Debunking the myth: the rise and fall of the Zero

Debunking the myth: the rise and fall of the Zero By Fred Lane

(This article was first published in NOCN 84, 1 March 2011.)

One of the more highly trumpeted intelligence finds in WW II was a near-new Mitsubishi Zero A6M2 Type 0 Model 21 (serial number 4593) that crashed during its first operational flight on 4 June 1942. One of a three-plane section from HIJMS Ryujo, the Zero lost oil pressure after taking ground fire during one of the Dutch Harbor raids (Aleutian Islands, Alaska). Its pilot, 19 years-old Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga, died attempting a precautionary landing on a nearby island.

The Akutan Zero

The Japanese nominated Akutan Island, 25 miles east of Dutch Harbor, as an emergency landing site and had a SAR submarine standing by. Unfortunately, the long, flat field chosen by Koga for his wheels-down landing was deceptive. Under its inviting-looking grassy-green flat surface lay a treacherous water-logged muskeg bog. His wheels dug in and he somersaulted as he touched down.


A USN salvage team examines the Akutan Zero.

Perhaps as befits such a famous icon, the history of the Japanese Zero brings with it almost as many controversies and myths as agreed facts. For instance, when 27 Chinese fighters challenged 13 Zeros in September 1940, did the Zeros destroy all 27 without loss? Was the Akutan Island Zero the first flyable A6M2 to be captured? Did American aircraft engineers quickly apply novel design features discovered in the Akutan Zero? Were tactics to defeat the Zero first derived from simulated battles between American fighters and the Akutan Zero? Was the restored Akutan Zero 100 per cent “made in Japan”? Was the Zero faster than its American contemporaries?


LCDR Eddie R Sanders USN flies the Akutan Zero in American colours, Sand Diego, September 1942.

Definitive fighter

Designed by Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese Navy’s Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0 Model 21 was the definitive WW II Japanese fighter. It could make a respectable 288 knots at 15,000 feet and climb to 20,000 feet in seven and a half minutes. This was better than any other Pacific theatre aircraft at that time. When they bombed Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had only 328 Zeros in front line units but wartime factories delivered thousands more (Francillon 1995, p. 362-378). More Zeros were produced than any other Japanese WW II aircraft. Mitsubishi constructed 3879, Nakajima built 6215 and other firms manufactured 844 trainer and floatplane variants (Okumiya et al, 1957 p. 350). The basic design never changed, but later production runs incorporated modifications such as wingtip folding, more powerful engines and stronger bomb racks.



Mitsubishi Zero A6M2 Type 0 Model 21.

By the time of the Dutch Harbor raids, the Zero possessed a fearsome reputation. First flown in April 1939, it proved to be agile, lightweight, hard-hitting and versatile. Except for Nationalist China’s Polikarpov I-16, the Zero’s two 20 mm cannon and two 7.7 mm machine guns out-gunned every other fighter in the Pacific Theatre.

Long range

The Zero’s 1675 nm ferry range was far superior to any other fighter and many contemporary bombers. The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk V, a twin-engined bomber introduced to the RAF in 1939, had a range of only 1,430 nm (Angelucci, p. 262). If Supermarine Spitfires had the Zero’s ferry range, they could have easily flown the 1140 miles from London to Malta without risking valuable aircraft carriers to deliver them in WW II.


The Chongqing stoush

As early as August 1940, Zeros routinely flew combat round trips of 1000 miles or more, deep into China. They gained a reputation as superb dogfighting machines. For instance, over Chongqing (then Chungking), the inland seat of the Nationalist Government, on 13 September 1940, the Chinese sent 27 Russian-built Polikarpov I-15 and I-16 fighters aloft to mix it with 13 Zeros. Many claim that all 27 Chinese fighters were destroyed, without a Zero lost, but this possibly includes a Polikarpov pair that crashed into a mountain during an evasive manoeuvre and unspecified others whose pilots might have bailed out without being hit (e.g., Okumiya et al, 1957 p.14).


The Russian-built Polikarpov I-16 first flew in December 1933, the first monoplane fighter with retractable undercarriage, dimensions 9.2 x 6.1 x 2.6m, weight 3110-4034 lb (1414-1834 kg). M62R Shvetsov 9-cylinder radial, 1000 HP. Two 7.62 mm guns and two 20 mm cannon with 120 rpg.


On the other hand, although aircraft claims can be easily exaggerated (e.g., Ford, 2007 Preface ix-xiii), a small number of authors claim that “actual Chinese losses were 13 planes” (e.g., Ford, 2007 p. 28). This might well suggest an impossibly large and unresolvable discrepancy, but all agree that, in this action:

a. the Zeros initially were outnumbered more than 2:1;

b. Zeros were hit, but none lost in the melee; and

c. the disaster caused the Chinese to order cessation of all aerial combat.

Whether the Zeros destroyed only 13 or all 27 Chinese fighters in the Chongqing battle might be of little import, compared with the huge strategic victory that left the Zeros masters of the China sky. The Chinese fled the fight (Ford, 2007 p. 28; Okumiya et al, 1957 p.14).


Other Zero captures

The Akutan Zero was not the first of its type to have been captured. On 26 November 1941, two lost their way, ran short of fuel and executed precautionary landings on a Leizhou Peninsula beach. Abutting the Chinese mainland near Hainan Island, this peninsula was in Chinese hands. By 1942 these lightly damaged Zeros were being rebuilt into one machine (serial number 3372).

Another (Model 21, serial number 5349) had been retrieved from Australia’s Melville Island. Flown by Petty Officer Hajime Toyoshima, he was returning to HIJMS Hiryu from one of the first Darwin bombing raids on 19 February 1942. Again, ground fire led to oil pressure failure, but this time his engine seized and shed its propeller. He force-landed on the nearest piece of dirt, Melville Island. Toyoshima became Australia’s first Japanese prisoner of war. He died taking a leading role in the 1944 Cowra POW camp breakout attempt.

Parts of another Zero had been recovered after a forced-landing near Cape Rodney, 100 miles SE of Port Moresby on New Guinea’s south coast. Unfortunately, the salvage crew roughly severed its wings. They also souvenired many of its important instruments and other small parts before they could be formally examined.


Weak opposition?

Perhaps the Zeros were lucky in China and elsewhere, facing poorly trained pilots in obsolete aircraft? When they met “proper” pilots in “proper” aircraft, would they not get their comeuppance?  Evidently not. For instance, according to a fairly reliable Japanese source, 36 Zeros and other aircraft attacked Colombo and Trincomalee, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), in early April 1942. They were met by a mixed bag of about 60 RAF and RN aircraft. No less than 27 British aircraft were claimed by the Zeros in this sortie, including 15 Hawker Hurricanes and four Fairey Fulmars, for the loss of just one Zero (Okumiya et al, 1957 pp. 97-102). Others, (e.g. Gill 1968, pp. 17-20) claim 33 Japanese bomber and fighter aircraft were shot down for the loss of 23 Hurricanes and seven Fulmars. It matters little whether Gill or Okumiya was more accurate in the aircraft count. Once more, the Zero and Japanese naval pilots demonstrated their overwhelming superiority over both RAF Hurricanes and RAF pilots, despite their impeccable Battle of Britain credentials.


Indian Ocean sweep

The Sri Lankan and Indian raids were part of that most profitable Indian Ocean sweep by VADM Chuichi Nagumo’s powerful aircraft carriers HIJMS Akagi, Ryujo, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku. Having dusted up Darwin earlier, on 19 February, Nagumo repeated the exercise on 3 March, sinking about 30 ships at Tjilatjap, on the south coast of Java. Entering the Bay of Bengal in early April, Nagumo not only put ADML Sir James Somerville’s Eastern Fleet to flight, but also netted the RN aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, the two cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and Cornwall, the RAN’s HMAS Vampire and 30 other naval, naval auxiliary and civilian vessels, aggregating 151,000 tons; all for negligible Japanese losses (Fuchida and Okumiya, 1958 ch. 2; Gill, 1968 p. 22).


