By the closing stages of the Pacific War, the US Navy’s Essex class carriers, which formed the backbone of the mighty 3rd Fleet, were equipped with either Grumman F6F Hellcat or Vought F4U Corsair fighters, Grumman TBF/TBM torpedo bombers and Curtis SB2C Helldiver dive bombers. The older and slower Grumman F4F Wildcat was still in frontline service aboard many of the smaller escort carriers, and examples of all these aircraft (except the Helldiver) had been supplied in considerable numbers to the Royal Navy.
The tough little Wildcat first flew in September 1937 and was developed into a rugged and reliable naval fighter, which was supplied to the Royal Navy from 1940 onwards (initially known as the Martlet), while the US Navy took delivery of the F4F-3 from December 1940 onwards. This version was powered by a 1,200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 Twin Wasp, which gave a top speed of 335 mph and a 3,100 feet/min initial rate of climb. When combined with excellent handling and manoeuvrability, the outcome was to make the Wildcat one of the best naval fighters of the time. By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor virtually all US Navy fighter squadrons were equipped with the type, which remained the only carrier-borne fighter until the introduction of the Hellcat in early 1943, and it bore the brunt of the air fighting in all the early Pacific battles. A total of 7,825 Wildcats had been built when production ceased in August 1945, although only 1,988 were completed by the parent Grumman company, the remainder being produced as the FM-1 and FM-2 by the Eastern Aircraft division of General Motors. After 1945, the Wildcat was rapidly withdrawn from frontline service and despite its very distinguished war record, it has little relevance to the overall theme of this book.
However, the Wildcat ancestry was vital to the development of its successor, the Grumman F6F Hellcat, which was to become one of the most successful of the Allied fighters during World War II. The origins of the Hellcat went back to 1938 when Grumman designers looked at the possibility of installing a 1,600 hp Wright R-2600 radial engine in the F4F Wildcat. But it soon became apparent that a larger airframe would be required and the project lapsed until 1940 when reports filtering back from the air war in Europe indicated that a replacement for the Wildcat would soon be required. At that time the US Navy was placing its hopes on the new Vought F4U Corsair, which had flown in that year. Consequently, Grumman were left to their own devices, the project being regarded merely as a back-up in case of problems with the Corsair. In fact, as will be related, although the Corsair offered a much better performance its handling characteristics initially caused the Navy to rule out shipboard operations and the new Grumman F6F Hellcat began to assume a much greater importance. This led to orders for 1,080 F6F-1s being placed in January 1942, almost six months before the prototype XF6F-1 made its first flight on 26 June 1942. This was powered by the Wright R-2600 radial engine rated at 1,700 hp for take-off. A second prototype, designated XF6F-2, was to have been fitted with a turbosupercharged XR-2600-10 but instead was powered by a 2,000 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800-10 Double Wasp when it flew on 30 July 1942 (the same engine also powered the Corsair). In this guise it was designated XF6F-3 and formed the basis for the production F6F-3 of which no fewer than 4,402 were built, the last being delivered in April 1943.
The Hellcat inherited a reputation for strength and reliability from the Wildcat and the early production aircraft were allocated to the new air groups being formed in early 1943 for service aboard the Essex class carriers that were then coming into service. The first US Navy squadron to equip with Hellcats was VF-9 at NAS Oceana, Virginia, and it was destined for service aboard the USS Essex. By August 1943 the Hellcat was in action for the first time when ships of Task Force 15 including Essex, Yorktown (VF-5 embarked), and Independence (VF-6 and VF-22 embarked) attacked Marcus island. The Hellcat quickly established its superiority over the hitherto much feared Mitsubishi Zero. As the campaign across the Pacific gathered pace Hellcats became the main US Navy shipboard fighter and in Operation Forager, the occupation of the Mariana Islands, no fewer than fifteen carriers of Task Force 58 carried a total of 896 aircraft of which 467 were Hellcats. This figure included two dozen F6F-3Ns, which were modified to act as night fighters with an AN/APS-6 radar set in a radome fitted below the leading edge of the starboard wing, and some 229 examples of this version were produced by modifying standard -3s.
The F6F-3 had a maximum speed of 376 mph at 17,300 feet and a range of 1,090 miles on standard tankage, which could be extended to 1,590 miles by means of an under fuselage 125-gallon drop tank. The standard armament was six wing-mounted 0.5 inch machine-guns and two 1,000 lb bombs or six 5 inch rockets could be carried on underwing hardpoint - giving the Hellcat a useful secondary role as a fighter-bomber. The next major version was the F6F-5, which replaced the -3 on the production lines from April 1944. No fewer than 7,668 of this variant were built between then and 21 November 1945 when the last Hellcat left the Grumman factory. In order not to disrupt the production programme, the F6F-5 incorporated only detailed improvements over its predecessor, these included a redesigned engine cowling, improved windshield design, spring-tabbed ailerons and strengthened tail surfaces. Armour protection for the pilot was increased but plans to fit the aircraft with a clear-vision bubble canopy and a cut-down rear fuselage were not adopted. A night fighter version, the F6F-5N, was designed, some 1,432 being produced, and in some of these a single 20 mm cannon replaced the two inboard machine-guns in each wing. By early 1945 the F6F-5 had replaced earlier versions aboard all frontline carriers and by the end of the War US Navy and USMC Hellcats, both carrier- and shore-based, had accounted for the destruction of 5,156 enemy aircraft. All of the US Navy’s top scoring aces, led by Cdr David McCampbell USN with thirty-four victories, were Hellcat pilots.
Inevitably, with the end of hostilities in 1945, the Navy underwent a reduction in frontline strength and many Hellcat squadrons were disbanded. However, some remained active aboard carriers until 1948 before they were finally replaced by Corsairs and Bearcats, although reserve squadrons retained Hellcats until the end of the Korean War in 1953. One high-profile unit to fly Hellcats in the post-war era was the now famous Blue Angels, the US Navy’s aerial demonstration team, which was formed with Hellcats in July 1946. An exception to the general run down of US Navy Hellcat units was the night fighter F6F-5N, which was in service with Composite Squadron VC-4 as late as mid 1954. The availability of great numbers of Hellcat airframes led to them being extensively used as pilotless target drones under the designation F6F-3K or -5K and some of these were in use up to around 1959 - a rather sad end for one of the most significant American aircraft of the World War II era. In passing, it is worth noting that 1,182 Hellcats were transferred to the Royal Navy. They first entered service in July 1943 with 800 Squadron, which was later embarked on the escort carrier HMS Emperor, and carried out shipping strikes of the Norwegian coast towards the end of that year. Subsequently most Royal Navy Hellcats served with units of the Eastern and Pacific Fleets.
One version of the Hellcat that did not see service was the projected F6F-4, which was a proposed lightened aircraft with reduced armament and fuel tankage and was intended for use aboard the smaller escort carriers. In the event the FM-2 Wildcat met this requirement and the F6F-4 did not fly. However, the idea of a lightweight high-performance fighter capable of operating from both large and small carriers was resurrected by Roy Grumman himself in July 1943 when he set out a specification for a Wildcat-sized aircraft with a supercharged R-2800 engine, a gross weight of 8,500 lb and a clear-view bubble canopy. A wide-track undercarriage would make for ease of deck landing and provide a long-enough oleo leg to allow adequate clearance for the large four-bladed propeller that would be fitted. Under the designation Design 58, design work began straight away and details were passed to the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics who evinced an immediate interest. In fact, the proposal had come at an interesting time as the US Navy had already ordered its first all-jet fighter (McDonnell XFD-1) but there were obviously serious reservations about the untried concept of jets at sea and the idea of a lightweight fast-climbing piston-engined interceptor proved an ideal back-up. In this context the US Navy was not particularly interested in the ability to operate from escort carriers, and intended the new aircraft (now designated XF8F-1 Bearcat) to operate from the new Midway class carriers then under construction.
