Category Archives: planes

26 October 1942; The Battle of Santa Cruz

hornet santa cruz

In the far-flung Pacific Theater of the Second World War, there are some battles and events so momentous that it is immediately clear to the antagonists that their aftermath portends major shifts in the status quo; that conditions following will be forever different from what came before.  Midway is such an event.  With others, their true significance is often realized only in retrospect, as study of the results and decisions in the aftermath of those events is required to reveal how pivotal they truly were.  The Battle of Santa Cruz, which occurred seventy-two years ago today, is one of those largely hidden events.   A tactical and operational success for the Japanese, the battle was a pyrrhic victory for the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Powerful Japanese naval forces under Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo had been tasked with supporting the efforts of the Japanese 17th Army in what was finally a major attempt to capture Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field and unhinge the position of the First Marine Division on that island.   The glacially slow and piecemeal reaction of General Hyukatake, commanding 17th Army, had allowed the Americans to build a force of more than 20,000, replete with a fully operational airfield and complete complement of supporting arms, by the time of the October counteroffensive. Even in October, Hyukatake badly underestimated US ground strength and fighting qualities, believing only some 7,500 garrisoned Guadalcanal.  The Japanese ground effort, including a combined tank-infantry attack, was once again poorly coordinated, and it came to grief against the lines of the First Marines and under the howitzers of the Eleventh Marines along the Matanikau River before either fleet engaged each other at Santa Cruz.  (Inexplicably, the Japanese Army units reported erroneously that they had captured Henderson Field when in reality they had nowhere threatened breakthrough of the Marine lines.)

At sea, Admiral Kondo’s force greatly outnumbered the Americans under Thomas Kinkaid. For the IJN, two large and two small carriers, six battleships, and ten heavy and light cruisers, with almost 250 aircraft significantly outweighed the two American fleet carriers (Enterprise and Hornet), the lone battleship (South Dakota), a half dozen cruisers, and around 170 aircraft.

Each fleet’s scout aircraft found the other almost simultaneously, and launched strikes simultaneously. In fact, the strike forces passed each other on their respective headings, with fighters from each side briefly and inconclusively engaging the enemy’s formations.   The Japanese air strikes exacted a heavy toll from the US ships.  Enterprise was struck with at least two bombs, jamming a flight deck elevator and causing extensive splinter and blast damage in the hangar decks, while near-misses stoved in her side plates.  Enterprise was seriously hurt, but somehow maintained flight operations.  Hornet was struck by three bombs and at least two torpedoes, wrecking her engine rooms and bringing the carrier to a halt.


Despite the heroic efforts to save Hornet, a well-placed torpedo from a Japanese submarine put paid to the effort.  The incident was eerily similar to the fate of Yorktown at Midway 4 1/2 months earlier.  Like her sister, Hornet stayed stubbornly afloat despite shells and torpedoes expended to scuttle her.   Eventually, the Japanese sank Hornet with two Long Lance torpedoes.  Battleship South Dakota was credited with shooting down 26 Japanese aircraft, but was struck on B Turret with a 550-pound bomb.  Additionally, two US destroyers were damaged.

In turn, the US Navy strikes crippled the light carrier Zuiho, wrecked the flight deck of Shokaku, and inflicted heavy damage with a bomb strike on heavy cruiser Chikuma.  The most consequential losses for the Japanese had been among the superbly trained veteran aircrews that had been the scourge of Allied pilots and surface vessels since Pearl Harbor.   Despite the fact that Kondo’s task force had inflicted considerably more damage to the American ships than Kinkaid’s flyers had managed, and despite the relatively even losses of aircraft (each side lost roughly the same percentage of aircraft to all causes), the loss of pilots and trained air crewmen was disproportionately heavy for the IJN.  US losses amounted to fewer than thirty aircrew, while the Japanese lost almost one hundred and fifty pilots and aircrew.   This represents a significantly greater loss than that suffered at Midway.   With a training pipeline that could not begin to replace such losses, the most fearsome weapon of the Kido Butai, its deadly naval air power, was blunted permanently.  Japanese carrier aviation was all but eliminated from the rest of the fight for the Solomons, and began a steady decline into oblivion that would culminate in the frightful massacre at the Philippine Sea twenty months later.