The unknown fighter

Virtually unknown to the allies before Pearl Harbor, the Zero entered the Pacific fight with a better than 12:1 kill ratio. Major Claire Lee Chennault (later LGEN USAF) commanding the mercenary “Flying Tigers” with Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters in China, had warned about the Zero’s performance, but analysts in the USA Department of War (later Department of Defence) regarded these reports as “arrant nonsense” and “aerodynamic impossibilities” (Handel, 1989). Chennault correctly recommended that contemporary American fighters should never attempt to dogfight the Zero, but to attack from above and maintain speed. If attacked by a Zero, the pilot should evade by diving steeply at full power and rolling right (Loomis, 1961 pp. 47-48).


Tha Aleutians campaign

What was this valuable new Zero doing in Alaska’s Aleutian chain in June 1942? Spurred by the 18 April 1942 Doolittle raid and the Battle of the Coral Sea, 7-8 May, the Japanese Combined Fleet Headquarters and Naval General Staff dusted off plans for a major offensive, the invasion of Midway Island. They looked forward to the USN Pacific Fleet intervening (Fuchida and Okumiya, 1958 pp. 41-46). While VADM Chuichi Nagumo deployed only 20 surface warships for his highly successful Pearl Harbor attack, ADML Isoroku Yamamoto had no fewer than 128 surface warships, plus troopships and support vessels for his complex Midway operation (Smith, 2007 pp. 14-17).

The light carriers Ryuko and Junyo and a small task force opened the battle during the early morning of 3 June with raids about 1500 miles north of Midway on Dutch Harbor and Adak, together with invasions of Kiska and Attu Islands, all in the Aleutians, 6 and 7 June.

As well as extending the Japanese reach up the Aleutian chain, Yamamoto aimed to draw American ships away from Midway, then crush them with a seven-battleship force in a “great decisive battle” as they returned (Fuchida and Okumiya, 1958 p. 49; Smith, 2007 p. 7-10). Brilliant decryption and misinformation intelligence work, chiefly by the USN’s CMDR Joseph Rochefort in Hawaii and Australian CMDR Eric Nave in Melbourne and Brisbane, allowed ADML Nimitz to ignore the Aleutian feint and instead concentrate on the Midway-bound thrust (Smith, 2007 pp. 31-50).



One American (Yorktown) and four Japanese (Akaga, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu) fleet carriers went to the bottom in this Battle of Midway, the “pivotal point of the Pacific War” (Okumiya et al, 1957 p. 121; Smith, 2007 pp. 328-329). Worse, the Japanese never had the infrastructure to replace their highly trained naval aircrew and staff officers lost in the Coral Sea and Midway battles (Fuchida and Okumiya, 1958 p. 157). The resulting lack of numbers and experience led almost directly to debacles such as the 19-20 June 1944 Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, when the Japanese lost 400 or so aircraft to USN carrier fighters, and the employment of four almost empty aircraft carriers as sacrificial bait to lure ADML Halsey’s strong Third Fleet away from San Bernadino Strait a few days later (Morison, 2001; Okumiya et al, 1957 pp. 256-65; Smith, 2007; Tillman, 2005).


Secrets revealed

The Akutan Zero’s secrets were revealed only after a remarkable series of events. Firstly, the Aleutians are noted for poor flying weather. Typical low cloud with poor visibility greeted the Japanese aircraft over Dutch Harbor on 3-4 June. True to form, the “Aleutian clag” persisted for weeks, so it was not surprising that, although only a short distance from Dutch Harbor, it was five weeks before a passing US Navy PBY Catalina sighted the upturned Zero on 10 July. After three attempts, the USN finally salvaged the machine. They eased the upside-down Zero onto a skid, dragged it out with a tractor and righted it back in Dutch Harbor. Crated and delivered to Seattle on 1 August, it was transhipped to NAS North Island, San Diego, where it was restored to flying trim by 20 September (Technical Aviation Brief #3, 1942).

The aircraft engineers found a 19 February 1942 manufacturing date stamp confirming the machine was a valuable late A6M2 Model 21. Some reports say the Sumitomo propeller  damaged beyond repair; others say the propeller was beaten back into shape. Yet others show it was a direct copy, built under licence, of a readily available Hamilton Standard propeller that was easily substituted for the damaged Japanese version (, December 2010). Engine spares presented little problem. The twin-row 14-cylinder engine was a close relative of the widely-licensed French Gnome-Rhone Mistral Major.

Akutan Zero flies again

LCDR Eddie R. Sanders USN flew the Akutan Zero for the first time in American colours on 20 September 1942. As a tribute to the skill of the NAS North Island aircraft engineers and the Zero’s built-in ease of maintenance, he managed 24 test flights in 25 days. It was during these flights that Sanders confirmed the Zero’s excellent low speed manoeuvrability but he also documented its amazingly poor rolling performance at moderately high speeds. The Zero had excellent roll control below 200 knots, right down to the stall, but the large servo-tab ailerons became progressively sluggish and almost impossibly heavy above 250 knots. Reinforcing Chennault’s observations, he also found that the float-type carburettor starved the engine of fuel under negative G. All this information, with combat recommendations, were relayed to the fleet shortly after Sanders’s first flight (Technical Aviation Brief #3, 1942). Not long after, he was rewarded with the feedback, “It works”.

After the test flights, the Akutan Zero was matched in simulated battle with a large number of different WW II American USN and USAF aircraft types and tactics. These were flown chiefly from NAS North Island CA and NAS Anacostia/Bolling AFB, Washington, DC.

“Thach weaves” and other gimmicks were sometimes credited with defeating the Zero, but nothing seems to have been more effective than the simple old WW I tactic of staying in battle formation and gaining a potential energy advantage in the form of a height/speed edge over the enemy. This was amply reinforced by the Akutan Zero’s test data from simulated adversary battles. It remains true in dogfighting today.

There were some less than well-informed claims that these Zero evaluation trials were responsible for massive design changes in those Pacific Ocean scourges, the Vought F4U Corsair and the Grumman F6F Hellcat (Okumiya et al, 1957 p.179). In fact, the Akutan Zero appeared far too late for any major weight-saving or other influence on these aircraft designs.

The first “Hosenose” F4U production model flew in June 1942 and deliveries to USN and USMC squadrons commenced towards the end of that year. The Corsair’s gestation was laboured, not solely because of weight considerations but mainly due to armament modifications. These required the cockpit to be moved 32 inches (81 cm) aft and the fuel tanks re-positioned. Despite its low wing loading, early production Corsairs, with their comparatively poor over-the-nose visibility, vicious torque stalls and toey undercarriage, were condemned as too difficult to deck land. (US Marines, however, found a way. USMC Corsairs, operating from tiny escort carriers were most effective. Their cheaply-modified Corsairs helped the Allies turn the tide in 1950 at Inchon and Pusan in Korea.)

Thruelsen, in his authoritative Grumman story, notes that excess weight was a major consideration long before the Akutan Zero was found in 1942. In fact, a weight-saving program was a feature of the old Grumman F4F Wildcat, one version of which was flying with the RN as early as December 1940. This owed nothing to the lightweight Zero, but more to the prospect of having to operate these fighters from small escort carriers (Thruelsen, 1976 p. 181).

The first Grumman F6F Hellcat flew on 26 June 1942 (Angelucci, 1990 p. 237; Thruelsen, 1976 p. 382) months before the Akutan Zero’s first test flight in USN colours. Regarding the Zero’s influence on the Grumman F6F Hellcat design, as stated fairly clearly (Thruelsen, 1976 p. 194):

The most important claim that could be made for the Hellcat…was that it outperformed the best of the Zeros in every department except range. And the Hellcat needed few modifications and practically no structural changes during its production lifetime.


f6f hellcat

Grumman F6F Hellcat (10.24 x 13.06 x 3.99), weight 9238-12598 lb (4199-5726 kg). Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp 2000 HO. Max 330 kn; ferry range 1330 nm. Six .5 inch guns with 400 rpg or2 x 20 mm cannon with 225 rpg and 4 x .5 inch guns with 400 rpg. Six x 5 inch RP, or 4000 lb bombs/Mk 13 torpedo.


