Pan Am’s Pacific Clippers

September 14, 2011

 

The 1930s were the romantic years of flight. At the beginning of the decade, flying across oceans was a life-risking experience. However, beginning in 1936, Pan Am began to fly across the Pacific. Their aircraft were the beautiful, luxurious, and enormous Clippers. Built by Martin and Boeing, these amazing aircraft flew the rich and famous in style to exotic locations throughout the Pacific. Although Clippers only flew passengers for five years before America was dragged into the war, it is difficult to think of pre-war Hawaii without a Pan Am Clipper flying above the islands.

In 1927, Pan Am began to fly in Central and South America. By the early 1930s, Juan Trippe wanted to create regular mail, cargo, and passenger service to Hawaii and locations deeper in the Pacific. His initial goal was to carry people, cargo, and mail all the way from San Francisco to China. In 1935, the first survey flights gained the company experience for operating the route. October 1935 saw the beginning of mail and cargo service. October 21, 1936 saw the first passenger flight. Pan Am provided weekly service along recently impossible routes. Although the first services stopped at Manila for political reasons, service continued to expand and eventually reached Hong Kong and Singapore.

Pan Am was also eyeing the more lucrative market for service between America and Europe, but poor weather conditions made year-round Atlantic service extremely risky. In addition, the required stepping stones along the Pacific route to Manila were U.S. possessions, while trans-Atlantic flights would have to stop at possessions owned by other countries. Only in 1939 did Pan Am begin service to Europe, and that year weather problems cancelled 40% of the flights, and many that did complete the route were delayed for several days.

Before Clipper service began, Pan Am operations in Central and South America became a laboratory for how to extend air service to regions where distances were long, airports few, and facilities largely non-existent. Although Pan Am used airports when it could, there were many more bays than airports, and they used flying boats and float planes heavily. The Americas operations forced Pan Am to develop long-distance navigation, radio communication, and the creation of fully functional air support and hotel facilities where none existed. Although the Pacific would bring even greater challenges, Pan Am already had oversea flying capabilities that no other company could approach.

To cross the Pacific, Pan Am would need far larger flying boats to achieve economic payloads. Although aircraft companies were ready to create large four-engine aircraft, few airports could to accommodate. Four-engine flying boats would not have these problems. The first Pan Am Clipper, the Sikorsky S-42, was really designed for the Americas, although S-42s surveyed some Pacific routes and flew the short hop between Manila and Hong Kong. Next came three larger Martin M-130s provided the first regular service.

Then came the definitive Boeing 314s and 314As. With a payload five times that of the Martins, the twelve B314s and B-314As finally brought the Pacific service to maturity when they arrived in early 1939. These enormous aircraft had a stunning maximum gross weight of 84,000 pounds. Their wide boat hulls have enormous room for passengers and cargo. Their wings were so thick that the flight engineer could crawl out to the engines and service them in flight. They would be the widest passenger aircraft until the Boeing 747 many years later.

The Boeings were enormous. By way of comparison, the dominant passenger airliner at the time was the twin-engine Douglas DC-2, which carried 14 passengers over routes nearing 1,000 miles and cost about $80,000. In contrast, the Boeings cost $620,000 apiece—just under ten million of today’s dollars. They could carry 74 passengers, cargo, and mail over 3,500-mile hops. Boeing had previously built the XB-15, which was heavier than the later B-17. Engines strong enough to give the XB-15 good performance had not been available, so that project died. Boeing responded to Pan Am’s needs by adapting the 150 foot wing of the XB-15 and the engine nacelles to an enormous flying boat body. Using new Wright 1,500 hp and later 1,600 hp Twin Cyclone engines, the 314A was able to carry this enormous bulk at cruising speeds of 188 mph.

