The Hellcat Flyboys of World War II

Just look at them: The Hellcat Flyboys of the United States Navy who flew the Grumman F6F Hellcat from aircraft carriers. This fabulous photo from World War II wonderfully captures the energy and essence of all young fighter pilots.

What is that essence so convincingly captured in the faces of these Hellcat Flyboys? First and foremost, that special quality reflects confidence, joy, and comradeship – the knowledge that they are part of an elite group that has qualified to fly and fight for the United States Navy in undoubtedly the most challenging arena of wartime aviation – carrier duty. These young men, barely beyond boyhood in many cases, have earned the right to further prove themselves in the aviation challenges that lie ahead. It is the opportunity to further test themselves that accounts for the joy and anticipation in their faces. The Hellcat Flyboys came from all across the United States of America and from diverse backgrounds to fly for the Navy and to serve the country in a venture that offered excitement and experiences far beyond any they could possibly have known back home in Des Moines, Iowa, or Biloxi, Mississippi, or Bakersfield, California. That scenario remains as true today as it did back then. These young aviators already realize that they had to be good – damn good, in order to qualify for Navy wings, but now they crave to test their limits in the brutal arena of combat to determine just how good they really are. Undoubtedly, in the photo above, there are at least three or four who survived the war and actually shot down opposing Japanese pilots in the process. Equally probable is the likelihood that at least three or four of these young men went down in rough seas never to be seen again. Not infrequently, they perished right on the carrier deck in plain sight of their shipmates after returning from a mission in a Hellcat shot full of holes or draining its last pint of fuel on landing approach. Here is a Hellcat from the USS Enterprise which crash-landed on 10 Nov. 1943. The catapult officer is climbing up the burning aircraft to successfully rescue the pilot. Note the ruptured belly fuel tank.

One thing is certain: self-confidence is a prime requisite for any fighter pilot, and even “controlled cockiness” is an asset…to a point. That characteristic confidence is on display with most flyers whose exploits I have studied. For some, the attitude is very low-key – like Clarence “Bud” Anderson in the Army Air Force who piloted a P-51 Mustang over Germany while chalking up sixteen plus victories, or “kills.” Others, like Chuck Yeager, who was also a Mustang ace in the war (five or more confirmed victories), come across as a bit more “gregarious.”

I spent some time at the Naval Air Test Station in Patuxent River, Maryland, in the late nineteen sixties. I had the opportunity to talk with some older Naval Aviators at that time. I came away from the experience with a clear picture of the “fighter- jock” mentality, an image amply supported since by much research and a library of books on aviation.

Despite the confidence and ability required to win Navy wings in the early years of the war, survival required an even greater ability, and, last but not least, considerable luck, as well. Some barely made it through; many did not.

F6F Hellcats On-Deck: Up-Front and Ready for a Mission

One Naval Aviator’s Very Distinguished Career

Not long ago, I came across the picture of a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, a Vietnam-era carrier-based fighter jet now displayed in an east-coast museum. I noticed the pilot’s name under the cockpit, LCDR LEW CHATHAM. Bells went off in my mind’s eye: I immediately recalled seeing Lew Chatham at nearby Moffett Field as one of the two “solo” pilots (#5) who flew with the 1963 edition of the Blue Angels. After that thrilling performance, I waited along the rope fence with many others to get the autographs of the entire team of six. Chatham signed as “Lt. Lew Chatham.” That small sheet of paper along with a team photo from the Navy and a picture of the group flying in formation was framed and hung in my room for several years until I finally gifted it to a young brother-in-law. This was the team picture:

Lt. Lew Chatham, 1963 Blue Angels Solo #5 (far right)

Curious after all those years, I visited the internet and discovered that Lt. Chatham retired as a Navy Admiral in 1987 after thirty-one years of service. As a Navy pilot of long standing he had 1,100 arrested carrier landings to his credit – 300 of them at night! My goodness, that record of survival reflects an incredible degree of “stick and rudder” skill, as they say.

