About Me

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I've had a varied career, mostly as a technical writer for various high-tech firms in eastern Massachusetts, which is my home of origin. I enjoy speculating about many kinds of technical and philosophical concepts far beyond my level of education. I hope this blog will be an opportunity for me to express some of the ideas that have been percolating for years in my mind. I would consider a respectful exchange of ideas to be the ideal result of this effort.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Navy Days

The Beginning

I've decided that I'd like to create a post about my years in the navy and the navel reserve. I'm calling it "Navy Days". I didn't have a full 20-year career in the navy. I finished a four-year enlistment in 1956 and went on to join and serve in the Naval Reserve for the next eight years. I've been extremely grateful for the training and experience I received during my period of service. In my subsequent career, although not an unprecedented success, my navy training and experiences provided me with the knowledge and ability to sustain myself in challenging and interesting work situations. My naval experience contained no big deals, no wars, no scary stories. I wasn't a hero, just another Aviation Electronics Technician trying to keep communication and navigation equipment operating. There were, however, some interesting aspects of service there which I'll touch on later.

I enlisted on November 24, 1952 and finished my tour on November 23, 1956. Boot camp in Great Lakes Illinois, Airman Preparatory school in Norman Oklahoma, Aviation Electronics school in Memphis Tennessee, then on to my duty station at VX-2, Air Development Squadron 2 at Naval Air Station Chincoteague, Virginia.

Chincoteague, Virginia

Chincoteague is a small island town on the eastern shore of Virginia about 20 miles south of the Maryland border. It's on what's called the "Delmarva Peninsula". So named, surprisingly enough because it consists of elements of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Delmarva also has some small notoriety as the home of the Purdue chicken dynasty. The peninsula encloses Chesapeake Bay with it's treasures of sea life, primarily oysters and crabs. The town of Chincoteague is actually an island about two miles wide and seven miles long and its livelihood depends, to a great extent, upon harvesting oysters from its beds. As a child you may have read the books about 'Misty of Chincoteague'. Chinco, as it's locally called, is the site of the annual Assateague Island Pony Penning each August. The pony pennings were the impetus for the books.

I was lucky enough to be present for three annual pony pennings. Maybe just a note of explanation is in order. The local lore says that long before the ancestors of the present residents moved down from the Canadian Maritime provinces, a ship, supposedly a Spanish galleon, was driven ashore and foundered on a barrier island just east of Chinco. This island, about one mile wide and 20 miles long is called Assateague. Being exposed to the sea and having a minimum of forage materials the island proved less than perfect for the Arabian horses who were the only survivors of the shipwreck. They migrated then across the narrow channel to Chincoteague island which was better protected and better stocked with forage.

In the early 1700's emigres from Canada worked their way down the coastline looking for a place to settle. The story has it that these were a feisty bunch who had little patience for 'outsiders'. In my time there I observed first hand that these characteristics were still alive and well. A marsh and channel separates Chinco from the mainland providing the settlers with the degree of isolation from 'outsider' civilization that they required. The horses, refusing to share the island with the humans, swam back across the channel to Assateague and have remained there to this day. At least their offspring have. I don't think there are many of the original shipwrecked horses still around.

The residents would, on occasion, cross the channel and 'rescue' some horses for their use. In time, the horses were proclaimed to be no ones property. The residents then simply branded their own mares, swam them across the channel and left them there. The next summer they would return and swim the entire herd back across the channel to Chinco. There they would separate the colts from their mares and claim them. The balance of the horses would be returned to Assateague and the process begun again.

Pony Penning

In time, with the evolution of the motor vehicle, the horses became less necessary as work animals. This process was declared at some point to be in the purview of the local volunteer fire department. From that point on, the horses would be swum across in August of each year and the yearling ponies separated. The event would trigger a week-long carnival, the end of which was marked by an auction of the new ponies. The profits from the auction and carnival were devoted to maintaining the fire department. At the time I was there, the Chinco fire department was claimed to be the wealthiest volunteer fire department in the country. I don't doubt it for a minute. At one point they purchased a 100-foot aerial ladder truck which was interesting because I don't think there was a building over two stories tall, with the possible exception of the Pony Hotel. During Pony Penning, as it was called, the town would be inundated with horse trailers with license plates from a multitude of states. The bidding would be fast and furious and the cash would flow like water.

