27 July 2006

Flightdeck Friday!

So it's early -- it is Friday somewhere else in the world... And for you DC Tailhookers, if you missed FCLP's today, well, your loss!

Jump in the wayback machine and set the dial for 1948...

1948 and the Navy was in trouble. Barely three years previous the US Navy was victoriously anchored in Tokyo Bay with warships and aircraft stretching to the horizon. Yet here it was in deep trouble as the upstart Air Force, fed off the Douhetists and the atom bomb, were contending there was no need for a Navy as they would be the primary keeper of peace. With the B-29, B-50 and B-36 long range bombers, they also were the only service capable of delivering nuclear weapons since nothing in the Navy’s inventory, especially carrier-based, was capable of handling the 10,000 lb class weapons (the latest variant being the Mk4).

An interim solution was found using a variant of the land-based P2V Neptune w/bomb bay mods and JATO packs (the P2V-3C) which began deploying with VC-5 in 1948. Problem was, it was a one-shot deal – the aircraft had to be craned onboard and once launched, either had to be ditched alongside a friendly ship or land at a (surviving) friendly base.

To ensure the viability of not only it’s current fleet of carriers, but that of the next generation of CVB’s, as represented by the USS United States, a
carrier-based nuclear strike aircraft was required.

On 24 June 1946, the Navy awarded North American a contract to build the aircraft that would become the AJ Savage. Intended as a carrier based bomber, the AJ was first reported in squadron service by VC-5 on 13 September 1949.

Every bit as large as the Air Force’s medium jet bombers of the time (i.e., the B-45 Tornado) the AJ-1 attack bomber had a crew of 3 and used two 2,400 horsepower piston engines to power four-bladed propellers for long-range cruise. The jet engine was used only for heavy takeoffs from a carrier, evasive action in combat, and for speed over the target. An AJ–1’s range was a nominal 1,500 nm; its combat radius about 700 nm. It could easily carry a Mark 5 atomic weapon (yield: 60 kilotons), which became available after 1952.

Carrier operations began in April 1950 on the USS Coral Sea. North American built more than 140 in the series. Not coincidently, one of the chief reasons the larger Midway-class CVBs did not see action in Korea was their being held in reserve and deployment to the Med due to the nuclear capability afforded by the AJ. However, like many aircrat of this period, the AJ was plagued with a number of developmental problems. Later, some AJ models were converted into aerial tankers. Others, the AJ-2Ps, were modified for recce missions and configured to carry 18 cameras of various formats. Their night shots were illuminated by a photo-flash unit in the fuselage. These models were standard equipment for the Navy heavy photographic squadrons until the early 1960s.

The Navy’s primary targets were Soviet naval installations in the Black Sea, the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk, and ports in the Baltic Sea, as well as Vladivostok and the maritime provinces in easternmost Siberia. An aircraft carrier cruising the easternmost Aegean Sea could be within 1,500 nm of Moscow, and a carrier in the Barents Sea north of Murmansk could be within 1,200 nm of Moscow.

An AJ–1 might reach Moscow, but it would never achieve a postattack landing in friendly territory, much less return to its carrier, a consideration that promoted Navy interest in aerial refueling. More important was extending the distance of the aircraft carrier’s launch point. Although interested from the time of the first Air Force experiments in 1948, the Navy did not equip its carrier airplanes for aerial refueling until 1953. As AJ–1s were displaced by improved AJ–2s, the AJ–1s became the Navy’s first aerial tankers.

After 1956, the AJ–2s were displaced by the Douglas A3D, an all turbojet aircraft weighing 82,000 pounds and with a combat radius of 900 nm. With aerial refueling from an AJ–1 tanker, that radius could be extended beyond 1,400 nm.

Personal note: The scribe was (and still is) intrigued by the Savage at a young & tender age -- something about big (prop) aircraft flying off and trapping on carriers that seemed, well, different. Guess you could say that bit was set early...


Post-war, Grumman had pretty well cornered the carrier fighter market with it's 'cats of various flavors (despite this newcomer) and Douglas was reasserting it's attack dominance once again with the AD, but what if the SPAD hadn't worked out? Was there an alternative? Next week -- the XBTM-1.