07 September 2007

Flight Deck Friday done Southern Air Pirate's way

I happen to read on a vacation the great book "Bridges of Toko-Ri" by James A. Michener. It is a great book about a Naval Air Reservist who was recalled to active duty when the Korean War started, a CWO helicopter pilot who is a little wild and eccentric, an enlisted rescue swimmer who is fresh off the farm and afraid of officers and the chiefs, finally there is an admiral who realizes what sort of fight the Korean War is. The book was written from Michener's experiences amongst the Naval Aviators of CTF 77. He wrote a series of articles for the Saturday Evening Post about being with these fine folks. He then fictionalized the telling of a real raid against a series of bridges near the Korean and Chinese border. Publishing the book and it was turned into a great movie with William Holden and Grace Kelly. The biggest difference between the book and movie is the plane that is flown by the hero Brubaker. The movie had the Grumman F9F Panther and the book he flew the F2H Banshee. That second plane is an aircraft built by the McDonnell aircraft company. It was an enlarged version of their first jet fighter for the US Navy the FH Phantom.
The McDonnell learned a number of things from their first jet fighter. The biggest thing was to have a more powerful engine to do anything safely behind the carrier. They also learned that to be a successful fighter a more powerful weapon then just the Browning .50cal machine gun was needed as well. So in 1947 before the ink was dry the production lines in St. Louis, Missouri were making the conversion from the production of the FH Phantom over to producing the new jet fighter for the US Navy the F2H Banshee.
The initial production version of the Banshee, officially designated the F2H-1 was powered by a pair of Westinghouse J34-WE-22's, she was armed with four 20mm cannons in the nose. Delivery of the first Banshees went to VF-171 out of NAS Cecil Field, FL in 1949. This date was also important because it was also during the "Admirals Revolt", that one of the VF-171 pilots pulled off an interesting intercept. The revolt of the admirals was the debate about whether the country should spend money on carriers or on big bombers. One of the big debates that the brand new USAF had about their super bomber the B-36 was that it flew so high that it couldn't be intercepted. So one sunny Florida day a VF-171 pilot was able to push his fighter up to along side one of these B-36's up near the 45k altitude band. Even better he was able to maintain control of his plane and supposedly took pictures of the intercept. This totally blew away the idea that the B-36 was invulnerable to enemy fighters. It was also with the easy way that the plane could be flow that the other nick name "Banjo" was assigned during the initial operation of the F2H-1.

With the speed of developments the Navy realized that the F2H-1 was a good plane but they wanted what every user wants of their planes longer ranges and heavier payloads. This lead to the development and production of the F2H-2. This version of the fighter became the big player in some little war over in Asia called Korea.

The F2H-2 had an improved version of the J34 installed that gave her an extra 500 pounds of thrust. Along with receiving plumbing to carry two 200gal wing tip tanks, and wing mounts to mount up to six 5in HVAR rockets on the wings, along with receiving fuselage mounts that could carry up to two 500lb bombs. She also received a fuselage plug to receive larger fuselage fuel tanks. The first production version of the F2H-2 being delivered to the fleet in December of 1949. From the basic model the Navy asked for three different versions. The Banjo was used to do everything from fly strikes against ground targets, fly Combat Air Patrol over Carrier Task Force 77, Fly escort for photo recon birds or strike groups, fly suppression of enemy air defense missions. It served with distinction along side the Grumman F9F Panthers ,Vought F4U-5 Corsairs, and Douglas AD Skyraiders above the Korean air space. Only once was the F2H was sent against "MiG Alley" that was in 1951 and even though contact wasn't made with any MiG-15's. The mission wasn't repeated.
The first was the F2H-2P version. This was the photo recon version. In place of the guns it mounted a series of cameras in its enlarged nose. This flew most of the USN and USMC battlefield photo recon missions through out the early parts of the Korean War. The USMC were the primary users of the F2H-2P with VMJ-1. The aircraft was so fast and could fly so high that it could evade most of the optical and move faster then the communist radar control AAA guns could operate. It became so valuable that even the USAF was willing to accept that it was an important aircraft and on missions up near the Yalu. They tasked F-86's to protect the Banshee from the MiG-15.

