B-17s Guide P-38s to Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland in WW II; Called Operation Bolero. C-47s and C-46s go it alone.
Copyright 2011 Franklyn E. Dailey Jr.
Triumph of Instrument Flight
With some of the basic solutions to all-weather flying in place, U.S. aviation made the 1930s a decade of growth in experience and remarkable extension of capability. Civil and military aviation performance moved forward with airframe and engine developments from aerospace manufacturers who prospered with a two-pronged customer base, military and commercial air transport. The third support for flying, what became known as "general aviation", also prospered and supplied a good portion of the almost insatiable need for trained pilots. A whole class of small plane airframe and engine manufacturers added to the prosperity of aviation and made many contributions to the progress of the United States in capability. FBOs, Fixed Base Operators, who risked their own money in smaller airport facility development, proved another important resource to aviation. Their airport management experience and their airports, added much to the nation's readiness when war came. This story does not do justice to this segment of aviation. Suffice it to say that this branch kept pace. Executive jets of fully advanced, all-weather high altitude design, take to the air every day in 21st Century with experienced pilots, and passengers who can justify the extra expense over commercial flights.
The Wright brothers had ushered in the age of aviation at the very beginning of the 20th century. It took World War I, just over a decade later, to establish the initial cadres of aviators as a new skills-inventory in nations willing to contest dominance on the world scene. In the 1920s, these fliers became the core resource for civil aviation. Many male pilots remained as military reservists as they embarked on civil aviation careers. Civil aviation accepted this favor and was to return it later with the onset of World War II. Women pilots, too, set many of aviation's early flying records. Women pilots went on to perform important flight duties in World War II ferrying military aircraft. Most of the ground school instructors for my own World War II flight training in meteorology, in air navigation and in flight simulators like the Link Trainer, were female.
The Post Office Department of the federal government became serious about transporting mail by air in 1922. At the Department's initiative, the federal government, between 1926 and 1930, installed nearly 14,000 miles of lighted pathways in the sky. Night or day, from elevated platforms, a 24-inch searchlight rotating at 6 rpm, containing a 1000-watt lamp, swept the sky. This system cast a one-million candlepower flash every 10 seconds for a duration of 1/10th of a second. One of these beacons was installed every 10 miles. If there was no commercial airfield at a convenient spacing along the path, a bare bones intermediate landing field was established to make sure that a safe landing option occurred within 30 miles of the previous landing opportunity. These basic fields each had their own airfield beacon, boundary lights, approach and obstruction lights. There was a lighted wind cone to tell the pilot the local wind direction. There were even caretakers to assist a pilot with communication, transportation, meals, fuel and repairs.
The 10-mile interval airways' beacons produced a pencil of light in a beam about 5-degrees wide and could be seen about 30 miles in average visibility. Underneath the main searchlight beacon were two 500-watt flashing course lights, one pointing forward along the airway and one pointing 180-degrees opposite, in the direction the oncoming plane was coming from. Every third beacon had a green course light indicating presence of a landing field. The intermediate two had red beams. These course lights flashed Morse-coded numbers from zero to nine. The code for five indicated the plane was on the fifth beacon in a 100-mile stretch of the air highway. The pilot had to keep track of the onset of each 100-mile set because the system simply repeated itself. These airways had principal terminal cities and those cities' name abbreviations became airway names. Chicago-Omaha was CO, and San Francisco-Los Angeles was SF-LA.
Illuminated beacons rapidly became obsolete in a rapidly evolving instrument flight age. Just as the final light beacon installations came into use, the introduction of the first low frequency (low hundreds of kilocycles) radio range stations began. These radio aids became the navigation resource for enroute airways flying in clear and clouded weather, and for airport letdown approach patterns in limited ceiling and visibility conditions. Fixed emplacement of low frequency, non-directional radio beacons came into use as distance checkpoints along airways and along airport approach patterns. Many, but not all of these low frequency systems were superseded after World War II by higher frequency (hundreds of megacycles instead of hundreds of kilocycles) radio wave emitting installations known as "omni-range" and "localizer" facilities. This changeover to higher frequency constituted an advance in degree but not in kind. But Leroy New York's rotating light beacon, along with the network of beacons installed across the U.S., quickly faded into aviation history.
Voice communication, particularly between pilots and tower operators or air traffic control personnel became a necessity.
The first aircraft that many Navy student pilots in World War II flew, the Stearman, had no voice communication equipment except the crude "gosport" used for intercom in instructor-to-student training. (Students could listen but not talk back.)The heading to use for landings on the landing "mat" at many Primary Stage pilot training facilities operated by the military was indicated by tower-mounted rotating light beacons with white and green sectors. (It also helped the neophyte pilot to look for the windsock or wind tee and be sure to observe what everyone else was doing.) A special Aldus type lamp, flashing red, might occasionally be shone in the direction of a trainer aircraft coming into the approach pattern to caution that plane to stay in the air until some impediment on the runway or landing mat was cleared by the airport personnel.
For the stages in Navy flight training after Primary, training aircraft in use generally had a voice radio receiver/transmitter known as a "coffee grinder." The pilot had to use a handle to rotate a dial until the right frequency was set. Some frequencies used were just above the AM Radio spectrum. There was much voice testing. "Chincoteague Tower, how do you hear me?" The answer, when everything was set right was "Strength Five. Modulation Good."