NAAS Chincoteague

The base, then designated as NAAS Chincoteague, was located on the mainland, just opposite the causeway that crossed the marsh and channel to the island. That stood for Naval Auxiliary Air Station, an indication that this was too small an installation to be considered a real Naval Air Station. There were just two operating squadrons located there, VX-2 and VU-4, along with a Naval Aviation Ordnance Test Station, NAOTS, and Wallops Island, a small island from which sounding rockets were launched to probe very-high-altitude weather conditions.

NAOTS was a fairly secretive site, isolated from the rest of the base by a barbed-wire-topped cyclone fence. I was never sure just what they were testing but I learned one day that they were, in fact, testing the six-barrel, 20-mm, 3000 round-per-minute Vulcan cannon. I happened to drive by a firing range just as they ran a test. The sound was unmistakable - a throaty roar of gunfire so rapid that you couldn't detect the sound of individual rounds. This devastating weapon is still in use in many Air Force and Navy aircraft

The squadron designated VU-4 was located on the opposite side of the hanger where our squadron was based. Their primary task was providing towed target sleeves for anti-aircraft gunfire training. Just a few words about US naval air squadron designations. The first letter of a squadrons name designates the type of majority squadron aircraft. The letter V, for some esoteric reason, designates fixed-wing aircraft. If the first letter is H the squadron is basically a Helicopter, or rotary-wing, squadron. The second letter designated the mission of the squadron. The letter F indicates a Fighter squadron; the letter A an Attack squadron; the letter R a transport squadron; the letter U a Utility squadron; and the letter X an experimental squadron. The number is just a numeric designation of that type of unit. VU-4, then, was the fourth designated fixed-wing, utility squadron.

My squadron was VX-2, the second of a series of fixed-wing-aircraft experimental squadrons. At the time there were, I believe, five other VX squadrons. VX-6 had been involved in testing cold-weather operations in Antarctica. I believe it was VX-4 that flew radio-controlled drone aircraft equipped with sensor equipment, through the mushroom clouds of the Bikini Atoll atomic tests to gather information about airborne radiation levels. VX-2, or Air-Development-Squadron Two as it was sometimes designated, provided radio-controlled aircraft for testing radar-controlled anti-aircraft gunfire and testing and evaluation of anti-aircraft guided missiles such as the heat-sensing Sidewinder and radar-controlled Terrier and Talos missiles. Our squadron insignia portrayed a reluctant F6F drone being controlled by the ever-present 'beep box' located in the chase planes, or with ground controllers on board the test vessels. We served a small flotilla of ships off the Virginia coast for these tests. They included the USS Krause, a fleet destroyer, the USS Northampton, CG-1, the very first guided-missile cruiser and the battleship USS Mississippi, temporarily re-designated as a guided-missile-test ship. Our drones would approach the ships in simulated attacks such as strafing, bombing or torpedo runs while the vessels evaluated the operation of radar and missile operation.

The Hellcat

The primary aircraft we used as targets were WWII fighter aircraft known as F6F Hellcats, manufactured by Grumman Aircraft in Bethpage Long Island. Thousands of these planes were built to counter the Japanese Zero in the Pacific and were sometimes called the 'Big Blue Blanket' referring to their color and their effectiveness in covering the Pacific theater, destroying over 5000 Japanese Zero fighters. The leftovers were mothballed and stored, in part, at NAS Kingsville, in Texas. They were flown in to us by ferry pilots, their obsolete radio communications equipment replaced and the necessary radio-control receivers installed and tested. Initially, this was part of my responsibility as a flight-line maintenance technician. I later was transferred to the radio-repair shop where I was responsible for the maintenance of 14 different types of communications and navigation equipment. The radio-control receivers accepted the signals transmitted by chase aircraft and channeled them through the aircraft's autopilot which activated all the flight and engine controls. The craft were also painted a bright red color to designate them as a target aircraft. During flight tests and ground-operator training, the drones were sometimes occupied by safety pilots. When unoccupied, the flights were called NOLO flights, meaning No Live Occupant. During NOLO flights, the red vertical tail was over painted with bright fluorescent red and white stripes were added on the tail.
The chase, or control aircraft used were also Grumman aircraft, the F8F Bearcat, which was also designed to counter the Japanese Zero fighter but arrived too late for action in the war. It was a smaller, more nimble version of the F6F which made it appropriate for chasing and controlling it's larger sibling. The Bearcat achieved some lasting fame as a racing plane in the postwar years and some are still prized as powerful and maneuverable racers. It may be simply my imagination but I feel that the Bearcat bears an amazing resemblance to what was considered by many the finest German fighter of WWII, the Fokker-Wolfe 190.

