SEPTEMBER 2020



Introduction

Many of us who grew up in Hicksville during the 1950s got used to hearing loud, sometimes conversation-stopping, airplanes pass overhead.  Prior issues of Ancient Hixtory put some of these noisy interruptions into historical context, by discussing the respective roles that Mitchel Field and Republic Aviation played as America in turn faced the demands of World War II, of Korea, of Vietnam, and ultimately, of aerospace.  If you wish, the links below will take you to those articles:

A history of Mitchel Field appeared here in July 2018.

http://hixnews.com/1807/hixtory.htm

The story of Republic Aviation was recounted in October 2018.

http://hixnews.com/1810/hixtory.htm

This third article offers a glimpse of Grumman Aircraft.  That glimpse is of necessity incomplete, for the company’s story is extensive, and continues today through Northrop-Grumman.  It concerns itself only with the Grumman aircraft I knew best as a child in Hicksville – those which regularly left Bethpage and banked ever so low, over Lee Avenue School , and over my home on 7th Street .

***

A Too-Brief History of Grumman

Beginnings

Late in 1929, America ’s aircraft industry was young, improvisational, and – given the recent crash of the stock market – uncertain.  Much of the industry was moving to the central Long Island plains, which had not yet erupted into suburbs.  Blessed with a “we can do it” attitude, several young men joined together to form a new company, which would be led by Leroy Grumman.  As a new aviation company, it needed income to survive “until the business took off” (so to speak).  At first, while it pondered how to make its mark, the company sustained itself by doing specialized work for other companies, such as welding aluminum tubing.

Grumman soon found a way to make that mark.  In an era in which airplanes could land only on water, or only on land, it built airplane floats with retractable wheeled landing gear.  For the first time, an airplane could be based either on land or on water.  For that matter, if landing gear that retracted would work for float planes, it would work for land planes, too.  Grumman built the first biplane with retractable landing gear.  Suddenly, land-based airplanes could fly a little faster (because of reduced drag) and a little further (with less drag, they burned less fuel per mile).

World War II

Grumman’s airplanes rapidly began earning the company respect, particularly with regard to the U.S. Navy.  Continuing to innovate as the 1930s progressed, the company demonstrated exceptional prowess with fold-and-stow wing designs, and it earned a presence on the flight decks of America ’s aircraft carriers.  Grumman Wildcats, Hellcats, and Avengers would eventually be at the core of America ’s naval airpower in the Pacific Theatre during World War II.

Deploying folded wings before flight:
a Hellcat aboard USS Yorktown

Wikimedia Commons; Ray Wagner Collection

Grumman Goose at Santa Catalina
Tom Wigley photograph

https://www.flickr.com/photos/amphalon/8428551579

The company also penetrated the civilian market, making amphibious aircraft that floated on their hulls.  One of these, the Goose, was a dual milestone for Grumman – its first monoplane, and also its first multi-engine aircraft.  Built for commuting and small coastal airlines, it also saw service as a light military transport.

Post-War Years
As the Cold War set in, Grumman’s markets multiplied:

It continued to develop and build front-line naval fighting aircraft. 

It developed and built the Navy’s first purpose-made anti-submarine aircraft.

It developed and built the Navy’s first early-warning aircraft.

It developed and built the era’s most successful amphibious rescue aircraft.

It launched the Gulfstream business air transport project.

It developed and built the Lunar Excursion Module for NASA’s Apollo program.

*

Hicksville’s Skies in the 1950s

Around 1950, the bulk of Grumman’s manufacturing work migrated to Calverton, which left the runways at the Bethpage headquarters more quiet – but they were not completely silent.  In the years that followed, there were numerous flights of private (i.e., business) aircraft, as Grumman executives and engineers met constantly with clients, project partners, and government officials.  R&D work on existing aircraft sometimes continued.  Now and then, one heard the urgent shriek of a Cougar or Tiger fighter as it climbed out of Bethpage.

During this time, aircraft of two types dominated Grumman’s air traffic over Hicksville: anti-submarine and amphibious rescue.

***

Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)

Not Your Mother’s Submarine

In World War II, submarines accomplished tactical jobs – attacking military vessels, interfering with supply shipping, surreptitiously transporting agents, even surfacing near shore to strafe targets.  By 1950, however, people realized that the next generation of subs would be used more strategically.  Someday, a submerged nuclear submarine might remain untraceable for months, and then launch a missile attack on an inland target.  This was not some hypothetical notion – the U.S. was about to construct the first nuclear submarine, and within five years, the Soviet Union would effect the first underwater launch of a missile.

