, which was also noticed by contemporaries, may provide better insights into the political and military problems involved in the Luftwaffe build-up.

The ‘Risk Luftwaffe’ 1933-1936

The ideas developed within the framework of general Reichswehr planning concerning the future creation of an air arm have already been mentioned. Essentially they envisaged the use of air power to support the army and navy. Specific organizational and technical as well as personnel and material measures, some of which were very significant, had already been taken in accordance with this objective. The appointment of Göring as Reich commissioner for aviation on 30 January 1933 and of Erhard Milch as state secretary in Göring’s Reichskommissariat seemed to mark a basic change in this area. Immediately after his appointment Milch indicated that the Reichskommissariat should be considered only an interim stage on the way to a Reich aviation ministry, which would be responsible for all areas of civil and military aviation. When this ministry was created by a decision of the president and a decree of Defence Minister von Blomberg on 10 May 1933, it represented more than a centralization of all branches of aviation. Göring’s influence within the Party and his many positions and tasks in the government meant that the status of the Luftwaffe as an independent service within the Wehrmacht was secured once and for all without the loss of time and energy connected with similar developments in other countries. The army and especially the navy did not accept this drastic limitation of their authority over air units without resistance. They attempted to regain the lost ground, but all their efforts failed because the most important man in the Nazi movement after Hitler had set himself the task of creating an independent Luftwaffe as an appropriate expression of Germany’s claim to be a great power. Of course the status of an independent service also offered new possibilities in setting and planning armament targets.

Milch, who was the driving force behind the planning and realization of the Luftwaffe armament programme until the end of 1936, concerned himself after April 1933 at the latest with drafting a new arms plan for the service. In May he received a memorandum from the Lufthansa director Dr Robert Knauss on ‘The German Air Fleet’, containing ideas with which he declared his ‘complete’ agreement. As this memorandum received Milch’s approval, it can be considered the earliest authoritative statement reflecting the views of the air ministry chiefs on the basic principles of air warfare.

Knauss’s basic assumption was that the goal of the ‘national government’ was to ‘re-establish Germany’s position as a great power in Europe’, and that this goal could only be reached by a rearmament that would at least permit Germany to fight a ‘two-front war against France and Poland with prospects of success’. In Knauss’s opinion, there was no more effective means than the creation of a strong air force to shorten the ‘critical period’ required for the realization of this aim. For him ‘the most important feature of the Luftwaffe as an independent service was the ‘long- range, operationally mobile striking power of its bombers’. This ‘would greatly increase the risk for any conceivable enemy in a war’ and would reduce the danger of a preventive attack against a Germany that was regaining its strength. The striking feature of this plan for a ‘risk Luftwaffe’ was not only its revival of Tirpitz’s military theory, but primarily that it closely followed Hitler’s views in his talk to the Reichswehr leaders on 3 February 1933.

The most important factor in determining the effect of the memorandum was probably that Knauss was not content to present his suggestion for a ‘risk Luftwaffe’ and embellish it with ideas of the Italian aerial warfare theoretician Douhet. He described in detail the operational possibilities as well as the tactical and organizational principles and requirements for the aeroplanes to be produced, and argued that they were quite achievable. This gave his programme clarity, coherence, and persuasiveness.

Specifically, Knauss proposed the rapid, secret creation of a force of about 390 four-engine bombers supported by ten air reconnaissance squadrons. He believed it would be possible ‘to prepare the necessary personnel and material measures by using the army aviation units and the Lufthansa organization in such a way that they could be combined to form an air force in a surprisingly short time’. He was convinced that such a highly mobile, operational military instrument would give Germany decisive advantages in a possible conflict with France and Poland, but more important in his view was the expected deterrent effect of the ‘risk Luftwaffe’. To achieve his military objectives, Knauss argued forcefully for an armament policy with clear priorities. ‘Equal rearmament in all areas’ would lead to a ‘waste of energy’ and increase the danger of a preventive attack. In the risk phase of German rearmament, the rapid creation of five army divisions or the construction of two pocket battleships would only slightly change the balance of military power in Europe. This argument was directed primarily against the known construction plans of the navy. Knauss explicitly rejected the Tirpitz policy and, in the interest of national defence, assigned the navy only a defensive function in the North Sea and the Baltic. He explained that the funds required for the construction of two pocket battleships would be sufficient to build an air fleet of 400 large bombers, which would ‘secure Germany’s air superiority in central Europe within a few years’. But within the air programme too Knauss demanded clear priorities. Especially striking was his rejection of any operational function for fighter aircraft and his description of them as only support weapons for the army and the navy. For him the only important goal was the creation of a bomber fleet and the attached reconnaissance squadrons. He concluded his arguments for a ‘risk Luftwaffe’ and its great importance for the success of general rearmament by pointing out that in Italy and France the idea of independent, operational air warfare had many supporters, and that especially the new French minister of aviation, Pierre Cot, had already taken the first steps in this direction. Any delay would therefore reduce the ‘lead Germany can gain today, perhaps for a decade, by creating an air fleet’, and ‘precisely that decade would be decisive’. Knauss professed himself optimistic, for the ‘enormous dynamism of the national government’ and the ‘leadership qualities of the first German minister of aviation’ were the best guarantee that the ‘life-or- death decision’ regarding the Luftwaffe build-up would be made quickly and that all resistance to carrying it out would be overcome.

In spite of Milch’s agreement, the effect of Knauss’s memorandum on the armament planning of the Luftwaffe cannot be precisely determined. On Milch’s orders the responsible departments of the newly founded ministry of aviation had been studying the possibilities of a first, large-scale aircraft procurement programme since the beginning of May. His suggested objective of 1,000 aeroplanes for the first build-up phase in 1933-4 proved to be somewhat unrealistic at first because of the small capacity of the German aircraft industry. As early as June 1933 preparations had reached a point at which Milch and the head of the Ministeramt in the defence ministry, Colonel von Reichenau, were able to agree on a provisional armament programme, which was approved by Göring and Blomberg around the end of the month. This envisaged the creation of an air fleet of about 600 aeroplanes in fifty-one squadrons by the autumn of 1935. lB1 In contrast to all previous air armament programmes, this one was characterized by a strong emphasis on bomber squadrons. The backbone of the air fleet was to be twenty- seven bomber squadrons in nine groups. This programme, which was changed slightly in August and September, was only partially compatible with Knauss’s ideas, for neither did the air fleet consist of the uniform type of heavily armed bomber he wanted, nor was it to be as large as he had recommended. Nevertheless, about 250 bombers were to be available for combat by the autumn of 1935. Without setting a date for achieving his target, Knauss had demanded a fleet of about 400. On the other hand, the basic features of the programme clearly reflected the idea of the ‘risk Luftwaffe’. The bomber groups were to form the core of the future Luftwaffe and assume the political and military deterrence functions Knauss had assigned to them.

