7 Feb 1950: In a demonstration of carrier long-range attack capabilities, a P2V-3C Neptune, with Commander Thomas Robinson in command, took off from Franklin D. Roosevelt off Jacksonville, Fla., and flew over Charleston, S.C., the Bahamas, the Panama Canal, up the coast of Central America and over Mexico to land next day at the Municipal Airport, San Francisco, Calif. The flight, which covered 5,060 miles in 25 hours, 59 minutes, was the longest ever made from a carrier deck. (Naval Aviation Chronology 1950-1953, Naval History Center)

To set the scene – the immediate post-war environment called for substantial cuts in conventional forces based on the idea that future aggressors would be deterred, or fought, at arms length with the advent of long-range bombers and the atomic bomb, both the sole province of the newly formed USAF. The Navy, despite the success and critical role played by its fast carrier battle groups in the Pacific War found itself in a bureaucratic knife fight over roles/missions and ultimately, funding that turned on this critical capability. Writing in his biography, Bluejacket Admiral, ADM Hayward noted:

Still, persuading Forrestal and CNO Nimitz didn’t make it (the super-carrier United States) a done deal. In the psychological warfare called “the budgeting process,” their fiscal year 1947 (1 July 1946 to 30 June 1947) funding request already was before Congress, and their “Ships” plan for FY1948 already included a call for funds to modify our largest carriers, the forty-five-thousand-ton (sixty-two thousand, fully loaded) Coral Sea, Midway and Franklin Delano Roosevelt for nuclear operations. The supercarrier couldn’t get into the cycle until FY1949. Amending the FY1948 plan to put it in might have been justified by a crisis, but the only one evident at the time was the attack at home on naval aviation. (Largely because of an assault on Berlin begun by Moscow in mid-1948, Congress in late 1948 voted to build the supercarrier, a small victory, we thought, against the “anti-navy” onslaught.)
In any case, from 1946 on, building the carrier-based big-bomber force evolved along two parallel, interactive lines. One focused on hardware; the other on hiring able people. In both, we were ‘pushing the envelope,”as pilots say. In hardware, getting big carriers left the question of what plane to put aboard

Recognizing this need, in 1946 Navy contracted with North American Aviation to build the AJ Savage, a carrier-based, long-range bomber capable of hauling the 10,000lb+ Mk4 atomic weapon off a carrier, delivering it and returning to an arrested landing. A complex undertaking, the AJ would not be available until 1950 and in the meantime, an alternate “gap-filler” needed to be found. Looking at its inventory, Lockheed’s shore-based P2V Neptune seemed to provide a solution. It certainly had the range (as demonstrated by the flight of the Truculent Turtle in 1946 from Australia to Ohio, over 11,000 nm unrefueled) and with some modifications, could be adapted for one-time flights off the larger Midway-class CVBs.

A P2V-2C (BuNo 122449) was diverted and modified for testing in what would become the P2V-3C configuration. The central features included reduced crewing, increased internal fuel and attachment points for JATO (Jet Assisted take-Off) rockets (8 total – four to the side) as well as changes to accommodate carriage of the Mk1 atomic weapon modeled on the “Little Boy” uranium gun-type device which was substantially less bulky than the plutonium-based Mk5 weapon based on the “Fat Man.”

