The mid-1950′s were a fascinating time in aircraft development in the US. The famous “Century Series” was well underway with participation by almost all of America’s premiere aircraft manufacturers, a series of X-planes were pushing the boundaries at a remote desert lake-bed only recently renamed for one aviator who gave his life while testing a giant, bat-like bomber, and the Navy was busy expanding the capabilities of its carrier-based jet aircraft. Overlaying this environment was a layer of public competition in speed, range and prestige that was collected under the general rubric of air races.
Begun between the Wars, the competitions were meant to spur technological development of the native American aircraft industry, as did competitions overseas, like the Schneider Trophy (which led to the development of the Supermarine Spitfire). Bendix, Collier, Thompson – each trophy had a particular element tested – speed, durability, range, all factored in whole or in part. Many of these competitions were integrated with air shows, and in turn provided venues where several aviators garnered public recognition and fame in the process – notables like Jackie Cochrane and Jimmy Doolittle among others. They also become a point of pride and prestige among the manufacturers and, especially after WWII and the rise of the USAF, between the Services as competition for resources in the Federal budget ensued the following decade.
1956 provided an opportunity for Navy to showcase its latest developments. Besides the deployment of the FJ-3 Fury which had begun a few years earlier, 1956 saw the deployment of the long-range A3D Skywarrior and the all weather interceptor F3H-2N Demon. An opportunity to showcase all three types presented itself with the opening of the 1956 National Air Show in the middle of the country at Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers airport. What better way to demonstrate naval air power than to pick a site in the middle of the continent and fly aircraft from a carrier to it?
Off the West coast of the US, the USS Shangri-La (CV-38) was conducting flight ops with all three models. Built in 1943 and launched in 1944,she was the 9th ship in the improved lne of Essex-class carriers known as the Ticonderoga-class CV. Named for a reference to the first USS Hornet (CV-8) (from which the Doolittle Raid was launched – President Roosevelt answered a reporter’s question by saying that the raid had come from “Shangri-La“, the faraway land of the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon), aircraft from Shangri-La’s airwing would make an exceptional appearance over the course of three days at the air show.
Beginning on 1 September 1956, the opening day of the air show, four FJ-3 Furies of VF-24 took off from Shangri-la at sea off the Pacific coast of Mexico and flew nonstop, 1,198 miles to Oklahoma City without refueling. The fastest, LTJG D. K. Grosshuesch, completed the flight with a time of 2 hours 13 minutes 38.6 seconds for an average speed of 537.848 m.p.h. He was awarded the North American Trophy for this accomplishment. Next, on 2 Sept was an F3H-2N Demon of VF-124, flown by LTJG R. Carson, who captured the McDonnell Trophy with a nonstop, non-refueling flight originating off San Francisco, covering the 1,436 miles in 2 hours 32 minutes 13.45 seconds for an average speed of 566.007 m.p.h. Finally, demonstrating the long-range strike capability of the brand new A3D, two A3D Skywarriors, piloted by Captain J. T. Blackburn, commanding Heavy Attack Wing 1, and Commander C. T. Frohne, XO of VAH-1 were launched from Shangri-la off the Oregon coast, flew across a finish line at the National Air Show, Oklahoma City, and continued on to Jacksonville without refueling. In completing the 1,543.3-mile leg from the Shangri-la to Oklahoma City in 2 hours 32 minutes 39.7 seconds for an average speed of 606.557 mph, Captain Blackburn was awarded the Douglas Trophy.
Three days, three different squadrons, three different aircraft types, one carrier – a feat not since replicated…
Not everyone was enamored of the events that week.
LTJG Carson got to experience the other end of the Demon’s performance envelope – and fortunately survived to tell about it.