While the Akutan Zero might have helped to modify and confirm certain fighter tactics, all the major structural F4UCorsair and F6F Hellcat design decisions had been made long before that Zero rolled out of its Mitsubishi factory in February 1942.

How “genuine” was the restored Zero? If it was restored in NAS North Island to a “better-than-new” condition, then the derived test data might carry a positive bias. Similarly, if the somersault and subsequent rough handling was sufficient to warp the airframe or severely damage the engine, then the test data might under-value the production aircraft’s true potential. Perhaps the best estimate of this may be to quote LCDR Sanders when author Jim Rearden asked was “the repaired airplane 100 per cent” genuine? Sanders’s reply was “about 98 per cent” (Rearden, 1997). Unfortunately, Rearden seems to have failed to resolve which specific parts were not genuine.

Also unresolved is the relatively minor issue of whether all propeller blades were beaten back into shape, or if one propeller blade or even an entirely new Hamilton Standard three-bladed propeller was substituted in the Akutan Zero at NAS North Island.

Regarding speed, the Zero was certainly fast and nimble, but it had flaws. What was the sense in having a fast airframe if it could not roll rapidly over 250 knots?  Read the interesting discussion defining some speed parameters by Richard Dunn at for partial answers.

What is clear is that the investigation of the Akutan Zero, if nothing else, destroyed the Zero’s aura of invincibility. The American tests put to the sword dozens of swirling myths, rumours and exaggerations. Most of the few remaining myths were dispelled when the new Grumman F6F Hellcat was first deployed in action 31 August 1943, and the remainder were firmly nailed after the 19-20 June 1944 “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

The Zero entered WW II as world-beater. It ended the war ignominiously, as a kamikaze vehicle. The Philippines-based Naval Air Group 201 introduced the Zero as a kamikaze following a decision by VADM Takijiro Onishi at Mabalacat Airfield (later Clark AFB), 19 October 1944 (Okumiya et al, 1957 pp. 266-282).

In a similar vein, the ultimate demise of the famous Akutan Zero was also tragically anti-climactic. Taxying out for a training flight in February 1945, a Curtis SB2C Helldiver over-ran it and “chopped the fuselage to pieces”. The pilot was uninjured, but only a small number of instruments and other odd pieces are known to remain.



Angelucci, E. The Rand McNally encyclopaedia of military aircraft. Crescent books: New York. 1990.

Ford, D. Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and his American volunteers, 1941-1942. Harper Collins: Smithsonian Books, 2007.

Francillon, R.J. Japanese aircraft of the Pacific War, Mitsubishi A6M Reisen (Zero Fighter). Naval Institute Press: Annapolis. 1995.

Fuchida, M. and M. Okumiya. Midway: The battle that doomed Japan. United States Naval Institute: Annapolis. 1958.

Gill, G.H. Royal Australian Navy, 1942-45 (1st Edition). Australian War Memorial: Canberra. 1968.

Handel, M. I. War, strategy, and intelligence. Frank Cass: London, 1989.

Loomis, R.D. Great American fighter pilots of World War II. Random House: New York, 1961. Morison, S.E. New Guinea and the Marianas, March 1944-August 1944. vol. 8 of History of United States naval operations in World War II. University of Illinois Press: Champaign. 2001.

Okumiya, M., J. Horikoshi and M. Caidin. Zero: the story of the Japanese navy air force 1937-1945. Cassell and Company: London. 1957.

Prange, G.W. At dawn we slept: The untold story of Pearl Harbor. McGraw-Hill: New York. 1981.

Smith, P.C. Midway: Dauntless victory. Pen and Sword Maritime: Barnsley. 2007.

Technical Aviation Brief #3, Performance and characteristics trials, Japanese fighter, Aviation Intelligence Branch, Navy Department (4 Nov. 1942).

Thruelsen, R. The Grumman story. Preager Publishers: New York. 1976.

Tillmann, B. Clash of the carriers. The true story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II. Penguin Group: New York. 2005.



Aiken, D. response 21 February 2001,

Rearden, J. Koga’s Zero: An enemy plane that saved American lives. Invention and technology magazine. Fall 1997, Vol 13/2.

1997/2/1997_2_56.shtml. (December 2010) (December 2010)


Mitsubishi Zero Type 0 A6M2 Model 21.

Wing span: 39.38 ft (12 m); Length: 29.73 ft (9.06 m); Height: 10 ft (3.05 m); Weight Empty: 3703 lb (1680 kg); Weight loaded: 5313 lb (2410 kg); Performance: V (max) 356 knots, Max cruise: 288 Knots, Service ceiling: 32,810 ft; Range: 1675 miles. Manual wing tip folding was introduced on later versions.

Powerplant: Nakajima NK Sakae 12, (Mistral copy, built under licence from Gnome-Rhone) 14 cylinders air cooled radial, 940 hp, driving a three-bladed variable pitch Sumitomo propeller. The A6M3 Type O Model 32, introduced in April 1942, had an 1130 hp Sakai 21 engine with a two-speed supercharger, but only 343 were built.

Drop tank: 330 L (72 gallons)

Armament: Two x 20 mm cannon (60 rpg), 2 x 7.7 mm machine guns (500 rpg), 264 lb (120 kg) bombs, or one fixed 551 pounds (250 kg) bomb in the kamikaze mode.


Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat. (The G-36 Martlet was one export version, FM-1 and FM-2 were F4Fs built by eastern Aircraft.)

Wing span: 38 ft (11.6 m); Length: 28.75(8.8 m); Height: 11.8 ft (3.6 m); Weight empty: 5760 lb (2613 kg); Weight loaded: 7952 lb (3560 kg); Performance: V(max) 422 knots; Max cruise 280 knots; Service ceiling 34,900 feet; Range 770 miles. All but the very early production aircraft had manual wing folding.

Powerplant: Pratt and Whitney R 1830-86 Twin Wasp 14 cylinders, air cooled radial, 1200 hp driving a three-bladed variable pitch propeller.

Late production F4F-4s could carry two 58-gallon drop tanks.

Armament: six .5 inch machine guns (240rpg), 200 lb bomb.








USN Bombers of WW II (Book)

USN Bombers


USN WW II dive and torpedo bombers

Book review by Fred Lane

Tillman B and R.L. Lawson. US Navy dive and torpedo bombers of WW II. MBI Publishing: St Paul. 2001. Paperback 128 pp with index and photographs.US$24.95.

This highly interesting book, together with a companion piece, US Navy Fighters of WW II, vividly describe the vitally important parts played by USN aircraft and their aircraft carriers in WW II. It is not a “mom and apple pie” book. It critically analyses the shortcomings of some aircraft types and some misguided tactics. No matter how good a new aircraft type looks on paper, if it is not developed properly and flown with commonsense, it tends to kill the wrong people.

On the other hand, recovering from an appalling start with inferior aircraft on that “day of infamy” 7 December 1941, the USN, aircraft manufacturers and especially operational aircrew forged a strike weapons system that halted and turned back the then seemingly invincible Japanese. USN dive and torpedo bombers had an important anti-shipping role, but they were never employed simply to sink ships.

The same aircraft that sank the biggest battleship in the world, HIJMS Yamato in 1945, also enabled Nimitz’s highly successful island-hopping strategy. The WW II Pacific Ocean battles might have been bigger than anything in naval history yet, but to put the USN’s strike effort in perspective, “From 1942 through 1945, only 18.8 per cent of carrier aircraft sorties were launched against enemy ships” (p.113). The remainder were chiefly strikes against land targets, invaluable close air support to invading ground troops and fighter defence.