Lew Chatham and the Navy Saga of John McCain

Furthermore, and very interesting: as strike-operations officer aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany in 1967, Chatham was one of the last to speak with a young Navy flyer by the name of John McCain who was leaving the pilot ready room for a dangerous mission over Hanoi, Vietnam. Chatham’s last words to McCain were, “You’d better be careful. We’re probably going to lose someone on this one.” The cocky pilot called back, “You don’t have to worry about me, Lew.”

 History records that John McCain and his A-4 Skyhawk were shot out of the sky over Hanoi that very day by a missile. He was seriously hurt upon ejecting from the airplane, was captured by the North Vietnamese, and held captive in a grimy prison for several years. Enough said; the rest of the John McCain story is familiar to most everyone over the age of fifty.

From 1978 until 1980, Chatham commanded the nuclear-powered carrier, USS Kitty Hawk – his most challenging assignment. This was a guy who, like Chuck Yeager in the Air Force, had the “right stuff” – in spades, apparently. Remarkably, “it” seemed visible, even early-on.

I vividly recall the entire Blue Angels performance that day in 1963 at Moffett Field: the spectacle does tend to “stick” with one for a long time. As is always true of their performances, all team members of the Blue Angels radiate assurance and confidence as they walk through the formal preliminary of approaching the flight line and settling into the cockpits of their airplanes waiting in precise formation on the tarmac. I very distinctly recall seeing something special in the persona of Lt. Lew Chatham from San Antonio, Texas, that afternoon. Aside from the blond crew-cut, something else about his manner uniquely stood out, and that something else was what apparently carried him to the top echelons of the United States Navy. He, even more than the other five “Blues,” seemed to have arrived straight from central casting for the role of Navy Blue Angel.

My thanks and kudos to the Hellcat Flyboys and to Admiral Chatham for their Navy service: I only hope that, at the very least, most of those Hellcat Flyboys, like Admiral Chatham, survived their Navy experience and had a rewarding life after the War.

The Navy’s Blue Angels Begin Another Season

This past weekend brought the 2019 version of the Navy’s renowned flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, to Salinas, California. Salinas marked the second of many stops on the Blues’ performance calendar for this year.

For the uninitiated, I offer the following:

-The mission of the Blue Angels is to demonstrate the performance capabilities of the modern Navy’s latest aircraft and the Naval/Marine aviators who fly them. The carefully chosen team of six aviators is comprised of the best of the best in Naval and Marine aviation. They execute the team mission by flying difficult maneuvers at high speed while maintaining very close proximity to one another in formation. This is not stunt flying. The difficult and precise routines are performed to demonstrate the ultimate capabilities of both men and machines.

-If you have never seen the Blue Angels, by all means, go do it! I can confidently speak not only for myself, but for millions of others who have attended their airshows when I say that the excitement of seeing a Blue Angels performance will rank near the top of anything the average person will experience in a lifetime. I still recall the memories of my earliest exposure, nearby at the-then Moffett Field Naval Air Station; that was in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Since then, I have seen the Blues perform several times: the thrill is ever present with each performance!

The Blue Angels were formed in 1946, just after the war. During that first year, they flew the venerable Navy warbird, the Grumman F6F Hellcat. The following year, the team embraced the faster Grumman F8F Bearcat. The team entered the jet age in 1950 with the Grumman F9F Panther. The Blues’ current ride is the McDonnell Douglas F/C-18 Hornet, an iconic airplane which has earned the longest tenure with the Blues of any airplane (the F/A-18 in1986).

This airplane is currently transitioning into an advanced configuration called the “Super Hornet.” The Navy has chosen to forego the latest high-performance airplane available in the arsenal, the advanced F-35. Procurement, maintenance and operating costs for the F-35 relative to the Hornet dictate that decision.

