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Old Slow and Ugly by James L. Noles, Jr.
Air and Space Smithsonian Magazine, Feb./Mar. 2005

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Feb. 28th, 2005

Message from Sandy Eskew

Randy Epperson, son of SLC Veteran ball-red-02 Deceased Robert Epperson, ARM1c, sent me a copy of the Feb./Mar. 2005 issue of Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine so I could read the article that included his dad, Robert Epperson, and another SLC Veteran, James W. Davis, Ensign. After reading the wonderful article, I contacted the author of the article, James Noles, asking permission to put the article on the USS SLC website.

I also ask him how he came to interviewing Epperson & Davis. His comments and permission are below.


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Randy Epperson (son of Robert Epperson) put me in touch with Mr. Epperson, who then put me in touch with Mr. Davis. I was interested in Kingfishers because I am doing some research on the USS Birmingham, which was a Cleveland-class light cruiser also equipped with Kingfishers.

My interest in naval history dates back to my research and writing of the book "Twenty-Three Minutes to Eternity: The Final Voyage of the Escort Carrier USS Liscome Bay," which was published by the University of Alabama Press last year. It's still available in case anyone wants to order a copy off of Amazon!

Permission to post on the website

Sandra -- I understand that you would like permission to reprint my article on the OS2U Kingfisher on your website. Thank you very much for your interest in that article -- I am glad you found it so interesting and would be honored to be included on such an outstanding website. Please feel free to reprint it on your website, although I ask that it be reprinted in its entirety and that the appropriate credit be given to me as the author and to Smithsonian Air & Space magazine as the original publisher. Thanks!

Jim Noles


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Rear Admiral Robert C. "Ike" Giffen assembled a small group of pilots on the deck of the USS MASSACHUSETTS in the pre-dawn darkness. Giffen was a commander in a formidable invasion force gathered off the coast of North Africa on Nov. 8, 1942. His mission, known as Operation Torch, was to create a second front against the German forces, but in order to begin the invasion, he'd need the pilots of his aviation detachment to scout for vital information: Would the Vichy French in Morocco, with troops entrenched ashore, and the battleship JEAN BART and five submarines in the harbor, resist the U.S. landing? In the days leading up to the invasion, a U.S. Army general had attempted to negotiate an agreement. If the pro-Vichy forces in Casablanca decided to defy their German overlords by not fighting the Americans, they would signal their decision with a white flag.

"The admiral told us to reconnoiter the French positions and look for that flag," says Thomas Dougherty, recalling that morning 62 years ago. Dougherty, who today lives in Duluth, MS., was an ensign and a pilot of the battleship's two Vought-Sikorsky OS2U-3 Kingfishers. "If we encountered enemy action, we were to call 'Batter up,' and the ship would answer 'Play ball,' to let us know they were launching an attack." In the event of an attack, Dougherty's job as a Kingfisher pilot was to be a "spotter," responsible for directing the fire of a battleship's guns by over flying a target and spotting the shells as they landed. If the shells fell short or too far to the right or left, the pilots would call back with corrections.

When Dougherty flew over the French fleet moored in the harbor, he saw no white flag. instead, the inexperienced pilot was greeted with what he thought were fireworks. "What did I know?" he remembers. "I was just fat, dumb, and happy, wondering who was celebrating down there. Then, when an explosion's concussion just about knocked me over, I realized they were shooting at me!" He immediately radioed "Batter up" to the MASSACHUSETTS, and within moments, the ship's big guns were hammering away at the JEAN BART.

Dougherty soon came under attack from a French fighter aircraft, and the Kingfisher's canopy disintegrated in a hail of bullets. "If I had had my seat raised one notch higher," Dougherty declares, "I wouldn't be talking to you today." He splashed down safely in the harbor and was taken prisoner by the French. His radioman, Robert Etheridge, was wounded in the attack and taken to a hospital. Eventually, Dougherty and Etheridge were returned safely -- Daugherty after only five days of captivity.

Birth of an Icon

Directing battleship fire was precisely the kind of mission for which Rex B. Beisel had designed the Kingfisher five years earlier. A Vought-Sikorsky engineer who went on to design the F4U Corsair, Beisel incorporated innovations in the Kingfisher, the first monoplane ever to be launched from a shipboard catapult, that would make it the U.S. Navy's primary ship-based observation aircraft during the Second World War. It was the first to be assembled with spot-welding, a process Vought and the Naval Aircraft Factory jointly developed to create a smooth fuselage that resisted buckling and generated less drag. Beisel also introduced high-lift devices to breech of which, along with the ammunition can, was in the pilot's compartment. Sitting behind the pilot, the radio operator/gunner manned another .30-caliber machine gun (or a pair) on a flexible ring mount. The airplane could also carry two 100-pound bombs or two 325-pound depth charges.

