The Day of Battle- USS Hornet at The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

With URR’s excellent weekend posts of covering the turning of the tide of the Solomon’s Campaign at the 1st and 2nd Naval Battles of Guadalcanal, let’s look at another grim moment in the campaign. This one took place three weeks prior, and at the time, was seen as a defeat. Indeed, the battle of Santa Cruz would set the stage that would lead to the November battles URR chronicled.

The pattern of the Solomons campaign was that surface warfare groups of destroyers and cruisers and occasionally battleships would operate daily (or rather, nightly) in the waters east of Guadalcanal, in the famed “Slot” of the Solomon Islands chain. Major operations, such as reinforcement convoys, either US or Japanese, would receive wide ranging support from carrier task forces attempting to provide air superiority. Intelligence services on both sides tended to note when such surges occurred, meaning that if our forces sortied carriers, the Japanese would surge theirs as well.

In late October 1942, while the issue ashore on Guadalcanal was very much in the balance, and the Japanese planned a major offensive by ground forces on the island to pierce the American lines. Supporting the operations ashore, the Japanese planned a major naval effort. The US Navy moved to counter this effort.

On 26 October, 1942, north of the Santa Cruz Islands, the Japanese and American carrier fleets would clash. During the battle, the USS Hornet, the newest carrier in the fleet, would be left a smouldering wreck, to be later sunk by Japanese destroyers.

One of the most amazing aspects of this battle was that the attack on Hornet was actually filmed by Navy combat camera crews.


The other US carrier, USS Enterprise, would be heavily damaged.  Of the eight carriers the US Navy built before the war began, only three would survive the war. USS Saratoga, USS Ranger, and USS Enterprise. Ranger was in the Atlantic, readying for the invasion of North Africa, and Saratoga was in drydock for repairs after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in August. USS Enterprise, badly damaged in the Battle of Santa Cruz, was repaired in forward waters. For a brief time, the US simply had no available carriers.

But while the US was losing carriers at an appalling rate, they also had literally dozens of fleet and light carriers under production.

The US Navy grasped that, but that was cold comfort when the Japanese Navy still possessed a force of several excellent fleet carriers.

What the US Navy soon grasped though, was that the heart of Japanese Naval Aviation wasn’t the carriers, but the naval aviators. The US Navy had a stupendously large training establishment that would churn out thousands upon thousands of well trained aviators. The Japanese, on the other hand, had a small, elite cadre of exquisitely trained carrier pilots. Unfortunately for Japan, the sustained operations since Pearl Harbor, and the very heavy losses of the Battle of Santa Cruz had gutted the ranks of aviators. The remaining Japanese carriers simply had no one to fly from their decks.

The Japanese Navy would spend the next 18 months struggling to train aircrews for their carrier fleet.  But lacking the investment in training resources the US could apply, they managed to produce numbers, but not quality.

The shortcomings of Japanese training would be apparent when, a year and a half later, the US invaded the Marianas. Officially the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot would see the results of 18 months of training utterly devastated by well trained US carrier air wings in possibly the greatest one sided aerial massacre of all time.

To this day, the US Navy spends a ridiculous amount on training its aviators. And it is worth every penny.

Tracer 601, Ball, 3.2

If you’ve ever seen Top Gun, you’ve seen Maverick and Goose return to the carrier, and the Landing Signal Officer calls “Three quarters of a mile, call the ball.”

The ball call in naval aviation tells the LSO far more than simply that the pilot has the optical landing system in sight.

The reply is as shown in the title, Tracer 601, ball, 3.2. First, let me steal a post in it’s entirety from Steeljaw Scribe.

“Hawkeye, Ball…”

Since the E-2A went to sea in the early 1960’s, “Hawkeye” was the name used for the ball call to the LSOs. Later iterations of the E-2C continued that practice but distinguished the a/c type by markings on the nose (a white “II” for Group 2 E-2s, or a “+” for H2Ks today). The Advanced Hawkeye, however being heavier than the E-2C required something more than just “Hawkeye” but kept to a single word. In doing so, VAW heritage was called upon and just as “Steeljaw” has been used for special evolutions for the new Hawkeye, the E-2’s predecessor, the E-1B Tracer (or WF – ‘Willie Fudd’) was called upon. Now, with an E-2D on the ball, you’ll hear “Tracer, ball…”

Click to much greatly embiggenfy.

The first part of the reply tells the LSO (and more importantly, the arresting gear operators) what type of aircraft is on approach. That matters, because the arresting gear is adjustable, providing varying amounts of braking power based on the weight of the aircraft being arrested.  The arresting gear is always set to the maximum permissible landing weight for a given type of aircraft. But if the engine weight is set wrong, the result can be a broken aircraft, a parted arresting wire, or a failure to stop the aircraft in time. All these possibilities can lead to damage or loss of an aircraft, or worse, loss of life.