The first of two Bearcat prototypes had its maiden flight on 31 August 1944, less than a year after the initial concept and only eight months after the initial contract was signed in November 1943. Initial flight tests showed some directional stability problems, which resulted in the addition of a dorsal fin and increased tailplane span on subsequent production aircraft. Overall, however, the Bearcat was an outstandingly successful design with an initial rate of climb in excess of 4,500 feet/min, substantially in excess of figures achieved by either the Hellcat or Corsair. Production F8F-1 Bearcats had a maximum speed of 434 mph at 20,000 feet, again much faster than the Hellcat, although not as quick as the Corsair. The lightweight airframe allowed a substantial underwing ordnance load to be carried, initially two 1,000 lb bombs or two 11.75 inch Tiny Time rockets, while later production aircraft had additional outboard racks for four 100 lb bombs or 5 inch HVAR rockets. A 150-gallon drop tank could be carried under the fuselage centreline. With a smaller wing than the Hellcat, the fixed armament comprised only four 0.5 inch machine-guns, although these could be supplemented by underwing twin 0.5 inch gun pods carried instead of the 1,000 lb bombs.
In a break with Grumman tradition, the outboard wing section folded upwards for carrier stowage instead of being folded back against the fuselage sides. A rather odd feature was that the outer wingtips were designed to break off if the pilot exceeded the airframe g force limitations. Unfortunately, what was intended as a safety feature resulted in the loss of at least one Bearcat when only one wingtip broke off during flight testing. Subsequently, explosive bolts were fitted to ensure that both sections came away, leaving the aircraft in a symmetrical configuration. Eventually the feature was discarded and the wings were permanently strengthened at the break point.
Almost as soon as the prototypes were flying, orders were placed for 2,023 Bearcats in October 1944. A further 1,876 were ordered in February 1945 from General Motors under the designation F3M-1. Inevitably these orders were severely curtailed with the end of the War, the General Motors contract being cancelled and the Grumman order reduced to 770 aircraft. Nevertheless, deliveries began to build up early in 1945 and the first squadron (VF-19) began to equip with Bearcats in May 1945. This squadron was embarked on the light carrier USS Langley en route for the Western Pacific when the War ended so that the Bearcat did not see action during World War II. Nevertheless, it rapidly replaced the Hellcat in frontline squadrons and by the end of 1948 no fewer than twenty-four US Navy squadrons were flying Bearcats. These included some F8F-1B cannon-armed aircraft, 124 of which were built in addition to the original Grumman order. During the post-war period the improved F8F-2 was developed and flew on 11 June 1947. This had a slightly more powerful R-2800-34W engine, cannon armament was standard and a noticeably taller tail fin was fitted. Some 293 of this variant were produced between November 1947 and April 1949 and a further sixty F8F-2P photographic reconnaissance Bearcats were also produced, the last of these being delivered in May 1949 when Bearcat production ended. As with the Hellcat, efforts were made to produce a night fighter version of the Bearcat but the wing construction made it unsuitable for mounting a radome faired into the leading edge. The radar was therefore carried in an underwing pod, which created significant drag and reduced performance accordingly. Consequently only twelve Bearcats were modified as F8F-1Ns and a further twelve F8F-2Ns were built, but these saw little service with operational units (VCN-1 and VCN-2) and were mostly relegated to training duties.
In fact, the Bearcat’s frontline career with the US Navy was relatively brief and it was never deployed by any Marine Corps squadrons. By the time of the outbreak of the Korean War, it was already being replaced as an interceptor by the first generation of Navy jet fighters. As a ground support and attack aircraft it was outclassed by the larger Corsair, which had much superior payload/range characteristics, and consequently it was not deployed to the Seventh Fleet to operate off Korea. Those squadrons embarked on carriers of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean re-equipped with jets during this period and even US-based Reserve squadrons only flew Bearcats until 1953, the last units being VF-859 and VF-921. Although this was effectively the end of the Bearcat’s naval career, it did see considerable action ashore with the French Air Force in Indo-China and also the air force of South Vietnam. In addition the Royal Thai Air Force received around 129 Bearcats, including some ex-French aircraft.
Although the various Grumman piston-engined fighters served the US Navy well in great numbers, the aircraft that outlived them all and was probably the finest carrier-based fighter produced in World War II was the Vought F4U Corsair. By the standards of the day when it first flew in May 1940 it was a large and heavy aircraft. However, it was the first American fighter to be powered by the new Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp air-cooled radial engine and this enabled the Corsair to achieve speeds in excess of 400 mph, faster than anything then available to the Air Force. The origins of this remarkable aircraft went back to a naval specification issued in 1938 for a new single-seat high-speed naval fighter with a performance equal to land-based contemporaries. The new 1,850 hp R-2800-4 engine offered the necessary power but needed a large diameter propeller. The Corsair’s distinctive inverted gull wing configuration was adopted so that the necessary propeller ground clearance could be achieved without unnecessarily long and heavy undercarriage legs. An incidental benefit of this layout was that the wing root joined the fuselage at right angles, which substantially reduced aerodynamic drag at that point. The test flying programme confirmed the Corsair’s excellent performance, which was considerably superior to the Grumman Wildcat’s, then the Navy’s standard fighter. However, information coming out of the air war in Europe pointed to the fact that several significant changes were needed if the Corsair was to be effective in combat. The most pressing was the need to increase the armament which, on the prototype, comprised one 0.3 inch and one 0.5 inch machine-gun mounted in the forward fuselage and a single 0.5 inch gun in each wing, while a novel feature was the provision of compartments in the wing for up to ten small bombs intended for use against bomber formations. This whole arrangement was swept away and in its place was set a battery of six 0.5 inch machine-guns, three in each wing, and all with a greatly increased ammunition supply. However, this all took up space previously occupied by fuel tanks and a new 197-gallon self-sealing fuel tank was set into the fuselage immediately behind the engine. This necessitated moving the cockpit some three feet further back, giving the Corsair its distinctive long-nosed appearance. Other modifications included 155 lb of armour protection, a bullet-proof windscreen and increased aileron span. Naturally, the empty weight rose considerably, from 7,505 lb of the prototype XF4U to 8,982 lb for the eventual production F4U-1. But this was offset by the more powerful R-2800-8 engine rated at 2,000 hp that was fitted, giving a maximum speed of 417 mph at 20,000 feet and an initial rate of climb of 2,890 feet/min.
