Say what you mean and mean what you say!



Friday, November 7, 2014

Why Lindbergh Succeeded


Lindbergh's success was no accident.  He was meticulous a planner with an eye for detail.  His time flying the mail in all kinds of foul weather had prepared him for the trials of the North Atlantic but it was his logical decision making process that served him best.
The decision to use a single engine plane was beautiful in its simplicity.  If the Spirit had been a multi engine plane, it would have simply increased the odds of an engine failure with every engine added.  Two engines gives you twice as many points of failure.  It is unlikely that such a heavily fuel laden plane could have stayed aloft with an engine out (at least within the first hours of the flight).  using the kiss philosophy (Keep It Sweet & Simple) held down costs and risks.  This is why he chose the Wright J5-C Whirlwind engine.  It had a sterling reputation for reliability.
No radio.  Lindbergh knew that having a radio would add considerable weight and little value.  Once committed to the flight knowing about the weather ahead was not going to change it and if he went in the ocean, hypothermia would probably get him before help did.  The over water navigation had to be by dead reckoning since there were no over water navigational aids.  Again, a well calculated risk.
Keep it light.  Lindbergh was a hawk when it came to keeping the plane light.  Every pound he saved was a another pound of fuel.  He never sacrificed the structure or soundness of the plane but he omitted anything that he did not absolutely need.  Even his survival kit was minimal. As a result he was able to putter along at 108 miles per hour to a safe landing at Le Bourget filed in Paris, France 33 hours and 29 minutes after takeoff.
 
 
Planning, planning, planning.  Lindbergh thought everything through.  His flight was carefully planned despite pressure to go from competitors.  His biggest mistake was going without sufficient rest but and the conditions were far from ideal.  Despite this he had received all available weather reports and did not launch until mother nature said it was OK to do so.  This sound, if not rushed thinking kept him alive.  Again, the careful planning made sure it all worked out in the end.

Before WW2

While the airlines and air racers were setting new records the clouds of war starting to gather over both Asia and the Europe.  When Howard Hughes beautiful H-1 came out in 1935 it looked like a space ship.  At better than 350mph it set new records and showed the world the future of aviation.  Shortly after that, in a resurgent Germany, new records were being set with racing planes that were thinly disguised fighter technology development platforms.  German military pilots were also gaining combat experience in Spain as well as well.  The German bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in Spain was a dark stain on the golden era.    The Versailles treaty had been all but forgotten.
 
The British were not idle during this time.  They were doing the same thing with the R.J. Mitchell's racing designs and in the process ended up creating  what would later become the Spitfire. 
In 1933 Italy's Italo Balbo had flown an entire squadron of flying boats across the Atlantic to Chicago, IL and back with only two losses.  By 1937 The Japanese were in China and by 1939 their advancements in long range medium bombers and carrier borne aircraft were impressive.
In America, the military was still suffering from tight budgets and a gradual crawl out of the depression.  The Army Air Service had been elevated to a Corps and then to the U.S. Army Air Force but it was still part of the army.  Both Germany and Britain had independent air forces.  The English took the WW1 RFC & RNFC and folded them into the Royal Air Force or RAF.  The Germans had developed the Luftwaffe or Air Weapon.

During the 1930s the U.S. Army Air Force had been making some advancements especially in heavy bombers (one design was even sold to Japan) and fighters but the overall state of the military was weak.  In both Japan and America the respective navies had invested heavily in aircraft carriers and both navies had internal turf battles between the 'carrier admirals' and the 'battleship admirals' aka the Big Gun Club.  The advantage the Americans had was the relatively civil rivalry between the army and navy.  Naval and Army aviators were often competing for records to help their branch obtain the meager peacetime appropriations that were available.

In Japan, the relationship between the services bordered on dysfunction.  There were even assassination attempts on senior officers of the opposing services.  The Japanese military had an artificially difficult pilot training school system designed to weed out all but the very best aviators.  This led to a small cadre of extremely elite pilots that were not easily replaced.  When combined with some of the excellent airplanes that Japan produced and the combat experience gained over China, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army could boast what were possibly the best air arms in the world if not the most rigidly disciplined.