Later, voice communication was moved to Very High Frequency (VHF) radio equipment in the 112-135 MHz range. By this time, the aircraft's assigned frequencies were controlled by a button selection from a few crystal controlled frequencies. No coffee grinding necessary. If one setting did not work, there was a secondary frequency on another push-button. Still later, the VHF spectrum got crowded and the military were "shooed upstairs" to the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) range, 225-400 MHz. Again, it was punch a button, and these very reliable units would put you immediately on the right Air Traffic Control, or Tower or Ground Control frequency.
Instrument flying in the late 30s and early 40s demanded proficiency with low frequency radio range stations. Both airways' enroute flying, and instrument approaches to landing at an airfield, made use of these radio navigation aids. We will cover more detail on radio range flying in later chapters.
The personnel sharing between civil aviation and military aviation began very early and continues to this day. Commercial airline pilots from the beginning of the aviation era have often done double duty as military reserve aviators.
Early passenger experiences.
As an airline passenger, I have always admired the flight discipline demonstrated by the pilots and crews of commercial airlines. My own experiences with commercial air transport as a passenger have run a gamut of experiences. To get home to Rochester, New York in 1939 on leave from my midshipman studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, I sometimes flew direct from National Airport in Washington, D.C., on a Douglas DC-2 flown by Pennsylvania Central Airlines (PCA). The DC-2 was the forerunner of the famed Douglas aircraft series and was introduced to airline passengers by Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1932. While Stinson Trimotors and Lockheed Electras had been earlier choices for U.S. commercial airlines, the DC-2's successor, the DC-3, rapidly displaced the earlier aircraft competition to become the major transport choice for airlines by the mid-1930s. The maturation of commercial passenger air transport came with the DC-3.
Before PCA merged into Capitol Airlines, it was flying the DC-3 and had begun to fly the Douglas' DC-4, a 4-engine aircraft with increased range, passenger seating and a improved revenue per trip. The DC-4 became the basic provider for the longer segments of air transportation.
I also made it home from Annapolis during my 1939-1942 Naval Academy stay via New York's original La Guardia field in American Airlines DC-3s. This airline also served my hometown of Rochester, New York. My Uncle, Donald A. Dailey, was the Vice President for Sales for the Genesee Brewing Co. in Rochester. He discovered quite early that advertisements for Genesee Beer over WHAM, Rochester's Clear Channel 50,000 watt AM radio station, brought inquiries from New England cities beyond Genesee's distribution system. Uncle Don then became a pioneering businessman who traveled regularly on an American Airlines' DC-3 into Boston. This gave him access to New England, where he promptly established distributors. He became an early member of American Airline's Admiral's Club. He was a champion of business flying because it had enabled him to set up beer distributors in areas once considered too remote from Rochester New York for successful marketing.
On business trips later in my life, I rode on a few of Capitol Airlines' Vickers Viscount turboprops and their Lockheed Constellations ("Connies"). Up to seven passengers could expect to be taken off the fuel hungry Viscount if the destination weather was forecast to be below VFR minimums. Those passengers were replaced by fuel. The Connie was great for an approach into a foggy airport, especially in flat terrain. The pilot could get down to minimums and with that big wing, "drag" it in for many minutes, see an airport light, and set his plane down at relatively low landing speed.
Boeing Aircraft Company modified its WW II B-29 Superfortress renamed Stratocruiser for passenger use, with seats on one level and a bar on the other level. I was a passenger once out of National Airport at Washington D.C. on a Northwest Airlines Stratocruiser, bound for Detroit. That was before the larger four-engined planes were banned from National Airport and were forced to use the Friendship Airport in Baltimore or the new Dulles Airport in Reston, Virginia.
David Hinson, a former Northwest pilot and the Federal Aeronautics Authority (FAA) Adminstrator in 1993-1996, gave a wonderful address before the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) on the 70th anniversary of that organization in mid-August 2001. He told of being a relatively junior co-pilot on the Stratocruiser in the days when command pilots, like his Northwest Captain that day, talked only to God, and the copilots did mostly the paperwork. The very funny story in that talk had Hinson doing his copilot paperwork on a flight in the Stratocruiser, from Buffalo to Detroit, a short jump across Lake Erie. As the plane steadied out on course for landing at Detroit, Hinson finally got up his courage and asked the Captain if he, Hinson, should put the wheels down. The Captain's answer was, "Put them down? Who told you to put them up?"
In his talk about aviation milestones, Mr. Hinson reminded his audience, most of whom were pilots, that not until 1940 could airline pilots get life insurance. Up to that time, all of their insurance policies had an exclusion that meant that the insurance policy did not apply when the pilot was flying. I could tell Mr. Hinson that it was 1950 before New York Life Insurance would be the first to write a Naval Aviator life insurance policy without a flight exclusion clause in it.
I flew as passenger on many flights with Mohawk Airlines in New York State. This airline gave way to Allegheny Airlines (Agony Airlines some called it then, an undeserved pseudonym in my judgment.) which eventually became U.S. Air. One dark and stormy night in the old Newark Airport passenger terminal building (a landmark now gone) I was sitting on one of those two-sided wooden benches the airports must have obtained from defunct railroad stations. Allegheny's flight to Rochester was delayed by terrible weather. The Allegheny ticket counter gamely tried to hold their few remaining 44-seat Convair-240 passengers with announcements that we could expect "further announcements" about departure soon. One of those loudspeaker voices came on about 2 a.m. with another such message. At that juncture, a voice on the other side of my wooden bench stated, rather firmly, "There is no chance for a departure at that time." I yelled over, "How do you know?" The answer came back quickly, "Because I am the pilot."
