17 December 1956. The icy fog of the mid-December morning had long dissipated when an odd appearing aircraft took the active duty runway.  Twin-engines and a shoulder mounted wing marked its lineage to with that of the S-2 family, but a set of twn tails and more importantly, a huge, airfoil-shaped radome that stretched back to the tail marked this as not just a minor variant of the S-2, but something wholly different.  Puffs of blue-white exhaust gradually disappeared as the engines were brought to full power.  Brakes released and slowly, gathering speed it trundled down the Long Island runway and finally broke free.  As it did so, a new chapter in carrier-based AEW was about to be born – a transitory one to be sure as this prototype had one foot in the past but the other in the future that at present, was mere pencil marks on draftsman paper and glimmering thoughts in a designers eye.  This oddity in the pantheon of naval aviation would carry the burden for some few years until the future was formed metal.

Taking to the air this day was the WF Tracer.

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(continued below the fold)

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The demands of airborne radar are such that more range requires more power and a larger antenna provides better coverage.  The tyranny of this equation was already apparent in the experience the Navy had garnered with the AEW variants of the Avenger and Skyraider.  Both employed the AN/APS-20 – an outgrowth of the Project Cadillac program during WWII, which while capable as a first generation AEW radar, was limited in all those capabilities.  Additionally, the aircraft themselves had no growth capacity.  Recognizing this, in 1951 Grumman submitted a proposal based on the XS2F-1 ASW prototype (forerunner to the S2F Tracker).  Vought also submitted a proposal.  Known as Design 95 in house, the XWF-1 took the basic S-2 airframe and added a dome for the APS-20 radar above the cockpit and forward of the wingline (so as not to interfere with the folding wings).  Two prototypes were ordered but never produced as priorities were directed to other aircraft in Navy’s plans.  Still, a considerable amount of wind tunnel work and a fuselage mockup were undertaken all of which would prove useful later.

Nearly four years passed after the XWF-1 cancellation when Grumman re-opened investigation into building a new AEW platform.  This version would carry the new AN/APS-82 set developed by Hazeltine which marked a substantial improvement in capability over the APS-20 set.  A design based on the S-2 was settled on after looking at a wide variety of designs ranging from the Guardian to the S-2 to a new platform altogether.  As no government funding was immediately forthcoming, the in-house effort piggybacked on other programs, to include some upcoming wind-tunnel work on the S-2.  In 1955, the Navy’s BuAer was beginning to reassess the need for a new AEW/AIC carrier-based aircraft for longer range detection of threats and control of fighters.  The latter requirement, while not new was the first acknowledgement of the requirement for a carrier-based AEW aircraft to control interceptors.  The TBM-3W and AD series of AEW aircraft certainly had carried out that function (increasingly in the latter) but the small scopes and limited range of the AEW radar, along with limited radios hampered that effort. For the land-based AEW aircaft, the PB-1W (which stemmed from the second leg of the Cadillac program) and the new WV Warning Star, this wasn’t a concern as they had the radios and manpower to carryout airborne intercepts.  Eventually this proposal would be let by Navy and would lead to the program that developed the E-2 Hawkeye.

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Aware of this budding requirement, Grumman proposed a development of the S2 as an interim platform to the new requirement.  Based on performance figures submitted by Grumman, the Navy issued a letter of intent for two prototypes and work began on Design 117.  As the design process went forward there were numerous changes.  The most substantial change came in the base airframe, specifically the fuselage.  Building on experience and data gained from the work on an enlarged fuselage for the carrier on-board delivery version of the S2, the TF-1 Trader, Grumman opted to go ahead and use the TF-1 as the basis for the WF-2.  This provided more room for the associated equipment.  The signatory radome was kept above the fuselage and extended aft to the tail to improve aerodynamics. This would require the use of twin vertical tails to provide the needed rudder authority at high α flight regimes and in engine-out conditions.  Finally, the overhead wingfold would be replaced by another Grumman design signature, the “sto-wing” configuration where the wings folded to the rear as first seen with their F4F Wildcat.  Thus modified, TF-1 BuNo 136792 first took to the air on December 17, 1956.