Naval historians Tillman (see In harm’s way: The saga of Gambier Bay) and Lawson (see USN navy Fighters of WW II) show how the USN, like the RN’s Fleet Air Arm, were woefully under-equipped at the outbreak of WW II, with an inventory of only 239 scouts, dive bombers and torpedo planes, “including 89 biplanes” (p. 8) embarked in five aircraft carriers. On 7 December 1941, six Japanese carriers launched 386 aircraft, including the then incomparable Zero fighter, to attack Pearl Harbor. By an amazing stroke of good fortune, the American carriers were at sea. They were the kernel from which all initial retaliation sprang and from which grew the versatile and overwhelming force it is today.

Hard times

The early WW II days were hard. The first all-carrier naval battle in history was fought in the Coral Sea, in May 1942, when aircraft from the USS Lexington and Yorktown sank the light Japanese carrier Shoho, but at the cost of the much more valuable fleet carrier Lexington. The Americans more than evened the score, with the help of some clever signals intelligence, on 4-5 June at Midway. Tillman and Lawson show how the tempo of USN strike operations increased, particularly with the introduction of the Grumman TBM/TBF Avenger and the magnificent Essex class carriers.

The Grumman TBM/TBF Avenger quickly replaced both the TBD-1 Devastator and SB2U Vindicator torpedo bombers/scouts. Meanwhile, the well-loved SBD-2/SBD-3 Douglas Dauntless became the dive bomber of choice. Devastator crews experienced 83 per cent losses at Midway while on the other hand the Dauntless dive bomber was credited with sinking all four Japanese carriers. A planned Dauntless replacement, the new Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, arrived in April 1942, but with expectations not matched by performance. “Problems as diverse as hook skip, collapsed landing gear and structural failures cast a cloud over the entire program,” Tillman and Lawson note (p. 44).

There are dozens of excellent quality photographs of naval aviators, their carriers and their aircraft in the book. It is recommended reading.

USN Fighters of WW II (Book)

USN Fighters, WW II

USN WW II Fighters

book review by Fred Lane

Tillman B. and Lawson R.L. US Navy fighters of WW II. MBI Publishing: St Paul. 1998. Paperback 96 pp with index and photographs. US$20.00

This volume preceded the excellent US Navy WW II dive and torpedo bombers. It is an equally gripping and well-written tale by the same pair of highly skilled aviation and naval historians. As the title suggests, the book describes the development and operational records of both successful and unsuccessful USN WW II fighter aircraft.

Starting logically with a brief description of pre-war USN and other fighters, the authors rebut some of the criticism of the much-maligned Brewster Buffalo fighter. It was never an ideal carrier-borne fighter for a number of reasons, including a delicate undercarriage unsuited to landing on a pitching and rolling deck.

Land-based Marines, who were used to receiving cast-offs, also found it wanting because of its lacklustre performance in the air. At Midway, one black day in June 1942, a dozen of 19 aircraft in one USMC Buffalo squadron were destroyed by Japanese carrier aircraft. Nevertheless, when flown by experienced aircrew using better tactics it could achieve considerable success. In Finland, the Brewster Buffalo recorded an impressive 25:1 kill:loss ratio against Russian aircraft (p 60).

Grumman ironworks

The old reliable Grumman ironworks, naturally, dominates the book, because Grumman fighter aircraft dominated USN inventories in WW II. Developed from an original biplane concept, the brilliant Grumman F4F Wildcat (RN Martlet) held the fort until the even better Grumman F6F Hellcat entered the fray in August 1943. No fewer than 5,156 aircraft were claimed shot down by F6Fs alone in the Pacific theatre, versus 3,705 by all the USAF’s fighters in the same theatre. Another 1,006 fell to the USN’s F4F Wildcats (p35).

The other significant WW II USN fighter was the bent wing Vought F4U Corsair. It suffered from slow development associated with a host of early modifications, many of which were required to solve early deck landing problems. Employed initially as a land-based fighter in Guadalcanal from February 1943, it ultimately more than proved its worth and was accepted aboard American carriers towards the end of 1944. The first of the RN’s eventual 13 Corsair squadrons to see action was from HMS Victorious in a strike against Tirpitz in April 1944. Hauling a substantial weapons load, the “Hose-nose” also proved to be an excellent Army Support aircraft in Korea, operating from both carriers and airfields ashore.

F8F-1 Bearcat

The authors also describe a number of other very interesting naval fighters that were in production or in advanced stages of design by the war’s end. The Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat was one . It arrived too late to see combat in WW II, but it won enormous respect for a performance that challenged even the Hawker Sea Fury around the racing pylons in the USA.

Like the Sea Fury, the F8F-1B version mounted four 20 mm cannon, a highly significant upgrade on the .5 inch or smaller machine guns of most of its USN and USAAF predecessors. Both aircraft, however, were quickly overtaken in the 1950s by an entirely new generation of jet-propelled fighters.   

Sea Fury

Sea Fury: Australian War Memorial

sea fury 109
The RAN Hawker Sea Fury Mk11, airframe number VW232, side number 109, on display in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, has an interesting history. Although painted in 805 Squadron Korean War colours and sporting repairs consistent with possible ground fire, other evidence points to it never having served in Korea. (Australian War Memorial photo)

As part of its “Air Power in the Pacific 1941-53” display, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) restored an RAN Sea Fury to the AWM typically “better than new” condition. The paint scheme is a faithful representation of an 805 Squadron aircraft that served in the Korean War. The fuselage also sports repairs of what looks like a couple of holes similar to those caused by small calibre ground fire, damage common to nearly all of Sydney’s Korean Sea Furies. Unfortunately, from an authenticity viewpoint, the aircraft lacks an armour plate under the engine oil cooler. Additionally, two mission markers, now virtually hidden under the new paint, are not of a pattern used by RAN aircraft in Korea.

The armour plate under the oil cooler was an important modification applied to all Korean War Sea Furies. The air-cooled Bristol Centaurus Mk 18 engine was very powerful (2,500 hp) and normally reliable, but it had a sleeve valve design and it was particularly sensitive to oil pressure problems. A drop of five to ten psi from a normal operating oil pressure of 95 psi was enough to risk seizure or engine fire within 30 seconds or so. The armour plate gave limited protection to the big oil cooler in the port wing root from small arms ground fire and self-inflicted rocket/bomb shrapnel and ricochet damage.

817 Squadron Fireflies

This was in contrast to the Rolls Royce Griffon Mk 74s of the Fairey Fireflies of 817 Squadron which, together with 808 (Sea Fury) Squadron, made up the Sydney Carrier Air Group. The Griffons brought their aircraft home time and time again despite massive battle and other damage. It was a very reliable engine, liquid cooled and with conventional valves. In one instance in Korea, due to the supply of some dodgy camshafts, a connecting rod sheared and actually penetrated the crankcase and engine cowling shortly after launch. The engine lost all oil pressure immediately, but the remaining operating cylinders and brilliant airmanship brought the aircraft and its very shaken crew back to a hairy but safe deck landing before it quit.

The Sea Fury normally carried eight ballistic three-inch rocket projectiles in Korea, each with a 60-lb Semi Armour Piercing (SAP) warhead. It also had a very effective set of four 20-mm cannon shooting ball, SAP and incendiary ammunition and it normally carried two 45-gallon drop tanks for extra range and endurance. For one or two special missions the drop tanks might be replaced by bombs. Each sortie typically consisted of a strike against a pre-briefed primary target, such as reported troop concentrations or stores, followed by armed reconnaissance hunting for targets of opportunity along roads, railways, rivers and canals. Other sorties included direct support of Australian and Allied troops in front line trenches, as well as Naval Gunfire Support, where pilots spotted fall of shot and directed main armament shoots from battleships, cruisers, destroyers and frigates against targets ashore.