On another occasion, I boarded a plane in Buffalo enroute to Boston. It was a Mohawk Convair-240. I recognized the name of the pilot on the little sign behind the entry door as a man who flew in the weekend warrior P2V Neptune squadron I commanded at the Niagara Falls Naval Air Station. As I passed the cockpit door, I yelled a nickname greeting to "Van" in the cockpit. Van checked me over and then recognizing me, responded that he would "call me up" along the way. Sure enough, before takeoff from Hancock Field in Syracuse, he called me up and had me sit in the jump seat between the two pilots. After takeoff, a sharp-eyed Hancock tower operator called on the voice frequency and asked, "Who is the third person in the cockpit?" As the copilot prepared to respond over his microphone, "Van" reached over and put his hand on the mike to restrain him. The tower asked several times and Van simply hand signaled to his co-pilot with an 'out of communication' gesture. "We just cannot hear him," was his message to the copilot. This was long before U.S. airline cockpit doors were locked in flight, but already U.S. aviation's gatekeepers in the towers were alerted to be curious about anything abnormal in a scheduled airline's cockpit. And, with good reason, I acknowledge.
Many pilots, like Russell Holderman, who had been trained to fly in World War I, pursued salary-producing aviation careers. Another group elected to make their living in more of a free form that perhaps identified them as lovers of flight for the sake of flight and not as an alternate means of transportation. These were known as barnstorm pilots. Even famed Charles Lindbergh did time as a barnstormer.
Like the independent businessman of today, the barnstorming pilots of early aviation "passed" on the salaried flying opportunity. One barnstormer came to my town about 1928 in his biplane and landed in a farmer's field. After making a deal with the farmer for temporary landing rights, the pilot solicited "ride" business from the "locals." A conservative couple just a few doors down from my South Avenue home in tiny Brockport, New York, took their son out to consider the venture. The biplane, which reminded a very young me of a World War I "Curtiss Jenny," took off with pilot in the rear seat at the controls and young teenager Steve Peters in the front as passenger. The plane crashed about fifteen minutes later into the side of my dentist's brick house in the heart of our downtown. The pilot survived, but Steve, just four or five years my senior, was killed. Such was an oft-repeated learning experience in U.S. aviation in the twenties. Barnstorming is a business that has no counterpart today. Unless you consider Russia's space program's selling seat space to Tito for $20,000,000 for his rocket flight to the space station, as just a later form of barnstorming.
The domestic airline industry of the United States expanded dramatically during the 1930s. My brief review of some of my own experiences as a passenger do not do justice to that progress but are hopefully more interesting than a statistical picture. World War II was now about to give aviation a worldwide boost. Pan American Airways had established Atlantic and Pacific route structures with its famous Sikorsky flying boats, known as the Clipper fleet. Its management favored the warmer climates of the lower latitudes. Four engine land planes had just begun to fly to Britain. These flights, while scheduled, were nonetheless still "events" to passengers and news media not the intensely competitive high-density airline schedules that lay ahead.
By 1939, the World War I military ranks in U.S. civil aviation had begun to thin out. Only the younger World War I pilots who had elected to cast their lot with aviation in some paying capacity were still actively flying. Those who had elected to help found or join a new business venture called the "scheduled airline," were the ones most likely to still have an active association with aviation. Pilots who had signed on with airlines had surmounted many challenges, the challenges of fledgling businesses, of flight schedule maintenance, of night flying and finally of instrument flying. Their aircraft had grown more sophisticated; ground and air instrumentation and weather predicting all demanded study and training. The 20-year olds of 1916 were in their mid-40s. Regular physical exams were now required and pilots who qualified for the minimal physical standards of the 1920s might now require waivers or face voluntary surrender of their pilot "certificates." Notwithstanding, with the advent of World War II, the nation was able to take delivery on its investment, with commercial aviation's unparalleled support for the war effort. Many pilots who had learned their craft from World War I aviators would now repay that favor.
A new crop of young Americans volunteered for the RAF in Britain and for the RCAF in Canada. Most became fighter pilots and many fought in air-to-air combat in the Battle of Britain. The experienced hands in the nation's still-developing scheduled airlines were about to put their more extensive flying skills to work directly for U.S. national defense. First, they would expand their capabilities and their nation's readiness by regularizing flight over routes that had earlier been flown only by a few aviation pioneers. The most important route extension was air traffic across the north rim of the Atlantic Ocean, via Newfoundland, Labrador, Greenland, Iceland and Prestwick, Scotland. There were many false starts in the early attempt to regularize flight in this region, and lives were lost, but the challenge was met successfully. I will return to why the challenge was worth the sacrifices, and what some of those sacrifices were, after insertion of a flight chronicle which helps by contrast to emphasize by contrast the importance of flight over the northern routes to Europe.