For Admiral Halsey at SOPAC, Santa Cruz could not have appeared to have been anything except another costly reverse.  In the preceding six months, the US Navy had lost Lexington at Coral Sea, Yorktown at Midway, Wasp off Guadalcanal in September, and now Hornet at Santa Cruz.  Not only that, but Saratoga had taken a torpedo in August and was stateside for repairs, and Enterprise was more heavily damaged in this battle than could be repaired at forward bases.   The IJN still outnumbered the US Navy in the Pacific in numbers of carriers and aircraft, and in surface combatants.  Additionally, after Santa Cruz, Kinkaid had retired with Nagumo on his heels.

Yet, despite the Japanese tactical victory, Santa Cruz represented the beginning of the end of the fearsome striking power which had wrecked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and had run amok for the six months that Yamamoto had predicted before December of 1941.  If the Americans did not realize it, at least Nagumo did.  He informed Naval Headquarters that without decisive victories, the industrial might of the United States would render the Japanese defeat in the Pacific inevitable.

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One of the Greatest Fighters that Never Was- F-20 Tigershark

Originally concieved as an improved F-5 Tiger, the F-20 Tigershark was a Northrup product intended for sales to overseas customers. Replacing the twin J85 turbojets of the F-5 with the F404 turbofan engine, the F-20 was a real hotrod.

Unfortunately, it was also about the same time that our NATO allies jumped whole hog into production of the F-16, coupled with sales of French and other fighters. The market timing was off, and the Tigershark never went into serial production.


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The Enforcer

I can’t even count the numbers of times I’ve written about OV-10/A-29/AT-6/various other light COIN/LAARA/LARA/you name it type low cost light attack aircraft.

And virtually ever time I do, either a comment or an email shows up asking “why not the PA-48 Enforcer?”

In the late 1950s, a very small company that eventually became Cavalier Aviation had the bright idea to use surplus P-51 Mustangs as high speed executive transports. Remember, this was well before the idea of a business jet was conceived.  A nice interior and a second seat in a ‘stang seemed like just the  thing a company president would need to travel in style for business. And it wasn’t that wild of an idea. Several other companies were converting light bombers like the A-26 into transports as well.

In the end, only a small number of these Cavalier Mustangs* were converted. As a way of keeping the company busy, Cavalier also refurbished some P-51s in use in South American air forces. Along the way, someone at Cavalier got the bright idea of replacing the Packard built Merlin engine with a Rolls Royce Dart turboprop engine.

The Dart powered conversion, known as  the Enforcer, was quite the performer. And Cavalier wanted to get some USAF contracts. But it really had no chance. Seeking a better suited industrial partner, Cavalier sold the Enforcer design to Piper Aircraft in 1970.

Piper eventually convinced the Air Force to evaluate the renamed PA-48 Enforcer. By this time, the Enforcer was about 90% a new design, with only the slimmest heritage shared with the original P-51. In 1983 and 1984, two Enforcers were evaluated by the Air Force. They weren’t flown by the Air Force. They weren’t bought by the Air Force.  The Air Force just watched Piper put them through their paces, said “that’s pretty cool” and when asked if they wanted to buy some, said “thanks, but no thanks.”

It’s not that the Enforcer was a bad airplane. But in 1984, the Air Force still had in its inventory several hundred OV-10 and A/OA-37 planes. They couldn’t see the point of adding yet another airframe for essentially the same mission.

Four Enforcers were built over the years. And two still exist. One is in the National Museum of the Air Force. The other has just undergone an extensive restoration at the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base.


*Many of which have been restored to their original configuration and are now seen at airshows.


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The X-31

Spill hit an estate sale this week, and came away with a nice little gem.

This coin contains metal from the X-31 aircraft.

