MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. (May 9) --
After the second World War, the United States had a large new fleet of propeller-driven aircraft. Aircraft such as the F4U Corsair and the F6F Hellcat had to be mass produced in order to put as many able aircraft on the front as possible. However, with the invention of the jet fighter, those aircraft were going to be made obsolete in short order. With the arms race ramping up between America and the former Soviet Union, the Navy and Marine Corps had to adapt to the new age of air warfare.
Naval Aviation advances jet technology
Military jet technology advanced swiftly after World War II. According to James R. Casey, deputy executive director of the Marine Corps Aviation Association, Marine Fighter Squadron 122 was the first to receive jets aboard Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in the form of McDonnell Phantoms in 1947. However, these aircraft were unproven at the time, and would have to prove themselves in the upcoming Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Retired Maj. Gen. Michael P. Sullivan, who commanded MCAS Cherry Point and the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, witnessed the changes first hand. As a brand new second lieutenant straight out of the jet fighter training course of flight school in 1956, he had the rare option of flying either jet or propeller aircraft. Due to supply and training shortages of the jet squadrons, Sullivan opted to fly an AD Skyraider in the meantime and wouldn’t fly a jet until eight months after beginning active service in the Marine Corps. This gave him a special insight into the capabilities of both styles of aircraft.
“What made the AD good was that it had four hours of internal fuel,” said Sullivan. “With external tanks, it could fly for seven hours. It had 12 stations under the wing plus four 20 mm guns. It was a flying ordnance dump. The AD’s were doing just fine in South Vietnam, but then in North Vietnam, they were getting their butts shot off. A prop is just too slow in a high-risk environment.”
Jets, though not immune to enemy fire, stood a better chance of surviving operations over enemy territory.
“Jets were more survivable. When jets came in, it was a quantum jump over ADs,” Sullivan said. “There were some drawbacks, but overall they were faster, simpler. The jet engine is more reliable than a propeller engine, they had better radios, better avionics, navigation systems and everything.”
Out of these advantages, the primary factor was speed. According to Sullivan, an AD could cruise at 190 knots and only go 250 when flying level. A jet, on the other hand, could cruise at 520 knots. The difference in speeds greatly affected the outcome of a dogfight.
“The statistics were 80 percent of all air-to-air kills since the first World War, the guy getting shot didn’t even know the other guy was there,” said Sullivan. “The next 18 percent, when the first guy figured out he was in trouble, the other guy was already on his tail. Only in two percent did they start out in a neutral start.”
Speed was a deciding factor in these statistics because a jet could come in and attack a propeller engine fighter before the propeller engine fighter even knew the jet was there. According to Casey, the speed of the aircraft also meant it could get to an area of operations faster and stay on target longer by flying from carriers.
When Navy and Marine fighters weren’t combating the enemy in the air, they were supporting troops on the ground with bombing runs.
“One of the missions of Marine aviation is air superiority, but everywhere we go we usually already have it,” said Sullivan. “So I used to tell my pilots, ‘you’re a fighter pilot, but you’re going to spend 98 percent of your time throwing yourself at the ground. You better get good at bombing.’”
Through trial and error, this became evident during the Korean War. As more squadrons switched over to the jet, more growing pains were being felt by the new logistics system that had to be created. Casey said that, because jets were new, neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps had a stockpile of parts, causing chronic supply problems. As one example, the squadron that Sullivan was supposed to report to only had three oxygen masks for their whole compliment of fighters and pilots.
Despite the obstacles, Naval and Marine Corps aviation continued to advance at lightning speeds similar to the computer boom of today.
“In my day, we were going through airplanes right and left,” said Sullivan. “I flew about eight different kinds of fighters. Every couple years, the new ones came on the line. We went from the basic jet to the basic jet with missiles, to basic jet with radar, to swept-wing jets and then with afterburners. Now we have F-22s and F35s.”