Flying the Atlantic; Southern Route - World War II Impetus
Ensign Harry Carter USNR begins his story of a flight of a Navy PB4Y-1 (an Army Air Corps Liberator converted to Navy use) at the Naval Air Station Norfolk, VA on November 11, 1944. There is nothing extraordinary in most of the miles flown in this story. In early World War II, this flight was duplicated many times. The most telling aspect for the story of progress in aviation, is the sheer number of repetitions of Carter's trip that occurred in the 1942-45 period. In the following paragraphs, in quotations, I make liberal excerpts from Harry Carter's "How To Get From Here To There In A PB4Y-1." Harry is now Captain Harry E. Carter USN (Retired).
"Our crew gave #90649 a test flight and then flew her to the Army Air Corps base at West Palm Beach, Florida, in the first increment of our journey from the U.S. to the United Kingdom (U.K.) via South America and Africa. There were quicker ways to get there, Newfoundland/Azores or Bermuda/Azores for examples but the Army in its wisdom decided to give their green crews a longer but safer route to deliver their airplanes, not to mention valuable flight time. Fortunately for us, I do not believe our crew could be classified as green. All of us had just completed four months of operational PB4Y-1 training at Chincoteague, VA. Our Patrol Plane Commander, Lt. E.V."Sugar" Cain ("Shuug" as he became known), a superb pilot, had over a thousand hours of multi-engine flight time. The co-pilot, Lt. "Mac" McMurtry was a mature and solid pilot in his own right and even I, a young 20- year old, had completed a couple of hundred hours of operational training in the monstrous Lockheed Vega Ventura (Navy PV-1). The plane captain was an experienced mechanic who did a marvelous job keeping us in the air and out of the ocean in the many months that followed. The rest of our eleven-man crew were youngsters, just like me."
"The Army Base at West Palm Beach was loaded with multi-engine Army planes to be ferried to England. We went through four days of pre-departure briefings. "Shuug" and "Mac" went off to pilot's briefing. As third pilot/navigator, I went off to the navigation and weather briefings. I was the only Navy pilot in attendance (at these briefings). In fact, I was the only pilot because the Army had separated the pilot and navigator programs. I found out later that the need for navigators in the Army Air Corps program was greater than the need for pilots. The navigator station in the lower nose section of the Liberator seemed to stop most of the flak before it reached the pilot's compartment above them. These Army navigators were great guys. I did not envy them. In my comparative evaluation of future duties, they were going to the real show while I was to be somewhat of a bystander."
"The first leg of our journey outside the U.S. was a six-hour flight to Borinquen Field on the western tip of Puerto Rico. On the second morning there, I was up before dawn to prepare navigation charts and equipment. I caught a ride to our plane, and as I walked towards her, a very large Puerto Rican guard suddenly materialized out of the dark with what appeared to me to be a Gatling gun - pointed right at me. After the usual, 'halt, who goes there?' he demanded the password of the day. I somehow remembered it and the guard went on his way. The seven-hour flight to Atkinson field in British Guinea was uneventful. The flight over the bright green waters of the Caribbean was spectacular. Little did I know that in another six-months the war in Europe would be over and I would be flying a Liberator over these very same waters on hurricane reconnaissance. British Guinea was my first experience with the tropics and with sleeping in a bunk surrounded by mosquito netting. The hot, humid, night air was full of all sorts of flying insects and strange disturbing sounds from the jungle. The next day was November 25th. It was memorable because it was my 21st birthday, and made even more memorable by the fabulous sight of the mouths of the Amazon passing below as we made our way to Belem, Brazil. The six-hour flight from Belem to to Natal, Brazil brought us to our last stop before transiting the Atlantic."
"At Natal we had a two-day layover to rest and to visit the town. My head by this time was a mass of bruises, cuts and a few puncture holes. Anybody who has crawled from the bomb bay of the B-24 forward into the nose section, where my wind drift sight was, knows the perils of the sharply protruding edges of frames and other hazards encountered there. Rosie the riveter was not concerned with rounding off the edges as she worked the swing shift on 90469! I regretted leaving my flight helmet behind in 'the States.' When needing a series of drift sights to determine wind velocity and drift, I would descend from my station behind the pilot (port side) into the bomb bay, then crawl forward into the nose compartment and commence taking sights. The next day, November 28, we were facing a nine-hour flight to Ascension Island which meant I would be making that fearsome crawl into the nose and back at least seven times. Our trip to town solved my problem. I purchased a Goucho hat made of hard leather about an eighth inch thick shaped like a WW I helmet. On my first excursion into the bow section of the plane I knew I had a winner. No more abrasions of the scalp for the rest of the trip."
"Our flight to Ascension continued into darkness and for the first time I was able to use that diabolical instrument called the bubble octant to determine our position from star sights. The sextant used by my seafaring cousins on the surface of the sea was a civilized two dimensional instrument that behaved rather well. The bubble octant, on the other hand, was a three dimensional machine that wanted to do everything backwards. Women, with their thousands of hours logged in front of a mirror wielding delicate instruments, would have been a natural for this type of celestial navigation. Keeping the bubble in the center while pulling down the star of your choice into the same position while hanging onto a lurching airplane and punching your stop watch at the appropriate split second was a feat that should have been reserved for an Octopus. Regardless, us intrepid navigators learned to do it, and with a little bit of help from the Plane Commander, we landed safely at Ascension Island."