Such development took time and it was not until 30 June 1941 that an order for 584 F4U-1 Corsairs was placed and it was almost a year later before the first production aircraft were delivered. By the end of 1942 the US Marine Corps squadron VMF-14 was fully operational and the first US Navy squadron VF-12 was working up. However, carrier trials aboard the USS Sangamon in September 1942 revealed several problems associated with shipboard operations, the most significant of which was the pilot’s poor forward view over the long nose. The aircraft also had a tendency to swing violently on touchdown and the stiff undercarriage made it prone to bouncing so that arrester wires were missed and barrier engagements were not uncommon. Consequently the US Navy decided that the Corsair was not suitable for deck operations and its use was restricted to land-based USMC and US Navy units. Indeed, some Corsairs were actually produced without folding wings. Despite these reservations, the Corsair was otherwise an immediate success as it went into action in the fierce fighting around the Solomon Islands and New Georgia in the Southern Pacific. By August 1943 eight Marine squadrons were flying Corsairs in the theatre and land-based US Navy units were also becoming operational. However, it was not until further carrier trials were carried out aboard the escort carrier USS Gambier Bay in April 1944 that the US Navy finally approved the Corsair for carrier deployment and it finally began to join the air groups aboard the Essex class carriers for the major operations against the Philippines and the Japanese home islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
The Corsair was supplied in significant numbers to the Royal Navy whose squadrons began forming in the USA in mid 1943 - by the end of that year no fewer than eight had been formed and ultimately there were nineteen British Corsair squadrons. The Royal Navy was delighted to get such a potent aeroplane especially as its performance was as good as anything the RAF had and, more importantly, it could hold its own against the German Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfes. Consequently they had no hesitation in getting the aircraft to sea from August 1943 onwards. A modification quickly introduced was the fitting of a bulged clear-view canopy, which allowed the pilot’s seat to be raised and much improved visibility, both for carrier operations and combat situations. A modified long stroke undercarriage reduced the tendency to bounce and British Corsairs had the wingspan reduced by 16 inches to permit stowage in the hangars of British carriers. Royal Navy Corsairs were first in action on 3 April 1944 when 1834 Squadron flying from HMS Victorious formed part of the escort for the highly successful strike against the battleship Tirpitz. Eventually the Royal Navy had nineteen Corsair squadrons and the aircraft was widely deployed with the British Pacific Fleet in the closing stages of the war against Japan. Unfortunately, as these aircraft were supplied to Britain under Lend-Lease, they had to be returned or destroyed at the end of hostilities and consequently played no role in the post-war Royal Navy. As has been recounted, there was a gap of two years before the Hawker Sea Fury, which offered a similar performance, entered frontline service.
The US Navy, of course, had no such problems and the Corsair was to remain in frontline service for almost another decade. During World War II Vought built a total of 4,699 F4U-1s but this figure was boosted by another 738 built by Brewster under the designation FBA-1 and 4,007 by Goodyear (designation FG-1). As already recorded, 2,012 of these went to the Royal Navy and a further 370 to the RNZAF. Almost half of the overall total were produced as fighter-bombers with provision for an under fuselage drop tank and two 1,000 lb bombs or eight 5 inch rockets on underwing hardpoints. Depending on the manufacturer, these were designated F4U-1D or FG-1D.
The F4U-2 was a night fighter version with a radome on the starboard wingtip and was fitted with an autopilot, while armament was altered to four 20 mm cannon. Some thirty-two examples were produced by the Naval Aircraft Factory by converting F4U-1s. The designation XF4U-3 was applied to three prototypes powered by a turbosupercharged version of the Double Wasp but the first did not fly until 1946 and only a single example of the equivalent Goodyear FG-3 was completed. Consequently the next major production version of the Corsair was the F4U-4, which was powered by a 2,100 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800-18W. This engine boosted the top speed to 446 mph at 26,000 feet and improved the initial rate of climb to 3,870 feet/min. The prototype flew on 19 April 1944 and it quickly replaced the earlier versions on the production lines. A total of 2,357 were built with production continuing, despite the end of the War, until 1947. Although most of these were standard fighter-bombers, there were 297 F4U-4Bs with four 20 mm cannon and nine F4U-4P photo reconnaissance versions. Only a single F4U-4N night fighter was produced.
Even then, the Corsair had the potential for further development in the post-war era and the first new variant was the F4U-5, which standardised on the four cannon armament and was powered by the 2,300 hp R-2800-32W fitted with a two-stage supercharger. A total of 568 F4U-5s were ordered by the US Navy but significantly over half of these (315) were built as F4U-5N or -5NL night fighters, the rest being standard fighter-bombers except for thirty F4U-5Ps. The more powerful engine naturally increased performance, the top speed rising to 470 mph at 26,800 feet, but also allowed an increase in ordnance payload, which could now consist of up to 1,600 lb of bombs under each wing together with a 2000 lb bomb on the centreline rack in lieu of a drop tank. The F4U-5 entered service from 1947 onwards and subsequently played an important role in the composition of US Navy carrier air groups. The F4U-5N in particular provided the essential night and all-weather capability that the new jets were not able to provide, while the propeller-driven fighter-bomber was cheaper to operate and just as effective in the ground attack role. In fact, a specialised ground attack version, the F4U-6, was produced for the USMC squadrons, which had increased armour protection for the pilot and could carry up to four 1,000 lb bombs. As it would spend most of its operational life at low level, only a single-stage 2,300 hp R-2800-83W was fitted and overall performance was substantially reduced. Some 111 of this variant, designated AU-1 in service, were built and they served extensively with the USMC shore-based units in Korea.
The importance of the Corsair can be gauged by the fact that during the time of the Korean War (1950-53), a total of twenty-eight Navy and seven USMC squadrons flew this aircraft and, perhaps surprisingly, the only official US Navy ace of the war flew the F4U-5N night fighter. This was Lt Guy P Bordelon USN who shot down five Communist aircraft while operating as apart of a detachment of VC-3 aboard the USS Princeton. However, once the fighting stopped in July 1953, the operational units quickly returned home and were disbanded. By the end of 1954 only two US Navy squadrons (VC-3 and VC-4) still flew Corsairs, these finally disbanding in the following year.
The final production version of the Corsair was the F4U-7 of which ninety-four were built for the French Navy (Aeronavale), these being supplied under MDAP arrangements. Although basically similar to the AU-1, they were powered by the two-stage R-2800-18W, which went some way to restoring the performance at medium and high altitudes. The last of these left the Dallas factory in 1952, making the Corsair the last of the World War II era fighters to remain in production.
As already recounted, substantial Corsair production contracts were awarded to Goodyear during World War II, these being built as the FG-1 and FG-4. In the later stages of the Pacific War an urgent requirement arose for a high-performance low-altitude interceptor to counteract the alarming Japanese kamikaze attacks. With the Vought company fully stretched with development and production of the standard Corsairs, Goodyear was tasked with the project in early 1944. The engine specified was the 3,000 hp Pratt & Whitney R-4360 air-cooled radial engine. Retaining the same basic layout as the Corsair, the fuselage of the new F2G was extensively redesigned to take the much more powerful engine and featured a clear-view bubble canopy, which had been proposed earlier, but not adopted, for production FG-1A Corsairs. Flight tests revealed a top speed of almost 400 mph at sea level and an initial rate of climb of 4,400 feet/min - roughly comparable to the contemporary Bearcat but the F2G was better suited to the secondary fighter-bomber role. In March 1944 contracts were signed for 418 F2G-1s and ten F2G-2s, the latter being equipped for carrier operations whereas the standard F2G-1 was intended for land-based operations with the USMC. By August 1945 only five of each variant had been completed and with the end of the War the remaining orders were cancelled, as indeed were all outstanding Goodyear contracts for FG-4 Corsairs.