Obviously, the ability to detect and disable enemy submarines was becoming critically important.

*

First Steps

Up to that time, locating and sinking enemy subs was a slow process.  It usually involved sending multiple reconnaissance aircraft (often slow, lumbering airplanes that could cover great distances without refueling) on sub-hunting missions.  If one of them located a sub, it circled above it, reported its discovery, and tried to mark the spot for the attack aircraft that would be dispatched, usually from a distant location.  With luck, the sub would still be nearby when the attack plane(s) arrived.

The Navy now redeployed some of its existing aircraft into dedicated ASW teams.  A team consisted of a Hellcat and an Avenger, both of the aircraft having been modified for their new jobs.  One served as a “hunter,” the other as a “killer”.  The team approach promised quicker action once a submarine was located.

As the Navy gained experience using teams, it learned a number of things.  The most significant was that the amount of 1940s-sized electronics it had crammed into the lean WW II combat planes was insufficient, for they were too small.  Larger airplanes, with more room for electronic equipment, were needed.

*

Guardian

Meanwhile, as demand for specialized ASW aircraft grew, the Navy’s requirements for some of its traditional types of aircraft ebbed.  Among the several projects it canceled was one for a large carrier-based torpedo bomber.  Grumman proposed that the spacious airframe it had been developing for the now-discontinued bomber would work for an anti-sub aircraft, and that by capitalizing on the work already done, development of a “pure” ASW plane would be accelerated.  The Navy agreed, and the Guardian program was born.  Although Guardian would continue the two-airplane “hunter / killer” approach, the capability of both aspects would be improved substantially.

The first test flights of the resulting aircraft occurred in 1945, but Guardians were not operational until late 1950.  Hicksville’s quiet potato fields witnessed many low flights of the new planes during these years of development.

Grumman Guardians
“Hunter” (front) and “Killer” (rear)

Flight Journal, flight.journal.com

The bulging aircraft in the foreground above was stuffed with electronic surveillance equipment – and also with some human operators, who coordinated the work of the two airplanes in the team.

Incidentally, the airplane’s size may not be apparent from this photograph.  When these aircraft were introduced, they represented the largest single-engine airframe ever to have flown from an aircraft carrier.

*

Tracker

The Guardian was a quickly implemented improvement that adequately housed early stages of electronic surveillance systems.  The Navy’s experience with it soon led to a more powerful, longer-term solution, one which would give the Navy the all-in-one ASW weapon it desired.  The new aircraft was the twin-engined Grumman Tracker.

Grumman two-page advertisement in National Geographic, April 1955

The presence of a prominent advertisement for strategic weaponry in
a magazine like National Geographic was symptomatic of America’s
1950s fears.  At any time, the Cold War might suddenly turn very hot.

Although the Calverton manufacturing site was operational by now, there still would be continuous work to do at Bethpage while manufacturing proceeded.  The need for more R&D into ASW seemed to never stop.  In consequence, even as Trackers became operational, one or two always seemed to be around Bethpage (and thus, over Hicksville) to test new ideas.  It was hard not to notice Trackers – like many carrier-based aircraft, they were remarkably noisy things, emitting a loud buzz of rapid, crisp, sharp sounds at take-off.  Many a window on 7th Street rattled when they flew overhead.

Eventually, Trackers would be used by a wide range of friendly forces, including those of Australia, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Argentina.  One of the early foreign adopters was Japan, which under the terms of the 1945 peace treaty had been limited with respect to possessing military aircraft for its own purposes.  In 1957, it acquired several Trackers, which were categorized as defensive aircraft.

I can remember the day when I first became aware of that.  My class at Lee Avenue was out in the large grassy yard behind the school, and not for the first time, things suddenly got loud. The school was directly in the path of traffic from the main Grumman runway, and brief but intense aircraft noise was common (e.g., if classroom windows were open, a teacher sometimes had to stop speaking until a plane was gone).  This time, the noise was louder than usual.  When I looked up, I saw two Trackers approaching in tight formation, one diagonally behind the other; they must have taken off simultaneously.  What struck me instantly was neither the racket nor the tight proximity of the aircraft, but their markings – they bore the large red disks that signified Japan.