The second element, “601” is the aircraft’s MODEX number. Each squadron in an airwing is assigned a range of numbers, starting with 100 for the first squadron, 200 for the second squadron, and so on. With 5 E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes in a squadron, you’d normally see the MODEXs assigned as 600, 601, 602, 603, and 604.  Calling the MODEX lets the LSO know which crew he’s dealing with, as well as helping the Air Boss keep track of which crews he has airborne, and which are recovered.

The final element, the “3.2” is the remaining fuel on board the aircraft, measured in thousands of pounds, in this case, three thousand, two hundred pounds. Telling the LSO (and the Air Boss) the fuel on board helps keep them informed. Should the aircraft bolter (that is, not make an arrested landing, for whatever reason) knowing the fuel on board lets them know how much longer the aircraft can stay airborne. That helps them decide when or whether to send the plane to a tanker, or “Bingo” them, that is, divert them to a shore base.

A ball call can also contain a final element, either “Manual” or “Auto.”  This tells the LSO if the plane on approach is manually controlling the throttles, or letting the autothrottle (actually the Approach Power Compensator) control the approach.  Which method is used impacts how the LSO controls the approach and what calls he makes for corrections on the approach.

Shadowhawks Growlers underway 2011.

The Shadowhawks of VAQ-141 made one of the first deployments of the EA-18G Growler as it began to replace the aging EA-6B Prowler as the fleet’s prime Electronic Attack platform.





Yes, that was a Tornado aerial refueling in afterburner. Heavily laden attack jets usually operate at a fairly low altitude (think the mid 20s) and keeping up with a tanker like a KC-10 at 30 or 35k takes afterburner.

Oh, and that little MRAD light? And then an explosion down below? Yes, they’re linked. But I’m not gonna say how.

We’re on the road this weekend, so posting is probably going to be pretty thin.

Spike Missile Development

First, there’s real potential for confusion here. The Israelis developed and fielded a family of small guided missiles marketed under the name Spike.

Coincidentally, the subject of this post is an in-house development project for a  small guided missile called Spike. I think I posted about this last year, but I thought I’d share an update.

The Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake has a long history of developing aerial weapons for the Navy. Probably its most famous design is the AIM-9 Sidewinder family of missiles. Of course, most weapons design work is actually performed by contract to major defense industry. But China Lake likes to keep its hand in.  After all, how can you ride herd on the contractors if you don’t have a working knowledge of weapon design?

To that end, NAWC decided back in 2001 to design a very small missile. The goal wasn’t explicitly to field a weapons system, but rather to serve as a reality check on the state of the art, and as a learning tool for NAWC engineers to see what the challenges of designing a weapon were.

Buy using existing technology, often commercial off the shelf items, and with a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve, over time, the team developed a missile just over two feet long, and weighing just five pounds.

[scribd id=272892196 key=key-ZzQWMSJqJrKCBvJgUPil mode=scroll]

The first version had fixed fins, which obviously has some limitations. The “Block II” iteration has folding fins, so the round can be launched from a combined storage/launch tube, much like the TOW.


Spike isn’t a POR, or Program of Record, so there isn’t really much development money, nor is there a stated requirement for it to fulfill, which would be needed before it could be produced and fielded.

One of the interesting things noted in the presentation above is one of my favorite buzzwords- the 80% solution. If you have a system that solves 80% of your problems (say, machine gun nests ) it’s almost bound to be relatively inexpensive. It’s striving for that last 20% capability that causes costs to skyrocket.

Grumman E-2X Hawkeye

By the 1990s the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye had already been about 30 years old. Also, at the time Grumman had spent considerable research resources into conformal antenna arrays such that the Navy requested that Grumman look into fitting a conformal array to the Hawkeye. Grumman began looking at ways to integrate the conformal array radar while maintaining most of the Hawkeye’s airframe commonality, landing gear and subsystems.

Grumman proposed the E-2X powered by the GE TF-34 turbofan (the same engine that powers the S-3 Viking and A-10). The conformal arrays would be fitted to the leading edges of the wing, fuselage sides, trailing edges and horizontal tail trailing edges. In order to house the array in the horizontal tail dihedral was removed and replaced by the same tail used in the C-2 Greyhound.

Removing the rotodome also had some effects to flying qualities when compared to the original E-2. longitudinal stability in the pitch axis necessitated a wing glove that also had additional fuel (which would make up for the fuel volume lost in the wings from antenna accommodation). The other major challenge in the E-2X was how to accommodate the TF-34 engines with changing the E-2C landing gear:

General Electric TF-34 Turbofan powers both the S-3 Viking and A-10 Warthog.
General Electric TF-34 Turbofan powers both the S-3 Viking and A-10 Warthog.