"Plain and simple, Ascension Island is a rock. No vegetation. No water. All the drinking water had to be shipped in. It is a small speck in the middle of the Atlantic a little over half way between South America and Central Africa; a place that anybody in his right mind would leave as soon as possible, which is what we did. We had arrived after dark and departed the next morning at dawn for a six-hour flight to Roberts Field in Liberia. This was followed the next day with a short flight to Dakar, Senegal. From Dakar we were given the option of flying straight on to Marrakech, capitol of French Morocco, or to fly up the coast to Agadir, Morocco. The first option meant going up and over the Atlas Mountains where a few planes had been lost trying to bore through the mountains and the second option was along the coast where we could fly Navy style at a thousand feet or so and enjoy the scenery. Naturally, we took the second option and on December 1, 1944, after a pleasant eight-hour flight to Agadir, we spent an interesting night in a beachfront hotel overlooking the Atlantic. After a short, one-hour flight to Marrakech, our shoving off base for the U.K., we settled in for our second night in Morocco."
"If I had known that in a few short years I would be stationed in French Morocco with a PB4Y-2 squadron, I would have paid more attention to my surroundings. What I did notice was that the country was very much like the area around my home in Southern California; wide open beautiful beaches, citrus orchards inland from the coast, and further inland, mountains with snow and ski resorts. Morocco is a beautiful land blessed with just about everything we have in Southern California including the 'Santa Ana' winds except there they are called 'siroccos' and are a tad bit hotter."
"Briefings for the last leg of our journey to Dunkeswell Air Base near the southwestern coast of England included a weather briefing which indicated no problems. We plodded along the coast of neutral Portugal at about five thousand feet enjoying the beautiful weather and. for me as navigator, a perfect day. However, as we approached our destination, the clouds began to thicken. We dropped to four thousand feet to stay under the clouds, then three, then two and finally we were skimming along the wave tops.
Unbeknown to us, all other aircraft had been called back to Marrakech due to bad weather all over the U.K. (Our radio operator had neglected to monitor a certain required radio frequency after take off.) For me, all hopes of celestial navigation had long ago vanished and I had been dead reckoning for the past two hours. At only a hundred feet or less the white cliffs of the British mainland loomed directly ahead and "Shuug" lifted ole 90469 up into the soup. Thus began one of the most interesting and frightening episodes of our entire deployment."
"During the war, the Brits had devised two very simple and effective ways to bring in a lost airplane in conditions such as we were facing. These two devices would keep us from bailing out of our fuel deficient aircraft while only minutes from our destination. In our navigation briefings back in Marrakech I had been given a map of the U.K. laid out in ten-mile squares. The Brits had provided a household, usually a farmer, somewhere in the center of each grid with a weak transmitter capable of transmitting only about ten miles. Thus, a lost aircraft such ours could navigate about the U.K. by merely calling out on a certain radio frequency and receiving an answer giving the grid coordinates which would place the aircraft within a few miles of its actual position. It worked like magic! We were given the coded name of an airport to fly to that was open, but unfortunately, Marrakech briefing had failed to give us the decoded name for the airport. (It turned out to be Orly field in Paris which had just been taken over by Allied troops. Had we known the code we would have spent the night in Paris!) As we flew along in the soup, we were vectored to the Valley air base in Wales where we were brought in by radar. The field was still socked in, but, again, due to the ingenuity of the Brits, we arrived near the end of the runway with the overcast cut back up to at least 500 feet like a gigantic rectangular piece of pie etched out of the heavy fog! It was spectacular. Giant Bunsen burners ringed the airfield and the approach. The heat generated by these torches literally burned the overcast away. (Author's note. I asked Captain Carter if this had been known as FIDO, and he said it was. It occurred to me that even an environmentally sensitive airline pilot of the 21st century might occasionally wish that FIDO, an acronym for Fog, Intensive Dispersal Of, would be available for a difficult instrument approach. ) We landed without further incident and as we taxied toward the flight line, one of our starboard engines ran out of fuel. This ended the last leg of the exciting journey of 90469. We had arrived in the U.K. Mission accomplished. We flew on to Dunkeswell for a few days of briefings."
"Then we flew on to the Azores to join our squadron, VPB-114, on the tenth of December 1944 in an uneventful flight. We landed at Lages airfield on the Island of Terciera, touching down on a landing mat consisting of interlocking pieces of steel to support the 60,000-pound planes."
(The "interlocking pieces of steel" that Ensign Carter encountered in Lages was known as Marsden matting. The foregoing excerpts have been taken from the first half of Captain Carter's fascinating story. The remainder of his deployment story covers ASW patrols from the Azores, the end of the war in Europe, and his return to Boca Chica, Florida to join a hurricane reconnaissance squadron.)
Flying the North Atlantic in WW II - Bolero
Illustration 6 -North Atlantic by air-1941; - Bolero
For a direct comparison with the route Navigator Harry Carter took in his PB4Y-1 to Dunkeswell, England, we will turn to "The Yankee Flyer", a Journal of the Massachusetts Aviation Historical Society, Issues 25 and 26, from 1999. The author is Paul S. Larcom. Captain Carter's extensive trip to the U.K across the "southern route" will be put into perspective by Larcom's historical vignette of Operation Bolero. Operation Bolero began in 1941. Illustration 6 is an overview of the North Atlantic as Bolero planners envisioned it for base provisioning in 1941.