And although the Luftwaffe created on the basis of this programme was indeed inadequate, it fulfilled its political tasks from the very beginning far better than Knauss had demanded. His air fleet had been conceived primarily as a weapon against Germany’s continental neighbours, especially France and Poland. Paradoxically, however, it produced the strongest political reaction in Britain, a country Knauss had not mentioned at all in his memorandum and which could not be seriously threatened by the aircraft of the first German armament programme. The first signs of public concern in Britain about the Luftwaffe build-up could be observed as early as the summer of 1933. This concern was intensified by developments in Germany and by the German withdrawal from the League of Nations and the disarmament conference. The threat from the air and the graphic description of all its possible aspects soon became a constant subject in the British media. Baldwin’s statement in the House of Commons on 30 July 1934 that, in view of the developments in military aviation, Britain’s line of defence was no longer the cliffs of Dover but the Rhine marked the first high point of this general anxiety. Compared with other European air forces, the German Luftwaffe was still weak at the end of 1934; its number of usable, front-line aeroplanes is estimated at about 600. This modest force had, however, created a situation which permitted Hitler to negotiate with Britain about an air pact. In the first phase of its build-up, which at least bore some similarity to Knauss’s principles, the Luftwaffe had fulfilled its intended purpose. There is no evidence of how the air force leaders reacted to this overestimation of their capabilities or what conclusions they drew. But it is improbable that they were completely unaffected by the public debate. It is rather more likely that, in contrast to the starting situation Knauss had described, Britain began to assume an increasingly important role in the thinking of the Luftwaffe leaders. At first it was not, of course, included in their operational planning, but it was regarded more and more as a competitor and a standard by which the Germans measured their own accomplishments. Thus, the political effects of the ‘risk Luftwaffe’ were much more far-reaching than originally intended and opened up possibilities beyond the first, limited objectives.

Knauss had written his memorandum at a time when the first organizational decisions for the build-up of an independent service had been taken, but the personnel and material decisions were still open. The ministry of aviation created by Blomberg’s decree of 10 May 1933 was composed of Göring’s Reichskommissariat and the recently organized Luftschutzamt (air-defence office) of the defence ministry, with responsibility for ‘aviation and air defence of the· army and navy’. The scale of German efforts in this initial phase can be judged by the fact that at the beginning of June 1933 the staff of the ministry consisted of only seventy- six active and retired officers. Moreover, as a result of the long years of intensive preparation by the army and navy, the state secretary in the air ministry was also in charge of the first flying units camouflaged as ‘aerial advertising squadrons’: i.e. the flying school command organized in February 1933, which was responsible for the military departments of the civilian schools in Brunswick, Jüterborg, Schleißheim, Warnemiinde, and Würzburg, as well as the German military aviation centre at Lipetsk in the Soviet Union. These institutions formed the essential organizational foundation for the Luftwaffe build-up. On the whole, probably only a relatively small number of people were involved in German military aviation in the summer of 1933. Under the provisions of the treaty of Versailles, which were still in force, an expansion of the Luftwaffe seemed possible only if all executive organs of the state, especially the Reichswehr and the transportation ministry, actively supported the new service.

At the commanders’ conference following the inauguration of the ministry of aviation, Blomberg took the opportunity to emphasize that the ‘flying officer corps’ should be an ‘elite corps’ imbued with ‘an intensely aggressive spirit’; its ‘preferential treatment in all areas’ was necessary and should be accepted by the other services. After they had been prepared for the new situation in this way and concrete planning had begun in the ministry of aviation, Blomberg informed his commanders at the beginning of October 1933 how far the army and navy were expected to contribute to the personnel build-up of the Luftwaffe. According to his figures 228 officers up to the rank of colonel had already been transferred to the Luftwaffe; an additional seventy were to follow by January 1934. About 1,600 non-commissioned officers and men had also been transferred. For reasons of secrecy the Luftwaffe continued to be dependent on the support of the army and navy in the following years. After 1934 it took over its own recruiting, but its personnel were still trained in units and schools of the other two services until 1935. According to Blomberg an additional 450 officers were to be transferred to the Luftwaffe by 1 April 1934; in the following years the Luftwaffe would itself have to recruit 700 officer cadets each year. Blomberg stressed that nothing would be more short-sighted than the transfer of poorly qualified personnel to the Luftwaffe; it needed rather ‘the best of the best’. At subsequent commanders’ conferences Blomberg continued to support energetically the wishes of the Luftwaffe in personnel questions and did not exclude compulsory transfers. The transfers to the Luftwaffe from the army and navy continued in the following years; in a survey of personnel requirements in December 1938, a result of Hitler’s armament demands, the transfer of army officers was taken for granted. A large number of young civilian pilots also joined the Luftwaffe officer corps at the beginning of 1934; so, after 1 April 1935, did officers of the flak artillery, the air signals corps, and the local defence units, the later supplementary reserve officers.

This incomplete survey clearly shows the difficult problems facing the Luftwaffe personnel office created on 1 October 1933, which had the task of forming a uniform officer corps under difficult conditions on the model of the other two services in the first phase of the secret build-up. From 1 June 1933 onwards the personnel system of the Luftwaffe was under the direction of Colonel Stumpff of the old army (Reichsheer), who became chief of the Luftwaffe general staff in June 1937. The difficult problems he faced can be better understood if one remembers the emphatic, gloomy warnings of the chief of the army personnel office in the summer and winter of 1935 against a new, accelerated expansion of the army. In addition to the necessity if forming the very difficult groups from varied professional backgrounds and experience in the other services and branches of the Luftwaffe into a uniform officer corps, Stumpff was confronted with the problem of familiarizing the new officers with the complex technology of their weapons, as competent leadership at all levels was impossible without such knowledge. Both these tasks, the formation of the officer corps and familiarization with the new technology, could be fulfilled, if at all, only in a lengthy process. The rapid, even over-hasty build-up between 1933 and 1939 created the worst possible conditions for such a development. The figures on the growth of the officer corps and personnel strength provide an impressive picture of the difficulties to be overcome. When camouflage measures were abandoned in the spring of 1935, the officer corps consisted of 900 flying and 200 flak officers commanding about 17,000 non-commissioned officers and men. Two and a half years later, at the end of 1937, the size of the officer corps had increased fivefold: in the three branches of the Luftwaffe there were slightly more than 6,000 officers. By August 1939 the corps had grown to more than 15,000 officers; the number of NCOs and men had risen to 370,000. Thus, after March 1935 the officer corps grew thirteen-fold in barely four and a half years. In view of the fact that, unlike the army, the Luftwaffe officer corps did not have a relatively broad, homogeneous base, it was probably lacking in the coherence necessary for the performance of its military functions. A particularly serious shortcoming was the fact that the entire senior officer corps of the Luftwaffe consisted of former army officers, who at first viewed the far-reaching possibilities of independent air warfare with skepticism and, above all, possessed no experience in commanding large air units. This problem was caused by the nature of the Luftwaffe build-up and could not be overcome before the outbreak of war. It is interesting that Dr Knauss, a director of Lufthansa, did not mention the personnel problems connected with the ‘risk Luftwaffe’ at all in his memorandum.