The Privateer

For a while, we also used the navy version of the air-force B-24 Liberator, a four-engine long-range bomber. The navy designation of these planes was PB4Y2KD. This stood for the fourth type of Patrol Bomber manufactured by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation (Y).

The B-24 was used extensively during WWII in the European, Mediterranean and Pacific theaters. Although not as resistant to combat damage as the famous B-17, it's long range and heavier bomb capacity made it ideal for the seemingly endless over water distances in the Pacific.

The 2, in its designation, indicated that it was the second version of this aircraft, called the Privateer. The KD designated that it was configured for radio remote-control operation. During our operations, they were also painted bright red to differentiate them from the controlling aircraft. Note the large single tail on the plane. It's predecessor, the PB4Y, called the Buccaneer, retained the twin tail employed by the original B-24. Since the a large tail surface was needed for lateral control, the Privateer was provided with a very large single tail. The Privateer was larger and more difficult to control in flight by the pilot of a single-seat fighter so it was normally controlled from a larger, twin-engine attack aircraft called the JD, shown below. This is a Navy version of the former Army Air Force A-26 attack aircraft and is, in my opinion, a sleek, smooth-riding beauty. I was privileged to have a few rides in our single JD and loved them all.

The Ill-Fated Whiskey Run

I have what I think is an interesting tale about our JD that I'd like to share with you. Shortly after I arrived, our JD was dispatched to the Naval Air Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for what is euphemistically called a 'whiskey run'. Since the price of liquor was much less at Guantanamo, the officers in the squadron would occasionally find a legitimate reason for the JD to fly to Gitmo. They would pool a bunch of cash and, while on the mission, the crew would purchase quite a few cases of normally expensive booze. This trip was no exception. The pilot was a well-qualified veteran but the co-pilot was fairly new. On the return flight, it was necessary to land at Miami for fuel and for customs inspection. As the aircraft descended over Miami Bay, the co-pilot asked if he could land the aircraft. The pilot agreed and the landing sequence was initiated. The cases of whisky had been loaded centrally in the fuselage, directly over the bomb-bay doors.

As the plane descended over the bay, the co-pilot eagerly activated the landing gear handle. Unfortunately, it was adjacent to the bomb-bay control. As you might expect, he opened the bomb bay by mistake and the entire load of whisky tumbled down into the water. Miraculously not one of the many pleasure and fishing boats plying the bay were damaged. The major damage was to the reputation of the co-pilot and his financial status since he now was required to reimburse his squadron mates for the lost whiskey. As a Lieutenant Junior Grade, this would prove to be a rather long-term struggle for his pay grade.

Runaway Robot

This is a tale of a drone mission gone awry. I think it's kind of interesting but I'll let you be the judge of that. An F6F Hellcat drone was launched from NAS Chinco by VX-2 for evaluation of anti-aircraft fire-control radar. The weapon of choice was a 5" x 38 gun, firing inert (no warhead) shells. For these tests the drone carried sensors that could detect the shock wave created as the shell passed by. The level of the shock wave showed just how close the shell came to the aircraft. The idea was not to shoot down the drone. It would just be much too expensive to lose a drone for every pass at the ship. Not just financially but in terms of the many, many hours needed to adapt a mothballed aircraft into a fully functional drone. Therefore, weapons were only fired for effect, that is with live ammunition, in the last phases of each test run. Typically we would have several weeks of this type of test before several drones would be sacrificed to test, not only the radar or the missile-control equipment, but also the effectiveness of warheads and proximity fuses.

I happened to be in the squadron communications center when this episode began and listened to all the radio chatter as it developed. The drone executed a flyby of the ship and radar tracked it and initiated a firing command to the gun. Apparently, the powder bag used as propellant had become contaminated at some point so that instead of the expected explosion nothing seemed to happen. This is called a 'hang fire' and has specific procedures that are to be followed. The powder bags placed in the breech behind the projectile are filled with what we can call gunpowder and are made of silk so that when they burn no burning particles are left in the breech to set off the next powder bag. Sometimes the powder does not fire at all and, after an appropriate waiting period, the breech is opened and the powder bag disposed of. At other timess the contamination of the powder is small enough so that it will burn slowly until it reaches the uncontaminated portion of the powder and then it will fire. This is the reason for the wait. In fact, this powder bag was indeed performing a slow burn.

