Monday, December 27, 2010

Phoenixes, Helldivers, and Flying Circuses.

On this date in 1922, the Imperial Japanese Navy commissioned the world's first purpose-built aircraft carrier, the Hōshō. Prior to this, the few carriers in service with other navies had been conversions built on battlecruiser hulls; the Hōshō, which means "flying phoenix", was designed from the keel up as a floating airport.

By the time the Second World War was well and truly under way, the Hōshō was a little long in the tooth; small and cramped for the latest generation of high-performance monoplanes, she carried a squadron of eight obsolescent Yokosuka B4Y biplane bombers into battle near Midway. In the American order of battle at Midway, the star of the show was the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber operating from the famous US Navy flattops. Relegated to the background, on the island of Midway itself were a few of the "Speedy D's" predecessors in the dive bomber role, the Vought SB2U Vindicator.

The Vindicator was an older aircraft, old enough that one of the planes it had competed against in trials was the Curtiss XSBC-3, which was adopted into service as the USN's last combat biplane, the SBC Helldiver. The "Helldiver" name, along with the "Hawk" moniker, was used by Curtiss for a whole range of military biplanes and monoplanes, which they shopped to nations around the world during the Depression years of the Thirties. The SBC's immediate ancestor, the BFC-2, was sold overseas as the "Hawk II".

Fighter-pilot-turned-sycophantic-junkie Hermann Göring allegedly enticed his old Jagdgeschwader 1 squadron-mate Ernst Udet, the highest-scoring WWI German ace after Richthofen, into joining the Nazi party by dangling the purchase of a couple of these hot ships in front of him. One, still in the colors it was wearing when Udet flew it in aerobatics over the 1936 Munich Olympics, was found in a field outside of Kraków. After Udet's suicide, it had become part of Hermann's personal collection, which had been moved to the remote site to escape the Allies' aerial leveling of Berlin. It can now be seen at the Polish Aviation Museum.


staghounds said...

My littermate is off to Krakow shortly, I'll forward this!

og said...

Old Hermann's nephew works for a supplier of mine, making fixtures for machine tools. I have his number on speed dial. Six degrees? Not even. If you ask him,as I did, "Any relation?" He says "yes, my uncle" with a certain degree of pride. He has a picture on his desk of himself standing next to Hermann.

Anonymous said...

My father in law flew an SBD for the Corps in WWII. He said it was slow and underpowered but a great divebomber, The attack was as vertical as possible, firing a short burst from the machineguns to determine the impact of the bomb.

In his opinion the replacing SB2C was a dog. After about six months they went to Corsairs.

On their first practice bombing run he nosed over and followed the same attack profile as he had used with the SBD. After realing the bomb and stating to pull out of the dive he had a strong vibration.

The SBD had a trapize arm that lobbed the bomb under the prop, the Corsair did not. His prop was dinked and unbalanced were it had smacked the bomb.


Ed Foster said...

Gerry, I heard the same thing from my old man, who flew SBD's off the USS Belleau Wood. The Helldivers were pigs, with none of the dive stability or control finesse of the Dauntless, and a nasty blind spot directly aft that the gunner couldn't cover.

Dad was a Crew Chief, later Line Chief, but he'd flown as an aerial gunnery instructor in the Army Air Corp during the '30's, and it got him the chance to fly back seat during lots of raids. If Pete Mitscher hadn't kept the lights on one night in the Marianas, I would never have been concieved.

He only talked about that night once. They were lost and running out of gas. The Wright Cyclone 9 was his baby, and he knew what one sounded like if it was leaned out too far, trying to conserve fuel. First one plane, then another and another, would quit and glide down to the sharks.

Nothing Hollywood, just a few simple reports and quiet goodbyes. Smooth and professional to the end.

Then "The sky lighted up like a Texas whorehouse" two points off the starboard side, and most of the planes made it home. Mitscher was a By-God flyer, and he was bringing his crews home if it cost him half his fleet lost to Japanese submarines.