Beisel's first prototype flew in 1938, powered by an air-cooled, 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-985-4 Wasp radial engine. Within two years, Vought-Sikorsky delivered the first production Kingfisher, an OS2U-1, to the battleship USS COLORADO. Another 54 OS2U-1s and 148 OS2U-2s soon joined the Navy's ranks. The OS2U-2 variant differed slightly from its predecessor, boasting additional fuel tanks and stronger armor. Confronted with the squat monoplane---some with wheels, others with floats, and still others with wheel-float conversion kits--- Navy pilots quickly christened it "the Bug" or, in mockery of the designation OS2c, "Old Slow and Ugly."


"Slow" was right-it was a lucky pilot who could coax speeds of more than 166 mph out of the Kingfisher. A crafty pilot could, however, work the Kingfisher's slow speed to his advantage. Joe McGuinness was flying a Kingfisher from the light cruiser USS BIRMINGHAM over Japanese occupied Wake island when a Zero jumped him. McGuinness immediately reduced his airspeed to just above stall speed.

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"We were almost falling out of the sky," recalls the retired naval aviator. He turned the Kingfisher toward the oncoming Japanese fighter in order to give his gunner a good shot at the enemy pilot. "He [the Zero] was going too fast, and just skidded right over us. My gunner was shooting at him, but we didn't stick around to see if we hit him or his airplane.

Even as the aircraft were reaching the fleet, Vought-Sikorsky continued to tinker with the Kingfisher's design. On May 17, 1941, the first of the OS2U-3s few, powered by a 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney 985-AN-2 radial engine.

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Joe McGuinness trained at
the Jacksonville Naval Air
Station in Florida in 1942

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The Kingfisher's landing speed was a remarkable slow 55 mph, thanks in part to low wing loading and a 262 square foot wing area.

USS SALT LAKE CITY'S Kingfisher detachment. Robert Epperson is top row, fifth from left. Jim Davis is bottom row, second from left.
02


Slow, Steady, and Stable

"It was a very stable aircraft," recalls James W. "Jim" Davis, Jr., who flew Kingfishers off the cruiser SALT LAKE CITY. "Very slow, but very stable. They said you could loop it, but with those big floats, I wasn't going to push it. The Kingfisher was a good airplane for its purpose [spotting and observation] because you could see everything that was going on."


Hundreds of Kingfishers served strictly as landplanes at training bases in Pensacola and Jacksonville, FL., and Corpus Christi, TX. Fifty-three others found homes at various U.S. Coast Guard air stations, where they flew anti-submarine and convoy escort missions along the coasts of the United States. The Kingfisher shared its scouting and observation duties with the SOC Seagull, a slow but graceful biplane built by Curtiss Aircraft Company. Pilots familiar with the SOC appreciated its superior fuel economy and rate of climb, although they relished the Kingfisher's excellent radios, especially on long hops over the ocean.

"Both were reliable aircraft," says William Neufeld, author of the book Slingshot Warbirds and the younger brother of a naval aviator who flew both types of aircraft. Neufeld concedes that the Kingfisher could be "a little more temperamental" than the SOC. Later, the SC-1 Seahawk joined the fleet as another catapult-launched aircraft. Nevertheless, it was the omnipresent Kingfisher that was destined to become the Navy's iconic floatplane of the Second World War.


The Kingfisher's tasks were legion: They included scouting, bombing, strafing, anti-submarine patrols, search and rescue, training, and even odd jobs such as towin aerial gunnery targets. Capable of remaining aloft for over five hours, the Kingfishers could range 400 miles from their ships to scour sky and sea for the enemy.

John Marocchi served aboard the USS BIRMINGHAM while the light cruiser supported U.S. amphibious operations in Sicily, and later in the Pacific. During the invasion of Saipan and Tinian in June 1944, he worked the cruiser's main-battery-fire-control computer, a massive machine of wheels and dials. For him, the Kingfishers were indispensable. "We used the reports from the plane spotters to correct aim points," Marocchi explains. "During pre-landing bombardments, the plane spotters were very effective. And once our troops were ashore, the planes spotted for us beyond what could be observed from the ground."

Almon P. "Al" Oliver, a pilot stationed on the battleship NORTH CAROLINA, remembers that the ship's gun crews would begin a fire mission by firing a single round, then radioing the word "salvo." Just before the shell was expected to land, Oliver recalls, the crew called "stand-by," to alert the pilot to observe the shell land, then as the shell was expected to land, "splash." "As the firing continued, the pilot would call out any corrections necessary to put the shells on target, at which time he would report 'No change, no change."


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Ready, Aim, Launch!

For Kingfisher crews assigned to the Navy's warships, missions began literally with a bang.

"Aircraft were launched from the ship by a catapult operated by gunpowder," explains Oliver. Battleships and cruisers were, at the time, typically outfitted with two stern-mounted catapults for such purposes. The Navy even equipped some destroyers with them, although the smaller ships had to give up a gun turret and the torpedo tubes, to make room for the catapult. "An eight-inch shell filled with black powder was fired into a chamber, and by the movement of a piston (and) a series of pulleys and cables, a cradle holding the plane was literally fired down the catapult track," says Oliver. "This amounted to being fired from a cannon, since the plane accelerated from zero to 60 knots within a few feet.

"It was a sturdy aircraft and could take a lot of punishment," he adds. "We may have called them 'low and slow,' but they were rugged.