In comparison both the British and Americans had civilian pilot training programs designed to get as many air minded young men as possible pre-trained as a pool of quickly trainable combat pilots.  Even Germany had done something like this with their glider clubs.  In addition, by 1939 America had developed both domestic and international airlines that spanned the globe.  Pan Am pilots had pioneered both trans Atlantic and trans Pacific flying and even had forward bases across the Pacific.  Lindbergh himself had been the pathfinder for many of these routes.  This gave America a large pool of experienced flying boat pilots like Stan Musik who could be used to train large numbers of new men.  The wealth of experience these men brought to the army and navy was immeasurable.

Sadly America was behind the modern world in fighters, torpedo planes and overall numbers.  Despite this the services trained as hard as they could and prepared a cadre of future pilots and leaders.  One extremely important thing the U.S. Navy did in 1933 was to invest in three new, ground up designed aircraft carriers of the Yorktown class.  By 1941 the U.S. Navy had the three best aircraft carriers in the world.

Millbrooke, A. (2006) Aviation History. Englewood, CO: Jeppesen
Jackson, R. (2007) The History of Aviation, New York, NY: Amber Books Ltd

A little airline History: How did it start?

This discussion is about the early airlines and how if left unmolested they may have done far better or worse than they did.  When Tony Jannus ran the first airline in history, the St. Petersburg-Tampa airboat line, he did it on what was essentially a charter by the local city fathers.  It was $5 one way across Tampa bay (a princely sum in 1914).  With one passenger and one pilot in a Benoist flying boat they could skim across the bay (often no higher than 5 feet) in 23 minutes as opposed to hours by train, boat or car.  The service was so popular that it continued on for over a month after the original contract had expired.  To this day we still have the Jannus award for contributions to the airline industry (my employer, JetBlue has won it twice).  But historical accolades aside for being first, the operation was essentially a promotion that was underwritten by the city.  The fact is that a real airline as we thinks of one today would need better routes, equipment, infrastructure and perhaps most of all vision.

The early crossing of the Atlantic by the US Navy NC-4s and the later circumnavigation of the globe by the army's Douglas World Cruisers showed vision but they were simply not practical routine endeavors.  In fact, they showed just how impractical they idea was given the current state of the art.  They did however serve to show what kind of infrastructure and support future airlines would need (prepositioned assets, maintenance facilities etc).  Alcock and Brown had shown that the crossing could be made in a more potentially profitable manner but even their flight was fraught with potential disaster as were airship services.  Airships had the range and payload abilities but the flammable hydrogen was always ready to burn if it ever met an ignition source.  In addition to this there were various and sundry efforts by local operators but these were mostly short range affairs doing charters in small biplanes.

In France however, industrialist Pierre-Georges Latécoère began building a true airmail Société des lignes Latécoère, an operation that, in the hands of a later owner, would eventually reach across the south Atlantic.  Latécoère had the support of the French government which would later prove a double edged sword.  He dealt with the international issues of crossing over and landing in foreign countries to serve France's far flung colonies.  He had to arrange for the logistics, airfields, maintenance, pilot hiring and navigation.  By the end of 1918, only months after the end of WW1, he had service from France to Spain underway (Toulouse-Barcelona).  By 1925 the airline had reached as far as Dakar, Senegal, a distance of 1,600 miles.

Latécoère used mostly surplus Breguet 14 biplanes.  There were old but rugged and simple to maintain.  But the hard work on old and primitive airplanes created many problems which resulted in numerous aircraft losses and a high rotation of pilots.  Latécoère decided to design and build his own mail plane, the Late 17.  The Late 17 could even carry a passenger, a logical next step.  Latécoère had built a working airline which and was even designing new planes when the operation was bought by a Frenchman in Brazil named Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont who renamed it Aeropostale.  Aeropostale began operating across the Atlantic and expanded across south America.  It was the largest French airline by the late 1920s.

 
Late' 17


By 1930 the wheels had come off of the wagon for Aeropostale.  A combination of the depression, bank failures, revolts in Brazil, an air mail scandal and jealousy of other French airlines with political connections, the airline was taken over by the French government and melded into what would become Air France.

Once the Treaty of Versailles restrictions had expired, the Germans began Deutsche Luft Hansa (D.H.L.) but their routes were determined by bilateral agreements with individual countries as opposed to the open ended multilateral agreements.  They also had airship service via DELAG which felt that airships were the way to go which is not surprising given that Germany made the best airships in the world.  German aircraft makers had turned to making metal airplanes which were very popular with airlines across the globe.