 

The only class was first class. Passenger compartments had heavy sound deadening. The aircraft had couches instead of just seats. On overnight flights, they could convert into beds. The passenger space was divided into five compartments. In addition, there was a spacious main lounge, separate men’s and women’s restrooms and changing rooms, and even a bridal suite in the tail. Food was served on China plates, and the level of cuisine was high. In addition, on most part of the journey, passengers only flew during the day and slept at comfortable hotels at night. Pan Am loved to use nautical terminology, so it called its cabin attendants stewards and later stewardesses. For this level of service, prices were beyond the reach of anyone but the super wealthy. In 1939, a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Honolulu cost $278, and a one-way ticket to Hong Kong cost $1,368. In 2010 dollars, these were $4,317 and $11,803.

The flight from San Francisco to Manila took six hops. The big jump was the flight between San Francisco and Honolulu. This 2,400-mile flight was roughly a thousand miles longer than other routes. Even with Boeing Clippers, overnight flying was unavoidable. Due to the long distance of this flight, even the Boeing Clippers only carried about 25 passengers and limited their speeds to between 135 and 144 mph. On other legs, as noted earlier, the Boeing Clipper could carry 74 passengers with cruising speeds as high as 188 mph. Night flying was hazardous because aircraft could fly into unseen storms. Consequently, only the Honolulu–San Francisco leg used overnight flying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Hawaii, Midway Island was 1,400 miles away, Wake Island was 1,300 miles further, and Guam was an additional 1,600 miles. The flight from San Francisco to Manila covered 8,200 miles. It took six days and involved about 60 hours of flying time. On Midway and Wake, Pan Am had to create two facilities on barren islands. For these stops, Pan Am built service facilities and comfortable hotels. These were only used once or twice a week, so operating costs were enormous. This was far from today’s pace of travel, but it was only about a third of the time required to travel these distances by ship. Later, Pan Am introduced Clipper service to New Zealand and other southern points.

When we think of Clipper service, we usually focus on passengers. However, Pan Am made half of its annual revenues from the carriage of mail. Mail was also critical on the Pacific routes. In fact, the first Pacific Clippers flew for almost a year delivering cargo and mail before they began to carry passengers.

 

When the Japanese attacked on December 7, one Pan Am Clipper was about an hour away from landing in the harbor. Fortunately, it was warned and was able to divert to Hilo. A few hours later, a Martin M-130 Clipper was called back to Wake Island to make a patrol flight toward Midway to try to locate the Japanese fleet. As it was refueling for the mission, the Japanese bombed the island by air. The Clipper received 97 bullet holes, but it could fly well enough to evacuate 56 Pan Am employees.

Nine others had died in the attack, and one more failed to make the flight. At Hong Kong, a Sikorsky S-42 Clipper was caught in a Japanese attack shortly afterward it was heavily strafed and burned to the water line. Other Clippers were in the air and managed to evade destruction, although one had to return by flying West over 30,000 miles to La Guardia Airport—all under radio silence. After the start of the war, U.S. military took over Pan Am’s eleven Martin M-130s and Boeing B-314s. Due to the enormous experience of Pan Am in long-distance flying over water, the military asked the company to operate some of the Clippers using its own crew and staff.

Throughout the war, Pan Am flew across the Atlantic carrying high-priority passengers and critical cargo. For example, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, three Boeing 314s flew from New York to India. They were carrying vital spare parts and ammunition for the American Volunteer Group in China. On one trip, the Dixie Clipper took President Roosevelt to the Casablanca Conference and brought him home again. President Roosevelt, who thus became the first president of fly, celebrated his birthday in the Clipper’s dining room. Heavily overloaded, these wartime flights had some crashes. In one of these crashes, the aircraft was carrying a Pan Am Clipper pilot named Gene Roddenberry.

In 1945, the Honolulu Clipper lost two engines and had to land on the ocean 650 miles east of Hawaii. The passengers and crew were evacuated by ships in the area. The seaplane tender San Pablo attempted to take the Clipper in tow, but it accidentally ran into the Clipper, damaging it beyond repair. The San Pablo sunk the Clipper with 20 mm cannon fire, but it took 1,200 rounds and 30 minutes of fire to finally sink the aircraft.