In Japanese service, the Tracker was called “Aotaka,” which means
“Blue Hawk.”  Its time in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force complete,
this unit is now displayed at Kanoya Air Base Museum.

Wikimedia Commons, photographed/contributed by Hunini

Momentarily, that insignia gave me pause.  My father, like the fathers of many of my fellow students, often watched Victory at Sea and other post-war documentary television programs, and I usually watched with him.  To now see Japanese aircraft approaching low over the schoolyard briefly brought to mind black-and-white scenes of wartime attacks.

A quick look around showed me that no one else in the schoolyard had looked up at the Trackers.  I watched them fly overhead harmlessly, shrugged, and went back to whatever I’d been doing, but I never forgot that moment.


***

Is It a Pelican?

From the 1930s, one of Grumman’s traditional niches had been building amphibious airplanes, which inevitably were named after water fowl.  Over the years, the amphibians had grown in size, from the single-engined Duck to the twin-engined Goose, through the larger Widgeon, and then to the still larger post-war Mallard.  The latter was something of a transitional aircraft – it had a strong appeal for corporate and wealthy individual clients (e.g., the Aga Khan bought one), but it did not penetrate the regional airline market as deeply as Grumman had hoped.

Grumman proved nimble.  It quickly decided to extrapolate the Mallard’s design into a larger, higher capacity, longer-range version, initially designated the Pelican, which made its first test flight late in 1947:

First Pelican test flight, October 24, 1947

thisdayinaviation.com/tag/grumman-sa-16-albatross/

Ironically, enlarging the design did not help it penetrate the coastal airline market – in the late 1940s, there were too many cheap war-surplus transports available, and too many small airfields they could use.  Besides, other than at an amusement park, would you want to ride in something called the Pelican?

On the other hand, the new aircraft was remarkably well suited for rescue missions.

*

No, It’s an Albatross

“At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The traditional superstition that albatrosses aided mariners in need led to Grumman’s renaming the new aircraft.  The name Albatross stuck, for the aircraft was perfect for rescuing the survivors of disasters at sea, as well as for providing relief to the populace of storm-damaged islands.  Introduced to U.S. forces in 1949, it also was used by many foreign air services, in some of which it served well into the 1990s.

Per this advertisement, in 1955 the U.S. Air Force’s
Rescue Squadrons around the world flew more than
3,000 missions, averaging about eight hours each, to
save nearly 2,000 people from death, and to deliver
relief supplies and medical aid to more than 20,000
disaster victims.

National Geographic, May 1956

Like other Grumman planes, the Albatross was improved as the years went by, which resulted in continued test flights out of Bethpage.  The most significant change was the development of a longer-range version, with a 20% greater wingspan.  In order to maintain good flying characteristics, the tail-end control surfaces were correspondingly enlarged as well.

Late in their USAF service, some Albatrosses were refitted for special missions in Vietnam.

Non-Grumman Albatross

Caleb Slemmons photograph
Allaboutbirds.org

Restored, privately-owned Grumman Albatross

tpaero.com
 


***

Beyond Anti-Submarine Warfare

Within three years of the Tracker’s becoming operational in 1952, Grumman delivered (at the Navy’s request) a transport version of the Tracker, called the Trader.  Although the versions looked alike at first glance, the new aircraft had a broader body, and its greater interior space made it better suited for transporting personnel or cargo.

not a Tracker, but a Trader

National Archives and Records Administration

Grumman Tracer

U.S. Navy National
Museum of Naval Aviation

Grumman was very busy indeed; another spin-off followed a year later.  The larger airframe designed for the Trader also became the basis of an early-warning aircraft, the Tracer.  For obvious reasons, the appearance of the Tracer was distinctive.  As I recall, when one of them flew over Hicksville in those years, it usually was accompanied at takeoff by a Trader – unless it was it a Tracker – the crew of which monitored the domed aircraft, likely watching for aerodynamic problems or other flight issues.

The radar dome was, of course, something new for Grumman, and it had an impact on Grumman tradition: it forced the company to revisit its venerable Stow-Wing hinge design.  To avoid hitting the dome, the Tracer’s wings had to fold backward, rather than upward as usual.

The Tracer served in Vietnam, providing attack vectors for U.S. aircraft, and also alerting U.S. forces to enemy interceptor activity.  It was finally withdrawn from service in 1977.


