Thrills of the Flying Sailors (Jul, 1940)

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Thrills of the Flying Sailors

A VETERAN NAVY PILOT DESCRIBES LIFE ON OUR AIRCRAFT CARRIERS

By Lieut. Comdr. DON F. SMITH

THE author, at present in command of the Floyd Bennett Field Naval Reserve Base in New York City, has had more than 5,000 hours of flying in every type of Naval aviation squadron. Of his twenty-three years in the Navy, nine have been spent piloting swift pursuit ships and powerful dive-bombers from the decks of Uncle Sam’s giant floating airports, the aircraft carriers.

THE reddish-brown deck streaks to the rear. Open water flashes under your wings. You are climbing. That, for a pilot aboard one of those hornets’ nests of the sea, the aircraft carriers, is the beginning of adventure.

One thrill which occurred off Panama, stands out in my memory. I had lifted a T4M torpedo plane from the million-dollar teakwood deck of the Saratoga. My mission was simple. I was to fly to another vessel, blank it off with a smoke screen, and return to my floating airport. Just as I slanted down above my objective, thirty minutes later, a connection at the smoke tank snapped. Choking, blinding billows of chemical vapor swirled around the plane.

Coughing and gasping, I kicked over the rudder. The ship skidded to the right; the trail of vapor veered to the left. I gulped in fresh air and straightened out. In an instant, the white clouds of chemical fog closed in again. For more than four minutes, I kept skidding violently first to one side and then to the other; bursting momentarily out into fresh air and then disappearing again in the billows of white vapor. Behind me, stretching for more than a mile and a half, the trail of fog zigzagged like a writhing snake. Observers thought I had gone crazy. But those momentary emergences into open air kept me alive until the tank was empty.

That wouldn’t happen again once in a million times. Every safety aid is given the carrier pilot. Equipment on such vessels is the best in the world. And, when an emergency such as I have described does occur aloft, a board of experts, later on, goes over every detail of the experience to plan additional safeguards for the future.

During twenty-three years in the Navy, including experience on many types of combatant ships and Yangtze River gunboats, I have had about all the fun and adventure the service has to offer. But the biggest kick of all has been flying with the “carriers”— three of the largest in the world, the pioneer Langley, the Saratoga, and the Lexington.

Even when the unexpected doesn’t add to the excitement, a flight from one of these sea airports is thrilling enough in itself.

With brakes on and motor roaring, your ship stands poised between twin yellow lines running the length of the deck. You get the signal, release your brakes, race down the 800 feet of teakwood that forms the runway, and lift into the air. A moment later, another plane follows you. Thus, in rapid suc- cession, the sea hawks take wing. Between seventy and ninety planes ride on one of Uncle Sam’s large carriers. The smallest are single-seat, high-speed scouting planes; the largest, Douglas bombers.

Every flight from an aircraft carrier is made for some specific purpose. Like signal practice in football, life aboard such a ship is a succession of drills, a perpetual effort to increase efficiency. Four times a year, sham battles, or Navy games, are carried out at sea with carrier pilots discovering and attacking the “enemy.” The weeks between are spent in radio drills, navigation study, dive bombing, gunnery practice, homing drills, and group exercises. Over and over again, operations are repeated until they fit like cogs into a smooth-working machine for offense and defense.

For dive-bombing, practice, paper bags of aluminum powder, tossed into the ocean, spread glittering, fifteen-foot disks on the water. These shining targets are visible at 18,000 feet, an altitude from which the ample deck of the aircraft carrier appears no larger than a tiny piece of brown ribbon. As many as eight times in a single day, pilots will make screeching, three-mile plunges from the sky. The pull-out begins at about 2,500 feet, just after the dummy bombs have left the ship, and the plane levels out only 1,000 feet or so above the water.

The landings provide most of the fireworks on a floating airport. When planes are coming in, a special Diesel-powered whaleboat, holding emergency crews and a flight surgeon, is slung over the side ready to go into action if a flyer is forced down in the water. Two destroyers always follow 1,000 yards apart in the wake of the carrier, also ready for rescue work. And, on board, a special movie cameraman stands by, ready to film every landing that may end in a crack-up. Even the most trivial accident is recorded for study. Pilots, at regular intervals, see “crash shows.” These reels, showing accidents on board the various carriers, help them avoid making mistakes that have brought others to grief.

Sometimes as many as seventy-four highspeed ships will be wheeling about an aircraft carrier, getting into the “landing groove,” ready for coming aboard in quick succession. When they do come in, they land only a few seconds apart. This exhibition of precision flying is a stirring spectacle. For the pilot, it provides a thrill that never grows stale.

I have been through it more than 300 times. Once, off Hawaii, ground swells were lifting and dropping the bow of the Lexington through a fifty-foot arc when I swooped down for a sixty-seven-mile-an-hour landing. Another time, the Saratoga was turning as well as steaming full speed ahead when the engine of my torpedo plane sputtered and I had to sit down on the deck as best I could. In normal landings, as well as in take-offs, the aircraft carrier is running at peak speed into the wind.