After the war, the government offered to sell the Clippers back to Pan Am, but the company declined. The war had brought many more airports around the world, and four-engine landplanes could fly faster than the fat Clipper flying boats. DC-4s and Boeing 307s had begun to appear even before the war. Shortly after the war, Pan Am Lockheed Constellations, DC-5s, and Boeing 377s took over the routes that the Clippers had pioneered. Other companies bought the remaining Clippers from the military, but in 1951, the last of the huge Boeing Clippers reached the end of its career. None of these beautiful and historic aircraft remain except in old travel posters and cherished photographs.

Post by Ray Panko
References
Krupnick, Jon E., Pan American’s Pacific Pioneers: Pan American Clippers Unite the Pacific Rim, 1935-1945, Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories, 1997.
Turner, P. St. John, Pictorial History of Pan American World Airways, London: Ian Allan, 1973.

Airshowbuzz, LLC., Vintage Luxury: Boeing 314. http://www.asb.tv/blog/2011/02/boeing-314-flying-boat/. This page has a number of video clips regarding the Boeing 314 Clipper.

Bogash, Bob, In Search of an Icon, http://rbogash.com/B314.html.

FlyingClippers.com. An excellent general website on the Clippers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Hard Life of Snake 298

June 23, 2011

Bell Helicopter delivered our Bell AH-1G Cobra to the Army on October 1967. Its serial number is 66-15298, indicating that it was ordered in 1966. In February 1966, the 298 arrived in Vietnam. Instead of being assigned to a division, it was assigned to a nondivisional company unit, the 235th Aviation Weapons Company, known as the “Delta Devils.” This was the first gunship company in Vietnam to be completely converted to AH-1G Cobras, which quickly became known as “snakes.” There were many similar nondivisional company units. They were attached temporarily to battalions or divisions as needed. For administrative purposes, these companies were “homed” in Aviation Groups. The 235th was homed in the 166th Aviation Group.

Our snake’s time with the 235th was stressful. During her first month in Vietnam, the 298’s base came under mortar fire. As its crew’s rushed to get into the air from a revetment, one of her pilots over-revved the engine. This caused the tail to swing around into the revetment wall.

Fortunately, she could be repaired in theater. On March 11, our snake was attacking from 1,000 feet at 180 kts when she took her first hit. Her armament system was damaged, but she was able to complete her mission. The next day, on an armed reconnaissance mission, she was flying at 200 feet and 120 kts when she took her second hit. She was repaired and sent back to work. On June 6, she ran into heavier fire and took five hits to the transmission, main tail rotor, and oil system. This time, she was forced to land. She was repaired sufficiently to take off and divert to another base.

In January 1969, Viet Cong sappers damaged her with a satchel charge while she was parked. In February, she was again downed by fire but was recovered. She took more hits in February and March but continued the mission both times. On May 26, she took another three hits during a close air support mission. Although her cockpit and fuel system were damaged, she continued her mission. However, she was then moved to a maintenance unit to repair her damage and to be completely overhauled.


In June 1970, she reentered the fight with another nondivisional unit, the 3/5 Cavalry squadron. Cavalry units call their companies “troops” and their battalions “squadrons.” The 3/5 (pronounced third of the fifth) was the third squadron of the 5th Cavalry Regiment. Regiments were no longer active units in the Army hierarchy, but the 5th was nevertheless the titular home of the 3d.

The 3/5 was officially the Black Knights, but they called themselves the “Bastard Cav” because of their nondivisional status. Our snake was assigned to the D troop, known as the Crusaders. At the time, the Black Knights were under the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3d Brigade. After only 7 hours with the 3/5, however, our snake suffered an undocumented accident and went back into maintenance.

Photo credit: Vaughn Banting

After she returned to service, she first flew briefly with the famous 1/9 cavalry squadron of the famous 1st Cavalry Division. This was the “Air Cav’s” cavalry reconnaissance unit, and it called itself the “Real Cav.” The 1st of the 9th typically flew “pink” missions with a low-flying “white” observation helicopter seeking out the enemy and a higher-flying “red” Cobra providing protection and firing on enemy their partner identified.