In addition to these weaknesses in personnel, which were in the final analysis unavoidable, the material build-up also led to enormous problems. As a result of discussions in the ministry of aviation and with the other two Wehrmacht services, Milch’s initial ideas of May 1933 assumed a form sufficiently concrete to make it possible to lay down the programme for the first organization period, 1934, in a directive of 12 July 1933. According to this programme a total of twenty-six squadrons were to be created as unit formations after 1 July 1934, but they were to be aligned with institutions of civil aviation ‘to preserve secrecy as far as possible’. The ten planned bomber squadrons, which were to be supported by seven reconnaissance and seven fighter squadrons, were the centre of the programme. Six weeks later, on 28 August, Milch signed the programme for the second build-up period, 1935. This programme envisaged the creation by 1 October 1935 of an additional twenty-nine squadrons as combat formations, of which seventeen were described as bomber squadrons, with only eight reconnaissance and four fighter squadrons. The number of aircraft delivered by the end of 1934 shows that the industry fulfilled its obligations according to the programme. At the end of 1934 the air units disposed of 270 bombers, ninety-nine single-seat fighters, and 303 reconnaissance aircraft; a much larger number, about 1,300 aircraft, were used for training and other purposes.

The Build-Up of the Luftwaffe II

This achievement of the German aircraft industry, which had been seriously affected by the economic crisis, was indeed impressive. At the end of January 1933 the producers of airframes and motors belonging to the Reich association of the aircraft industry employed scarcely more than 4,000 workers. The achievements of the most important producers-Junkers in Dessau, Heinkel in Warnemünde, Dornier in Friedrichshafen, and the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke in Augsburg-in the area of aircraft development were significant, but their production capacity was limited because of the economic crisis and the special financial problems of their industry. State Secretary Milch, the head of the ministry of aviation under Göring, was himself a former Lufthansa director, thoroughly familiar with conditions in the industry and able to evaluate its potential contribution to the armament programmes. A precondition for the build-up of an air force comparable to those of other European powers was, in addition to considerable funds for the expansion of production, above all the rationalization of the industry. At the beginning ofJune 1933 a ministerial conference took place under Hitler’s chairmanship at which Schacht explained his plan to finance job-creation and rearmament, and thus the expansion of the aircraft industry, by means of the famous ‘Mefo’ bills. In the same month the head of the administrative department of the ministry of aviation, Colonel Kesselring, was sent to Ernst Heinkel at Warnemünde to persuade him to build a new factory near Rostock with a starting labour force of 3,000 workers. Kesselring was successful. The result of the ministry’s initiative, which affected the whole industry, was a sharp and continuous rise in the number of persons employed in aircraft production. The figure rose from about 4,000 in January 1933 to 16,870 at the beginning of 1934 and 59,600 on 1 April 1935. A year later it reached 110,600; on 1 April 1937 it was about 167,200, and on 1 October 1938, 204,100 people were working in the aircraft industry, not including those employed by companies providing equipment and repairs). The labour force in the industry as a whole had thus increased fiftyfold in five and a half years.

The rationalization of production was also carried out on the initiative of the aviation ministry. The best-known example in this area was the Junkers firm. In Dessau Junkers was able to produce only eighteen Junkers 52 aircraft per annum before 1933, if at the same time no other models were produced. After the removal of the founder of the company, Professor Hugo Junkers-due to an inextricable mixture of personal, political, and financial motives of rival groups within the company and the ministry of aviation-Milch informed Klaus Junkers in August 1933 about the ministry’s armament plans, which called for the purchase of 179 Junkers 52s in 1934 alone. Such an order could only be filled if production methods were radically changed. With the decisive help of one of their directors, Koppenberg, Junkers developed the so-called ‘ABC programme’ in the following months, under which mass production of the Junkers 52 was begun around the end of the year. In this programme a number of small firms supervised by Junkers produced individual parts. Only the final assembly of the aircraft was done in the factory at Dessau. This represented a decisive step in the efficient organization of supply firms and at the same time marked the beginning of co-operation among the aircraft producers, who until then had jealously guarded their independence. The way was thus open for the introduction of licensing, which acquired increasing significance in the following years. Between 1933 and 1945 a total of 17,552 Junkers aircraft were built under licence by other firms. The expansion of production under licence was also a consequence of the fact that as early as 1933 the clear prospect of a boom and higher profits in the aircraft industry attracted a growing number of firms.

In this way Secretary Milch and the technical office of the ministry of aviation under Colonel Wimmer, working in close co-operation with the producers, laid the foundations for the Luftwaffe build-up in a surprisingly short time. The mobilization exercise planned by Milch and Wimmer from the beginning of 1935, and conducted between October and December of that year, in the Arado plant in Brandenburg can be considered a test of the success of this method. In eighteen weeks monthly production rose from twenty to 120 aircraft, the size of the factory was nearly doubled, and the labour force tripled. Although this demonstration of efficiency was convincing, it also revealed weaknesses in the production process which the ministry could only partially overcome on its own. The availability of raw materials and above all machine-tools turned out to be unsatisfactory. It was considered less serious that the lodging of extra workers in barracks had a negative effect on productivity and that difficulties arose in one case in starting production under licence.

The Arado experiment proved that the industrial basis for the Luftwaffe build-up had been created in a surprisingly short time. The question was, however, what the dimensions and technical requirements of such a build-up should be. Milch’s programme of 12 July and 28 August 1933 for the first and second build-up periods, 1934 and 1935, had placed the main emphasis on the creation of bomber formations, as Knauss had wanted, but the aircraft planned for these formations did not meet his technical performance standards, nor was the preference given to bombers based on a general consensus of all departments concerned. The Truppenamt of the army command was quite prepared to acknowledge the importance of a bomber fleet for the conduct of a future war, but rejected Knauss’s arguments in this regard as completely one-sided and pointed out that, in the future, wars would still be won by the co-operation of all services. Finally, in a directive of 16 August 1933, Blomberg explained that no build-up of a ‘strategic Luftwaffe’ was planned. The objective was rather to create an ‘operational’ Luftwaffe that-either independently and supported by squadrons of long-range reconnaissance aircraft, or in co-operation with the army and navy-would take over operational functions within the framework of a total strategy in the event of a war on several fronts against Poland, France, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia. Moreover, Blomberg indicated that the army and navy would still have their own air units.