The British proceeded with extreme caution in airline building and virtually neglected their domestic markets in lieu of reaching out across the empire.  Imperial airways catered to upscale clients traveling internationally.  Their aircraft were older, more conservative British designs such as the Argosy tri-motor biplane and later the impressive if not slow H.P. 42/H.P. 45 four engine biplanes.
The United State focused mainly on air mail.  Whereas many pilots were barnstorming the countryside in surplus Jennys and Standards, the army had made the maiden airmail flights in similar machine but the post office was in charge.  The post office started using their own planes and pilots and helped to build up the airways by investing airway beacons and instrument rated planes and pilots.  in 1925 the post office began contracting out flying because to private airlines because of the Air Mail act of 1925.  This required the post office to contract out the air mail to the airlines instead of conducting their own flight operations.  The air Commerce act of 1926 put those airlines under the regulation of the Department of Commerce.  This would eventually lead to the development of the Civil Aeronautics Administration  or CAA (which in 1958 would  become the FAA of today).

All was well until the air mail scandal 1934.  A particularly despicable chapter in aviation history, the scandal would cost the lives of 12 army pilots and result in 66 crashes. The air act commerce had resulted in lucrative air mail contracts going to selected air carriers at fixed prices.  many operators were not allowed to bid or their bids were ignored.  The idea of the commerce department had been to help America to develop fewer but stronger airlines.  In what became known as the Spoils Conference, the DoC did just that.  In 1930 the postmaster and the airlines mapped out a plan to determine who got what.  When FDR was elected, he assigned a new Postmaster General who saw this as collusion and had president Roosevelt strip all airlines of their contracts.

To keep the mail flying, the US Army was ordered to carry the mail (a job for which they had neither the training nor the equipment).  The result was a disaster that exposed the poor state of military preparedness due in no small part to congressional parsimony.

Eventually the airlines were able to recover the contracts at somewhat lower rates if they divested themselves of other aviation businesses (many airlines owned airplane, radio and engine making operations).  The entire thing was a largely partisan political creation but it did have some positive outcomes.  The separation of industries from the airlines made their equipment available to all operators and manufacturers and the airlines focused on flying.  This bought down product cost through economy of scale and allowed best practices to flourish unencumbered by the competing interest of a parent company.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

VP Joe Biden's absurd comments about LaGuardia Airport


As a working airline pilot who has flown out of LGA (LaGuardia) extensively I feel a need to comment on Biden's remarks calling LaGaurdia airport a third world facility compared to China's shiney new international airport. LGA was built when planes went 150mph and needed a 3,000 foot runway. Being on the edge of Flushing bay it has no place to expand. In fact when the runways were extended to accommodate faster planes (jets) they had to be built over the water (a good part of the runways is actually an over water bridge structure). There is simply no place left to expand to. The field only has 2 runways to accommodate more traffic than JKF (where I still fly out of). Even if you ironed LGA flat and designed a new airport from scratch, there is no place to put bigger facilities or more runways as the airport was never intended to deal with the kind of traffic is sees. 

At nearby JFK they have built 2 brand new terminals with a third under construction and put in a billion dollar air train.  It should also be noted that LGA is a domestic airport that does not handle widebody aircraft so it is unfair to compare it to a major international airport. You might as well compare Hong Kong or Tokyo to Chicago Midway or Jacksonville, Florida.

Another issue is that an airport has to operate while new structures are built. There is an old joke in aviation that an airport is a construction sight with a runway. Temporary terminals have to be constructed while the permanent ones are built. There was actually a televised documentary of the construction of Jetblue's temporary terminal (which was used for a few years while the new T-5 was built). This takes hundreds of millions of dollars and airlines that are willing to commit to the new facilities. Since Jetblue is in the middle of building a new international terminal (T-6) at JFK they can't do it. American, United and Delta are already paying through that nose to be at LGA so they can't do it. So who is going to pay for it. Should be around half a billion.

New York (and many major American cities) have airports that have grown since their original pre-WW2 construction and they have had to make due. A few cities like Denver actually bit the bullet and built brand new facilities but it is expensive and not to be done lightly. Some new airports have been built only to be underutilized (ex: Panama City FL). Some had room for great expansion (ex: Orlando FL MCO) but many are built in cities or by waters edge greatly complicating expansion.