However, our snake was quickly moved to the Air Cav’s 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, known as the “Stacked Deck.” The 229th was tasked with moving assault troops into and out of landing zones and resupplying them during combat.

The 229th had three companies of assault Huey troop ships, each with about 20 helicopters. It also had one company (D) of about a dozen gunships, one of which was our snake. This company was known as the “Smiling Tigers.” There is no record of any damage during our snake’s time in the 229th until the accident that ended her service in Vietnam on 28 November, 1971. A warrant officer instructor pilot was giving a Captain a 90-day check ride.

The ride required the Captain to do several maneuvers simulating aircraft failure conditions. In one maneuver, the Captain overcorrected a nose-down condition caused by a simulated failure. The snake reared back, losing RPMs. She landed hard, damaging her right-side landing skid, then jumped back into the air. The instructor pilot immediately took over, but the aircraft landed hard, ending up on her left side, her blades having shattered as the hit the ground. Her long tour of duty was over.
Our snake spent most of her Army time after the war at Fort Knox, with the 1st and 5th Divisions. In 1974, she moved to Hawaii, where she was stationed at Schofield Barracks. The next year, she retired from active duty and moved to the Hawaii Army National Guard. Below is a picture of her doing a fly-by in 1999. This was the final flight of the Cobras in Hawaii.

Figure 2: Final flight of AH-1 Huey Cobras in Hawaii, March 12, 1999. Official U.S. Army photos contributed by MAJ Edward Loomis, 25 Infantry Division (Light) PAO paomroic@SCHOFIELD-EMH1.ARMY.MIL. http://tri.army.mil/LC/CS/csa/ah1flyby.htm.
 
Post by Ray Panko. Mahalo

Revenge of the Pearl Harbor Battleships

June 14, 2011

October 25, 1944, 0200 hours. It is the final major day of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Six America battleships slowly steam back and forth across the mouth of the Surigao Strait. Five are survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack—West Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, Tennessee, and Maryland. Two forces of Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers are steaming north in the strait. The American battleships will “cross their T,” pouring full broadsides into each arriving Japanese ship. The Pearl Harbor battleships are about to have their revenge.

At Pearl Harbor, the “newest” battleship was the West Virginia (BB-48). Built in 1921, she had the advantages of lessons learned in World War II. In addition, she was heavily updated before World War II. After she was built, a moratorium was placed on battleship construction a result of the Washington Naval conference. The U.S. would not begin to build more battleships until the eve of World War II.

West Virginia, 1926. National Archives, Photo # NH 46415

During the attack, the West Virginia took more hits than any other ship, including the Arizona and Oklahoma. She was hit by six or seven torpedoes (there was too much damage to be certain) and two heavy high-level bombs. Although alert counter-flooding kept her from capsizing like the Oklahoma moored in front of her, she sunk 40 feet into the harbor mud, continuing to burn for another day.

West Virginia sunk in 40 feet of water. Note the two funnels. Also note the “birdcage” masts, which were characteristics of U.S. battleships built after World War I. Robert F. Walden Collection - Hawaii War Records Depository - University of Hawaii Archives

Fortunately, Pearl Harbor’s shipyard was still operational. The yard put patches over her torpedo holes and floated her to dry dock. In May, 1942, fixed up enough to sail, the West Virginia left for a major overhaul on the West Coast.

West Virginia leaving Pearl Harbor for reconstruction. Robert F. Walden Collection - Hawaii War Records Depository - University of Hawaii Archives

It was not until July 1944 that she finally rejoined the fleet, just in time for the Battle of Leyte Gulf. When the West Virginia returned, she was a much better ship. She had no visible funnels, a sleeker superstructure, and bristled with heavy antiaircraft guns. Most importantly for the coming battle, the long delay in upgrading her meant that she had the Navy’s newest Mark 8 fire control radar system plus additional radar to spot aircraft. She would be able to fire on the advancing Japanese forces long before they could see her. Her only real limitation was that she was still slow, limited to about 20 knots. She would not be able to keep up with carrier task forces, but for bombarding beach heads or sitting in ambush, this was no hindrance at all.