JATO was necessary as the hydraulic catapults of the time could not provide the necessary assist to get a 70,000+ gross weight aircraft airborne. With JATO and a 28 knot headwind, a fully loaded P2V could punch the JATO assist midway down a 900 ft deck run and instantly reach a required 150 knot airspeed (with the starboard wing clearing the carrier’s island by about 10 feet). Initially, the modification also included a tailhook and some 128 field arrested landings were conducted at Lockheed’s Burbank plant and NAS Patuxent River with then-CAPT Hayward, future CO of VC-5, at the controls. Shipboard trials consisted of pattern work and touch-and-goes onboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt – but no arrested landings. Carrier landings, however, would not be part of the P2V-3C’s portfolio – airframe deformities (stretching in the fuselage) were discovered following the field arrestments, not entirely unsurprising as the P2V, rugged as it was, was not designed for carrier ops (likewise, the P-51, found to be quite capable round the carrier, suffered from rear bulkhead weaknesses after its carrier trials). Operations for the P2V then would mean it had to be craned aboard (giving away intentions) and following its launch and delivery, either return and ditch alongside the carrier or land at a friendly airfield should any remain – in essence, a one-time use weapon system. Under the circumstances, however, it was considered sufficient. Little time was wasted from the 1948 trials – eleven aircraft (BuNos 122924, 122927, 122930, 122933, 122936, 122942, 122947, 122951, 122966, 122969 and 122971) were procured under the P2V-3C configuration (12 total counting BuNo 122449, “NB41” which was the prototype and still serving) and assigned to VC-5 (stood up in Sept 1948) and later VC-6 (stood up in Jan 1950). Special weapons units, based at Kirtland AFB, NM would store and service the weapons on each of the three Midway-class carriers configured for nuclear weapons.

With 1949, the Navy began an aggressive series of demonstrations, starting in March with the load aboard of three P2V’s on Coral Sea. Weighing in at 70, 65 and 55,000lbs respectively, all three launched sequentially off Coral Sea using their JATO assist. Later, in September, the capability was demonstrated to members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with CAPT Hayward flying off Midway with Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, flying in the right seat. Interestingly enough, this came a few months after Johnson had canceled the United States. CAPT Hayward’s XO, Dan Ashworth, launched on a long-range mission totaling a little over 4800 nm from the Midway, operating off Norfolk and recovering onboard Moffet field – by way of the Caribbean and Panama. And then in early 1950, CDR Robinson extended that even further with a flight of over 5,000 nm (for reference, the range from a mid-Mediterranean Sea launch to Moscow and recovery at Aviano Capodichino AB, outside Naples, Italy was about half that distance — 2500 nm).

The first deployment for VC-5 came in 1951 when six AJ-1s (newly delivered and problem beset) deployed with three P2Vs to Port Lyautey, Morocco. The Savages periodically operated off the Midway and FDR (the Midway-class carriers were not deployed to Korea as they had the only nuclear capability and were reserved for the nuclear mission in the Med). In a relatively short time, the P2V and AJ would be replaced and the carrier-based nuclear delivery mission would be assumed first by the A3D Skywarrior (contracted for in 1949) and as weapon sizes grew smaller (and yields increased) the AD4 Skyhawk and AD Skyraider. Most of the P2V-3Cs were re-configured to -3B with the AS-1B bombing system added and sent to the Heavy Attack Training Units (HATU) as trainers.

VC-5 History: http://cv41.org/vc5history.html
History of the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt: http://ussfranklindroosevelt.com/?page_id=2264
Lockheed Neptune prototypes and special project P2Vs: http://www.verslo.is/baldur/p2/prototypes.htm#122449
US Navy and US Marine Corps BuNos: Third Series (120341 to 126256)(last revised 31 July 2010): http://www.joebaugher.com/navy_serials/thirdseries13.html
Aerofiles: Lockheed K to Lockheed-Martin: http://www.aerofiles.com/_lock2.html
HATWING-1: http://web.cortland.edu/woosterk/hatwing1.html
P2V In Action: https://www.scribd.com/P2V-NEPTUNE-IN-ACTION-SQUADRON-1068/d/20610007
Bluejacket Admiral: the Navy Career of Chick Hayward By John T. Hayward, Carl W. Borklund
STRIKE FROM THE SEA: U.S. Navy Attack Aircraft From Skyraider to Super Hornet 1948-Present, By Tommy H. Thomason

Posted by SteelJaw in Aviation, History, Navy

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  • Scott D. Campbell

    SteelJaw posted a slight error: “And then in early 1950, CDR Robinson extended that even further with a flight of over 5,000 nm (for reference, the range from a mid-Mediterranean Sea launch to Moscow and recovery at Aviano AB, outside Naples, Italy was about half that distance — 2500 nm).”