Within the framework of such an operational air fleet, the bomber formations Knauss had described still had a special deterrent function. However, in the winter of 1933-4 a Wehrmacht war game suggested by the operations department of the Truppenamt showed that the bomber fleet alone could not eliminate hostile air forces quickly enough, and that Germany’s exposed position urgently required a strong air defence in the form of fighter units and flak artillery.

In the programme he had signed on 28 August 1933 for the second build-up period, 1935, Milch announced an additional programme for ‘total armaments plan for 1934-8’, which would have to take into account ‘the requirements of national defence and the technical possibilities’. The organizational, personnel, and industrial conditions for this programme had been created by the beginning of 1934, and the military tasks of the Luftwaffe had been clarified by the Wehrmacht war game. The aircraft procurement programme of I July 1934 was based on these conditions and represented a continuation of a revised purchase programme of January 1934 for the first and second phases of the build-up. The ‘July programme’ of 1934 was the first long-term programme for the Luftwaffe and envisaged the purchase of 17,015 aircraft of all kinds by 31 March 1938. The importance of this programme is shown by the fact that, at Hitler’s request, Göring and Milch reported to him on it at the end of July. Milch, whom Hitler evidently valued as an expert and man of ideas, was able in the end to resist Hitler’s demands to increase and accelerate the Luftwaffe build-up. At the end of August 1934 Hitler approved a cost estimate for the programme, amounting to RM 10,500m. This clearly showed the special position of the Luftwaffe in relation to the other two services. It was not Blomberg, the defence minister, who presented the financial requirements of an integrated Wehrmacht armaments programme; instead Göring, as the second man in the state, was able to advance the interests of his own service with only an informal agreement with Blomberg. Of the enormous number of aircraft in the July programme only 6,671 were to be combat aeroplanes. They consisted of the following types:

Fighters                                    2,225

Bombers                                  2, 188

Dive-bombers                             699

Reconnaissance aircraft         1,559

The proportion of combat to training aircraft reflected the awareness of the Luftwaffe leadership that the consolidation of the service would be the most important objective in the coming years and that therefore the main emphasis should be placed on training in all areas. The surprisingly large number of fighters was a result of the Wehrmacht war game in the winter of 1933-4, which had led to a strengthening of the air defence components of the total programme. The programme itself was based on the plan for an operational Luftwaffe as Blomberg had described it in his directive of August 1933.

In the first phase of its realization a total of 3,021 aircraft were to be delivered to the Luftwaffe by 30 September 1935; more than half of them were to be used for training. To achieve this objective, it was planned to increase monthly aircraft production from seventy-two in January 1934 to 293 in July 1935. Thus, the industry was expected to quadruple its production in a relatively short time. At the end of December 1934 1,959 aircraft had already been delivered; the shortfall compared with the plan figure was only 6 per cent. This was indeed an impressive accomplishment; the planning figures of the ministry of aviation and existing production capacity were almost identical.

For a long time at home and abroad, the certain result of the Saar plebiscite in January 1935 had been considered an event which Hitler would use for new foreign-policy and armament initiatives. On 26 February, even before the final re-integration of the Saar on 1 March and the proclamation of general conscription in Germany on 16 March, Blomberg had ordered the gradual removal of the camouflage measures for the Luftwaffe. In an interview on 10 March Göring emphasized its purely defensive character, while Hitler told the British foreign secretary on 25 March that the Luftwaffe had already reached the strength of the Royal Air Force! This was in accord with instructions put out by the Wehrmacht office, probably not without Blomberg’s approval, that it was important to give other countries the impression that Germany now had a strong Wehrmacht capable of fulfilling its tasks even under difficult conditions. For the Luftwaffe, which at this time had about 2,500 aircraft, of which 800 could be used in combat in the event of war, this marked the beginning of a new phase in its political function as a ‘risk Luftwaffe’.

In his directive of 28 August 1933 Milch had stated two conditions for the overall programme in 1934-8: on the one hand it must provide an adequate national defence, and on the other it must make use of possibilities provided by technology. The astonishing fulfilment of planning goals combined with the obvious deterrent effect on other countries, however achieved, demonstrated convincingly that the Luftwaffe met the requirements of national defence in these years. But to what extent did the total programme take into account technical possibilities? The 270 bombers delivered by the end of 1934 were Junkers 52s and Dornier IIs; the ninety- nine single-seat fighters were Arado 64 and 65 biplanes. In the service and in the ministry of aviation there was complete agreement that these models were technically obsolete. Milch was well aware of this situation; he had rejected Hitler’s demand to increase production still further with the argument that it would result in too many obsolete aircraft. Major von Richthofen, the head of development in the technical office of the ministry of aviation, expressed the guiding principle of this first phase succinctly in August 1934: ‘An aircraft of limited usefulness available now is better than none at all.’ The new models, especially the medium- range bombers such as the Dornier 17, the Heinkel 111, and the Junkers 86, as well as the Junkers 86 dive-bomber, were already being developed. But the question was when they would be ready for mass production after the lengthy process of development and testing. Moreover, there was a serious problem in the development and production of aircraft engines. Only Junkers had been involved continuously in their further development in the 1920s. Daimler-Benz and BMW (Bayerische Motorenwerke) had no previous experience in this area. The use of funds from the ministry of aviation, which had been so successful in the build-up of the airframe industry, was of only limited effectiveness in this case. Of course the expansion of capacity was supported as far as possible, but Richthofen’s demand at a conference with the producers of aircraft motors on 20-1 September 1934 that the time required for the development of a new motor be reduced from five or six to two years simply ignored reality.

The objective of equipping the Luftwaffe units with new and better aircraft, for which Milch and the technical office had been striving since 1934 at the latest, clearly was not reached as planned. The development and testing of models and motors, and their mass production, were a process which could be directed and planned only to a limited extent. The previous planning of the ministry of aviation had promoted the production of aircraft which it knew would be obsolete in a short time, not only in the interest of national defence but also because an efficient aircraft industry could only be created in that way. After the first measurable success had been achieved at the end of 1934 and the beginning of 1935, re-equipping could be carried out only gradually, in order to avoid having to close factories until the new models were ready for mass production. The many supplementary programmes of 1935 and the first half of 1936 must be understood against this background. In January and October 1935 Milch approved procurement and delivery plans that went beyond the July programme of 1934 and were intended, e. g. in the case of bombers, to permit the discontinuation of the old models and increased production of new ones, such as the Heinkel 111, the Dornier 17, and the Junkers 86. Pressure from Hitler and Göring in setting constantly increased production requirements probably also played a significant role. Although the re-equipping process required much more time and was actually carried out only in 1937, planning remained astonishingly flexible until the summer of 1936. For example, production of the Junker 52, which had been considered a stop-gap solution from the very beginning, was continued until the new bomber models could be put into mass production. The Junkers 52 later became the most important transport aircraft of the Luftwaffe.