West Virginia after Reconstruction, 1944. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # 19-N-68376 Note the radar installations at the top.

The first Japanese force to enter the strait was Adm. Nishimura Shoji’s two battleships, one cruiser, and four destroyers. Even in a traditional battle, the Americans would have had a strong advantage with their six battleships and several cruisers. By this time in the war, the U.S. fleet was far larger than the Japanese fleet. Crossing the Japanese T would merely add to the slaughter.

Long before the Japanese came into range of the battleships, 39 Patrol Torpedo boats harassed them with torpedo runs. They did no damage, but they gave Adm. Jessie Oldendorf a constant picture of the Japanese advance. As Nishimura got closer to the mouth of the strait, Oldendorf unleashed 28 destroyers to attack with torpedoes. The destroyers launched up to ten torpedoes apiece into the approaching Japanese force. In contrast to the PT boat attacks, the destroyer attacks were deadly. Torpedoes from the little tin cans blew the battleship Fusō in half, sunk two destroyers, and left the destroyer Asagumo behind with damage. Almost half of Nishimura’s force was gone before he neared the mouth of the strait and the Pearl Harbor greeters waiting to welcome them.

Although the U.S. welcoming committee was extremely potent, it had one limitation. The navy had provisioned the battleships for shore bombardment to support MacArthur’s landings at Leyte. Consequently, 75 percent of their shells were high capacity shells useless against battleships. The big battle wagons would only fire a limited number of broadsides to conserve their armor piercing (AP) shells.

Finally, the surviving Japanese ships neared the mouth of the straight. The battleships held their fire, waiting for the Japanese ships to steam closer. The West Virginia recorded the fatal minutes of the bombardment in her log.

  • At 0208, the West Virginia could see shell fire from the approaching Japanese fleet.
  • At 0304, the enemy appeared on the ship’s long-range SG-1 radar systems designed to track aircraft.
  • At 0332, admiral Oldendorf cleared the battleships to fire.
  • At 0333, the West Virginia got a firing solution with her Mark 8 fire control radar at 30,000 yards. (She had actually seen the approaching fleet at 44,000 yards.) Her target throughout the bombardment would be the Japanese battleship Yamashiro.
  • Her radar could pick out individual ships of both the first Japanese force and the second force steaming far behind it. She could also see individual U.S. destroyers attacking the Japanese forces.
  • She waited until 0352, with the Japanese 22,800 yards away. The delay had been necessary to ensure that she would not be firing on U.S. ships. Finally, the “Wee Vee” fired her first eight-gun broadside of 16 inch armor piercing shells. She scored immediate hits with this first salvo of 2,400 pound shells.
  • At 0354, she saw the battleship illuminated by fire during the sixth salvo.
  • Overall, she sent 16 broadsides. The first 13 took place at an average of every 41 seconds. In all, she fired 89 AP shells and 4 high capacity shells. The HC rounds were used because of an inability to get AP shells to guns a few times.
  • During the second or third broadside, California and Tennessee, which also had the Mark 8 radar, begin to add their 14 inch guns to the carnage, firing a total of 139 shells.
  • The Maryland, with an older Mark 4 radar fire control system, fired at the water spouts kicked up by the shells of other ships. California and Mississippi decided to conserve their shells. Pennsylvania did not fire at all, and Mississippi only fired a single salvo.
  • Cruisers with 6 inch and 8 inch guns positioned to the south of the battleships added their fire.
  • At 0402, the West Virginia and other heavies ceased fire to conserve their AP shells. At this point, the West Virginia only had 110 AP shells left.
  • At 4:11, the radar blip that had been the Yamashiro bloomed and then faded.
  • At 4:12, the radar blip vanished.

The visual effect was astounding, Captain Smoot, commanding the destroyer Newcomb, said that the arcs of fire looked like the tail lights of cars crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.