With well proven aircraft such as the Bearcat and Corsair available after 1945, the US Navy had little desire to continue development of other piston-engined fighters now that a new generation of jet fighters was on the horizon. Consequently the Goodyear F2G was not the only design to be sidelined at that time and another to suffer the same fate was the little known Boeing XF8B-1. During and after World War II Boeing made its name as the builder of large bombers and transport aircraft but it should not be forgotten that the company had produced some very successful fighters in the 1920s and 30s. Consequently, when the US Navy issued a requirement for a long-range shipboard fighter in 1943, Boeing responded with a very large and heavy single-seat fighter powered by a single 3,000 hp Pratt & Whitney R-4360-10. Three prototypes were ordered as the XF8B-1 but only one flew before the end of the War (27 November 1944), although the other two were subsequently completed at a later date. With a span of 54 feet and a length of over 43 feet, together with a loaded weight of over 20,000 lb, the XF8B-1 was, as perhaps befitted a Boeing product, the heaviest carrier-based aircraft produced during the War. The R-4360-10 engine was a complex four-row radial driving two three-bladed contra-rotating propellers, the whole installation being designed as a removable ‘power egg’ for ease of maintenance. The top speed was only 432 mph at 27,000 feet and the initial rate of climb was a sluggish 2,800 feet/min but the aircraft’s great attribute was a maximum range of over 3,000 miles. In fact, the XF8B-1 was really a multi-purpose aircraft despite the fighter designation and could carry a 6,400 lb bomb load distributed between an internal bomb bay and underwing hardpoints, or two 2,000 lb torpedoes. Viewed in that light the Boeing design had obvious potential but by 1945 the long-range requirement was not so important as US carriers were now powerful enough to operate close to enemy shores and the future obviously lay with jet aircraft. Consequently no production orders were forthcoming and the prototypes were put into storage, although one was briefly evaluated by the USAAF at Wright Field.
The US Navy did have one other piston-engined fighter in service at the end of 1945. This was the twin-engined Grumman F7F Tigercat, which had flown in prototype form in December 1943 and was initially intended to operate from the decks of the new large Midway class carriers then being laid down. This interesting aircraft was the first twin-engined carrier aircraft to go into production and was also the first to feature a tricycle undercarriage. Powered by a pair of 2,100 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800-22W radial engines, the F7F-1 was capable of over 400 mph and was heavily armed with a battery of four 20 mm cannon in the wing roots and four 0.5 inch machine-guns in the nose. In addition, it could carry a standard torpedo under the fuselage or two 1,000 lb bombs on underwing racks. It was ordered into production for the USMC and deliveries began in April 1944, although due to various factors the Tigercat never saw operational service in World War II. Only thirty-four single-seat F7F-1s were delivered before production changed to the F7F-2N, a two-seat night fighter with AI radar replacing the nose machine-gun battery. In March 1945 the F7F-3 powered by the 2,300 hp R-2800-34W was introduced and this became the main production version with 189 being built. After the end of the War in August 1945 the F7F-3N was introduced as a night fighter version of the -3 and this could be recognised by a taller fin and more bulbous nose to house the radar. Sixty examples of the -3 were built, together with thirteen F7F-4Ns, before production ended in late 1946. It is generally stated that the -4N was the only Tigercat version equipped for shipboard operations but this is not entirely true as all versions had folding wings and most were fitted with arrester hooks. However, early carrier trials showed the need for several modifications, including a modified tail hook, strengthened airframe and longer stroke undercarriage. It was only the F7F-4N that actually incorporated all these improvements. Apart from the aircraft itself, there were also ship compatibility problems as the arrester gear of the early Essex class could not cope with the landing weights of up to 20,000 lb and the twin-engine tricycle undercarriage configuration was not compatible with the standard deck barriers. Consequently, the Tigercat was almost exclusively used by shore-based USMC squadrons. Together with F4U-5N Corsairs, Marine F7F-3Ns provided an important night interdiction capability in Korea, remaining in service almost to the end of hostilities. However, apart from occasional training exercises, the Tigercat never saw service aboard the Navy’s carriers. Interestingly two Tigercats were supplied to Britain in 1946 as the Admiralty wished to gain experience of the single-engine handling characteristics of twin-engined carrier aircraft. The two F7F-1s were given British serials (TT348 and TT349) while undergoing evaluation at Farnborough before being returned to the US Navy in 1947. Presumably these trials were in advance of the de Havilland Sea Hornet entering service and also gave British pilots an opportunity to assess the suitability of the tricycle undercarriage layout for carrier-based aircraft.
There was potentially one other twin piston-engined fighter that might have seen service in the post-war era. This was the highly unconventional single-seat Chance Vought XF5U-1, which was built around a circular wing planform, giving it an almost flying saucer-like appearance. Power was provided by two 1,350 hp Pratt & Whitney R-200 Twin Wasp air-cooled radial engines buried in the wing centre section, driving four-bladed propellers mounted at the outboard edges by means of extension shafts. The propeller blades were articulated to allow a very high angle of attack to be achieved, giving an almost helicopter like ability to fly at extremely slow airspeeds - a feature that would have enabled the XF5U to have operated from the smallest carriers. Despite its unorthodox layout, the principle had been proven by the low-powered Vought V-173 research aircraft, which had flown in November 1942 and had demonstrated excellent handling characteristics. The XF5U prototype was rolled out in July 1946 but in the event was never flown and subsequently broken up. The projected performance included a maximum speed of 425 mph, a landing speed of only 40 mph, and a range of 710 miles. As well as being an unconventional design, the XF5U offered no advance over existing fighters and so it is not surprising that further development was not undertaken.
As already stated, the US Navy was well satisfied with the Hellcat, Bearcat and Corsair and consequently no other single-engined propeller-driven fighters were put into production in the latter stages of the War. However, mention should be made of one wartime prototype that was flown in 1944. This was the Curtiss XF14C-2, which was powered by a 2,300 hp Wright XR-3350-16 Cyclone turbosupercharged radial engine driving two three-blade contra-rotating propellers. Intended as a high-altitude interceptor, its performance was disappointing and certainly offered no improvement over the F4U Corsair. In addition, production of the Wright R-3350 engine was reserved at that time for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and consequently the programme was cancelled.
The other aircraft to be found on the decks of American carriers at the end of the War were the Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger torpedo bomber and the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The Avenger, universally and affectionately known as the Turkey, had entered service in early 1942 and the elements of the first squadron (VT-8) were flown out to Midway Island at the start of June of that year, just in time to take part in the fierce Battle of Midway. Of the six aircraft that set off on the morning of 4 June to attack the Japanese carrier fleet, no fewer than five were shot down and the sixth was badly damaged, although the pilot managed to land back at Midway. Despite this inauspicious start, the Avenger went on to become a highly successful aircraft and was used in great numbers by the US Navy and also the Royal Navy. In all, some 9,839 Avengers were built, of which 2,293 were Grumman-built TBMs and the remaining 7,546 were General Motors (Eastern Aircraft) TBMs, the Royal Navy receiving 958.
The prototype XTBF-1 flew on 1 August 1941 and such was the rush to get this new aircraft into service, no fewer than 145 had been delivered by mid 1942, with production building up rapidly thereafter. Although of rather tubby appearance, the TBF Avenger was a typical sturdy Grumman-built aircraft well suited to the rough and tumble of carrier operations. Powered by a 1,700 hp Wright R-2600-8 radial engine, it could carry a torpedo or up to 2,000 lb of bombs in its enclosed bomb bay - this feature being a first for a carrier-based aircraft. A crew of three included a gunner who operated the 0.5 inch machine-gun in a dorsal turret set at the after end of the long cockpit canopy. There was also a ventral aft-firing 0.3 inch machine-gun with a limited field of fire and the pilot could operate a single nose-mounted 0.5 inch machine-gun. The top speed was a respectable 271 mph at 12,000 feet and the range was 1,215 miles. Avengers took part in all the major Pacific actions, being especially successful in the battles around Leyte Gulf when they were involved in the sinking of the large battleship Musashi and several carriers, and in April 1945 they achieved no fewer than ten torpedo hits on the other large battleship, Yamato, which was sunk as a result of this and other damage.