The flexibility in planning, however, clearly went along with uncertainty as to the technical and military requirements for the individual types of aircraft, and this had a lasting, negative effect on the development process. This effect had already become obvious in the development of a new two-engine horizontal bomber316 and would also be the fate of the four-engine strategic bomber. The aviation officers of the Reichswehr had already worked on this project. Colonel Wever, the head of the Luftkommandoamt (air command office), who had concerned himself intensively with the problems of air warfare, quickly recognized its importance. As early as May 1934 a development contract was awarded to Junkers and Dornier. The bomber was to be ready for mass production as early as 1938, but before the test flights of the Junkers 89 and the Dornier 19 had taken place doubts were expressed as to whether they had adequate speed and range. The motor problem also played a decisive role. On 17 April 1936 Wever approved guidelines for the further development of the strategic bomber. The existing prototypes could not meet the new requirements. The result was that, after Wever’s death on 3 June 1936, development of the bomber was delayed even further and finally dropped from the general development programme. The reasons for this decision and its consequences cannot be determined with adequate clarity. It is as difficult to answer the question whether Germany had the economic means to build a large strategic air fleet as it is to determine whether the engine question was decisive. Undoubtedly, however, Wever’s death and the subsequent far-reaching personnel changes in the ministry of aviation led to the decision being made, as it were, incidentally, in a manner not appropriate to the importance of the question.

Wever’s death marked the end of a significant period in the build-up of the Luftwaffe. The years 1933-6 were characterized by the work of a number of competent officers as heads of the offices in the ministry of aviation, which was directed less by Göring than by Milch. The available evidence indicates that Milch and the colonels Wever, Wimmer, Kesselring, and Stumpff developed a close working relationship with clear objectives; they showed considerable foresight in laying the foundation for the build-up of the Luftwaffe in the following years, during which the leadership of the ministry underwent decisive change. In addition to the successful development of the aircraft industry, which was due essentially to the initiative of Milch, Wimmer, and Kesselring, above all Wever had thought out and defined the military function of the Luftwaffe in its enlarged form. As an army general staff officer and former head of the training department of the Truppenamt, he had mastered the new problems surprisingly quickly and, like Milch, had recognized the strategic and operational possibilities of air warfare with the help of a bomber fleet as described by Knauss in his memorandum. At the same time, however, he had rejected as dangerous the one-sidedness of Douhet’s ideas. Typical of all armament programmes for which he was even partly responsible was the priority given to the bomber. This was also true of the July programme of 1934, if the planned numbers of horizontal and dive-bombers are added together. As a result of the Wehrmacht war-game of 1933-4, Wever did place more emphasis on air defence, but it should not be forgotten that the strategic bomber was developed on his initiative, and one can only speculate about what solution he would have chosen after the decision of 17 April 1936.

Wever expressed his opinions succinctly in Luftwaffe regulation 16 on ‘Air Warfare’, issued in 1936, which marked the change from a purely ‘risk Luftwaffe’ designed to protect Germany until rearmament was completed. This document reflected the conviction that the first and only decisive task of the Luftwaffe was to conduct an offensive against the very broadly defined ‘fighting ability of the enemy’ and the ‘adversary’s will to resist’. From these general functions Wever deduced three main tasks: (1) ‘the war against the enemy air force’; (2) direct support of the operations of the army and the navy; and finally (3) the ‘war against the sources of strength of the enemy forces’ and the disrupting of the ‘flow of strength’ from these sources to the front. The Luftwaffe could attack ‘the hostile nation’ at the most sensitive point, at its ‘roots’, as Wever expressed it elsewhere. In its own eyes the Luftwaffe had already developed far beyond the role of a mere support weapon for the army and navy. The regulation covered all elements of modern air warfare. The variety of possible uses for the Luftwaffe led to the conclusion that air warfare was conceivable only within the framework of the general conduct of a war: ‘The politico-military leadership must, therefore, continue to determine the aims of air warfare’ (point 11). A slight uncertainty, however, remained in the attempt to define more precisely the co-operation with the army and navy. If one compares these thoughts on air warfare with the views of the leaders of the other two services, it is clear that, in contrast to his counterparts in the army and navy, Wever had retained an overall view and had shown how the Luftwaffe could act independently as well as together with the other services.

The Luftwaffe build-up in the years 1933-6 was a period of comprehensive and cautious planning in which the Luftwaffe leaders tried to take into account the political, military, and technical-industrial factors involved in armaments programmes, although the difficulties and weaknesses, above all in personnel build- up and training, were obvious. These very energetic and successful efforts were reminiscent of the naval build-up before the First World War, and differed strikingly from the narrow perspectives under which the armament programmes of the other two branches of the Wehrmacht were carried out.

A-12 Operational

An A-12 Oxcart taxis past a US Air Force F-101B chase plane on the paved runway at Groom Lake. Aircraft of the A-12 fleet spent most of their service lives flying out of this facility.

This late 1963 family portrait of A-12s includes two YF-12As parked at the far end. Second in line is Article 124, the Titanium Goose, the only A-12B two-seat trainer. It has been said that this group photo included all extant A-12s, which would date it to late 1963.

The YF-12A was one of the great what-if stories of twentieth century aviation. With its speed and armament, it would have been able to intercept and destroy any bomber/UFO that was ever operationally deployed. The second YF-12A (top) is shown here with the second SR-71 (61-7951), the latter having been marked with a bogus tail number (60-6937) in the YF-12A sequence. As a cover story, it was called the “YF-12C.” Beneath the belly of the aircraft is a heat transfer fixture that exposed experiments to rapid temperature rises during sustained supersonic flight.

Three years and seven months after first flight in April 1962, Lockheed and the CIA declared the A-12 ready for operational use at design specifications. The period thus devoted to flight tests was remarkably short, considering the new fields of aircraft performance under exploration. As the A-12s reached each higher Mach number, the support contractors continued correcting defects and making improvements. Everyone concerned gained experience with the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the vehicle.

With approximately 1000 individuals assigned, a mix of air force, CIA, many varied Contractors such as Car Co, David Clark, EG&G, EK Kodak, Firewel, Honeywell, Magnavox, Perkins Elmer, Pratt & Whitney (aka United Aircraft Co), Ree Co, Sylvania (Blue Dog ECM C&J Engineering (parts supply , Hughes, Hamilton Standard, and of course Lockheed personnel all being involved in some manner or form. That these companies were involved, or what services they performed was probably never known by the vast majority of those assigned to the Area.