Their barrages quickly sunk the remaining Japanese battleship, Yamashiro, and devastated the heavy cruiser Mogami. The only Japanese ship to avoid serious damage was the destroyer Shigure, which had immediately reversed course and steamed away while the big guns focused on the battleship and cruiser. The Mogami, although massively damaged, was able to limp slowly to the south. When the second Japanese force began to approach the mouth of the strait with two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and four destroyers, its admiral witnessed the burning destruction in the water and immediately turned around to avoid the guns of the American fleet. The threat from Japan through the Surigao Strait was ended. The next day, aircraft sunk the Mogami, and destroyers and cruisers finished off the destroyer Asagumo. Only the Shigure survived the passage through the strait.

Although the Pearl Harbor battleships had taken their revenge, they did relatively little of the total damage. The destroyers had heavily reduced the first Japanese force before the battleships ever fired a shot. When the behemoths finally ended their barrages, they only sunk one Japanese battleship and fatally wounded one Japanese cruiser. However, the goal of the battleships had been to keep the Japanese from advancing through the strait to attack MacArthur’s landing force, and even if the destroyers had not reduce the Japanese force, the battleships would still have stopped it. The battleships had decisively done their job.

Although no one knew it at the time, this was the last time in history that battleships would face one another in combat. Even by this time, battleships were mostly used for land bombardment if they were too slow to keep up with the carrier fleet. More modern and faster battleships were mostly used to provide antiaircraft fire to protect the flat tops. Still, the massive wall of cannon shells shot at the enemy during this final battle was a dramatic way to mark the passing of the battleship as the fleet’s capital ship.

One other battleship survived the Pearl Harbor attack. During the Japanese attack, the Nevada made a run for the open sea but was ordered to beach herself when she was attacked by a hornet’s nest of dive bombers and began to sink. She was also repaired and returned to combat. However, she was sent to the Atlantic. In June 1944, her long 14 inch guns supported the Normandy invasion by savaging German troop formations as much as 17 miles behind the invasion force.

Sources

Wiley, H. V., Commanding Officer, West Virginia, Action in Battle of Surigao Straits 25 October 1944 U.S. West Virginia—Report of, 1 November 1944. Available at http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ships/logs/BB/bb48-Surigao.html. (Last visited February 2, 2011). Transcribed and formatted in HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation.

Cutler, Thomas J., The Battle of Leyte Gulf 23-26 October 1944, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Maryland, 1994.


Aerial Bomb Fuzes

May 6, 2011

When visitors at Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor look at the Japanese bomb replicas on our attack wall, they sometimes ask about the little propellers on the bombs. Obviously, these are too small to make the bomb change directions. Some even notice that one of the bombs has two propellers—one on its tip and one at the tail end of the bomb’s body. The answer to the first question is that the propellers are attached to the fuzes that detonate the bomb. The answer to the second is a bit more complicated.

Figure 1: Bombs with Propeller Fuzes

Fuzes have two purposes. The obvious one is to cause the bomb to explode. When the bomb makes impact, the fuze has a spike or electrical circuit that detonates the bomb. If the fuze has a spike, that spike is driven into a small detonation charge that sets off the main bomb charge. An electrical fuze uses a spark to set off the detonation charge. Earlier bombs used pyrotechnic detonation—a flame raced down a detonation line into the detonation charge. Pyrotechnic fuzes were not used in World War II aircraft bombs because of their uncertain detonation time. (In case you were wondering about spelling, pyrotechnic fuses are fuses (with an s), while mechanical or electrical detonators are fuzes (with a z).

Read the rest of this entry »


Our Tomcat “Felix 102”

April 11, 2011

The F-14

From the 1970s through 2006, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat was the defender of the fleet. These huge, fast, swept-wing fighters could take on anything in close-in dog fights and could shoot down enemy aircraft 50 miles away. Toward the end of the Tomcat’s life, F-14s became Bombcats, capable of delivering precision bombs against distant land targets. F-14s starred the movie Top Gun, which also featured co-star Tom Cruise.