Just as the quarterback directs a football team, so the signalman on the bridge of an aircraft carrier directs the pilots in landing. He is always a veteran flyer himself and he studies the peculiarities of each of the pilots on the carrier until he knows what he will do in any kind of an emergency. With a yellow flag in either hand, he “lands” the ships in quick succession. From 300 yards out, you watch the signalman, not the deck, when you sit down on a carrier. If you are coming in too fast or are likely to overshoot, he gives you the “wave-off,” chopping the two flags across each other in front of him. If you are all right, he swiftly draws one flag across his throat, the signal to cut the engine. The signalman is the key to successful operations on a carrier; it is he who must make split-second decisions that enable scores of planes to land with clockwork regularity.

Hardly has your plane stopped rolling down the deck, when you land, before experts are swarming over it for inspection. Riggers go over the wiring, mechanics examine the engine, gasoline crews fill the tanks. Every plane on an aircraft carrier is filled with fuel, ready to go, at all times. As soon as all the planes have landed, they are rolled back to the stern, each to its “stall,” or spot where it is secured by ropes attached to eyelets in the deck. Rain or shine, almost all of the aircraft are left in the open. During high winds, the mechanics place special boards called “spoilers” along the leading edges of the wings to break up the air currents and reduce the strain.

It is during the quarterly Navy games that activity aboard an aircraft carrier reaches its peak. Scouts, patrol planes, attack squadrons are taking off and landing at frequent intervals. Sometimes, for seven or even ten days at a stretch, the pilots will follow a grueling schedule that starts with reveille at 3:30 in the morning and ends with taps at 9:30 in the evening. The work is strenuous but it has the attraction of a thrilling, exciting game. Of the 1,400-odd men who live aboard one of these floating airports, only about 100 are carrier pilots. Highly trained specialists, they fill a job that is tops when it comes to variety, speed, and thrills.

7 comments
  1. Hirudinea says: January 17, 20139:17 am

    July 1940 and they’re still flying Biplanes! in 6 year’s they’d be flying jets.

  2. Stephen says: January 18, 20135:51 am

    The same thing happened in the RAF. The author Roald Dahl flew wood-and-wire Gloster Gladiator biplanes in Africa before graduating to Hawker Hurricanes; by 1945 Gloster had built the Meteor, the first jet fighter with the possible exception of the Me-262. WWII famously caused a massive acceleration in technology. The Germans developed what we would call ballistic and cruise missiles, the British developed jets, radar and electronic computers, and the Americans of course developed nuclear weapons.

  3. Hirudinea says: January 18, 20137:56 am

    @ Stephen – Does it ever strike you as ironic that man seems at his most creative when he’s killing his fellow man?

  4. JMyint says: January 18, 20131:03 pm

    The Henschel Hs-123 stayed in front line service with the Luftwaffe until the summer of 1944, it then continued in secondary service. The Arado Ar-68 served in the Polish canpaign in 1939. Every major power in 1939 had front line combat biplanes and many biplanes remained in service until the end of the war.

  5. dej says: January 20, 20135:51 pm

    The author sounds like a real clown:

    http://www.dmairfield.c…

    “An interesting window into Smith’s personality was published in Time Magazine May 2, 1949. It describes an incident that would today be called elitism on the part of then Captain Smith. Annually, the Navy’s Quonset Point Air Station, of which Smith was commandant, provided a formal Charity Ball for the, “… 3,900 sailors and civilian personnel. This year, the big feature was the election of ‘Miss Quonset Point.’ The triumphant queen was to be crowned at the ball; the commandant would escort her in the grand march. Everyone who bought a ticket got a vote, and sales were brisk.”

    “Miss Quonset Point,” by overwhelming vote, was the woman who swept up in the large Overhaul and Repair shop on base. She was described by Time as, “… [age] 43, the wife of a disabled World War I veteran, mother of five children, and plain.” But, she was a valued friend to Navy and civilian workers alike. Everyone knew her as a mother figure who listened to their troubles and smiled at their jokes. She was a warm presence among hard workers. She received 500 votes.

    This “amazed” Captain Smith, who said that the contest had, “degenerated into a farce.” He had the committee call off the march. The committee explained, “The good captain didn’t want to be seen walking down the aisle with a sweep woman on his arm.” Promptly, 800 ticket buyers turned in their tickets. One was quoted, “If this contest is for the lieutenants’ girl friends, then let the lieutenants go to the ball. I’m not.” With that, the Queen declined to attend the Ball.

    However, with much cajoling, she finally relented and agreed to attend. Her supporters took her shopping for a complete new outfit and a visit to a beauty parlor. Signs went up saying, “Our Queen … will be there tonight — how about you?” They picked her up in a 1949 Lincoln. Four thousand attended and the Queen, nervous, was in the receiving line. Captain Smith arrived and breezed past her without a word.

    Later, Smith still refused to escort the duly-elected Queen. When the grand march came, Smith chose to be escorted by his second wife. Nobody was crowned “Miss Quonset Point.””

    Obviously he thought highly of himself. Probably admired himself in the mirror every morning.

    His first 2 initials are DF. Dumb …. , well you can figure it out.

  6. Zeppflyer says: January 20, 20139:34 pm

    @Hirundinea: think that it’s fairer to say that man is at his most creative when he’s being threatened with destruction by his fellow man.

  7. Toronto says: January 21, 20138:19 am

    dej: I knew several like him in the Canadian Navy.

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