During Pearl Harbor, an SBD got off the ground in time to become the first American plane to shoot down a Japanese Zero, when the pilot bounced a squadron of enemy fighters and engaged them in a single-handed dogfight. Shortly after, he became the first American pilot shot down in air to air combat.

When I heard that, it reminded me of the crusty old NCO at Schofield Barracks who stood out in the middle of the parade ground with his .45, left arm behind his back, calmly trading shots with strafing Zeroes. They built some men in those days.

Caleb said...

Yeah, but that Helldiver is a sexy looking biplane. I do have a soft spot for two winged aircraft, I don't know what it is.

John Stephens said...

Regardless of his subsequent career, the descendants of Hermann Goering can be justly proud of his flying record in the First World War. Military success is no indicator of political virtue (though I make no reference to anyone currently serving in the US Senate, from Arizona or any other State).

og said...

It's pretty obvious that the nephew is not displaying his pride of old Hermann's flying record.

Will said...

If you read Wiki about the Hōshō, you'll find that they did the same "light up the sky" routine to help their fliers get home during a late flight.

Odd that the US considered the Japanese to be second class, considering their navies combat record, and having the world's first operational scratch built flattop, among other attention getting accomplishments.

Tam said...


At the start of the Pacific War, the Chrysanthemum Fleet was second to none in the quality of their crews and equipment.

Unfortunately for them, extended combat exposed serious doctrinal and logistic flaws that were beyond their capacity to remedy in the time involved.

Ed Foster said...

Saburo Sakai pointed out that the incidence of Japanese who could take heavy G was very low. Diet or genes, I don't remember.

They started testing the kids at a very early age, and encouraged the ones who could take G to get into gymnastics and math courses.

The costs of developing Japanese pilots over more than a decade were staggering, finding young men who could take G without years of prep very difficult, and replacing them after Coral Sea and Midway in usable numbers proved impossible.

But at their prime, Japanese pilots went toe to toe with America's best and at least held their own until the Thatch weave was invented.

They destroyed every British unit they encountered, and the Aussies and New Zealanders needed to keep their P-40's above 280 knots IAS to turn with the Zeroes. Below 280, the huge ailerons and light construction on the Zero gave it a turn rate no Allied fighter could match.

As to torpedo design and submarine construction, the Japs were the best in the world, and we played catch-up for 3 years. The I-Class boat was amazing, and the Long Lance torpedo massive, accurate, and reliable as hell.

A lot of Americans died because Congress wouldn't let them properly test torpedoes during the depression.

Kinda makes you wonder what would happen today if we didn't have a POTUS so easily blackmailable by the Joint Chiefs Of Staff.

Will said...

All the reading I did about that war, including Sakai and Caiden's book, and I never heard about the G limits of their pilots. I thought their problem was too rigid an adherence to pre-war training formats that gave them exceptional pilots, but insufficient numbers total. Very interesting.

The design philosophy of the Zero left it with little room for improvement. I've got a magazine with a test pilots report of flying a Type 52a Zero at the October 1944 Joint Services Fighter Conference. His conclusion: Obsolete by '43.

And shades of the Germans, their Navy brass refused to allow a replacement model, with a 2200hp engine, to be built in '42. Eventually they gave the ok, but so late that very few flew before the war's end.
If you want them, I have about 30 aircraft magazines, most from the 70's. "Air Classics", "Air Progress", and similar. Mostly on WWII aircraft. Just need an address that can handle a 10x12x6 box. You have my email. (just sent you the 82 yo car/ 102 yo driver email)
Time to clean up my storage room!

Anonymous said...


I had a chance to meet Joe Foss on two occasions. On the first he was autographing his book. I ask him to sign one for my father in law because he had flown in the Pacific.

Gov. Foss asked what type plane he flew. When I told him he laughed and said my he must have been a very brave man. Foss said at least you could run in an F-4.

Yes I too have read the Japanese started selections for pilots before WWII at avery young age.