The enemy was expert at camouflage and always difficult to see. They were there, however, as witnessed by the frequent small arms ground fire damage inflicted upon our aircraft and the secondary explosions that frequently rocked targets after our attacks. The Fireflies concentrated on bombing rail and road bridges and tunnels. They became so adept with their ASW-shallow dive attacks that bridge spans at both the primary and secondary targets might be dropped during the one strike by six aircraft. Unfortunately, the enemy were equally adept at building, rebuilding and camouflaging temporary bridges.

Naval Officer Club members and 805 Squadron Korean War Sea Fury pilots Ian Macdonald (left) and Fred Lane inspect the War Memorial’s Sea Fury. (Photo Dean McNicoll,
Canberra Times 18 April 2000 p.2)

However, it is the authenticity of VW232 that is a question. As well as the oil cooler armour plate discrepancy, there are faint outlines of a pair of odd-looking mission marker bomb and rocket icons under the paint just forward of the cockpit, port side. Similar-looking icons were painted on Korean Furies, but they were nearly all rockets, they were a cleaner design, stencilled in batches of five, and nearly every surviving aircraft had dozens of them. It is possible that the aft fuselage section, with a probably valid airframe number stencilled on, was mated at some stage to a different wing and forward section.

It is also possible that both the airframe and engine were salvaged SAM-E aids used to train young navy aircraft mechanics.

Unfortunately, when mounting the Sea Fury exhibit in the Australian War Museum, it was found that someone had not taken the arrester hook into account. Alas, the solution was not to alter the floor plan by a couple of inches, but to saw off part of the hook. The poor aircraft, Korean heritage or not, stands forever emasculated.

805 Squadron, RAN

805 Squadron

In a moving ceremony hosted by the Maritime Commander Australia, RADM Geoff Smith AM RAN, and attended by the Chief of Navy VADM David Shackleton AO RAN, 805 Squadron Commanding Officer CMDR A.C.(Tony) Dalton RAN read 805’s new commissioning warrant at 1830, Wednesday 28 February 2001. On the tarmac outside the squadron’s sparkling new quarters at RANAS Nowra, distinguished aviator Nancy Bird Walton, AO OBE, one of Australia’s earliest aviation pioneers, delivered the commissioning address and, with the most junior squadron member SMNATV Hamish Dale, cut the ceremonial cake with a naval sword. Alas, not for the first time, this early promise and enthusiasm failed to materialise into a viable front line squadron.

A Maverick-armed RNZN Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite makes a dirty dart onto a pitching and rolling deck.

 Back in the early 1990s, RAN S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopters were deemed too big for a proposed joint Malaysian/Australian “offshore patrol vessel” project. Instead, the Kaman Seasprite SH-2G helicopter, with it’s short wheelbase, well-proven airframe, reliable twin- engine layout and good load-carrying capability, together with an excellent AGM-119B Penguin anti-ship missile, seemed a better fit. A $667 million contract was signed in June 1997 for Kaman to recover 11 ex-USN Seasprites from desert storage after flying out their planned life and refurbish them. A similar refurbishment procedure worked well for an  A4G Skyhawk purchase in July 1967 and the RAN had previously led the world in upgrading the Wessex 31B as a virtually new aircraft with a novel integrated sonar and flight control system. In 1997 the RAN and Kaman hoped to replicate the task.

wessex 31b
The Wessex 31B was a brilliant innovation led by the RAN. Based on a production run of only 27 aircraft, with a new sonar and integrated flight control system, it was virtually a new aircraft, compared with the old Wessex 31A

Then Malaysia announced it was purchasing a competing German ship in October 1977, effectively cancelling the joint “offshore patrol vessel” and dampening interest in any extended production run of refurbished Seasprites. Instead of cancelling and maybe forfeiting $100 million or so, a “Plan B” evolved to put the Seasprites into RAN frigates, a decision that might end up costing ten times that amount, for the same nil return.

Devising new electronic systems, including inter-linking the automatic pilot and the anti-shipping missiles to a brand new “all-glass” cockpit display for a production run of only 11 aircraft proved too daunting. The original software contractor, Litton, walked away in 1999, citing competing pressure for larger and more urgent (read more rewarding) tasks. CSC Australia took over the software project but further complications, including airworthiness and flight control problems, ultimately led to the project’s cancellation on 5 March 2008.

In contrast, the New Zealand navy, about the same time, purchased five second-hand ex-USN SH-2G Seasprites. They retained virtual legacy cockpit displays and they came with a less expensive but quite capable AGM-65 Maverick surface-to-ground missile. They have been operating from RNZN frigates since 2001.

Short squadron history

A number of speakers in the 2001 commissioning ceremony recalled the squadron’s colourful history. Formed originally as an RN fighter squadron in Donibristle, UK, on 4 May 1940, it rebirthed as a Fleet Support and fighter squadron in 1941 in the Western Desert alongside 816 Squadron. Flying a wide variety of aircraft, 805 saw extensive service in action in Crete, Egypt, Libya and Kenya, fighting in some of the bloodiest sea, air and land battles of the war. Slated for the British Pacific Fleet in the closing stages of WW II, most of the squadron’s Seafires were lost in bad weather during a pre-embarkation transit flight in East Africa and the squadron disbanded. 

Reforming in 1945 805 Squadron became one of the chief post-war display squadrons, with crack pilots driving well-polished Seafires and Fireflies. Disbanding again briefly in July 1948, it reformed with Sea Furies as RAN 805 Squadron, 28 August 1948. Together with the RAN’s 816 Squadron, they made up the 20th Carrier Air Group (CAG), embarking in the RAN’s first aircraft  carrier, HMAS Sydney, in February 1949. The CAG earned a case of champagne for completing their initial workup without losing one aircraft over the side.

The RAN followed Royal Navy tradition in naming front line squadrons with an 800 prefix, while training or fleet support squadrons had a 700 prefix.

A substantial proportion of both 20th CAG aircrew and ground crew were initially on loan from the RN, but there were many Australians in the training pipeline and it would not be long before the squadron had its first Australian Commanding Officer, LCDR Jimmy Bowles, RAN, in late 1950. The squadron achieved a number of world and Australian firsts, including a speed and distance record for fighter aircraft as the squadron flew from Brisbane to Hobart in battle formation in 1950.

sea-fury 4
An 805 Squadron Sea Fury poised for the cut

The Sea Fury was the fastest single-engined piston-engined aircraft in service in the world at that time. It could be a bit of a brute to deck land sometimes, because its big engine obscured the pilot’s view on finals approach, but it was a delight to fly, with a powerful responsive engine and light balanced controls.


With barely enough time to settle in at Nowra, convert new aircrew to Sea Furies and work up the aircraft carrier, 805 Squadron, along with 808 and 817, became the Sydney Carrier Air Group and sailed off for active service in Korea in September 1951. Tony Dalton highlighted this period in one speech during the evening. He reminded the gathering that on the passage to Korea, SBLT Ian Webster, RAN, of 805 Squadron, was the first in the world to ditch a Sea Fury successfully.

sea fury 106
805 Squadron’s 106 in Korean livery (but without rocket rails and drop tanks). This aircraft was leading in the unofficial sweep for the maximum number of sorties until the second last patrol. Flown by the Squadron CO, 106 was badly shot up during a run down the notorious Haeju Gorge flak trap. The aircraft brought the CO home safely, but it’s extended down time under repair allowed another aircraft, 101, to creep by and win the sweep.

There was a real fear that the Sea Fury’s big radial engine would nose the aircraft under when it first touched the water. Pilots, given the option, chose to bale out rather than ditch. As Dalton explained, after experiencing an oil pressure failure on 11 September 1950, Webster tried to return to the ship for an emergency landing but the engine suddenly failed when he was downwind. With his undercarriage and flaps down, the aircraft dropped like a stone. There was no time even to retract the undercarriage. The Sea Fury certainly nosed over when it hit the water, but although the cockpit went under water and stayed under, the aircraft sank slowly enough for Webster to scramble clear and inflate his dinghy.