When the hang fire was declared, the pilot in the chase plane turned the drone to the south and released control to the internal autopilot. A few words about the autopilot if I may. An aircraft autopilot is simply a much more capable version of the cruise control found in most cars today. The cruise control, once actuated, will maintain the preset speed over hill and dale until changed by the driver. The autopilot does the same, except that it also controls the altitude and the direction of the aircraft by using inputs from various sensors such as a compass, air-speed indicator and altimeter. Normally, the chase pilot transmits signals to the drone which are detected by a radio-control receiver. The signals are evaluated by the receiver and forwarded to the autopilot to control the drone in speed, direction and altitude. If the autopilot receives no signals from the receiver, however, it simply continues to execute the last set of commands it received.

In this flight Murphy's law was fully operational. Apparently nobody noticed that the gun was still tracking the drone as it executed its turn to the south. At that time the powder bag exploded and the shell was on its way, directly at the drone. It struck the fuselage just behind the midpoint and passed completely through the aircraft. Unfortunately it also passed directly through the radio-control receiver, destroying it. Control of the drone was now completly in the hands of the autopilot. Since the last commands received placed it on a heading of about south at an altitude of about 3000 feet and an airspeed of about 180 knots it was now working industriously to maintain those parameters. And it did it quite well. Unfortunatly those parameters placed the drone on a course directly at Norfolk VA. Panic ensued.

One of the chase pilots suggested that he try to tip over the drone by placing his wingtip under the Hellcat's wingtip, allowing the aiflow to lift the drone and tumble the gyroscope that was used to maintain stability. This is a technique that was used in England when Germany was firing V1 Drones at London. One of the speedier aircraft, such as the Mosquito or the first English jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, would sidle up beside the V1 and, using the aforementioned technique, tip the drone, breaking stability and causing it to crash. The difference between these two cases, however, is that the English aircraft had much larger wing area than the tiny german drone and could easily lift it's wing. Unfortunately, however, the F8F Bearcats used as chase planes were smaller than the F6F Hellcats. They had been designed to counter the Japanese Zero aircraft but the war ended before they saw service. They were designed with smaller wing areas than the Hellcat to give them more maneuverability to counter the Zero. This meant, however, that the Hellcat was much more stable and couldn't be tipped like the tiny German V1s.

The next thought was to shoot down the Hellcat before it left the protected exclusion zone 40 miles out to sea. Permission was given and the attack began. Now the Bearcat would normally carry three or possibly four .50 Caliber Browning M2 Machine guns in each wing with about 400 rounds of ammunition for each. Since we were not in a war zone, however, each chase plane was equipped with a single .50 caliber machine gun in each wing with only 100 rounds of ammunition for each. Murphy's law came surging to the front again with a vengeance! In both aircraft, believe it or not, only the gun in the left wing would fire. In this condition, the pilots found it impossible to make enough hits on the drone to bring it down. Each time that single gun fired, the Bearcat was turned to the left, breaking it's aim. In fact, the Hellcat was so ruggedly built that it was extremely difficult to shoot down in the best of times. The Grumman aircraft were so strong that the company was often called 'The Grumman Iron Works'. Neecdless to say this effort failed totally.

The panic level in the operations room was almost incindiery at this point. Local radio media had somehow picked up the story and were announcing that a "Marine Bomber" was out of control and headed for Norfolk. Not a good thing to hear!

Someone suggested to call the Air Force at Langley Field Virginia and ask them to send up interceptors. This was done. The interceptors were Air Force F-94s equipped with multiple 2.75" unguided Zuni rockets, designed to be fired en-masse at intruding Soviet nuclear bombers or in a ground-attack mode. Of course they didn't have guided missiles because we were still developing them! By the time the F-94s arrived, the Hellcat had passed out of the exclusion zone and was flying over private and commercial sea traffic, making any weapon release impossible.

The drone passed over Norfolk without incident with the jets trailing helplessly behind it and headed toward South Carolina. Eventually, just west of Charlston SC it ran out of gas and, with the autopilot industriously trying to keep it airborne, crashed more or less gently onto an island in a lake northwest of Charlston. With no fuel there was no fire. The sigh of relief in the operations room was palpable. Essentially, no harm, no foul. Just another Navy Day.

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