Preparing an F-14 Tomcat for launch. (U.S Navy photograph 050222-N-4308O-075, Feb. 22, 2005, by Photographer’s Mate Airman Ryan O'Connor)

Our Tomcat (S/N 163904) “Felix 102”

By the beginning of 2006, there were only two F-14 squadrons left in the Navy. Both were flying combat missions in the Middle East. VF-213 was the “Black Lions.” VF-31 was the “Tomcatters.” The tail insignia of VF-31, created in 1948, was a black Felix the Cat carrying a lit bomb.[1]

Insignia of the VF-31 Tomcatters. (U.S. Navy photograph, http://www.history.navy.mil/insignia/vf/vf31.jpg)

Not surprisingly, the squadron’s call sign was “Felix.” Our F-14D, Serial Number 163904, was Felix 102.

Felix 102 Getting Ready for a Cat Launch (U.S. Navy photo)

In March, the two squadrons returned to their home base, Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia. VF-213 quickly stood down and began to reequip with FA-18 Hornets. VF-31 remained on duty in case a sudden crisis required it to move out again. Finally, VF-31 was removed from standby duty and prepared to end its Tomcat days. The Navy decided to end the era with a large celebration at Oceana. “Tomcat Sunset” lasted for three days. It drew thousands of F-14 pilots, air crews, and enthusiasts.

Tomcat Sunset (U.S. Navy photo 060922-N-0841E-148)

A few VF-31 aircraft, including 102, had their Felix tail insignia and replaced with special artwork for the occasion.

Tomcat Sunset Tail Marking on Felix 102 (Photo by Ray@Panko.com at Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor)

The celebration ended on September 22, with a symbolic last flight. The honor was scheduled to be given to Felix 102. Its pilot would be the squadron’s CO, Commander Jim Howe, and its RIO would be Lieutenant Commander Bill Lind. Unfortunately, Felix 102 took the occasion to remind everybody what a maintenance nightmare the F-14 had become in its final years. A generator failed, and the last flight was flown by the backup plane, Felix 107.

Felix 102 at Tomcat Sunset (U.S. Navy Photograph 060922-N-5555T-001)

In any case, this final flight really was symbolic. The next month, the eleven aircraft of the squadron flew from Oceana to their final destinations. Felix 102 flew to NAS North Island. The final Tomcat landed at Republic Airport, near its Grumman birthplace. And, of course, there are still those Iranian F-14As.

In 2008, Felix 102 moved to its final destination, Pacific Aviation Museum in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. She travelled on the assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard. As the ship approached Pearl Harbor, the 102 was placed in front, looking like a hood ornament among the ship’s helicopters. She was winched off the ship, moved by barge to Ford Island, and winched onto land. She was pulled to her new home, Hangar 79.

Felix 102 Thanking the USS Bonhomme Richard (U.S. Navy photograph 080701-N-1722M-033)

Felix 102 in her new home, Hanger 79 at Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor.


[1] Tomcatters Association Home Page. http://www.tomcattersassociation.org/


Aircraft #13 on the Doolittle Raid

April 5, 2011

This is a firsthand account by the pilot of aircraft #13 on the Doolittle Raid off the Hornet in 1942. Take the time and enjoy a bit of history.

My name is Edgar McElroy. My friends call me “Mac”. I was born and raised in Ennis , Texas the youngest of five children, son of Harry and Jennie McElroy. Folks say that I was the quiet one. We lived at 609 North Dallas Street and attended the Presbyterian Church.

My dad had an auto mechanic’s shop downtown close to the main fire station. My family was a hard working bunch, and I was expected to work at dad’s garage after school and on Saturdays, so I grew up in an atmosphere of machinery, oil and grease. Occasionally I would hear a lone plane fly over, and would run out in the street and strain my eyes against the sun to watch it. Someday, that would be me up there!

I really like cars, and I was always busy on some project, and it wasn’t long before I decided to build my very own Model-T out of spare parts. I got an engine from over here, a frame from over there, and wheels from someplace else, using only the good parts from old cars that were otherwise shot. It wasn’t very pretty, but it was all mine I enjoyed driving on the dirt roads around town and the feeling of freedom and speed. That car of mine could really go fast, 40 miles per hour!