The air inlet and related control continued for a long time to present the most troublesome and refractory problem. Numerous attempts failed to find a remedy, even though a special task force concentrated on the task. For a time, there was something approaching despair, and the solution, when finally achieved, they greeted with enormous relief. After all, not every experimental aircraft of advanced performance has survived its flight testing period. The possibility existed of OXCART also failing despite the significant cost and effort expended upon it.

A few dates and figures will serve to mark the progress of events. The year 1963 ended with 573 flights totaling 765 hours, and nine aircraft in the inventory.

On 20 July 1963, the A-12 flew for the first time at Mach 3. In November, it reached Mach 3.2, the design speed, and reached 78,000 feet altitude. The longest sustained flight at design conditions occurred on 3 February 1964; lasting ten minutes at Mach 3.2 and 83,000 feet. The end of 1964 totaled 1,160 flights and 1,616 hours flight time with eleven aircraft available, four of them reserved for testing and seven assigned to the detachment.

Stating the record another way, the A-12 reached Mach 2 after six months of flying; Mach 3 after 15 months. Two years after the first flight the aircraft flew a total of 38 hours at Mach 2, three hours at Mach 2.6, and less than one hour at Mach 3. After three years, Mach 2 time increased to 60 hours, Mach 2.6 to 33 hours, and Mach 3 time to nine hours. Only the test aircraft flew any Mach 3 time. The detachment aircraft remained restricted to Mach 2.9.

As may be seen from the figures, most flights lasted a short duration, averaging little more than an hour each, longer flights unnecessary at this stage of testing. Everyone felt the less seen of the A-12, the better, and short flights helped to preserve the secrecy of the proceedings. It remained virtually impossible for an aircraft of such dimensions and capabilities to remain inconspicuous. At its full speed, OXCART required a turning radius of no less than 86 miles, and at times up to 125 miles. There was no question of staying close to the airfield; its shortest possible flights took it over a vast expanse of territory.

The first long-range, high-speed flight occurred on 27 January 1965. One of the test aircraft flew an hour and fifteen minutes above Mach 3.1 for 2,580 nautical miles total range, at altitudes between 75,600 and 80,000 feet.

The year 1965 saw the test site reach the high point of activity with all the detachment pilots Mach 3.0 qualified. Completion of construction brought it to full physical size with a site population of 1,835. Contractors worked three shifts a day. Lockheed Constellations flew daily flights between the factory in Burbank and the site. The C-47 flew two flights a day between the site and Las Vegas. Now officials began considering how and when and where to use OXCART in its appointed role.

A-12s Lost at Area 51

Following Collins’ crash, the program during this phase lost two more aircraft. On 9 July 1964, Article No. 133 made its final approach to the runway. At an altitude of 500 feet and airspeed of 200 knots, it began a smooth, steady roll to the left. Lockheed test pilot Bill (Dutch 50) could not overcome the roll. At about a 45-degree bank angle and 200-foot altitude he ejected. He swung down to the vertical in the parachute at the same time his feet touched the ground, for what must have been one of the narrower escapes in the perilous history of test piloting.

The primary cause of the accident was a frozen servo for the right outboard roll and pitch control. No news of the crash ever filtered out.

On 28 December 1965, Aircraft No. 126 crashed immediately after takeoff and was destroyed. Detachment pilot Mele Vojvodich (Dutch 30) ejected safely at an altitude of 150 feet. Like what happened to Bill Park, Vojvodich’s parachute opened at the same time his feet touched the runway. He suffered a sprained ankle.

The accident investigation board determined that a flight line electrician had improperly connected the yaw and pitch gyros had in effect reversed the controls. This time Mr. McCone directed the Office of Security to investigate the possibility of sabotage. While discovered no evidence of sabotage, they found indications of negligence. The manufacturer of the gyro earlier warned Lockheed of the possibility of connecting the mechanism could engage in reverse. No one acted or even an elementary precaution such as painting the contacts different colors. Again, no publicity occurred related to the accident.

Besides the pilot narrowly escaping death, the accident proved spectacular in another way. The A-12 aircraft required a special fuel with a high flash point and thermal stability. The fuel, JP-7 (Jet Propellant 7), required a radioactive Cesium additive as a stealth feature to reduce the radar signature of its exhaust plumes. Everyone referred to the additive as Panther Piss.

The fuel also used triethylborane (TEB) to ignite the engines. This additive ignited when it met the air. TEB produced a characteristic green flame seen during engine ignition. When Mele Vojvodich’s plane crashed on the runway at Groom Lake, ice covered the runway. The crash released the triethylborane that ignited as it spread beneath the ice. By the time the rescue vehicles could respond, the burning TEB covered a large area beneath the ice near the crash site.

At the time of Vojvodich’s crash, Col Slip Slater (Dutch 11), commander of the 1129th SAS at Groom Lake was in California visiting his daughter during the Christmas holiday, leaving Colonel Holbury in command at the facility. Maj Harold Burgeson was on duty at the Ops building when the accident occurred. Hearing that Mele had just crashed, he headed for the Ops vehicle at a dead run. Just as he reached the outside gate, Col Holbury screeched to a halt in his staff car, picked him up, and they went to the site together. After assuring that Vojvodich was OK, they looked at the wreckage before going to see him. The aircraft was grossly out of trim. Project Test Pilot, Denny Sullivan was in another station wagon monitoring the take-off and narrowly missed Mel when he drove to the crash site.

Maj Roger Andersen was on duty in the command post monitoring the tower frequencies during take-off when he heard the aircraft crash and rushed out on the lakebed. He saw Vojvodich land quite close to where the plane crashed. He witnessed one of the fire trucks narrowly miss running over Vojvodich in its rush to get to the fire.

The accident occurred about dusk, and the fire trucks arrived on the scene quickly. One of the fire trucks rushed quite close to Vojvodich standing and watching the thick black smoke and orange flames boiling from the wreckage. The fire trucks gained control of the flames coming from the wreckage. About that time, Andersen saw fuel from the crash area flowing out onto the lakebed and getting under a thin layer of ice. The TEC ignited on its own and continued burning under the ice with an eerie greenish white flame, looking like a large votive candle as darkness set in at Groom Lake.

Vojvodich merely sprained his ankle when he bailed out, escaping death by inches. When he returned home to Los Angeles, his wife, Carol, asked him about his limping. He told her that he sprained his ankle playing tennis.

Major Burgeson served as a member of the accident board where the Lockheed team determined the SAS connections accidentally reversed, causing the plane to misinterpret the pitch and yaw signals. A few days later, base commander Colonel. Slater, the project pilots, Major Burgeson, and Lockheed test pilot Bill Park went to Beale AFB to check the cable reversal out in Beale’s new simulator for the SR-71. Mele Vojvodich and a colonel from Wright-Patterson AFB accompanied them.