Additionally China (and in fact most countries) have only a few major cities. America has dozens and many have kept up with modernization. Airports like Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Chicago, L.A., Seattle, Denver, Boston and even Detroit have kept up (often against major difficulties). Cities like San Francisco (SFO) and Washington DC (DCA) have great terminals but lousy, even dangerous airport layouts. DCA has dangerous southern approaches and northern departures via the Potomac River (to avoid overflying prohibited area P-56 near the white house and the mall) and SFO's runways are too close together. Yet despite these dangers officialdom has chosen to just leave it alone rather than spend tons of money to fix it. As an aside, the DCA issue could be fixed with the stroke of a Presidential pen allowing flights over the mall. I have only scratched the surface here but Biden's comments are not simply fair. LGA is a hard pressed local airport for narrow bodied jets and commuter planes and comparing it to China's showpiece major international airports is like comparing the family station wagon to a yuppies BMW.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Sun Sets on a Beautiful Dinosaur

After decades of trailblazing service it looks as if the mighty the Boeing 747  could be nearing the end of the production line.  Boeing cut the 747's production target twice in six months and now only 36 will be produced over the next 24 months. Aviation buffs have know for some time time that some brand-new 747s go into storage as soon as they leave the plant. Only 5 have been sold this year and all of them to one customer, Korean Air.  This is not surprising as customers migrate toward more modern and efficient two engine designs (with less seats to fill).

Four engines were the norm when jet engine technology was not so advanced but today's jet engines are amazingly efficient, reliable and capable so you only need two of them.  A 747 can seat from 380 to 560 people, depending on how an airline wants it set up. A full one is a moneymaker but an under sold flight of a 747 can cost an airline all of its profits from the full ones.  The 747 is simply too big for most markets where there are not enough passengers to justify the jumbo jets.

The 747 once stood alone s a true trail blazer.  It had more seats than any other jet and a 6,000 mile range. The plane was longer than the distance the Wright Brothers traveled on their first flight.
The distinctive bulbous upper deck was a lounge was so distinctive that the plane eventually epitomized the modern age of international jet travel.  It was even the centerpiece of countless movies and was, or is, a true icon of pop culture.   It made International travel affordable to the masses and changed the tourist industry forever.  The type is used as Air Force One as the space shuttle carrier.  It is arguably the world's most recognizable aircraft.  Boeing sold a total of 1,418 747s before a major 2011 redesign as the 747-800.  Despite this, passenger airlines have ordered 31 of the latest version, the 747-8.  This order is a minuscule compared to the 979 orders for Boeing's smaller and more fuel efficient 787 Dreamliner.

As technology and customer demands change, the need for a massive 4 engine jet seems to be waning.  Passengers love frequency and the smaller more fuel efficient planes offer that.  They also offer lower maintenance and operational costs per seat mile while providing the same long range, safety  and reliablity.  The 747's place in history and in the hearts of aviaphiles is secure and we will be seeing the for decades to come but it's days of production may be seeing the sun drifting down toward the horizon.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Airline Hiring of Military Pilots

It has long been established that the airlines like to hire former military pilots. For a long time former military pilots made up the vast bulk of commercial airline pilots.  The reason for this extend back to the end of the second world war. During World War II (1939-1945) the United States trained over 250,000 pilots. The government went to great lengths to insure that these candidates were intelligent, educated and in excellent physical condition.  Essentially uncle Sam had fully screened all of these potential future airline pilots. These men then received the best flight training in the world and followed that training with considerable real world experience often in the worst possible conditions.

Following World War II there was an economic boom in the United States and the demand for airline pilots rose. When the existing airline pilots were supplemented by the supply of freshly minted aviators military aviators (who were released in mass by Uncle Sam), a fertile recruiting ground for the airlines resulted. Some of these young men never wanted to see an airplane again and a large number of them went back into non-aviation civilian life; one even went on to become president of United States.  But the others found that the military had given them a vocation and an entire generation of airline pilots was born.

For pilots without military backgrounds the competition was extremely stiff. Many of these pilots spent entire careers toiling in commercial aviation's backwaters for low wages in flying schools, small commuter airlines or freight haulers.  Breaking out of that lower rung of aviation could prove itself to be most difficult.  As Jets started to enter the airlines the demand on pilots became even more stringent. Even the experienced World War II veteran pilots were finding these sleek new planes hard to keep up with.  The air force, navy & marines were ahead of the airlines in jet training so jet qualified military aviators became an even more sought after commodity by the major airlines.  This made it even harder on pilots without a military flying background. As late as the 1970s over 80% of airline pilots were former military pilots.  This trend would continue until well after the Vietnam war which had provided another large cadre of young military veteran aviators.