The accompanying rescue destroyer saw the crash and headed for it at very high speed, but somehow overshot the floundering pilot and tipped him out of his dinghy. Before the destroyer could turn around for another attempt, Sydney‘s seaboat came to his aid. However, by the time it reached him, Webster had reboarded his dinghy, opened the rescue pack, devoured all the food (except for an iron-hard block of chocolate) and even deployed his fishing line. Squadron aircrew learned initiative along with survival skills.

The accident demonstrated not only that the Sea Fury could ditch successfully, but it could even ditch safely its wheels down. This was the forerunner of a number of successful RAN and RN Sea Fury ditchings after enemy action in Korea.

sea fury5Korea snow
“Flying completed for the day” (aka “out ukkers boards in the crewrooms”) was the pipe in stormy seas, such as Typhoon Ruth in 1951 (left) and snowstorms in 1952.

The ship and the carrier air group distinguished themselves in Korea through both excellent seamanship and airmanship. The ship weathered a very nasty Typhoon Ruth that killed more than 500 people ashore and set a record number of sorties per day for a light fleet carrier in Korea. When not hitting designated targets, mixed divisions of 805 and 808 Squadron Sea Fury aircrew roamed the North Korean countryside looking for targets of opportunity with each aircraft carrying a load of eight three-inch (60-pound heads) ballistic rockets and about 125 rounds per gun in four 20 mm cannon.

They also maintained a daylight hours Combat Air patrol of two Sea Furies and performed other duties such as Naval Gunfire Support, Army Support and Photoreconnaissance. The Fireflies of 817 Squadron either carried bombs and concentrated on knocking out all the bridges and rail tunnels or flew anti-submarine patrols with depth charges. No enemy aircraft or submarines were detected by the CAP or ASW patrols, but contrails denoting combats between North Korean Mig 15s and USAF aircraft were frequently spotted way overhead by the low-flying RAN aircraft.

The Sydney CAG shut down all day movement of road, rail and barge traffic in the ship’s sector of Korea whenever Sydney was on patrol. Substantial evidence indicated that nothing of ox cart size or greater moved by day without being hit.

USN Chief Aviation Machinists Mate Arlen Keith (Dick) Babbitt performed the longest helicopter rescue of the Korean War in Sydney‘s borrowed USN HO3S-1 helicopter. SBLT Neil MacMillan and Obs1 Hank Hancox in an 817 Squadron Firefly had been shot down deep inside enemy territory and a company of aggressive troops quickly surrounded them. The opposed rescue effort was covered by 805 and 808 Squadron Sea Furies.

Babbitt won a well-deserved DSM for his courage, skill and determination.

Returning to Australia, 805 Squadron worked up once more for Korea, but hostilities ceased before they arrived for the second tour. A period of relative calm followed, with regular cruises around Australia and through the tropics, in either Sydney or HMAS Vengeance. The squadron also became an Operational Flying School, helping to convert young pilots directly from the RAAF pipeline. Some had to be re-converted carefully from jets as they learned to master high-powered piston engines.

The jet era


sea venom
805 Squadron Sea Venom on
Melbourne‘s forward lift.

Disbanding on 26 March 1958, the squadron reformed five days later at Nowra as a Sea Venom all-weather fighter squadron. The twin-boom jet carried an excellent air intercept AI-17 radar, but it had no air-to-air missiles, it possessed a poor contemporary fighter performance and to avoid linear overstress it required seven knots or more of natural wind to launch from Melbourne in the tropics. This resulted in many frustrating aborted sorties from HMAS Melbourne and 805 eventually disbanded once again on 30 June 1963.

884 on cat884 jervis bay
805 Squadron’s 884 on
Melbourne‘s steam catapult (left) and off Jervis Bay (right).

The squadron reformed once more on 10 January 1968, this time with A-4G Skyhawks. In contrast to the Sea Venoms, this highly successful aircraft melded beautifully with Melbourne. 805 Squadron Skyhawks carried AIM 9 Sidewinders as well as a pair of 20 mm cannon and a large variety of underwing stores, ranging from buddy refuelling packs to triple-tiered bombs. The Skyhawk also had the huge and very welcome advantage of being able to operate from Melbourne in the fighter role without natural wind in the hot and sticky tropics. Following the political decision not to replace the 40-years old Melbourne, the squadron disbanded on 2 July 1982 and the remaining ten invaluable Skyhawks were sold at fire sale prices to New Zealand. Some of these same Skyhawks then returned to Nowra as Number 2 Squadron RNZAF aircraft, hired to make up the shortfall of Fleet Requirement Unit effort promised by RAAF and local civilian resources.


decommissioning1decommissioning 2
After 805’s decommissioning ceremony, inhibited Seaprites look on  forlorn as Chief of the Navy VADM R. E. Shalders and ABATA P.J. Geutjes cut the decommissioning cake.

After starting with so much promise in 2001, a seven-year roller-coaster ride of “on again” and “off again” decisions followed and the RAN Seasprite project was finally scrapped 5 March 2008. In another moving ceremony attended by Chief of Navy VADM R.E. Shalders AO CSC RAN, 805 Squadron sadly decommissioned in HMAS Albatross on 26 June 2008.  “The hardships have not deterred the men and women of 805 Squadron from doing their jobs,” LCDR Matthew Royals RAN, CO 805, said. He went on to explain how they are all looking forward eagerly to the many challenges ahead, learning how to maintain and fly new aircraft. They also looked forward to the day when a new 805 Squadron would be formed.

TARCAP in Korea

A TARCAP with Belfast

During the Korean War, HMAS Sydney supplied spotter aircraft for TARCAP (Naval Gunfire Support, shore bombardment). Early one day Belfast reported unfriendly fire from the Chinnampo Estuary area, so HMAS Sydney launched a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed “Duckshoot Alpha” Sub Lieutenant in the forenoon of 8 December 1951.

Belfast performs a RAS with USS Bataan in May 1952 off Korea.

The enemy guns had evidently been pulled back into mountainside caves by the time the Sea Fury arrived, but their positions were given away by distinctive black blast patterns in the freshly-fallen snow, suggesting four 88 mm or so guns, about 100 metres apart. It was rare to find such a juicy target and Belfast correctly repeated back the urgently generated fire plan.

Chinnampo Estuary

MiG-15 vs Sabre dogfight

Unfortunately, just about this time, a dozen or so MiG-15s and Sabres started dogfighting 30,000 feet or more above Belfast and Duckshoot Alpha. The first indication of this was a shower of drop tanks flashing by the fat, dumb and happy TARCAP Sea Fury, tooling along at 800 feet or so. Looking up, the slack-jawed pilot saw jet aircraft dots at the head of semi-persistent white contrails that were embedded now and then with either the brown ripples of a Sabre’s .5-inch machine guns or the black blob, blob, blob of the MiG-15s’ big 37 mm cannon.

mig 15f-86 sabre
The MiG-15 (left) surprisingly outperformed nearly all other aircraft in the Korean theatre until the USAF introduced the F-86 Sabre (right).

Tallyho or bug out?

They were far too high for any Sea Fury to climb to help. The jets would have been out of fuel and long gone before the piston-engined aircraft lumbered through 20,000 feet. In any event, any Australian Sea Fury joining a dogfight like that, without radio communications, had a 100 per cent chance of being shot down by testerone-laden pilots from either or both sides.


RAN Sea Fury, with 805 Squadron (red spinner) and Korean War markings (less drop tanks and rocket rails).

Keeping the ship and land target in sight, Duckshoot Alpha discreetly withdrew a couple of miles to the southwest to avoid the cartridge cases and other debris raining down from above. One MiG-15 disengaged in a max rate descent to shoot north along the coast at low level but the Sea Fury was far too slow and distant to attempt an intercept. No other aircraft displayed any sign of damage.

Slow procedures

Frustrating at the time, but with a greater understanding of the situation later, Belfast took more than 15 minutes to process the fire plan. They made no effort to deploy their more than willing TARCAP as pure CAP, but it became evident that her “A Team” was busy observing the dogfight and standing by to repel a possible enemy aircraft attack. Eventually Belfast called “Ready” and the shoot proper began. But the “Fire for Effect” was not highly successful.