Bill Park took the first flight in the simulator with the cables reversed while the rest waited in an adjacent room. Bill Park had a tremendous sense of humor, and when he returned, he winked at Burgeson then remarked that it was a rough ride, however, flyable. Burgeson then took his flight, and when he returned, he continued the charade with a similar observation. Per Burgeson, Vojvodich looked so crestfallen, they burst into laughter and confessed to both of them crashing in the simulator.

What the Historians Never Knew About Vojvodich’s Crash:

During Project OXCART, one of the air force and CIA’s most loyal defenders of their careers was BGen Jack C. Ledford. On August 1958, General Ledford received an assignment to deputy chief of staff for weapons effects and tests, Headquarters, Defense Atomic Support Agency, Washington, DC.

He left this position in 1961 to attend the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, graduating with distinction in August 1962. Washington during his tour of duty, he earned a master of business administration in management from The George Washington University.

In September 1962, he served as an air commander with the 1040th Air Force Field Activity Squadron at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, DC. Following that, he became the Director of special projects, Headquarters Air Force, making him the director of the Office of Special Activities, DD/S&T for Project Oxcart at Area 51.

Ledford was newly assigned to the CIA and leading OSA in 1962 when he took the request to the Special Group to get authorization for the 14 October 1962 flight over Cuba. He met stiff resistance, however, held his ground against the “do-nothing, worry a lot crowd.” Everyone acted apprehensive after a SAC U-2 strayed slightly over Russia and the CIA lost a U-2 over China that summer.

Bobby Kennedy came to his rescue and insisted on a vote up or down. The Special Group approved the mission and caught the Russian missiles in Cuba. The rest was history.

When Mele Vojvodich bailed out on takeoff, Jack Ledford and Dr. Albert D. “Bud” Wheelon, Ph.D., Director for Science and Technology at CIA immediately flew to Los Angeles and picked up Kelly Johnson en route to Area 51.

On the way up, Johnson started bitching bout the quality of the CIA’s operational pilots.

General Ledford took issue, and it ended up with Wheelon breaking up a fistfight between General Ledford and Kelly Johnson in the plane’s small cabin as they headed to Groom Lake.

Ledford always stood up for his people and good reason. It turned out that Kelly Johnson’s people caused the crash by inserting the two augmentation rate gyros in backward on Vojvodich plane. (The author, TD Barnes [[Thunder), CIA pilot Frank Murray (Dutch 20), and Roger Andersen attended General Ledford’s funeral in Tucson, Arizona. Dr. Wheelon attended as well and told this story as part of his eulogy for the general.

While about fuels, another occurrence comes to mind. In 1958, Shell Oil vice president Jimmy Doolittle arranged for the company developing the fuel for the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret Lockheed A-12 spy plane. The A-12 needed a low-volatility fuel that wouldn’t evaporate at high-altitude. Manufacturing several hundred thousand gallons of the new fuel required the petroleum byproducts Shell commonly used to make Flit insect repellant, causing a nationwide shortage of that product that year.

In July 1966, Lockheed made a fourth launch attempt from M-21 (60–6941) with 60–6940 flying chase. Thus, the second A-12 converted to an M-21 for launching the D-21 departed Groom Lake on 30 July 1966. Lockheed Test Pilot Bill Park piloted the aircraft, and Lockheed engineer Ray Torrick the LCO flew back seat for launching the drone.

The mother ship and drone went feet wet at Point Mugu, California and launched the drone over the Pacific. Following launch, the drone pitched down and struck the M-21 Mothership, breaking it in half. Pilot Bill Park and LCO (Launch Control Officer) Ray Torrick stayed with the plane a short time before ejecting over the Pacific Ocean. Both made a safe ejection. However, Ray Torrick opened his helmet visor by mistake, and his suit filled up with water which caused him to drown.

This terrible personal and professional loss drove Kelly Johnson to cancel the M-21/D-21program. This accident also prompted water survival training by the A-12 pilots based at Groom Lake. Under the supervision of 1129th SAS commander, Col Hugh Slater, the pilots, wearing their flight suits, lifted high above the waters of Lake Mead on a parasail towed by a United States Coast Guard whaler. Colonel Slater quickly aborted the training when some of the fully suited pilots almost drowned after dropping from the parasail into the water.

In January 1967, while returning to Area 51 from a routine training flight, A-12 Article #125 crashed near Leith, Nevada. A faulty gauge had allowed the jet to run out of fuel 70 miles short of Groom Lake. Walt Ray (Dutch 45) ejected, however, failed to separate from his seat, killing him on impact with the ground. Walt Ray had married only three months earlier.

Capt Charlie Trapp was in Las Vegas with the UH-1 helicopter when he received a call that Walt Ray was missing. He gathered his crew and a Nellis flight surgeon and started the search. Dark mountain terrain and high winds made it difficult. The H-43 searched from Area 51. They called off the search because the H-43 was low on fuel and there was no sign of fire nor were emergency radio signals heard. They rescheduled first light ops for the next day. He took an F-105 pilot and flight surgeon with him and his Pararescue jump crew. The F-105 pilot thought he knew the approximate crash location.

They flew the UH-1 to the area and found the A-12 very soon after arriving. The drag chute had deployed. They deployed the PJs to search the area and the aircraft and discovered that the ejection seat and Walt were missing.

They searched the rest of the day without success and planned the next day’s search with several agencies. They started at the point of impact and searched back along the flight path. Trapp’s UH-1 crew flew past Ray that morning and did not see him due to shadows caused by the low sun angle. Later in the day, the C-47 crew saw a sun reflection from his suit or visor, and they directed us to the site where they landed and picked up Ray. He was still in his ejection seat. They took him to Nellis and his new bride, Diane.

They later returned to search for the canopy and the camera–it took 15 days to find them using horses as well.

A month or two before all this happened, the PJs and Captain Trapp had taken Walt Ray and other pilots to Fort Myers Florida for jungle and sea coast survival training. The only transport to the training site was by boat. The guys had to survive on land vegetation, fish, and turtles for several days. Trapp provided the psychological stress by announcing at the end of each day that he was leaving for the night for a shower, a few drinks, and a steak dinner and they were not. They chased him to the boat, but all was forgotten when he brought them a case of cold beer for the last night.

The Loss of Pilots Continued

On 27 September 1967, James S. Simon, Jr., flew chase for a night sortie of the TA-12, the two-seat A-12 trainer affectionately called the Titanium Goose, flown by CIA pilot Jack Layton and air force pilot Harold Burgeson. As the TA-12 approached the south end of the runway, Simon’s F-101B struck the ground and exploded near the south rim pad.

Layton, Dutch 12, the pilot occupied the front cockpit and Burgeson, the instructor pilot the rear. Jim Simon, the chase pilot, flew the F-101B (56–0286). After the trainer had become safely airborne and all systems checked normal, Simon routinely flew around in the local area to await their return.