However, in the mid 1970s there was the beginning of a slow change in the situation.  The increased capability and cost of military aircraft combined with the end of America's involvement in the Vietnam conflict meant that the military would need to do more with less airframes and shrinking training budgets.  This meant less pilots.  This was followed by slowing economic times and the fact that the military had become a better place to make a career.  Many pilots elected to stay in the service until retirement but because of the reduced demand for new airline pilots about 80% of new hires were still coming from the military.  That was a situation which would not last.

The situation really changed in 1978 when the airlines were deregulated throwing the already fluid situation into further turmoil.  Between labor strife and a flailing economy the airlines began to drastically cut wages and benefits.  Now even more young military officers found the Armed Forces a better place to stay.  About this time the ratio of civilian only pilots versus military trained pilots was about 70-30.  This was on the eve of an upcoming wave of retirements from World War II veteran pilots.  Pilots trained by the military between 1941 and 1945 were having to retire between the late 70s and mid 80s.

This created a situation where for the first time since the second world war there were simply not enough military trained pilots to meet the needs of the civilian operators (by this time the proliferation of corporate aviation was adding to the drain on the pool of available pilots).  To help prevent a future exodus of military pilots the Armed Forces began increasing the commitment to undergo pilot training. The commitment had been six years after completing training but was eventually extended to nine years after training.  This put a military officer halfway towards his retirement (and a life time 50% pension) by the time he had finished his commitment to the military. This went a long way toward closing the door on young military pilots for the civilian market.

The military also learned another little trick. The airlines only hire pilots who are proficient and currently flying. The average military pilot only flies between five and seven years before he is given a desk job.  This means that at the end of their nine year commitment they were not current and had usually not flown a plane for at least two years.  This made them far less appealing to the airlines.  Some military pilots actually had to go fly for commuter airlines for a year or two to get recurrent before they were hired by major airlines.

Something else was occurring about this time. Most of the commuter and regional airlines had transition to turbine powered aircraft (mostly turboprops but in some cases jets). By the late 1997 regional jets were starting to become popular.  Advances in regional airline and civilian flight school training programs (to include the use of level D simulators) created an ever increasing pool of civilian pilots who were well trained in jets and fluent in airline operations.

The military was once again getting more capable and even more expensive aircraft but less of them.  This in turn resulted and even fewer pilots being trained. Combined with the increasing number of highly qualified civilian pilots the hiring situation eventually began to reverse itself.  More military pilots were staying in the service for at least 20 years or more civilian pilots were building large amounts of jet time.  It was getting more common to see a 43 year old retired lieutenant colonel in a major airline new hire class than a 28 year-old junior officer.

Today over 60% of pilots hired by major airlines have civilian only experience.  Most of the military officers joining the airlines are either retired or active reservists.  The advancement of unmanned aerial vehicles, the over decade long commitment for military pilot training, improvements in military pay and benefits as airline pay and benefits decline all conspire to help to hold down the number of military pilots available to the airlines. The discussion has already begun about whether to give UAV time some sort of credit on an airline application (at the moment that answer is no, but that may eventually change).  The vast number of experienced jet pilots from the regional airlines have greatly diminished the need for pilots with a military background.

Now that the military trains fewer pilots than it has since the Second World War, there is mathematically no way the military could supply enough pilots for the airlines predicted needs.  The last of the Vietnam era pilots will have to retire by 2015 and there has been no mass military pilot training since 1973.  There is a huge forecast for airline pilots In the next 10 years and there will be an even greater percentage of civilian only pilots in those ranks.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Flight to Nowhere

The 'flight to nowhere' is the name often given to the main mission flown by the USS Hornet's air group during the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942.  It is arguably the second most controversial part of the battle (second only to Admiral Nagumo's rearming decisions, but that is a story in itself).  In an already tight battle, the failure of the Hornet dive bombers to find and attack the Japanese force of aircraft carriers known as Kido Butai (KdB) weakened the American attack by fully one third of its striking power.  The results would disasterous on both the macro and micro levels. 