In high school I played football and tennis, and was good enough at football to receive an athletic scholarship from Trinity University in Waxahachie. I have to admit that sometimes I daydreamed in class, and often times I thought about flying my very own airplane and being up there in the clouds. That is when I even decided to take a correspondence course in aircraft engines. Whenever I got the chance, I would take my girl on a date up to Love Field in Dallas. We would watch the airplanes and listen to those mighty piston engines roar. I just loved it and if she didn’t, well that was just too bad.

After my schooling, I operated a filling station with my brother, then drove a bus, and later had a job as a machinist in Longview , but I never lost my love of airplanes and my dream of flying. With what was going on in Europe and in Asia , I figured that our country would be drawn into war someday, so I decided to join the Army Air Corps in November of 1940. This way I could finally follow my dream.

I reported for primary training in California. The training was rigorous and frustrating at times. We trained at airfields all over California . It was tough going, and many of the guys washed out. When I finally saw that I was going to make it, I wrote to my girl back in Longview, Texas. Her name is Agnes Gill. I asked her to come out to California for my graduation. and oh yeah, also to marry me.

I graduated on July 11, 1941. I was now a real, honest-to-goodness Army Air Corps pilot. Two days later, I married “Aggie” in Reno, Nevada. We were starting a new life together and were very happy. I received my orders to report to Pendleton, Oregon and join the 17th Bomb Group. Neither of us had traveled much before, and the drive north through the Cascade Range of the Sierra Nevada ‘s was interesting and beautiful.

It was an exciting time for us. My unit was the first to receive the new B-25 medium bomber. When I saw it for the first time I was in awe. It looked so huge. It was so sleek and powerful. The guys started calling it the “rocket plane”, and I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. I told Aggie that it was really something! Reminded me of a big old scorpion, just ready to sting! Man, I could barely wait!

We were transferred to another airfield in Washington State, where we spent a lot a time flying practice missions and attacking imaginary targets. Then, there were other assignments in Mississippi and Georgia, for more maneuvers and more practice. We were on our way back to California on December 7th when we got word of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We listened with mixed emotions to the announcements on the radio, and the next day to the declaration of war. What the President said, it just rang over and over in my head, “. With confidence in our armed forces, with the un-bounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.” By gosh, I felt as though he was talking straight to me! I didn’t know what would happen to us, but we all knew that we would be going somewhere now.

The first weeks of the war, we were back in Oregon flying patrols at sea looking for possible Japanese submarines. We had to be up at 0330 hours to warm up the engines of our planes. There was 18 inches of snow on the ground, and it was so cold that our engine oil congealed overnight. We placed big tarps over the engines that reached down to the ground. Inside this tent we used plumbers blow torches to thaw out the engines. I figured that my dad would be proud of me, if he could see me inside this tent with all this machinery, oil and grease. After about an hour of this, the engines were warm enough to start.

We flew patrols over the coasts of Oregon and Washington from dawn until dusk. Once I thought I spotted a sub, and started my bomb run, even had my bomb doors open, but I pulled out of it when I realized that it was just a big whale.

Lucky for me, I would have never heard the end of that! Actually it was lucky for us that the Japanese didn’t attack the west coast, because we just didn’t have a strong enough force to beat them off. Our country was in a real fix now, and overall things looked pretty bleak to most folks. In early February, we were ordered to report to Columbus, South Carolina. Man, this Air Corps sure moves a fellow around a lot! Little did I know what was coming next!

After we got settled in Columbus, my squadron commander called us all together. He told us that an awfully hazardous mission was being planned, and then he asked for volunteers. There were some of the guys that did not step forward, but I was one of the ones that did. My co-pilot was shocked. He said “You can’t volunteer, Mac! You’re married, and you and Aggie are expecting a baby soon. Don’t do it!” I told him that “I got into the Air Force to do what I can, and Aggie understands how I feel. The war won’t be easy for any of us.”

We that volunteered were transferred to Eglin Field near Valparaiso, Florida in late February. When we all got together, there were about 140 of us volunteers, and we were told that we were now part of the “Special B-25 Project.”

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March 8, 2011