How did they get the metal from the aircraft? Glad you asked.

The use of digital fly-by-wire controls in high performance aircraft, covered by Spill here, 2, 3, 4, 5, meant that unconventional flight controls could be used on planes to maneuver in ways not previously possible. In particular, thrust vectoring could be used to control aircraft at very high angles of attack.

A joint US and German test program conceived and built the Rockwell/MBB X-31 research plane to explore this use of DFBW control in conjunction with high angles of attack and thrust vectoring.

File:Rockwell-MBB X-31 vectorpaddles.jpg

X-31 in flight. Notice the three “paddles” used to vector the thrust.

Two were built, and a highly successful test program showed the X-31 was capable of maneuvers that were then astonishing. Since it was purely a research aircraft, it was quite small, had a very small fuel load (typically, only 4100 pounds) at take off had a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1:1, which meant it could accelerate vertically right off the runway.

After several years and hundreds of test flights, one of the two X-31s had its pitot tube replaced by a Kiel tube. The pitot tube us the pointy stick pointing out of the nose of the jet. It measures the dynamic pressure of the air. Between it and a static air pressure sensor, the pitot system provided air data to the flight control computer to determine speed and altitude.

Remember, in a DFBW system, the pilot doesn’t control the airplane directly. He uses the flight controls to tell the computer what he wants the plane to do. The computer uses those imputs, along with air data from the pitot system, and attitude data, to determine which controls should be deflected, and how much.

Obviously, if the air data was corrupted, the computer would provide corrupted control deflections.

One of the most common failure modes for pitot tubes is icing. Moisture from clouds or humidity freezes on the pitot tube, constricting the flow of air through the tube, which makes the computer think it is going faster than it is. To combat this, most pitot tubes have an electrical heater, just like the rear defroster on your car. The normal pitot tube on the X-31 was replaced by Kiel tube, which gave more accurate air data at high angles of attack. But it didn’t have a heater. Given that the flight test rules for the program prohibited flying the X-31 in known icing conditions, this wasn’t thought to be a significant hazard.

Of course, Murphy gets a vote. The engineers knew there was no pitot heat. The pilot didn’t.  And of course, the X-31 encountered pitot icing. Not immediate, but gradual accumulation of ice led to a steady degradation of airflow, and hence data. And that led to instability, as the flight computer tried to make the plane do things that it didn’t want to do.  The X-31 exectuted an uncontrolled pitch-up, and as soon as the pilot realized he had no control, he safely ejected.

The loss of the X-31 is unusual in that it was very carefully documented. It took place almost directly over the airfield, and was being tracked by powerful cameras on the ground.

Here’s the short version:

If you’re interested, a 40 minute video investigates the chain of errors that led to the mishap. It can be found here.

And here’s a brief history of the program.

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Who wants to fly to Hawaii?

I thought I knew the story of just about every 707 accident, but I’ve never heard of this one. It’s incredible.  And it was caught on film.


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Sunset for the Phrog

Originally designed for the Army, and first flown in 1962, over 500 would be built in the next 11 years. Think of that. The last Phrog rolled off the line 43 years ago. That’s some loyal service.

File:CH-46 Sea Knight Helicopter.jpg

It would serve with the US Marines, the US Navy, Canada, Sweden, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, in addition to several civil operators.

On a personal note, the only aircraft I actually remember seeing my dad fly was a Sea Knight.

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We’ve mentioned operating helicopters from smaller ships. In the US Navy, this mostly means destroyers and frigates. Which, at anywhere from 3000 tons to 9000 tons, that’s a goodly sized ship.

Other navies, like the Royal Danish Navy, often operate helicopters from much smaller ships, such as this Offshore Patrol Vessel. And in heavy seas, it can get downright sporty.

Notice immediately after touchdown, a probe extends from the belly of the Lynx. It engages a grate on the landing deck, to keep the helicopter from sliding off the deck, in spite of the pitching and rolling.

The US Navy uses a somewhat different system, RAST, developed from the Canadian Beartrap device.

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