The other two versions of the F2H-2 was the F2H-2B version and the F2H-2N version. The Bravo Banjo was the nuclear delivery variant. It had the fuselage mounts strength to handle the some of the early tactical nuclear weapons. On top of that it also had installed some of the early low altitude bombing system (AKA as LABS) equipment installed. LABS enable the pilot to preform a nuclear deliver profile that basically tossed the bomb near the target and hopefully would allow the plane to escape the blast. The "N" version of the Banjo was the night fighter version. The F2H-2N mounted an APS-19 ranging radar installed in a larger nose so that this early aerial intercept radar could be mounted.
The F2H-2 was removed from active duty service in 1952 and replaced by an bigger and better version of the Banjo, this was the F2H-3 version.
The F2H-3 in its basic form mounted an APQ-41 aerial intercept radar that gave not only range and bearing but also limited altitude information to the pilot. This version became the standard all-weather fighter on US Carrier Decks through out the 50's and into the early 60's. It could carry up to four 500lb bombs or two AAM-N-7 Sidewinder when that missile was introduced in the late 50's.
The final version of the venerable Banjo was the F2H-4 this was an all-weather version as well it mounted the APG-37 radar produced by Hughes. It was with this version that also saw the introduction of the in-flight refueling probe
Now the only thing that limited the range of the Banjo in its mission was human endurance. The F2H-3 and -4 served along side each other from their introductions until 1959 in active duty service and 1964 in USNR service.
It was with the F2H-3 and F2H-4 that squadrons such as VC-3 and VC-4 along with some of the VX squadrons started to more and more experimentation in night flying and night time operations. According to the book "Dark Sky, Black Sea: Aircraft Carrier Night and All-Weather Operations" by Charles Brown, some of the detachment OIC's and squadron CO's started to force not only the commander of the air groups, but also the admirals to test tactics and operations. These started to write the books that those of us in modern carrier operations take for granted. Some of the lessons these men learned were written in blood. One of the more interesting stories involving the Banjo was this one that I read in Dark Sky. According to LCDR Bob Lyon:


Flying in the Med atmosphere was usually in a "milk bowl" - that is, so hazy that one sees no horizon, no water, no sky. For reason unknown, three of us were launched one night as a division. .... Bennington advised us to stay aloft [and conserve fuel] until a foul deck was cleared. Later we were ordered down for landing. Having descended, we were ordered to orbit in vicinity of the ship because the foul deck had not been cleared as anticipated. .... A flight of AD [SAP-Douglas Skyraiders] were milling about, having also been directed to orbit in vicinity of the ship. At low altitude our division skimmed beneath cloud cover as fuel reserves dwindled. The AD flight passed dangerously close under us in a near-miss. When we finally got back in the ready room, I asked Otis Inge, "How Much
Fuel did you land with ?" Otis [replied,] "The aircraft ran out of fuel before I could park it."

A situation like that today though rarer still happens. But everyone involved from the CATCC folks up to the Air Boss work to make sure it never happens.


One of the more interesting adventures the Banjo went on was its only export customer. The Royal Canadian Naval Air Forces. Yes, Virginia once before the kindly neighbor to the north of the US had an aircraft carrier and it decided in the 1954 to replace their older Sea Furies with McDonnell F2H-3's. So the Canadian government spent $25million to buy 39 recently retired F2H-3 to populate their carrier's deck. The HMCS Bonaventure, had VF-870 and VF-871 had plenty of fun flying the Banjo off their carriers deck and proved to some of the more timid US Naval Aviators that even though the Bonnie's 704ft flight deck was shorted then the average Essex class carrier deck by about 100ft it could be done. However, old age and not enough money being spent on defense lead to the F2H from being removed after a high attrition rate. After that the HMCS Bonaventure flew only Grumman S2F's and Sikorsky H-3's on the anti-submarine mission.


The F2H served a little longer then its stable mate the Grumman F9F Panther. It helped to fight off the communist hordes in Korea, it was one of the first single seat all-weather fighters, it was a joy to fly, it helped to write the books on night and all-weather operations. The F2H Banshee or Banjo was an a joy and probably one of my favorite naval jet fighters from the 50's.

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