A quick backstory: The Battle of Midway was the major naval engagement of World War Two in the Pacific theater of operation.  The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) brought their 4 operational fleet carriers, 250 planes and a slew of support forces to take Midway atoll.  The idea was to lure out the American navy's aircraft carriers for a decisive battle.  Due to outstanding intelligence work by the US Navy the American side was able to prepare an ambush with its three Yorktown class fleet carriers.  By battle's end the American navy had sunk 4 Japanese fleet carriers and a heavy cruiser, destroyed over 230 enemy planes and inflicted 3,057 casualties on the Japanese navy.  This was done at the loss of one American fleet carrier (Yorktown), the destroyer Hammann and 307 american lives.  By June 7th, The American navy had gone from a position of weakness to relative parity with the IJN.  So what happened to the Hornet's planes?

The US Navy had little practice using their aircraft carriers in concert with each other as a unified force (a forte of the IJN).  Each carrier sent its air groups off as the local commander deemed best.  Once American PBY Catalina search planes had located both Kido Butai (KdB) and the airborne Japanese strike force headed toward Midway, the U.S. aircraft carriers began launching their attack forces.  The carrier Yorktown had to delay its launch in order to recover 10 SBD scout planes that had been seearching to the north of the fleet but the carriers Enterprise and Hornet began launching immediately. 

Before angle decks were invented an aircraft carrier could either launch, recover or spot aircraft but they could not do more than one of these things at a time.  This meant deck planning the deck operations was an art form.  Only half of a carriers air group could be put on the deck at one time and the old TBD torpedo plane needed a full length deck run.  The Hornet Air Group had what looked like a good plan on paper.  They put 20 Wildcat fighters at the head of the line  as they had the shortest required take off run.  This also got the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) off teh deck and frovided air cover during this vulnerable time.  The first 10 Wildcats were the CAP and the next 10 were the escorts for the strike force.  This was followed by the bombing and scouting squadrons (VB-8 and VS-8).  Once this armada was airborne the TBD torpedo planes were brought up from below, spotted at the rear of the carrier, wings unfolded and launched.  

                                               USS Hornet CV-8


The first wave went off smoothly with all planes launched in about 9 minutes.  But the spotting and launching of the TBDs took longer than planned.  While this was going on the short ranged Wildcats fighters were burning up precious fuel orbiting the carrier.  It took 54 minutes to get the air group launched and the Commander Hornet Air Group (CHAG), Commander Stanhope Ring, had the entire squadron form up in what one pilot called 'parade formation' and head off together.  All in all 58 Hornet aircraft headed out to attack the Japanese.  There were 15 TBD torpedo planes at flying alone 2,500 feet.  Up at 20,000 feet there were 33 SBD dive bombers (16 SBDs of VS-8 with 500 pound bombs and 16 SBDs with 1,000 lb bombs of VB-8 plus Ring's SBD with a 500 pounder) and 10 F4F-4 Wildcat fighters of VF-8.

According to VS-8 commander LCdr. Walter Rodee, they headed off on a heading of 265 degrees (almost due west) even though the Japanese fleet had been reported south of that location.  This would later become one of the most hotly contested issues of the battle and still is in historical circles today.  About 30 minutes out LCdr John C. Waldron, commanding VT-8, was arguing with CHAG Ring that they needed to turn left about 30 degrees,  Ring disagreed and kept the Honet's planes on a westerly heading.  Waldron was convinced they would find nothing but open ocean and took his low flying torpedo squadron on a 235 degree heading.  This 30 degree left turn seperated him from the rest of the air group and stripped VT-8 of any fighter support.


                                   Commander Stanhope Cotton Ring


As Ring headed west into the open expanse of tractless ocean his fighters began to run low on fuel.  Eventually the pilots used hand signals to indicate their concerns but were waved back into formation.  In ones and twos, and without permission, they began to turn back for the carrier.  Due to the movements made by Hornet, she was not where they expected her to be and the fighters ended up flying south of her.  When the saw her Hornet well off to the north they thought her task force was the Japanese fleet and continued southeasterly.  Eventually the Wildcats began to run out of fuel and ditch at sea.  All 10 went in the water.  8 pilots were eventually recovered (1 was killed ditching and 1 was lost at sea).