The northern route across the Atlantic frequently had poor and poorly forecast weather; its obstacles to regular aircraft navigation and piloting did not yield easily. For these reasons, the southern route across the Atlantic never lost its relevance. It is quite apparent, though, that the distance savings in the northern route were so persuasive that an all out effort to learn how to make flying that route as nearly routine as it could be made might have a tremendous payback.
Sledgehammer (code name for the earliest planned invasion of mainland Europe from Britain) of 1942 gave way to Roundup (the second such plan) of 1943, which in turn gave way to Overlord, the actual invasion at Normandy in June, 1944.
From the beginning, all invasion plans called for a movement of large numbers of U.S. military aircraft to the British Isles. This was to begin late in 1940. Great Britain and Canada set up The Atlantic Ferry Organization (ATFERO) at the Dorval Airport in Montreal. In November 1940, the first Lockheed Hudson (this plane became a twin-engine workhorse for Britain's Coastal Command) was air ferried to Ireland through Gander, Newfoundland. Flights of B-17Ds and B-24s commenced flying from Gander to Prestwick, Scotland in March 1941. These aircraft types had long cruising ranges and were instrument equipped for flying in bad weather.
During 1941 and 1942, twin-engine P-38s, A-20s and B-25s were being lashed to the main decks of freighters for conveyance to England from U.S. east coast ports. These were the backbone fighters (P-38s) and short range bombers (A-20s and B-25s) for the U.S. participation in the European air war in the first years of the war. During my own service in 1942-44 aboard a Navy destroyer, my ship was an escort in convoys containing hundreds of these freighters. For the fighter aircraft with their more restricted cruising ranges to make it to England, a northern flight route consisting of a series of legs was required.
Most U.S. aircraft production was concentrated on the Pacific coast. A Polar route to the British Isles would have been the most direct. A potential set of landing stations was actually examined for flight along such a route. Germany's failure to invade Britain bought a little more time for U.S. military planners so the flight risks of the Polar route persuaded the planners to go back to the north Atlantic rim alternative. Finally, the Lend-Lease Act of March 1941 opened up command options that had seemed too provocative when Britain and France faced Germany up to the collapse of France.
The RAF Ferry Command took over from ATFERO in July 1941 and the U.S. Army Air Corps Ferrying Command (ACFC) set about provisioning a northern aircraft ferry route with weather reporting facilities. Presque Isle, Maine became headquarters of the North Atlantic sector of the Air Corps Ferrying Command in January 1942. The Ferrying Command's responsibility began at their headquarters and extended to Prestwick, Scotland.
The U.S. relieved Britain of all garrison duties on Iceland in July 1941. The U.S. Navy's PBY Catalina aircraft from squadron VP-72, based on the tender, USS Goldsborough, were in place in Iceland by July 4, 1941. These planes were to give air cover to an incoming sea Task Group bringing the first U.S. Marine garrison troops from the United States. Shortly after the Marines' arrival, the airstrips at Reykjavik, Iceland, were beefed up for busier traffic. Iceland was to play a crucial role in world events. In the next chapter we will turn to a first hand account by Carl Schoenacker, an Army Air Corps recruit from Waterloo, N.Y., who remembers his experiences during the build-up the United States made to prepare ground support in Iceland for Army Air Corps aircraft.
U.S. Navy PBYs were operational at Argentia, Newfoundland, by July 11, 1941 and on July 15, NAS Argentia was established. On August 6, 1941, The U.S. carrier Wasp delivered USAAF P-40 Warhawks, and PT-13s (trainer planes that could be used for observation) to Iceland, by flying them off the carrier to airstrips ashore.
One fascinating insight into that early effort involved the lack of any experience in flying Army Air Corps fighters off a Navy carrier's flight deck. It was general knowledge that they would launch the first three planes, and if none of them made it off the carrier deck successfully, they would terminate the use of this method of aircraft delivery. Not a word was circulated concerning the outcome for other eventualities, such as one successful launch and two failures. No mention was made of rescue attempts for failed launches either, but there at least, U.S. Navy carrier operations had long anticipated the potential for a "ditching" by a Navy pilot. The Navy stationed "plane guard" destroyers astern of its carriers for such outcomes. What one does come away with from these stories is the reminder that loss numbers were a part of military operations. The human content of losses was on everyone's mind. The objective could be pursued more effectively when a loss of human life had been pre-defined as the potential tradeoff to a gaining a military objective. People were alerted to this human challenge and would work hard to figure out ways to minimize loss.
During several of the months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, United States Navy Task Groups sortied from U.S. east coast ports and from Bermuda on 4,000 to 5,000 mile "neutrality" cruises. Whenever the USS Wasp was in company on these cruises, a delivery of land based U.S. Army Air Corps planes to West Africa locations or to North Atlantic bases was effected. Several such trips were made.
One of three planned runways at Goose Bay, Labrador, was in operation by December 1941 and three different locations on Greenland were also ready for air traffic in 1941. One of these was located on its southwestern tip, another on its west coast and one was located over on the east coast of Greenland. These bore the now familiar names Bluie West One, Bluie West Eight and Bluie East Two, respectively. Two more bases on Iceland were completed later. The distance concept of these landing field choices was that a P-38 Lightning need not fly more than 850 miles to advance to the next base, leaving the aircraft enough fuel to return all the way to its departure base if the destination base went down for weather. Let us pick up an excerpt from author Larcom's research.