***

Leaving the 1950s Behind

As the 1960s loomed, two new projects were getting under way.  Neither would get off to a promising start.

One was the Mohawk, an aircraft originally proposed in response to similar requests made by the Army and the Marine Corps, both of which wanted multi-purpose all-weather aircraft that could operate from small unimproved fields.  As the project tried to progress, it was impeded (and almost scuttled) by decisions reached by the Navy and the Air Force – neither of which had been directly involved when things started.

When the dust settled, it was determined that the Mohawk was to be built only for the Army.  It served well in a variety of roles in Vietnam, and also in Desert Storm.  After more than three decades of service, it was retired in 1996.

U.S. Army Mohawk

Max Haynes photograph
MaxAir2Air.com

E2A Hawkeye

Wikipedia Commons


The other project was the E2A Hawkeye, a carrier-borne early warning aircraft meant to replace the Tracer.  The project’s early years struggled with two significant issues: size and heat.

The Hawkeye was to be a state-of-the-art aircraft that could be at home on Essex-class (i.e., World War II design) aircraft carriers.  Although not excessively old, these ships were small for carriers, even by the standards of the day.  They had been upgraded, so that they could accommodate early jet aircraft.  The Navy – which was already building larger new carriers – was not going to rebuild them again.  Having to make the Hawkeye small enough to fit on the old carriers meant that the mandated equipment inside the airplane got crammed together, making the crew’s work very difficult.

Things were made worse by the computers with which the Hawkeyes were first equipped.  Beginning in the late 1940s, the Navy had participated with private industry in the development of “drum computers.”  Unlike today’s computers, which use memory chips for RAM, these computers used rotating metal drums (i.e., cylinders, similar in concept to those used for early phonographs, but which retained magnetic charges).  The computers generated a great deal of heat, and in flight they often failed, due either to the heat itself, or perhaps to the effect upon drum rotation of the inevitable sudden movements of the aircraft.

These conditions rendered the E2A unreliable at best.  Ultimately, they were addressed by withdrawing it from service, and rebuilding each E2A into an E2B.  Among the many improvements introduced was replacing the drum computers with more modern machines, likely ones which instead used more reliable magnetic core memory, which had been gaining widespread acceptance for several years.  Unlike its predecessor, the E2B worked quite well.


*

At the time that the E2Bs were introduced, two aircraft were set aside for ongoing use as test beds for the evaluation of future radar technology, which was advancing quickly.  Such tests kept them flying over Hicksville for a long time.  This research effort led to the substantially more capable E2C Hawkeye of the 1970s, which could interact smoothly during missions with the computers aboard friendly combat aircraft (e.g., Tomcats).  The research did not stop there; more recently it has produced the E2D, which today plays a key Navy role as an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.

I find it incredible that the Hawkeye, an aircraft which Grumman began designing in the late 1950s, has been improved continuously for 60+ years, so that now, well into the twenty-first century, it is still a crucial part of America’s combat forces.  Leroy Grumman would feel proud.


*****

Coda

This month, the sources named in the captions are all that I shall list specifically.  Over the years, I have read many other relevant books and articles – too many to mention or remember – especially during the latter 1970s, when we lived in Bethpage, adjacent to the head of the Grumman runway that was used early every morning by Hawkeyes.  For those who are interested in reading more about Grumman, there is ample material available online, in libraries, and in larger bookstores.


*

As with people who serve in uniform, after retirement from the military, a number of Trackers and Traders continued to serve in other ways.  Many of them began new careers as water bombers in Europe and in the Americas.  Although they could at best carry “only” about 1,200 gallons at a time, the Grummans were agile fliers, and with good piloting they were able to drop their loads more precisely than could many larger aircraft.
 
I leave you with this recent picture of a Grumman Tracker in France, one of the few Tracker water bomber conversions still flying.

Turbo Firecat of the Sécurité Civile, the civil defense arm
of the French Ministry of the Interior

This aircraft is one of 35 water bombers built in the 1980s by
Conair Aviation from former Canadian and American Navy
Trackers, many of them upgraded with more modern engines.
The Turbo Firecats of the Sécurité Civile are expected to keep
fighting fires in France until they are retired in 2022.

skiesmag.com
Anthony Pecchi photograph

 
*****


Ciao!