Part of the aircraft’s success was that it proved to be tremendously adaptable in a variety of roles and the basic TBF/ TBM-1 was produced in a number of specialised variants, most of which were radar equipped. Initially this was the ASB radar, which used wing-mounted Yagi antenna, but later versions carried the AN/APS-3 or AN/APS-4 in a radome on the starboard wing. A few Avengers were modified as photographic reconnaissance aircraft with the installation of cameras in the bomb bay. By mid 1943 the addition of extra equipment had added almost 2,750 lb to the aircraft’s empty weight so that performance and payload suffered accordingly. Consequently the XTBF-3 was flown in June 1943 powered by a 1,900 hp Wright R-2600-20 radial engine and this became standard in the TMB-3 production variant, which was delivered from April 1944. This variant was built exclusively by Eastern Aircraft and a total of 4,657 were produced before remaining production contracts were cancelled at the end of the War. Although no further aircraft were actually built, a prototype XTBM-4 was flown in April 1945 and had a strengthened airframe to enable it to withstand up to 5 g during dive-bombing attacks. It was planned to introduce this version to the production lines in August 1945 but this did not happen. The final variant would have been the TBM-5 in which a performance increase was sought by reducing the aircraft’s weight. This was achieved by deleting the dorsal turret and reducing the crew to two, pilot and radio/radar operator. The latter could operate two rearward-firing 0.3 inch machine-guns on a flexible mounting (as opposed to a turret). Other changes included thrust augmentation exhaust pipes and a three-foot increase in wingspan to decrease wing loading. Two TBM-3 airframes were converted for trials beginning in June 1945 but, again, further work was stopped with the end of hostilities.
The basic TBM-3 was inevitably produced in several versions, of which the most important was the TBM-3E, the final production variant. This had a fuselage lengthened by almost a foot and carried an AN/APS-4 radar in a radome below the starboard wing. By dispensing with some non-essential equipment and the ventral 0.3-in machine-gun, the empty weight was reduced by some 300 lb despite the addition of the radar. The TBM-3E provided the basis for a number of sub variants, which were produced to meet the requirements of the post-war navy. Equipped with the basic torpedo bomber the Avenger squadrons were slowly run down, although many aircraft were transferred to Naval Air Reserve squadrons. In November 1946 the squadrons previously designated VT (Torpedo) were redesignated as VA (Attack) squadrons and at that time there were still eighteen Avenger squadrons allocated to the Carrier Air Groups. However, over the next three years these were re-equipped with the new Douglas AD-1 Skyraider (described below) and the Avenger finally gave up its frontline bomber role in 1949. However, some forty Avengers had been modified at the end of the war as night torpedo bombers with the dorsal turret removed to make room for a radar operator and his equipment and these aircraft served with Pacific and Atlantic Fleet development squadrons (VCN-1 and VCN-2) into the early 1950s.
During World War II the Avenger was increasingly used in the ASW role and shared in the destruction of forty-two Axis, as well as one Vichy French, submarines. In the post-war era this role became even more important with the onset of the Cold War and Russian use of captured German technology to build a fleet of new submarines with a high underwater performance. Consequently a substantial number of Avengers were converted to TBM-3S configuration with all gun armament and the dorsal turret removed to make room for ASW and communications equipment. A searchlight was fitted under the port wing while a search radar was carried below the starboard wing. A sub variant was the TBM-3S2, which had a more advanced data link system installed.
The Avengers’ stablemate aboard US carriers in 1945 was the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The US Navy had always been a staunch advocate of the dive bomber concept and this faith was reinforced when SBD Dauntless dive bombers from the carriers Enterprise and Yorktown scored a spectacular success, sinking three Japanese carriers at the very instant when it seemed that the battle was going disastrously wrong from the American point of view. Subsequently, further Dauntless attacks sank a fourth carrier, sealing the Japanese defeat. The Helldiver was intended as a replacement for the Speedy D (as the Dauntless was invariably called by Navy pilots) but it was never as well liked as its predecessor. The prototype XSB2C-1 flew on 18 December 1940 powered by a 1,700 hp Wright R-2600 Double Cyclone radial engine, giving it a range of 1,330 miles at a cruising speed of 244 mph. The armament comprised two fixed forward-firing 0.3 inch machine-guns and two 0.5 inch machine-guns on a flexible mounting in the rear cockpit. A single 1,000 lb bomb was carried in an internal bomb bay with a crutch mechanism, which ensured that the bomb fell clear of the propeller arc when released in a vertical dive.
The prototype had an unhappy history, suffering major damage in an accident in February 1941. Although repaired, it was subsequently destroyed after an inflight wing failure in December 1941. However, the test programme revealed serious handling problems and consequently the fin and rudder were considerably enlarged. Other changes for production aircraft included self-sealing fuel tanks and the fixed armament was increased to four wing-mounted 0.5 inch machine-guns. However, the empty weight rose by nearly 40 per cent, from 7,030 lb to 10,114 lb, and this had a detrimental effect on performance, the maximum speed falling from 325 mph to 273 mph, while the service ceiling was only 21,000 feet compared with the prototype’s 30,000 feet. The first production SB2C-1 flew on 30 June 1942 but was subsequently lost, again due to wing failure in a high-speed dive, in January 1943. By that time the first operational squadrons were forming but with significant flight restrictions and the first operational sorties were not flown (by VB-17 against targets at Rabaul) until November 1943. Over the following two years the Helldiver replaced the Dauntless aboard the Pacific Fleet’s carriers and the final production versions were the SB2C-4 and -5. These had a more powerful R-2600-20 engine, giving 1,900 hp, and the offensive load was increased to include eight 5 inch rockets or two 500 lb bombs carried underwing in addition to the internal 1,000 lb bomb. Perforated dive brakes on the wing trailing edge improved handling in the dive. In all, Curtiss delivered 4,105 Helldivers and another 1,294 were built under licence in Canada by Fairchild, and Canadian Car and Foundry under the designations SBF and SBW respectively. Twenty-six SBWs were supplied to the Royal Navy who did not use them operationally. Any outstanding orders were cancelled at the end of the War and no further development was undertaken, although at that time two XSB2C-6 Helldivers were undergoing trials. These had lengthened fuselages and squared wingtips in an effort to improve directional stability, which remained a problem throughout the aircraft’s career. Post-war service was limited as the dive bomber squadrons were run down in favour of the new attack squadrons and by the time of the Korean War no Helldivers remained in frontline service.
The aircraft that replaced the Avengers and Helldivers in the post-war period were the new breed of attack aircraft. With the destruction of the Japanese Navy, the US Navy would no longer expect to fight major sea battles. Even with the onset of the Cold War, the Soviet power was vested in its land and air forces and its naval strength was initially very limited. Consequently, US Navy doctrine called for the ability to land and support forces ashore, and to launch heavy attacks on shore targets. Thus even by the end of the War the requirement was for aircraft that could offer a good performance while carrying a heavy offensive load. In fact, aircraft such as the Avenger and Helldiver actually carried no more than fighter-bombers such as the Hellcat and the Corsair while having a poorer performance. This was partly due to the fact that such aircraft carried additional crew members and defensive armament, which increased weight and lowered performance. The increased availability of electronic navigation aids such as radar and TACAN meant that the requirement for a navigator was much reduced and single-seat high-performance aircraft were capable of acting as bombers. Those aircraft that began to enter service from 1945 onwards resulted from specifications drawn up with these ideas in mind, although initially the multi-crew aircraft held sway.