                                                          LCdr. John C. Waldron, VT-8



About 0920 hours Ring heard Waldron and VT-8 on the radio.  Waldron had found KdB and attacked.  Here is where reports begin to vary.  Ring claimed that he turned south to find KdB fearing that it was nearing Midway (in fact Kbd had turned northeast when IJN spotter planes found the American fleet).  Ruff Johnson, commanding bombing 8 (VB-8) made a southward turn and Ring went after him to have form back up.  Ring was unable to catch him and even had trouble trying to rejoin VS-8.  By this time Ring's command had all but disintegrated.  Other pilots claim VS-8 turned back on its own and Ring flew off almost alone until he had to turn back.  He must have been near panic as he had flown an entire air group and a full third of the strike force's ordnance into empty ocean.

VT-8 was the only part of the air group to find KdB and they were massacred.  All 15 planes were shot down and 29 men were killed.  The sole survivor, Ens. George Gay, was the only one who got close enough to use his torpedo and it did not do any damage.  He spent 30 hours in the ocean before he was picked up by a PBY.

VB-8 was probably too far west to see the Japanese and due to low fuel they eventually turned for Midway.  They came a cross a patrolling PBY that gave them a good heading for Midway but they were critical on fuel.  One plane had engine trouble and ditched.  One 4 plane section let by Lt. Alfred Tucker did start receiving the 'Zed Baker' navigation signal from Hornet and those four planes turned back for Hornet.  They just barely made it.  The remaining SBDs made it to Midway but when they ditched theit bombs on the reef the local marines thought it was a Japanese second wave and opened fire.  Critically low on fuel the SBDs had to go around until the mistake was rectified.  3 planes were damaged but none critically.  Another plane ran out of gas and ditched in the lagoon.  Finally, the remaining planes of VB-8 landed safely at Midway.

While this was going on the planes from Yorktown and Enterprise had found KdB and attacked.  They had crippled 3 of Japan's 4 carriers and secured an American victory.  When Hornet's remaining planes (those of VS-8 and Ring) headed back east to the saw smoke to the south.  So weak was their navigation that they thought the rising columns of black smoke were from Midway (which had been bombed and was smoking).  It appears much more likely that it was smoke from the burning Japanese carriers.  When the air group returned to Hornet, RAdm Mitscher, the ships commander, was horrified.  He sent out 58 planes and only 21 returned, STILL CARRYING THEIR BOMBS!

Ring was the first man to land back on Hornet but he was so distraught that according to the book Shattered Sword (Tully and Parshall) he sequestered himself in his cabin despite naval regulations that required the commander to give a strike report to the captain upon arrival.  That left LCdr Walt Rodee with the unenviable task of reporting the boondoggle to Mitscher.  The Airplanes that had recovered to Midway would return that afternoon but at least 27 planes and 31 aircrew were lost for no gain (except that the attack of VT-8 did buy some time for the Americans as the Japanese could not conduct air operations while under attack. This is important in the larger scheme).

Why is this so important (beyond the obvious).  The IJN carrier Hiryu ecaped the initial attack unscathed.  Of course we are soothsaying at this point but had Hornet's dive bombers found KdB they would have had a chance to kill it.  It was two attacks by the planes of Hiryu that doomed Yorktown.  She was crippled and had to be abandoned.  Two days later as her crew tried to save her, she was torpedoed for a second time; this time by the Japanese submarine I-168.  She was sunk along with the destroyer Hammann which was beside her supporting the salvage operation.  As a sad note, many of the Hammann's crew were killed in the water when her depth charges went off as she sank.

Although Hornet's planes would take part in later actions (which were minor in comparison) they would contribute little to the battle.  After the battle, CDR Ring would receive a scathing (even if unintended) insult from his boss, the quiet and calculating Task Force commander RAdm Raymond Spruance.  When the after action reports were filed the one Ring submitted was vague in some regards and the map he drew did not jive entirely with certain facts.  Whether this was due to his mediocre navigational skills or outright deception I cannot say but Spruance told ADM Nimitz that where the after action reports from Enterprise and Hornet vary, consider Enterprise's to be accurate.



                                                        RAdm Marc 'Pete' Mitscher


Mitscher would acknowledge that the Hornet's performance was "subpar".  Both he and Ring were beached after the battle and would have to work their way back into the good graces of the navy brass.  Hornet herself, which had been made famous for launching the Doolittle raiders, would be sunk 5 month later at the battle of Santa Cruz.  VS-8 commander Walt Rodee would eventually rise to the rank of rear admiral as would Ring (who was promoted to Vice Admiral upon his retirement) but Ring never fully lived down the stigma of the the flight to nowhere.