First of all, the Korean artillery were pinpoint targets and Belfast’s six-inch guns were only marginally less inaccurate than the destroyers, with a 150 metres or so fall-of-shot zone. (That’s one of the reasons sub lieutenants spotted for six-inch cruisers and destroyers, while lieutenants and above routinely worked the more precise battleships.) Then again, Belfast seemed distracted by the dogfight and it was difficult to have her adjust fall of shot in her usual crisp and consistent manner.

Finally, because Charlie time was fast approaching and fuel was running low, Duckshoot Alpha left each of the four emplacements with a presento pair of 60 lb rockets and about 100 rounds of 20 mm. Cave mouth hits were observed but, consistent with most of the targets engaged in Korea, nothing else. Belfast was ordered to “Record as Target”, so it is quite possible that she went back to have another go at the guns, but there is no handy data on this.

RAN Helicopters

RAN Helicopters

by Anthony Haigh
This essay was a distinguished entry in the 2002 Naval Officers Club Literary Prize competition.
Considering the relatively short time it has been around, the development of the Australian naval helicopter as a maritime weapons system has been impressive. Over a fifty-year period, and through nine different types, it has developed from a simple utility platform to a sophisticated strike aircraft.

Where it all began, the 1953 Bristol Sycamore HR Mk 50.

 That development obviously owes much to the technological advances that have been made since 1953 when the RAN’s first helicopters were delivered: piston engines have given way to jets; rotor blades are now made from light but strong composite materials, as opposed to metal; navigation is managed by computers, that take their information from satellites, inertial units and radar; and the computer itself represents a huge advance. But the development is also testament to Australia’s willingness to respond to the changing face of maritime warfare. From the ‘flat-top’ aircraft carrier traditionally associated with naval aviation to the modem frigate operating one or two helicopters, the Australian Fleet Air Arm has moved with the times.

A short history

Australian naval aviation had been in existence for some time, in various forms, before the introduction of helicopters. Australians flew in World War I with the Royal Navy Air Service, and in the early 1920s the RAN built its first ‘aircraft carrier’: HMAS Albatross, a seaplane carrier. However, the successes enjoyed by Royal Navy and United States Navy aircraft carriers during World War II convinced Australia to form its own Fleet Air Arm, based around two aircraft carriers.

The carriers were British Majestic Class light fleet carriers: HMA Ships Sydney and Melbourne (laid down as HM Ships Terrible and Majestic respectively). Sydney was acquired in December 1948 but at this time several advances were being made in the field of carrier design: notably, the angled flight deck and the mirror landing system.

It was decided to incorporate these features into Melbourne, making her the first operational carrier in the world to embody them. However, the modernisations delayed her delivery until May 1956 and, to bridge the gap, the UK offered HMS Vengeance on loan. Sydney became a Fast Troop Transport and Vengeance was commissioned into the RAN as HMAS Vengeance. On her arrival in Australia she carried our first helicopter, the Bristol Sycamore.

The early years: Utility, Search and Rescue, Hydrographic

From the point of view of appeal and employability, the strengths of the helicopter have traditionally rested in its ability to hover, to take off and land vertically in relatively small and minimally prepared areas, to winch personnel and stores, and to carry equipment as an underslung load. Conversely, its weaknesses have been its slowness, its relatively short range, and its vulnerability to hostile fire. Consequently, in the early days, the effort directed towards the development of offensive weapon systems for fixed wing aircraft was not given to the humble helicopter.

Helicopters have, therefore, traditionally played a support role. Search and Rescue (SAR) has always been a task; however, this has often been reduced to purely rescue, with the search component being performed by fixed wing aircraft with their greater range and endurance. The ability to land in the grounds of, or very close to, hospitals makes it ideal for Medical Evacuation. Stores transfer, either by winch or underslung load, has likewise been a common helicopter task.

These, then, were the roles of the Bristol Sycamore, one of the earliest production helicopters, its first flight being 24 July 1947. It was sturdy and reliable, attributes proved with the British armed forces in various parts of the world, often in harsh and difficult conditions. The RAN operated 13: three Mk 50s and ten Mk 51s. The first batch were delivered aboard HMAS Vengeance, the second aboard HMAS Melbourne.

The helicopter performed well for its era, although it may now seem modest when compared with modem ones. Its Alvis Leonides 73 nine cylinder radial engine, of 550 horsepower, achieved a cruising speed of 90 knots (166 km/h) with a range of 285 nautical miles (527 km). It had a crew of two, carried three passengers or two stretchers, and weighed 5600 Ibs (2540 Kg) fully loaded.

Bell UH-lB Iroquois

The Iroquois, affectionately known as ‘the Huey’, is probably the most recognised helicopter in the world. Indeed, for some people it epitomises ‘the helicopter’. The powerful ‘thump’ of its rotor blades signals its approach from miles away and evokes visions of Vietnam newsreels for anyone old enough to have lived through the time. Several versions were built but the RAN operated the ‘Bravo’ model, although Navy aircrew flew other models in Vietnam, both with the RAAF and American forces.

During its RAN service, the Iroquois operated in the same roles as its predecessor but with an additional training role. It was, however, much more modem. Rather than the piston engine of the Sycamore, it was powered by the Lycoming T53-L-11 turboshaft, which delivered 1100 horsepower, exactly twice that of the Alvis. It had much the same performance figures but was heavier at 8500 Ibs (3856 Kg) gross weight. Although the ‘Huey’ did operate at sea on occasions, it was more commonly seen ashore, providing a continuation/transition training role for new navy helicopter pilots.

The Huey UH-1B Iroquois (left) and Scout were the RAN’s first turbo-powered helicopters.

 Two light utility helicopters operated from HMAS Moresby, in support other hydrographic operations. The Westland Scout flew from the vessel from 1963 until 1973 until replaced by the Bell 206B (Kiowa). Both aircraft were employed ferrying personnel and equipment between the ship and shore camps.

The aircraft carrier provided the RAN with the capability to strike an enemy using fixed wing aircraft at greater ranges than would otherwise have been possible. However, it demanded an effective means of self-protection from submarines, a major threat at the time.

The effectiveness of the submarine had been well proven in World Wars I and II, and the USSR was now building up an incredibly large fleet of them. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) was therefore afforded considerable importance. One of the more effective means of countering the submarine threat was the ‘dipping’ sonar equipped helicopter.

Westland Wessex 31A and 31B

The Wessex began life as the Sikorsky S-58. Westland built them under licence, replacing the original piston engine with a turboshaft (jet) and adding a dipping sonar and torpedoes. The Australian variant was the Mk 31 A, which was upgraded in 1969 to the Mk 3 IB. Normally, these aircraft were employed in pairs, in search sectors ahead of the carrier. They were very effective ASW helicopters and provided sterling service until 1975, when replaced by the Sea King.

wessex 31b
The Australian-converted Wessex 31B variant.

 The Sea King was also a licence-built Sikorsky. The design was changed to allow greater independence during operations, in line with RN philosophy rather then that of the USN, which preferred to maintain tighter control. The Australian model had more powerful engines and a six bladed tail rotor for operations in hotter climes.

Improved sonar and data link

The Sea King was equipped with a doppler radar navigation system, coupled to a large search radar display, providing accurate and reliable navigation information. This system also provided a means of controlling other helicopters to any desired position or to an accurate weapon release point. The doppler radar was also coupled to the aircraft flight control system enabling automatic transition from forward flight to the hover, providing a very safe and effective means of performing what is a potentially dangerous evolution at night or during bad weather.

The aircraft could carry two torpedoes; however, with its improved sonar and a datalink system it also had the alternative of transmitting sonar information to a ship which could then launch an Ikara torpedo-carrying missile. With an endurance on-station of four hours, the Sea King Mk 50 represented a considerable advance in helicopter anti-submarine operations.

sea kingseahawk
The Westland Sea King (left, photo LSPH K. Bristow) and Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk proved to be highly proficient anti-submarine aircraft.