The solution was to “wrap” the TF-34 engine intake and exhaust ducts around the landing gear utilizing a split fan exhaust system…”

TF-34 cutaway drawing.
TF-34 cutaway drawing.

The resulting drag penalty would be overcome by using a slightly more powerful version of the TF-34.

Placement of the conformal array posed some unique problems. There were some problems with aircraft volume and weight distribution. The proposed number of transmitters posed weight and cooling problems resulting in additional complexity and therefore weight. Not to mention resulting changes to the flight control system based on the constraints of operating from an aircraft carrier.

Grumman's display model of the E-2X Hawkeye.
Grumman’s display model of the E-2X Hawkeye.

The E-2X was presented to the Navy and the E-2X program was shelved.

Source: The Aircraft Designers: A Grumman Historical Perspective.

Magic Carpet

Landing on a carrier is the defining difference between the Tailhook Navy and the Air Force. It’s incredibly challenging, and requires consummate airmanship, every time. The utmost precision flying is required, often under far from optimum conditions, simply to conduct routine operations.

Early jet operations at sea had astonishingly bad safety records. The combination of straight carrier decks, the old style flat approach, and underpowered engines with very slow response time meant carrier aviators that embarked on a career could easily expect to see as many as one in four of their peers die in an operational accident.

The introduction of the angled deck and the mirror (later, Fresnel lens) optical landing system, combined with better engine performance, and the constant descent/angle of attack carrier approach  greatly improved the safety record of fast jet carrier aviation. Even so, operational accidents are far too common, as is the loss of life associated with them.

Non aviators think that the rate of descent for a jet is controlled by pulling or pushing on the control stick. Nope. The pilot controls the rate of descent with the throttle. Speed is controlled by pushing or pulling the nose up or down.*

This counterintuitive method of flying takes an extraordinary amount of practice to master.

Magic Carpet, a series of software improvements to the flight controls and the Heads Up Display symbology in the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aim to eliminate this.  Spill did a great series of  posts on fly by wire technology. The thing about fly-by-wire is not so much that the commands are sent to the actuators via electrical signal, so much as that the flight control computer on board takes the input from the pilot, and interprets it as to what the pilot wishes to accomplish, and sends the appropriate command to the controls.

Reducing pilot workload makes for increased safety, and greater operational effectiveness.


The F-35C will have a similar capability built in from the beginning.

*This is a very, very gross oversimplification of the complexities of the carrier approach.

X-47B Autonomous Aerial Refueling

Just the other day Salty Dog 502, one of two X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrators actually performed in flight refueling autonomously by plugging into and taking on fuel from an Omega Aerial Refueling Services KC-707 tanker.


The X-47B is strictly a demonstrator program, designed to show that autonomous vehicles could be launched from a carrier, land aboard a carrier, operate on the flight deck, and be refueled in flight. Those were some pretty lofty goals, and we admit that we were surprised at just how successful the program was, with little or no drama involved in the various phases of the program.

It is a long, long stretch from a demonstrator type program to fielding an actual combat capable autonomous platform, and indeed there’s strong debate over just what roles any future unmanned combat aircraft should perform. Some argue that a lower risk approach of an ISR focused platform would reach the fleet sooner, at lower cost, and develop the tribal knowledge to form a firm foundation for future development, all while fulfilling an important mission not currently met by the carrier air wing. Others, such as Senator McCain insist that the expense of developing an unmanned combat air vehicle demand that it be an actual strike platform, especially in light of the challenges anti-access weapon systems such as the S-300 pose to the current airwing.

The objectives of the X-47B program have been met, and both Salty Dog 501 and 502 will shortly be retired, and almost certainly be turned into museum pieces.

Sea-Air-Space 2015 – US Navy V-22


NAVAIR has recently unvieled it’s plan for the COD version of the V-22 Osprey at the recent Air-Sea-Space 2015 expo in Washington DC. Via Navy Recginition:

Colonel Dan Robinson, NAVAIR V-22 Program Manager, gave the latest on U.S. Navy variant of the V-22. It was made publich in February this year that the U.S. Navy would procure the Osprey to answer its future Carrier Onboard Delivery requirements. As of now, the U.S. Navy is planning on procuring 48 Ospreys. The Osprey typical Navy missions will include:
– Sea Based Logistics (including COD)
– Personnel recovery (including SAR)
– Special warfare (with US Navy Seals)

A model of the Osprey in Navy colors was also on display:


The COD version of the Osprey will replace the venerable Grumman C-2 Greyhound which has been in US Navy service since the late 1960’s. While there’s no question a new COD aircraft is needed, the V-22, as currently configured has a range problem when comapred to the Greyhound.  NAVAIR is looking at increasing the range by increasing the size of the sponsons which house the main landing gear.

Grumman's C-2 Greyhound first flew on 18 November 1964.
Grumman’s C-2 Greyhound first flew on 18 November 1964.