As far back as late 1941, the US Navy was already looking for aircraft that would eventually replace the Helldiver and this was to produce a rash of prototypes, although eventually only one was to achieve production status. One of the earliest of these projects was the Douglas XSB2D-1, a powerful two-seat bomber intended as an eventual replacement for the Dauntless. In this context it is interesting to note that the US Navy was continually looking ahead, and almost inevitably as one aircraft type entered service plans were already being drawn up for a successor. The Douglas design was a great advance on its predecessor, both in terms of performance and capability and introduced a number of novel features. These included a tricycle undercarriage, a laminar flow wing and a defensive armament consisting of remote-controlled turrets. A gull wing configuration, with the outer sections folding upwards for stowage, left room for a capacious internal bomb bay (a similar arrangement was adopted for the British Blackburn B-54/YA.7, which was developed in the late 1940s). Powered by a 2,300 hp Wright R-3350-14 air-cooled radial engine, the prototype XSB2D-1 flew for the first time on 8 April 1943 and demonstrated an excellent performance. The top speed was almost 350 mph and it could carry an offensive load of up to 4,200 lb - twice that of the contemporary Curtiss Helldiver. This could consist of two 1,600 lb bombs in the bomb bay and two 500 lb bombs on underwing racks, or two 2,100 lb torpedoes carried externally beneath the fuselage. The crew consisted of a pilot and radio operator/gunner, the latter controlling dorsal and ventral turrets, each carrying two 0.5 inch machine-guns, while two wing-mounted 20 mm cannon were proposed. By August 1943 Douglas had started production to meet orders for a total of 358 SB2D-1s, as well as the two prototypes. Unfortunately, by this time the US Navy had reviewed its policy in respect of strike and attack aircraft, experience in the Pacific indicating that a defensive armament was unnecessary given the increasing degree of air superiority enjoyed by the Fleet’s carrier air groups. Consequently, in late 1943 and early 1944 the Bureau of Aeronautics issued specifications and contracts for a series of prototype single-seater carrier borne bombers.
In addition, Douglas was asked to look at modifying the SB2C-1 design as a single-seater and this resulted in the BTD-1 Destroyer, which flew in prototype form on 5 March 1944. This aircraft was actually the second production SB2D-1 and the required modifications were relatively straightforward. The remotely controlled turrets were removed, a shortened cockpit canopy was provided for the pilot and the tail fin was extended by means of a large dorsal fillet. Weight saved by these changes was usefully employed to increase armour protection and fuel tankage. The performance and offensive load were unaltered and the wing-mounted 20 mm cannon were retained. The prototype was followed by twenty-seven production BTD-1s, the last being delivered on 8 October 1945. Although the switch to production of the single-seat version had been achieved quite easily, the BTD Destroyer inevitably suffered in comparison with other designs in view of the fact that it was an adaptation of an earlier two-seater aircraft. Consequently, production ceased after the initial batch and the type never entered operational service, although various examples were utilised for tests and trials in the immediate post-war era. Of these the most interesting were two XBTD-2s, which, as will be related, played an important role in the introduction of jet aircraft by the US Navy. Also, and perhaps more importantly, this did not mean the end of the Douglas involvement in the competition to provide a new single-seat bomber for the US Navy.
In the meantime Douglas had built and flown the prototype of yet another large multi-crew torpedo bomber. This resulted from a US Navy contract issued in December 1943 for a torpedo bomber to operate from the decks of the new Midway class carriers then being laid down. The resulting XTB2D-1 Devastator II (later renamed Skypirate) was by far the largest and heaviest carrier-based aircraft at the time of its maiden flight on 13 March 1945, with an all-up weight of 28,000 lb and a high aspect ratio wing with a 70-foot span. Power was provided by a 3,000 hp Pratt & Whitney XR-4360 driving a complex eight-bladed contra-rotating propeller assembly. The planned armament include four wing-mounted 0.5 inch machine-guns, twin 0.5 inch guns in a dorsal turret and a single ventral 0.5 inch gun. Up to 8,400 lb of bombs and torpedoes could be carried. Despite this formidable load, the Skypirate was a sprightly performer with a maximum speed of 340 mph at 15,600 feet and a normal range of 1,250 miles, extended to 2,880 miles with extra tankage. In terms of effectiveness it could carry two torpedoes almost 150 miles further than an Avenger could carry one. Despite this, the Skypirate also fell victim to the US Navy’s policy of adopting single-seat bombers and development was cancelled at the end of the War.
While the single-seat Douglas BTD-1 was being flown, the US Navy had contracted for prototypes of a number of other single-seat bombers, these resulting in the Curtiss XBTC-1, Kaiser Fleetwings XBTK-1 and Martin XBTM-1. Curtiss, of course, was keen to emulate its success with the SB2C Helldiver and in December 1943 received a contract for two prototype XBTC-1 torpedo bombers. However, the first of these did not fly until July 1946, by which time the decision to fit an improved version of the Pratt & Whitney XR-4360-8A Wasp Major resulted in the designation XBTC-2. With an output of 3,000 hp driving a six-bladed contra-rotating propeller, this big engine provided excellent performance with the top speed being 374 mph at 16,000 feet and the maximum range being 1,835 miles, although the service ceiling was only just over 26,000 feet. The armament comprised four wing-mounted 20 mm cannon but the offensive load was only 2,000 lb of bombs or a single torpedo. In practice the performance figures were irrelevant as by mid 1946 other rival designs were already in production, adequately meeting the US Navy’s requirements, and no further development of the XBTC-1 was undertaken.
Another single-seat bomber that was produced only in prototype form was the little known Kaiser-Fleetwings XBTK-1, which flew in April 1945 powered by a 2,100 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800-34W air-cooled radial engine. The top speed was around 342 mph at sea level and a single torpedo or up to 5,000 lb of bombs could be carried while the fixed armament comprised two wing-mounted 20 mm cannon. Only two prototypes were flown and a third airframe was used for structural testing. No production orders were forthcoming. However, more success met the third contender, the Martin XBTM-1, which first flew on 24 August 1944. Powered by a 3,000 hp Pratt & Whitney XR-4360-4, the XBTM-1 had a respectable performance with a top speed of 367 mph at 11,000 feet and a range of 1,800 miles. More importantly, it could lift up to 4,500 lb of ordnance, carried on no fewer than fourteen underwing and one under fuselage hardpoints, in addition to a fixed armament of four 20 mm cannon. In fact, on one demonstration flight, a Mauler flew with a 10,689 lb ordnance load including no fewer than three torpedoes! Flight testing revealed no major problems and in January 1945 an order for 750 aircraft was placed. Before the first of the production aircraft flew in December 1946 the US Navy had redesignated the BT torpedo bombers as A attack aircraft. As a result the XBTM-1 became the AM-1 and the name Mauler was adopted. After carrier qualification trials in 1947, the first operational unit, VA-17A, was formed in March 1948 and other units followed. However, production of the Mauler ceased in October 1949 after a total of 151 had been produced (including prototypes). Subsequently it was withdrawn from frontline use and passed on to Reserve squadrons, which continued to fly Maulers for a few more years.