    Aviano A.B is in Northern Italy. Naples is in the South-Central region.


    Scott D. Campbell

  • Dan

    Sorry, but the first picture is USS Coral Sea, NOT FDR.

  • Andy (JADAA)

    SJ, nicely done summary, yet again! The rapidity of developments in both the nuclear attack mission and the devices themselves during the period 1945-1960 alone is well worth looking at in depth. Thanks!

  • OK – in turn:
    Scott: You’re right and I’ll fix when able – had Aviano on the mnind when I meant Cappo – still falls w/in the intent of the assertion though re. mileage of flight.
    Dan: Affirm – recognize it is Coral Sea (have seen a good bit of that 43 in my time too) – the circa 1951 shot of the launch from FDR further down in the article is all there is out there and since the article as a whole was a look at the attempt to meet a new requirement with what one has on hand, serves as an interesting POV given most of the other imagery available on P2V deck launches was from a distance.
    Andy: Thanks – recommend “Bluejacket Admiral” and Holloway’s remembrances (among others) for this period. Hayward’s bio was especially interesting form the POV of OPNAV workings and dealing as a squadron CO with the “special interst” received from above
    All: Thanks for the input — really helps keep me on my toes 🙂
    w/r, SJS

  • Distiller

    Timeline and the real Navy early nuclear capability:

    Only the Mk.1 bomb could be carried by the P2V-3C. Only a maximum of 9 Mk.1 assemblies were ever produced, only 5 actually assembled (one used), being more prototypes than actually “war”heads. They were officially retired in November 1950.

    In any case the Mk.1 bomb was retired BEFORE VC-5 (primarily a test/eval/training unit) was declared mission ready. Before that VC-5 might have had a certain SHTF emergency capability, but no real routine capability. The other P2V-3C unit, VC-6 was declared operational in December 1950, AFTER the retirement of the Mk.1 bomb. In December 1951 the P2V-3C was replaced by the AJ.

    So between, say, summer 1949 and November 1950 the Navy had 3 nuclear capable carriers, 3 bomb assembly teams, max 11 P2V-3C, and 4 Mk.1 bombs as its nuclear capability. Between November 1950 (retirement Mk.1) and January 1952 (when the AJ with the Mk.4 finally went operational) the Navy had no nuclear capability.

    When the AJs finally took over in early 1952, they used “fat” Mk.4 bombs, as the Mk.3B bomb was a major PIA to maintain and get ready for action and in addition its radar fuze was thought to have been compromised by Soviet intelligence and thus the Mk.3B was also retired by November 1950.

  • sid

    Jerry Miller’s Nuclear Weapons An Aircraft Carriers is a must read on this subject as well…

  • sid

    Oops …wrong link…

    Here it is again:

    Nuclear Weapons and Aircraft Carriers.

    Covers much of the background of that secretive world.

  • sid

    I know you covered it before, but thought I would mention that after the A-3, the A3J/A-5A was the last of the line of dedicated USN nuclear bombers.

    And, in Jerry Miller’s book is a cautionary tale for folks in the hot burner programs of today…

    “The decision to have only the best and brightest in naval aviation’s initial nuclear weapons delivery program seemed like a good idea at the time…However, the mission was never employed, and some of the younger of the best and brightest may have suffered, which in turn deprived the Navy of the additional service and contributions that they may have provided (heard just this subject discussed at parties in the back yard in Sanford when I was a but a wee tyke. Wonder where Dave King ever ended up…).

    The experience gained from our carrier nuclear program seems to counsel that in similar situations in the future, the long-range effects on career patterns should be considered. High priorities can apply for only a short time before they have an adverse impact on the long-range abilities of individuals to contribute.”

  • +1 Sid — in spades…
    w/r, SJS