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While tests proceeded successfully, funding for a first full production run of 41 wasn’t as forthcoming (other competing priorities to include the fiasco in trying to field the first carrier supersonic fighter).  Eventually, the first production WF-2 flew in March 1958 with five delivered later that year, and in 1959, twenty-two were delivered to tracer10Navy with final acceptance for service use.  VAW-12, then stationed at Quonset Pt, RI was the first to receive the new aircraft and was followed shortly by VAW-11 on the West Coast (NAS North Island).   First deployment was with the VAW-11 det aboard Constellation in April, 1960 and on the East Coast, with a det from VAW-12 onboard the USS Randolph (CVS 15).  The det operational deployment pattern wold be followed until the VAW community was divided into separate squadrons in April 1967.  In the meantime, dets operating from VAW-11 and -12 would fly from CVAs and CVSs on both coasts.  Aboard the CVAs, the primary role was as AEW  with stations at around 150 nm from the carrier at altitudes ranging from 5,000 ft to 15,000 ft.  Mission duration on station ranged from 3-4 hours onstation, although with full tanks up to seven hour missions were possible.  In the AEW role, data was passed either by voice report or via video datalink.  The latter was a VHF link of the radar picture back to the carrier via the “Bellhop” system and viewed on the carrier at a dedicated console.  In the back, two crewmen, usually an NFO and an enlisted air controller, ran the mission.  On the ASW carriers, the WF (or “Willie Fudd” as it was commonly called) would provide AEW and control for the S-2’s as they flew their ASW patterns.

The WF got an early start in real world ops with the Cuban Missile Crisis in Oct 1962.  VAW-12 deployed onboard USS Randolpf and the Navy’s newest and the world’s first nuclear powered carrier, USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) for the duration of the crisis.  WF’s (later re-designated E-1B under the uniform designation scheme implemented under SecDef McNamara) would also see extensive action in the Vietnam war with the last deployment completed by VAW-121 Det 38 onboard USS Shangrai-la in December 1970.  By then, significant change was working its way through the VAW community – from the aforementioned split of VAW-11 and -12’s dets into squadrons and the introduction of the W2F-1/E-2A Hawkeye, with VAW-111 and VAW-121 as the E-1B squadrons on the West and East coast repsectively.  In total, WF detachemnts made fifty-six deployments during the course of the war aboard both CVA and CVS carriers.

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By the mid-70’s the writing was clearly on the wall as VAW-121 completed the final Fudd deployment aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (Oct 76 – Apr 77) – a deployment also noted for the first mixed fixed wing and V/STOL deployment with the addition of a det of Marine AV-8A Harriers.  VAW-121 transitioned to the E-2C Hawkeye and VAW-78 was left as the last operator, flying the Fudd for the last time on 19 November 1977 – just shy of 21 years from when the TF-1 prototype first took flight.

A total of 88 WF/E-1B Tracers were built between February 1958 and September 1961.  Several remain as static exhibits at museums around the country including the National Museum of Naval Aviation History in Pensacola.  And the very first, BuNo 136792 may be seen today as it is undergoing restoration at the Quonset Air Museum.

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General characteristics

  • Crew: 4, two pilots, two RADAR/Intercept Controllers
  • Length: 42.25 ft (12.9 m)
  • Wingspan: 69.6 ft (21.2 m)
  • Height: 16.3 ft (4.9 m)
  • Wing area: 499 sq ft (46,35 qm)
  • Empty weight: 18,750 lb (8,504 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 26,600 lb (12,065 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 29,150 lb (13,222 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2× Wright R-1820-82WA Cyclone 9-cylinder radial piston engine, 1,525 hp (1,137 kW) each

Performance

  • Maximum speed: 287 mph (462 km/h)
  • Range: 1,300 miles (2,092 km)
  • Service ceiling 15,800 ft (4,800 m)
  • Rate of climb: 1,120 ft/min (340 m/min)

Armament

none