The reason for the premature ending of the Mauler’s career was due to the unprecedented success of the rival Douglas AD-1 Skyraider. This versatile and long-serving aircraft had its origins in the failure of the company to gain production contracts for the BTD-1 Destroyer or the XTB2D-1 Skypirate. In July 1945 the Douglas design team, led by Chief Engineer Ed Heinemann, famously got together in a hotel room and between them thrashed out the basic characteristics of a new single-seat attack bomber. Experience with work already carried out with the earlier designs was incorporated and the resultant proposal impressed the Bureau of Aeronautics enough to authorise the construction of no fewer than fifteen prototype and pre-production aircraft to be designated XBT2D-1 Destroyer II. Douglas was under considerable pressure to complete the design work and get a prototype flying as it was starting six months later than its competitors. In fact, the first flight of the prototype XBT2D-1 took place on 18 March 1945, four months ahead of the planned schedule and well under twelve months from that momentous hotel room meeting - a remarkable achievement by any standards. The company’s efforts were rewarded when the aircraft sailed through its test and evaluation programme at the Patuxent River Naval Test Station in only five weeks with glowing reports from the pilots involved. Douglas immediately received a contract for 548 BT2D-1s in May 1945 but this was reduced to an initial order for 277 aircraft after the end of the War.
The Douglas BT2D-1 was of conventional configuration with a low-mounted, straight, tapered wing and a slab-sided rear fuselage with dive brakes fitted on either side. The pilot sat well forward under a raised clear-view bubble canopy, giving excellent forward visibility despite the large Wright R-3350-24W radial engine, which developed 2,500 hp (the first four aircraft were fitted with 2,300 hp R-3350-8 engines). This enabled the prototypes to achieve maximum speeds in excess of 350 mph while up to 8,000 lb of ordnance could be carried on three large pylons, one under each wing and another on the centreline, supplemented by six smaller hardpoints on each wing for small bombs or rockets. Production aircraft began to reach the US Navy in early 1946 when the aircraft’s designation was changed to AD-1 to conform with the new attack category and the name Skyraider was officially adopted. At this stage some problems associated with the aircraft’s rushed development became apparent and these included propeller vibration, powerplant installation defects and several undercarriage failures. Rectification of these problems meant that the first Skyraider squadron, VA-19A, did not become operational until the end of 1946 but thereafter the other squadrons quickly re-equipped with the new bomber, which replaced Maulers, Avengers and Helldivers.
The inherent flexibility of the basic design led to numerous developments and there were eventually eight major variants produced in no fewer than thirty-seven sub versions. The Skyraider remained in production until February 1957, by which time some 3,180 had been delivered, and it remained in frontline US Navy service until 1968, flying offensive sorties against Vietnam targets from the USS Coral Sea. In addition to US service, the Skyraider was also supplied to Britain, France and South Vietnam, the latter using the aircraft in action until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In fact, serious consideration was given to re-opening the production line in 1965 as the Skyraider was proving so useful in the gathering Vietnam conflict, although practical difficulties resulted in this plan being dropped.
To go back to the Skyraider’s early days, a number of the XBT2D-1 prototypes were converted to specialised roles. These included the -1N night attack bomber with two extra crew members accommodated in the fuselage and radar and searchlight pods carried underwing. The XBT2D-1Q was an electronic countermeasures aircraft with the operator again housed in the fuselage and radar and ECM equipment in underwing pods. This last variant was so successful that thirty-five were ordered as the AD-1Q in addition to orders for 242 AD-1s, the standard single-seater attack version. Another early version was the XAD-1W, which had a large radar antenna in an under fuselage radome and two radar operators accommodated under a fairing behind the pilot’s cockpit. Following successful trials, a total of 417 AEW Skyraiders were built as the AD-3W, AD-4W and AD-5W. The next major variant was the AD-2, which had a more powerful 2,700 hp R-3350-26W, a strengthened airframe and additional fuel tankage. The maximum all-up weight rose to 18,263 lb compared with the prototype’s 17,500 lb. Only 156 AD-2s were built together with 125 AD-3s, which featured incremental improvements and an MAUW of 21,000 lb.
The AD-4, which began to leave production lines in 1949, was built in greater numbers than any other Skyraider variant and no fewer than 1,051 were built, being produced or modified to result in eight versions. Apart from the basic AD-4, these included the AD-4W AEW version and the AD-4B nuclear bomber. Although originally produced with only two wing-mounted 20 mm cannon, most AD-4s (except for the unarmed AD-4W) were later fitted with four cannon, which became standard on subsequent production versions. It was a standard AD-3B that set a load-carrying record for single-engined aircraft on 21 May 1953 when it flew with a load consisting of three 1,000 lb, six 750 lb and six 500 lb bombs. Including the weight of the pylons, racks and fuel, the total came to 14,941 lb and although not representative of loads carried under combat conditions, it did illustrate the amazing capabilities of the Douglas bomber.
In late 1948 Douglas proposed a new and enhanced Skyraider provisionally designated AD-5 powered by a turbo-compound version of the R-3350 but this was not flown. Neither was an ASW hunter killer version proposed in 1949 and also again provisionally designated AD-5. By mid 1950 it appeared likely that production of the basic Skyraider (866 had been completed by May 1950) was coming to an end as the US Navy’s peacetime requirements were met. However, the Communist invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950 completely altered the picture and a requirement for close support and ground attack aircraft was quickly established. While the new jet fighters could provide air superiority, the ground attack mission centred on load-carrying ability, loiter time over target, and resistance to ground fire. On all of these counts the piston-engined bomber still held many advantages and consequently development of an updated version of the Skyraider was pressed ahead. The AD-5 prototype, which first flew on 17 August 1951, embodied many lessons learnt from earlier production and was intended as a multi-role two-seat aircraft. Apart from the provision of a widened forward fuselage to accommodate the two crew, it was also lengthened by two feet and the vertical fin was increased in size as compensation. The standard armament was four wing-mounted 20 mm cannon and the AD-5 was produced in three versions - a basic AD-5 (212 built), a night attack AD-5N (239 built) and AEW AD-5W (218 built). There was also a single experimental ASW AD-5S equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector and fifty-four AD-5Ns were modified to AD-5Q standard as four-seat electronic countermeasures aircraft. Subsequently Douglas built 713 AD-6 Skyraiders, which reverted to single-seat configuration but otherwise incorporated all of the changes introduced by the AD-5. The final production version was the AD-7, which was similar to the -6 but had strengthened wings and undercarriage. The last of these was delivered in February 1957.
In Korea the Skyraider quickly established an outstanding reputation as a ground attack aircraft, its ability to carry a heavy and varied ordnance load being particularly welcomed by troops on the ground. To meet demand the aircraft was produced in ever increasing numbers, although the peak rate of fifty-nine aircraft in one month was not reached until June 1954, almost a year after the Armistice was signed in July 1953. Despite the ever increasing number of jets coming into service (as well as the flight of the Douglas A4D lightweight jet bomber in 1954) the peak US Navy and Marine Skyraider strength was not reached until 1955 when no fewer than twenty-nine US Navy and thirteen Marine squadrons operated the versatile bomber. The subsequent career of the Skyraider lies outside the scope of this book but it should be recorded that the AD (or Spad as it was affectionately known) remained in frontline service for more than another decade, principally as a result of the US involvement in the Vietnam War. However, it should also be noted that the Royal Navy took delivery of fifty AD-4W AEW aircraft under MDAP arrangements. These were operated from 1952 until 1960 by 849 Squadron, which acted as parent unit for flights of four aircraft detached to operational carriers.