While anyone witnessing a Blue’s performance cannot help but admire the capabilities of the men who fly these yellow-trimmed, azure blue Hornets, my mind also focuses heavily on the aerodynamic beauty and raw power of the F-18 itself. The brute power of the airplane manifests itself with a deafening roar as the Blues roll down the runway using full afterburners during take-off. For much of the performance, the sleek Hornets slice through the air almost silently at first, only to be followed a split second later by the throaty roar from their powerful jet engines – even with afterburners off.

During their performance demonstration, the Blues’ two solo airplanes, tail-numbers five and six, employ full afterburners as they skim low across the field and rapidly swing nose up into a vertical position prior to heading several thousand feet straight up into the deep blue sky – all with no loss of momentum. To witness such performance from a flying machine is to marvel at the vision, determination, and engineering brilliance of its creators. Equally incredible is the realization that what is on display right before one’s eyes is occurring a mere one hundred and sixteen years after the Wright Brothers first left the ground for twelve seconds in 1903. That fragile machine was powered by a tiny 12 horsepower, four-cylinder piston engine machined by the Brothers’ bicycle shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor.

I like to call such positive experiences like the Blue Angels “perspective builders,” experiences which go a long way toward neutralizing the demonstrated array of follies and foolishness that history attributes to the human-race – individually and collectively. There is a sad irony, however, in the realization that some of the greatest and most rapid advances in aviation have been motivated typically by the prospect of fighting wars!

At the Airshow, It’s Time to Fly: The Excitement Builds!

In the opening moments of the program, the pilots stride six abreast with military precision along the flight line as they approach their airplanes which are precisely parked in numerical order along the line. The eyes of the crowd are affixed on the pilots, naturally, but I tend also to notice the crew chief assigned to each pilot/airplane standing by his/her aircraft, hands behind the back, waiting to swing into action. Like their crew chief counterparts in World War II combat aviation, they, too, are unsung heroes tasked with the responsibility of keeping their airplane in flying condition. In the same vein, I also appreciate the skilled mechanics who travel with and are part of the Blue Angels organization, responsible for the perfect condition of all six airplanes. There is no room, here, for less than “perfect.”

The group commander flying Blue Angel number one moves first to his airplane from his position in the procession down the flight line, followed sequentially by the pilot of number two, and so on. Each pilot “mounts” his aircraft and deftly clambers into the cockpit of an airplane which is meticulously groomed ahead of time by the support staff under the watchful eyes of each crew chief. The crew chief helps each pilot “strap” into his airplane. Then, matching yellow helmets are donned by each pilot and electrical connections made to the vital on-board communications equipment which connects all six airplanes with each other… and the ground. Now the crew chiefs step nimbly down off their airplanes and, starting with Angel number one, the Hornets’ canopies close in sequence down the line.

The excited tension in the crowd is now palpable as a perceptible “whine” and loud “whoosh” emanates from the engines of Blue Angel number one, usually accompanied by a thin puff of white smoke expelled from the tailpipe. The same scenario repeats with Blue Angel number two and so-on down the line until a very robust whining/shhhhh sound emanates from the entire flight line. Now number one pulls out from the flight line turns and starts for the taxiway, followed, as always, in sequence by the rest of the team. In a few minutes, the crowd will hear all engines release the throaty roar which signifies the take-off roll with afterburners and the start of yet another in the long line of incomparable Blue Angels flight demonstration performances.

The airshow crowd is peppered with young children whose parents brought them to see the modern-day version of the barnstorming phenomenon of the nineteen-thirties: a pilot and his Jenny bi-plane landing in a farmer’s field to demonstrate to the amazement of local folks what he and his airplane can do.

My wife and I took our two young grandsons to the airfield last Saturday to see the Blues. I wanted them to experience the same inspiration and unforgettable panorama that I was fortunate enough to witness as a teen-ager – the impressive display of men and machines at their very best. The boys loved it! They all do.