Military Monday: Early Jet Carrier Ops

by Crocker on May 16, 2010, 7:24 pm

in History,Military

At the end of World War II, the US Navy possessed the largest fleet in the world, but one that was mass-produced to fight the current war. All the services faced massive demobilization at war’s end but the cuts hit hardest at the Army and Navy. The new Air Force was the darling of defense planners, who assumed that all future wars would be aerial, strategic and nuclear. In such a world, the Air Force could do it all and the nation had no need of a Navy and its aircraft carriers.

With no money forthcoming for new carrier construction – and urgently requiring decks that could accommodate the new generation of jet fighters – the Navy improvised with its existing Essex-class carriers, extensively modifying them in two distinct programs: SCB-27, which modified the island structure, strengthened the wooden flight decks and elevators and added improved catapults (hydraulic at first and steam later), and SCB-125, which added an enclosed “hurricane” bow, angled flight decks, steam catapults and the Fresnel landing system. These latter three innovations were British.

Naturally, these modifications took many years and Navy crews made the best of what they had during the Korean War, which reestablished the carrier as the preeminent land and sea control platform, particular in the peninsula waters around Korea.

While Navy fliers enjoyed the first generation Grumman Panthers and Cougars – the Cougars being very comparable in performance to the Air Force’s F-86 Sabre – they were forced to fly off axial (straight) decks with little room for error in landing and no ability to execute a touch and go in the event of botched landing. What awaited them was a barrier stretched across the deck to protect parked aircraft forward. Moreover, they still relied upon the Landing Signal Officer, who manually directed their approach with his paddles. All this could make life very exciting, particularly in the foul weather of a Korean winter. With heavier aircraft and higher jet landing speeds, it was not for the faint of heart.

Here are two videos showing early jet ops. The first is actual 8 mm home movies taken by Dale Bervan, a Panther pilot operating off Korea on the USS Philippine Sea and later off the USS Hornet.

This second video is a clip from The Bridges at Toko-ri, a superb 1954 adaptation of James Michener’s novel of the same name. Starring William Holden, Grace Kelly, Frederic March and Mickey Rooney, the film is both honest and realistic in its portrayal of Navy pilots performing their dangerous duties in a war both disliked and ignored by the American people. Note the difficulties – and dangers – in operating off an axial deck carrier in a pitching sea.

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