Layton and Burgeson completed their mission and returned to Groom Lake where Layton started an instrument letdown for a full stop landing. During the letdown, Burgeson called the chase and informed Simon of their return with no problems. Simon asked for their position, and Burgeson gave it to him, again stating all systems normal and the A-12 trainer not needing any assistance. Simon responded that he wanted to find them at least.

Layton turned the trainer on final approach and received clearance for a full stop landing. In the cockpit, neither could physically see the wings or engines. On short final, a sudden explosion occurred off the trainer’s right wing. Layton and Burgeson saw the flash and felt the concussion. Layton instinctively stop cocked the right engine, lit the left afterburner, and said, “Burgie be ready to bail out.” Burgeson replied, “That was not us, Jack. It was the chase. If you keep this thing flying straight, I will restart the right engine.” Burgeson got the engine started, and they circled for a landing. Both avoided looking at the fire as they approached the runway and Layton made a smooth landing. Until they called for landing clearance, the tower operators thought it was A-12 trainer aircraft that crashed.

No one ever knew for sure what caused the crash. What the pilots knew was that joining up with a dark, unlit airplane on a night at final approach airspeed is not easy. The aircraft contacted the ground in a flat attitude near the South Trim Pad of the Groom Lake landing strip. The manner of crashing suggests that Simon got a little low and flew into the ground. They could only speculate that he might have overshot a little and dropped down for clearance or that something in the cockpit, such as a warning light distracted him. This was speculation that served no useful purpose. In any case, that night the OXCART project lost an exceptional officer, an excellent pilot, and a good friend. Simon left a spouse and three sons. Simon’s widow never remarried and remained in their Las Vegas home until she died in 2006.

Also in 1967, Operation BLACK SHIELD meteorologist Weldon “Walt” King was TDY from Groom Lake to Kadena when killed in an F-101 VooDoo during a weather flight. He met with bad weather during which he lost the tail of his aircraft. King survived bailing out only to have the plane crash on top of him.

The air force lost the third YF-12A on 24 June 1971 in an accident at Edwards AFB when a fire broke out while Lt Col Ronald J. Layton and systems operator William A. Curtis approached the traffic pattern. A fuel line fracture caused by metal fatigue enveloped the entire aircraft in flames on the base leg, forcing both crew members to eject from Article 936 on moments before it crashed and burned near Barstow, California.

An impressive demonstration of the A-12’s capability occurred on 21 December 1966 when Lockheed test pilot Bill Park flew 10,198 statute miles in six hours. The aircraft left the test area in Nevada and flew northward over Yellowstone National Park, thence eastward to Bismarck, North Dakota, and on to Duluth, Minnesota, where it then turned south and passed Atlanta en route to Tampa, Florida. The plane turned northwest and headed towards Portland, Oregon and then southwest to Nevada. Again, the flight turned eastward, passing Denver and St. Louis. Turning around at Knoxville, Tennessee, it passed Memphis in the home stretch back to Nevada. This flight established a record unapproachable by any other aircraft; it began at about the same time a typical government employee started his workday and ended two hours before his quitting time.

Tragedy befell the program during a routine training flight on 5 January 1967 when the fourth aircraft was lost, together with its pilot. The accident occurred during descent about 70 miles from the base. A fuel gauge failed to function properly, and the aircraft ran out of fuel only minutes before landing.

The pilot, Walter Ray, ejected but died when he failed to separate from the ejection seat before impact. The air force located the wreckage on 6 January and recovered Ray’s body a day later.

Through air force channels, the air force released a story to the effect that an air force SR-71, on a routine test flight out of Edwards Air Force Base, was missing and presumed down in Nevada. The announcement identified the pilot as a civilian test pilot, and the newspapers connected him with Lockheed. Flight activity at the base again suspended during an investigation of the causes both for the crash and for the failure of the seat separation device.

It is worth observing that none of the four accidents occurred in the high Mach number, the high-temperature regime of flight. All traditionally involved problems inherent in any aircraft the OXCART was by this time performing at high-speeds, with excellent reliability.


The president received a briefing on 20 July 1959 by Mr. Dulles, General Cabell, Mr. Bissell, Land, General White, Secretary McElroy, Drs. Killian, and Kistiakowsky. The president approved the study’s approach toward gaining intelligence on the Soviet Union and instructed Mr. Bissell to work with the Bureau of the Budget on the funding essential to the continuation of the effort. The choice of contractors hinged on the final design proposal submissions.

A meeting between Mr. Bissell and the Bureau of the Budget personnel on 22 July 1959 ended with the understanding that necessary financial arrangements were forthcoming to carry on the program.

Now the one major step of which design proposal to pursue remained before entering a full-scale development agenda. Lockheed and Convair had both submitted new proposals mid-August 1959. Both were unstaged aircraft differing only in external configuration. Both proposed aircraft would reach an altitude of 90,000 feet, fly at Mach 3.2 with an approximate 4,000-mile range. Both had a similar size, weight, and aerodynamic performance and preferred the P&W J58 engine over the General Electric Corporation J 93 which lacked higher cruise altitude of the J58.

17 August 1959 Comparison of general, characteristics.


Aircraft designation A-12 KINGFISH

Speed Mach 3.2 Mach 3.2

Range (total) 4120 nm 4000 nm

Range (at altitude) 3800 nm 3400 nm

Cruise Altitudes Lockheed Convair

Start 84,500 ft. 85,000 ft.

Mid-range 91,000 ft. 88,000 ft.

End 97,600 ft. 94,000 ft.


Length 102 ft. 79. 5 ft.

Span. 57 ft. 56. 0 ft.

Gross Weight 110,000 lbs. 101, 700 lbs.

Fuel Weight 64, 600 lbs. 62,000 lbs.

Lockheed’s designer, Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson, creator of the U-2 called his new vehicle the A-11. Its design exhibited many innovations.

The designation changed to A-12 to distinguish it from the A-11 designator, for the all metal version proposed initially. Small scale testing predicted the Convair being slightly better at S-Band frequencies.

On 20 August 1959, the joint DOD/air force/CIA source selection group chose the Lockheed design. Initial development, exclusive of engine costs, went to Mr. Bissell at project headquarters with the continuation of the Lockheed arrangement beyond initial development. Continuing the project was contingent on the success of design changes in the A-12 reducing the radar cross section.

The two factors favoring the choice of Lockheed were its substantially lower bid and the company’s experience from the U-2 program. Lockheed was already geared to launch into another highly classified program. It had handled the U-2 program without attracting undue attention in the industry and still possessed a reservoir of labor with the necessary security clearances and was readily available. Lastly, everyone was confident in Mr. Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson and his ability to produce a new vehicle as he had done with the U-2.

Bill Yenne