The success of the Skyraider removed any incentive for the US Navy to consider further development of piston-engined attack aircraft and future requirements were to met by jet aircraft. However, the Skyraider did act as a basis for the turboprop-powered Douglas A2D Skyshark, which is described in Chapter 8.
Eugene Ely made the historic first landing aboard a ship flying a Curtis pusher biplane on 18 January 1911 using a temporary deck erected on the stern of the cruiser USS Pennsylvania. The same pilot had made the first take off from a ship in November 1910. These early flights represented the start of shipboard naval aviation. (US National Archives)
The USS Saratoga was one of two large carriers which were converted from battle cruisers under construction at the end of the First World War. This photo was taken in 1938 and shows the ship’s full air group ranged on deck. Although almost all of the aircraft are biplanes, a small number of TBD Devastator monoplane dive bombers can also be seen. (US National Archives)
The Griffon engined Supermarine Seafire Mk.XVII was the major post-war variant of this famous fighter and entered service in September 1945. Subsequently it served with various RNVR and training squadrons until 1954. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The Supermarine Seafang sought to improve performance by adopting a new profile laminar flow wing. Along with the RAF’s Spiteful, these were the fastest British piston-engined fighters ever built but did not enter operational service. The photo shows one of ten Seafire F.Mk.31s which were flown for evaluation purposes. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
An early production Hawker Sea Fury F.Mk.10 takes off from the light fleet carrier HMS Ocean in 1945. The Sea Fury was probably the best all round British piston engined fighter but was too late to see service in the Second World War, although it played a key role in Royal Navy support operations off Korea. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
A prototype de Havilland Sea Hornet F.Mk.20 single seat fighter gets the cut signal from the batsman as it carries out deck landing trials in June 1946 aboard HMS Ocean. This version equipped only one frontline squadron as did the two seat N.F.21 which subsequently entered service in 1949. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The Fairey Firefly was an important element of Royal Navy carrier air strength in the post-war decade, being produced in several different versions based on the Firefly FR.4 which had flown in 1944. Photo shows a Firefly AS.5 anti-submarine variant which was equipped with ASV radar and carried depth charges and sonar-bouys. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
A Hawker Sea Fury comes to rest after engaging the crash barrier aboard HMS Triumph in 1951. This was a not uncommon event prior to the introduction of the angled deck. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
After a protracted period of development, the Blackburn Firebrand eventually entered service in September 1945, replacing the Barracuda as the Royal Navy’s sole torpedo bomber. This T.F.4 shown here displays the much larger fin and rudder introduced with this variant to improve directional stability. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The Blackburn Firecrest was intended as a replacement for the Firebrand, but the performance benefits were insufficient to warrant production. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The Fairey Spearfish flew in July 1945 and was the first British naval bomber to feature an internal bomb bay. Despite its promise, production orders were cancelled at the end of the Second World War and only four aircraft were flown. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The Royal Navy’s last propeller driven strike aircraft was the Westland Wyvern. After a lengthy development programme involving no less than three different powerplants, the resulting Wyvern S.4 entered service in 1953. This example landing aboard HMS Eagle belongs to 827 NAS. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The F8F-2 Bearcat was the last in a line of famous Grumman piston engined naval fighters. Entering service just too late to see action in the Pacific War, its prime role was as a fast climbing interceptor and as such was quickly rendered obsolete by the new generation of jet fighters. (US National Archives)
Essex class carrier USS Kearsarge (CV.33) shown while operating in the Mediterranean in 1948. The aircraft ranged on deck include Bearcats, Avengers and Helldivers. (US National Archives)
Blackburn Firebrands of 813 NAS warm up aboard HMS Indomitable. In the background are the battleship HMS Vanguard and the carrier HMS Implacable. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The swept wing Supermarine Type 510 was a development of the straight winged Attacker. Unlike its predecessor, the Type 510 did not see operational service but it was the first swept wing aircraft to land aboard an aircraft carrier, this event occurring on 8 November 1950. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The Supermarine Attacker was the Royal Navy’s first operational jet fighter, entering squadron service in 1950. The wing was almost identical to that first tried out on the propeller driven Seafang in 1944. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The first deck landing by a jet aircraft occurred on 3 December 1945, the aircraft being a de Havilland Vampire flown by Lieutenant Commander Eric Brown RN shown here at the moment of catching the wires aboard the light fleet carrier HMS Ocean. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
A pair of Sea Vampire F.20s aboard HMS Theseus. Although never deployed with front line squadrons, the Sea Vampires enabled the Royal Navy to gain considerable experience of operating the new jets at sea. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The United States utilised several aircraft as flying testbeds for the new jet engines. Shown here is a Goodyear built Corsair fitted with an experimental Westinghouse WE-19X turbojet under the fuselage centre section. (US National Archives)
The Curtiss XF15C-1 was an unsuccessful attempt to produce a mixed power fighter. This had a 2,100 hp radial piston engine in the nose and a 2,700 lb thrust turbojet in the rear fuselage. Only three prototypes were flown. (US National Archives)
Vought’s first foray into jet fighters was the F6U-1 Pirate which flew in prototype form in October 1946. Although put into limited production, it was only used for trials and training and the US Navy preferred other aircraft such as the North American Fury and Grumman Panther for operational squadrons. (US National Archives)
The US Navy’s first jet fighter to be deployed to sea as part of a regular carrier air group was the straight winged North American FJ-1 Fury. The aircraft shown here overflying San Francisco in 1949 belong to an Oakland based Reserve Squadron. (US National Archives)
A North American FJ-1 Fury of VF-5A makes a rolling take off from the deck of the Essex class carrier USS Boxer (CV.21) in March 1948. (US National Archives)
A pair of McDonnell F2H-2 Banshees overfly ships of Task Force 77 off Korea in July 1953. The twin engined Banshee was one of the most successful of the early American naval jet fighters and served with the US Navy for over a decade from 1948 onwards. In addition, thirty-five were transferred to the RCN where they remained operational until 1962. (US National Archives)
Despite advances in technology, naval aviation was always a dangerous occupation. This Banshee hit the round down when attempting to land on the USS Oriskany in 1954. The aircraft broke up and burst into flames but, miraculously, the nose section rolled clear and the pilot suffered only minor injuries! (US National Archives)
A pilot climbs into the cockpit of his F9F-2 Panther aboard USS Boxer in October 1949. By the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the US Navy had no less than six Panther squadrons at sea. (US National Archives)
A dramatic shot showing a Supermarine Attacker of 803 NAS being prepared for a catapult launch aboard HMS Eagle. Note the under fuselage auxiliary fuel tank. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The most significant of the first generation Royal Navy jet fighters was the Hawker Sea Hawk which equipped no less than thirteen frontline squadrons between 1953 and 1960. This view shows the first prototype (VP413) carrying out deck landing trials aboard HMS Illustrious on July 1949. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
A de Havilland Sea Vampire picks up the single arrester wire during trials of the flexible deck concept aboard HMS Warrior early in 1949. Although the trails were a great success, the concept was not ad opted for operational use. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
A Blackburn Firebrand of 827 NAS makes a sorry sight after engaging the crash barrier aboard HMS Eagle. Efforts to avoid this type of scenario eventually led to the adoption of the angled deck concept. (Fleet Air Arm Museum)
The US Navy were quick to modify the Essex class carrier USS Antietam in 1953 to test the angled deck concept. The ship is shown here carrying out trials with a variety of then current aircraft on deck including Panthers, Cougars, Banshees and a single FJ-2 swept wing Fury. (US National Archives)