In addition to providing an improved ASW capability the Sea King also represented an important step in the development of the helicopter in Australian naval aviation, the additional role of surface surveillance. Previously undertaken by fixed wing aircraft, either land or carrier based, the Sea King’s four and a half hour transit endurance, navigation fit and radar enabled it to search many miles ahead of the carrier group. If two aircraft were used, stationed 80 miles apart and flying 200 miles down the group’s intended track, an impressive 40 000 square miles of ocean could be radar searched. These were early days, though, and the Sea King was never seriously utilised in this role.

Role development and the demise of the carrier

The early 1980s were not good years for the Fleet Air Arm. True, they began optimistically enough with Australia considering acquiring the British carrier, HMS Invincible. There was even some talk of buying the Harrier. However, the Falklands War caused the UK to rethink its decision to dispose of the vessel and an offer by the Australian government not to take her was quickly and gratefully accepted. Additionally, Melbourne‘s subsequent retirement in 1982 resulted in the retirement of the majority of its fixed wing aircraft. The decade that had started so promisingly had now suddenly crashed and burned. However, this event steered naval aviation down a different path and the next few years would see it rise, phoenix like, from the ashes.

The choice of the RAN’s next ASW helicopter had been discussed for several years. This was not a simple business of examining those helicopters currently ‘on the market’ that had the most impressive performance: the helicopter that could fly faster, longer, more economically and carry more torpedoes. Several other factors also had to be considered: which aircraft would be the cheapest and easiest to maintain, have the most potential for development over the period of its expected life, and provide most Australian industry involvement in manufacture and support. Several influences affected the selection process and it was far from simple.

Primarily ASW

It was accepted that the primary role of the helicopter would be ASW, but a fundamental consideration was whether to fit it with a dipping sonar or with sonobuoys and an acoustic processor. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages depending on whether the target is nuclear- or conventionally-powered.

Nuclear submarines were, during this period, becoming more common. The advantage enjoyed by a nuclear boat over its conventionally powered contemporary is its ability to stay below the surface for long periods and to travel at much faster speeds. A single dipping helicopter could not hope to achieve, let alone maintain, tracking information on a nuclear submarine: it would take two, sometimes three. Nuclear submarines were also noisy, being relatively easily detected by sonobuoys. Against the nuclear submarine threat, sonobuoys and an acoustic processor was the way to go.

On the other hand, conventional submarines, always considerably quieter than their nuclear contemporaries, were also now enjoying the advantage of advanced battery design. They could now go for periods measured in days, as opposed to hours (dependent on operating speed) before needing to re-charge their batteries. This allowed them to get into position ahead of a force of ships long before those ships arrived, a distinct advantage for the submarine captain. Previously, he had had to worry about charging his batteries prior to gaining a good attack position in order to ensure he had sufficient charge to make his escape.

This, of course, increased his vulnerability to detection. Now he could lie in wait well ahead of the force, confident that he could carry out his attack and still have ample charge remaining to creep away quietly. In this situation the dipping helicopter had the better chance of detecting the submarine than the sonobuoy equipped aircraft. Sonobuoys are ineffective against a conventional submarine that is lying in wait and making no noise at all, and they are little more so against one that is creeping quietly away making no more than two or three knots. Against conventional submarines, the dipping sonar tended to have the edge over the acoustic processor.

Small ship operations

A further factor to influence the choice of helicopter was the demise of the carrier. From 1982 onwards, the RAN would be operating its helicopters from ‘small’ ships: that is, vessels of about four to five thousand tonnes, compared with Melbourne at about 19,000 tonnes. Operating from a frigate, there would be less need, if any, for the screening operations so necessary with the carrier. Frigates were more likely to operate in pairs, or as part of a large force containing units from other countries. The days of the ‘escort force’ (aircraft carrier, supply vessel, escort destroyers and frigates) protecting a fleet of merchant ships, was considered a thing of the past.

In summary, the decision was taken to select a helicopter which could perform a broader range of tasks than the role dedicated aircraft of the previous era. The Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk was selected but delivery would not be possible for some years.

The Squirrel was originally acquired in 1984 as an interim embarked helicopter for the FFG, really for the purpose of allowing the RAN to build up some experience in small ship embarked operations. The aircraft is a small, single engine civilian helicopter. It is fitted with skids, rather than wheels, and is not really designed for shipboard use. However, this little machine served brilliantly at sea, including operations during and after the Gulf War.

The Aerospatiale Squirrel

 The body is largely constructed of composite material, earning it the nickname ‘plastic fantastic’; yet, this fact also made it extremely difficult to detect on radar. Although it had no detection equipment itself, other than the eyes of the crew, it was surprisingly effective at finding surface contacts. Furthermore, due to the ability and initiative of its crews, it could provide targeting information well within the acquisition parameters of the ship’s Harpoon missile. The Squirrel was probably the RAN’s first serious use of a helicopter for surveillance and targeting operations. Its most valuable contribution, however, was to provide experience for aircrews and ships’ crews in working together.

Gulf War

When called on to respond to the Gulf War, the RAN was able to provide three Squirrels and two Seahawks for immediate embarkation in three ships, fully confident in their collective ability to operate safely and efficiently together – which, of course, they did!

The S-70B-2 Seahawk is one of the most advanced ASW helicopters in the world. However, being a very flexible aircraft, it also performs well in the role of anti-shipping surveillance and targeting. It is powerful and fast and is capable of operating independently at extended ranges.

It can carry two ASW torpedoes and its role equipment includes radar, sonobuoy processor and a magnetic anomaly detector. A current update program will enhance the aircraft by adding an infrared detection system and an electronic protection system. The latter will provide warning against other radars and approaching missiles, and will initiate the dispensing of threat adaptive countermeasures. The Seahawk is a modern weapon system and an extremely capable asset. Yet, for all its attributes, the Australian version still does not provide a platform from which an anti-surface weapon can be launched.

Kaman SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite.

The Kaman SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite is one step in the evolutionary journey of the Australian naval helicopter. Expected to enter naval service in 2005, it is a most sophisticated aircraft. Its primary role is to be Surface Warfare and it is equipped with an impressive assortment of sensors. These include: radar, with doppler based inverted synthetic aperture processing technique to enable discrimination and classification of small targets; an infrared detection system; an electronic protection system, including radar and missile warning and a threat adaptive countermeasures dispenser; and a data link communications system.

The Super Seasprite also carries the Kongsberg Penguin III guided missile making it the first Australian naval helicopter to have the capability to attack a surface target and inflict significant damage. This is an important development in Australian maritime warfare. The RAN again has the means of attacking an enemy ship while keeping its own ships at a safe range, and with its self defence systems the SH-2G(A) has a high probability of survival.


The last 50 years have seen the Australian naval helicopter progress through various stages of development to its current status as a maritime strike platform. The Sycamore and the ‘Huey’ fulfilled a utility role: providing rescue for downed fixed wing aircrew; delivering stores, equipment and personnel; and, of course, the continuation training role that every aircraft must perform.

The Wessex pioneered an era of the Australian naval helicopter as a true weapon system. Naturally, as with all helicopters, it was still called upon to perform the ‘traditional’ helicopter tasks, but it was also now called upon to contribute tactically in the ASW theatre. It could search and locate submarines, and more importantly, it could attack. The Sea King continued this trend, with increased accuracy and independence. It also introduced to the RAN the ability of the helicopter to operate independently, and to perform surface surveillance, although this was still in its infancy so far helicopters were concerned.

 The Squirrel and the Seahawk introduced the era of small ships’ flights operating from frigates and providing ‘over the horizon targeting’. The latest aircraft, the Super Seasprite, will provide the RAN with a platform which can search, locate and attack enemy ships with a high degree of accuracy and survivability. With such an impressive development, one wonders what the next 50 years will bring.