(…and no, it’s not .50 cals we’re talking about)
The period from the end of the Korean War through the commissioning of the USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) was witness to an incredible period of growth in knowledge and experience with all things in naval aviation. From straight-decks and props to nuclear power and supersonic fighters, this was real transformation in progress. Absent the sophisticated virtual modeling of today and, literally, pressing the edge of the envelope in aerodynamic theory, materials, power plants and operations, our forebears in NAVAIR gathered and built the body of knowledge and experience, all to frequently written in blood, that we today enjoy.
It was a period that was marked by the penultimate development of one species, the prop aircraft and straight deck carrier, as developed, tested and operated in the crucible of the Pacific during the war and the start of something new, the jet, introduced in Korea. It was a period of crisis where some, suffering amnesia or blinded by the light of the atomic fireball, questioned the need of a navy, not to mention it air component and the budgetary long knives flashed and sliced. Proof – of capability, of requirements, of viability; proof would be with cut and bent metal, flesh and blood, at sea and in the air and not via paper drills in a Pentagon back-room.
Consider the video below of sea trials on board USS Ticonderoga (CVA 14), herself a veteran of the Pacific war and a straight-deck carrier recently modified to support jet aircraft. Four aircraft; two from Douglas, one from Vought and another from McDonnell. Each with varying degrees of pedigree in NAVAIR, from some of the oldest with Vought and Douglas to the new kid on the block, McDonnell. While all four would eventually see active service, only one, the AD4 would see extended service including action in the next decade over Vietnam. Yet we learned and evolved from each with traces of their DNA in follow-on aircraft. From the fiasco that was the Cutlass (nicknamed “gutless”) came the premiere (and last true) gunfighter, the F-8 Crusader. The Demon and Skyray? The classic all weather fighter and some would say the first real strikefighter, the F-4 Phantom. And of course, the Skyhawk would live in a wide array of versions and serve afloat and ashore in the naval and air forces of many countries around the world. In a fitting touch of irony, the Tico too would serve well into the next decade conducting combat operations off the coast of North Vietnam with these same aircraft.
If you would like to learn more about this fantastic period, pick up a copy of Tommy Thomason’s excellent book on the development of naval fighters.