"In January 1942, Air Corps Ferrying Command contracted with Northeast Airlines to establish airway radio range navigation beacons and weather communications facilities along the northern ferry route from the U.S. to Prestwick, Scotland. Northeast used USAAF C-39, C-47 and C-53 aircraft to transport the equipment and personnel to the facilities starting in February 1942. On July 3rd and 4th, the first transatlantic flight was made by a C-47 piloted by Capt. Milton Anderson. Anderson was chief pilot and VP of Northeast Airlines' operations and an early aviator of its predecessor, Boston & Maine Airways. Al Marsh was the co-pilot and Fred Lord the navigator while Sam Solomon, President of Northeast, served as a 'flight steward.' The purpose of the flight was to deliver radio range equipment to Stornaway, Scotland."
At this point in his "Yankee Flyer" article, author Larcom details a series of short duration management changes in the Air Corps Ferrying Command. A rapid war buildup was now in progress in the United States and the scope of operations was increasing daily. By June of 1942, command of the effort to pursue the ferrying responsibility passed to the U.S. Army Air Corps' Air Transport Command (ATC). It became its job to arrange for the movement of P-38 fighters, B-17 bombers and C-47 transports to Britain between June and August 1942. Two 165-gallon wing tanks increased the range of the P-38s from 1300 to 2000 miles. Four fighter groups were organized to deploy in stages of 500 to 800 miles. Eventually, because even their new external tanks would not have provided enough extra range, two fighter groups of P-39 Bell Aircobras were dropped from the air ferry plan.
The P-38s now formed the core of the fighter group movement overseas. Pilots would fly their own planes. The C-47s would carry ground crews and equipment to support the fighters when they became part of the Eighth Air Force in England. The instrument-equipped B-17s would be pathfinders for the fighters. Despite prodigious effort, there remained gaps in the communications, navigation and weather support facilities at some stages of the northern rim base facilities. One interesting method to fill the gaps in weather reporting was to have B-17s fly from the terminal destination next in line for the advancing fighters. The B-17s would fly back along the reverse of the fighter's flight path to let them know if the weather held promise for that terminal objective. U.S. Coast Guard cutters stationed along the path would also help with weather information. Final fitting out of the P-38s at Lockheed plants on the west coast included new oxygen systems and a British radio for voice communication for each P-38. These preparations were all done in the name of Operation Bolero for which strict secrecy was observed. On May 17, 1942, 80 P-38s left Long Beach and arrived at Dow Field in Bangor, Maine after a series of flights across southern routes in the United States. The C-47s staged out of Westover Field in Massachusetts.
Now there came the setback of a change-of-orders to endure. On June 2nd and 3rd, the fighters, the C-47s and the B-17s were ordered to head back to the west coast. The sea Battle of Midway was being joined and the U.S. Pacific coast had been denuded of air support. It was day by day for the United States in the summer of 1942. The success of the U.S. fleet at Midway caused a reversal of these orders, which had only been partially carried out. By June 11, 1942, the P-38s were back at Bangor, Maine.
Goose Bay, Labrador, and Greenland were now pronounced as ready as they were going to be for this operation. On June 18, 1942, 49 B-17s, 85 P-38s and 52 C-47s moved to Presque Isle, Maine. Each 24 plane P-38 squadron was divided into three 8-plane sections. Four P-38s would accompany each B-17, two off each wing.
(An Anecdote on one U.S Airline's flight over Bolero routing has been added, October 2008,at the end of this page. The C-47s with Northeast or American Airlines' pilots would head for England on their own, using the new base structure along the way as dictated by fuel and weather. The foregoing sentence was in our original story on Bolero. At the end of this story on Bolero, the effort to get military aircraft to England in large numbers, I will relate an anecdote from Robert Mudge, received in October 2008, which gives an insight on U.S. airline pilots ferrying essential goods to the British Isles in WW II.)
On June 23, 1942, seven P-38s in the company of two B-17s left for Goose Bay, a 571-mile leg. 18 B-17s and 20 C-47s also made that same leg on that day. Ten B-17s departed Goose Bay for Greenland on the 27th of June and did not fare well. They flew into one of the support "gaps." There were still no air controllers on duty in Greenland. The weather turned foul 400 miles out. Seven of the B-17 aircraft returned to Labrador. Three pressed on and ran short of gas. One of those made it into Bluie West-8 further up the west coast of Greenland and the other two ditched at sea though the crews were rescued.
There was discussion of abandonment of the project but the fighter groups did not want to give up. Two P-38s with senior pilots tried it by themselves on July 2 and made it into BW-1, a 779-mile flight. 24 P-38s then made it with six B-17s and finally 24 more with B-17s made it that same day. C-47s and B-17s not engaged in path finding had gotten into BW-1 earlier that day, each proceeding independently. The 4500-foot runway at BW-1 with its steel mat was a compromise between terrain on the approach, the slope of the terrain under the mat itself, and prevailing wind, and often favored none of the above. One group got out the next day and made it to Reykjavik, Iceland.
The last 16 P-38 fighters with their four B-17s left Goose Bay on July 6. Four fighters and their B-17 made it to BW-8 but foul weather caused the rest to head back to Goose Bay and all had a hairy time just getting back in. By July 10, all had made it to BW-1 though there was considerable shuttling up to BW-8 because of aircraft overcrowding on the ramped area at BW-1.
Six P-38s in company with two B-17s attempted to make the 845-mile jaunt to Iceland from BW-8 on July 11. A fast moving front played havoc with this flight. The destination, Iceland, proved to be out of the question. Now in icing conditions, they headed back to BW-8 but it had closed in so they tried for BW-1, which was in the clear. Short by 200 miles, one by one all but one bellied onto the ice cap, with one B-17 able to send an SOS before landing. The first P-38 tried to make it down with his landing gear extended and flipped over but the pilot was not severely injured. The others elected wheels-up landings. Miraculously, all personnel had survived. A sea rescue party reached a point 15 miles from the downed group on July 17. Now with dog sled, the rescue party obtained guidance from a Navy PBY to the location of the downed aviators. All were returned to BW-1.
The first seven fighters along with their B-17s had reached England on July 9 although one B-17 operating independently had gotten in on July 1. The "tail end charlies" of this first main aircraft movement involved in the Bolero operation left Presque Isle, Maine on July 18 and except for some aircraft intentionally left at Reykjavik, all had arrived in England or Scotland by July 26. The Iceland group came on to the UK on August 28. A second Bolero movement with much the same complement and planning followed almost immediately. Their losses were one P-38 and one B-17. More experienced Air Transport Command pilots took over the duty of flying the lead aircraft in this group. The 8th Air Force in Britain was now in business.
Weather reporting gaps, radio gaps and decision gaps were gradually filled. By January 1943, 179 P-38s, 366 heavy bombers, 150 medium bombers and 180 transport planes had made it over. Success rates improved dramatically with flight experience and facility improvements. Author Larcom reports that 10,000 aircraft were finally delivered over the North Atlantic route. The southern route via South America and Morocco accounted for 2000 aircraft during this time. Even with the steadily improving success rate for the northern rim, in the winter when weather locked in some stages for weeks at a time, the southern route was a necessary alternative.
Now, Finally, the short Aside Mentioned Earlier
Robert Mudge was a pilot for Boston & Maine Airways and its successors, Northeast Airlines and Delta. He wrote an acclaimed book, "Adventures of a Yellowbird," the 'yellow' relating to Northeast's newly acquired routes to Florida from New England, for which they painted their new 727's a bright yellow. I quoted from his Yellowbird book liberally in my book "The Triumph of Instrument Flight: A Retrospective on a Century in U.S. Aviation." Below are his comments made to me in e-mails in October 2008, triggered by a conversation (e-mails) about an American Airlines 757 flight from the Pacific Northwest that lost electrical power soon after takeoff, and flew on to O'Hare despite its batterys' exhaustion in about a half hour. According to a news report they had no reverse thrust available on landing at O'Hare and went off the end of the runway (without passenger injury) and could not even turn off the jet engines. I had commented to Bob on the benefit of the magnetos for turning off engines in the old cylinder engines I had flown. Here are Bob Mudge's responses in two separate e-mails:
"You bring up old memories when you talk about the mag switches -" Right mag, Left mag and OFF." I think it was in 1943 and it was either a C-46 or C-47 - doesn't really matter. We had landed at BW-8 in Greenland (just above the Arctic Circle) on December 21st. We were supposed to go to BW-1 (about 2-3 hours south in Greenland) the next day but weather up the fjord was too bad (had to be daylight, and VFR, going up the fjord). We didn't get off the ground until Christmas, I was flying with a captain named Pete Dana, who was and always has been my number one role model. A fantastic pilot/person. He simply did not make mistakes. At any rate, the process preparation to get the flight going was to take the oil which had been drained when we got in and stored in cans in operations to keep it reasonably warm. They had put tents around each engine with a 'buck rogers' heater to warm up the engine. When the plane had been loaded and Pete had decided we could make it, he gave the signal he was ready to start number two, so they pulled the tent away and signaled us to start. Went fine. He then gave the signal to start number one, tent came off, all clear, so Pete began to start the engine. Rotated fine, but did not start. Tried again - no soap. Tried again - and by now the engine was cooling off fast. For some reason I happened to look up and saw the switch in the off position. Oh my! I tapped Pete on the thigh and glanced up. Pete got the message, put his arms up as in stretching and while up there turned on the switch. The mechanics would have killed us had they known the problem. Pete leaned out the window and said - "Let's try it just one more time fellows" Believe it or not, it started just great. Call it sneaky, cover up, or whatever, but it got us to BW-1."
(that e-mail was followed by a second)
"Regarding putting the BW-8 mag story on the (daileyint.com) website, sure, be my guest. My only hesitation is because this was the only mistake I ever observed Pete make, and I flew with him quite a bit. Actually, I was just as much to blame as I missed it too. He was the engineering pilot for NE. (Northeast Airlines) Several years later he would tell me: 'One of my biggest concerns is that when I do make a mistake, no one will tell me about it.' He was right, when copilots flew with him they mentally became students, and sat back to observe how it should be done. They became students but didn't tell him."
Multi-engine transport aircraft were finally able to make it almost routinely across the northern route. Bolero, flawed by equipment and experience gaps in its early days, made aviation history, almost by a brute force conquering of the elements. In the end, flying man took this knowledge and rendered unto the Caesars, the elements, what was theirs, but learned to finesse those elements and get through by judicious selection of times and places where man and his machine could win. Most of the time, with the proper resources, the flight could go through. Man still had to exercise restraint in the fewer and fewer instances where that call had to be, "wait."