"Prior to launch," Oliver continues, "the ship would turn to a heading that would place the relative wind about 30 degrees off the bow. The catapult would then be trained outboard to put the wind directly down the track." When crews wanted to launch two Kingfishers in rapid succession, they expedited the process by loading both catapults, starboard and port sides. "The ship would turn so that the starboard catapult was facing into the wind, and launch that Kingfisher first. Then they rotated the port-facing catapult 90 degrees so that it now also faced the starboard side, and launch that Kingfisher as well. This process avoided the labor0intensive maneuver of changing the ship's direction, and enabled us to launch quickly."


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Landing sequence: The Kingfisher flew parallel to the ship (1).
When signaled, it made a 360 degree turn while the ship headed into the wind (2).
The airplane then landed on the "slick" created by the ship's turn (3).

Robert Epperson served as a radio operator-gunner with Salt Lake City's Kingfisher unit. He recalls the explosive moment of launch from inside the aircraft. "The pilot would clamp his hand down on the throttle, stick his elbow back in his stomach, and lock his head back in a headrest," he says. "In the back, I would put my head down in my lap, cross my arms over it, and grasp a pair of handles with my hands.

"When we were catapulted from amidships, the force was fantastic. Anything that happened to be loose in the cockpit---in fact, just about anything in the cockpit -- became a projectile. For the first few seconds after launch, you were busy putting radios and spare ammunition cans back where they belonged so that those things weren't jamming the controls."

Of course, getting into the air was only part of the battle. Even with experience, landing a Kingfisher in the ocean could be a challenge.

"Swells in the landing area are predictable," Oliver explains. "[Usually] they can be judged by the pilot and pose no big problem to operations unless they are extremely high." In the choppiest waters, the ship created a "slick," a wake of relatively calm water, by making a sweeping turn to one side. The airplane flew a pattern parallel to the ship's course at 500 feet, with the ship flying a signal flag at half mast. A green flag on the starboard yardarm indicated to the pilot that recovery would be made on the ship's starboard side, while a red flag on the port yardarm indicated a port-side landing. When the airplane was about a quarter-mile ahead of the ships, the "C" flag ---"Charley" flag in Navy parlance ---was waved to signal the pilot to begin the landing sequence.

"Upon signal to execute, the airplane started a circling 360-degree approach and the ship executed a maximum-rate turn of 90-degrees," says Oliver. "A crewman on the fantail threw a smoke flare overboard so that the pilot could align his approach and land into the wind, as close to the ship as possible."

After landing, the pilot taxied to a "sled," towed from a boom near the stern. The sled, which measured about 10 feet wide and 20 feet long, was more of a heavy rope tied into a series of one-foot squares. A spring-loaded hook attached to the bottom of the Kingfisher's main float engaged the sled, and the plane was towed until a sling from the cockpit was attached to an aircraft crane on deck. The airplane was then hoisted on board and placed in a cradle atop the catapult track.


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The pilot has attached the hook from a shipboard crane so the Kingfisher can be hoisted onto the deck.



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The gunpowder driven catapult was noisy enough to make onlookers plug their ears. The force of the catapult propelled the aircraft to a speed of about 70 mph.


Scout, Search, and Rescue

Meandering over enemy lines for hours at a time to call in naval gunfire on obstinate enemy positions, the Kingfishers endeared themselves to the troops slugging it out with the Japanese below. But few men held the Kingfisher in higher esteem than the downed naval aviators who relied on "Old Slow and Ugly" to save them from capture or death. An incident related by Oliver from the last days of the war represents countless such episodes in the Pacific.


A Kingfisher overflies the first wave of the invasion of Angaur, Palau Island, in Sept., 1944

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On August 10, 1945 - the day after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki -- hurried orders scrambled Oliver off the NORTH CAROLINA to rescue a Navy pilot who had ditched off the Japanese island of Honshu. Before he even had time to plot a decent course, Oliver blasted off the catapult. Another Kingfisher, piloted by Lt. Ralph Jacobs, linked up with him for the rescue. To free up space, both men flew without backseat gunners. Instead, eight fighters flew escort overhead.

Dodging friendly fire from a U. S. submarine, quickly followed by heavy anti-aircraft fire from Japanese shore positions, Oliver and Jacobs spotted the downed aviator, Lt.(jg) Vernon Coumbe. Shot down the day before, Coumbe had spent a tense night a scant two miles from a major Japanese naval base.

Ordering Oliver to remain airborne, Jacobs braved high winds and choppy surf to splash down near Coumbe. Immediately, automatic weapons fire streaked through the air while shells plunged into the water around the Kingfisher. As Oliver took evasive action overhead, Jacobs taxied near the beach.

"The airplane started what appeared to be a takeoff run into the wind," Oliver remembers. "I expected Jacobs' takeoff might be rough due to the choppy water, but the high wind would be helpful. Yet as I watched the plane run into the wind longer than I felt necessary and begin to bounce and porpoise, I became concerned and flew down alongside the plane. To my amazement, both cockpits were empty."

Turning back toward the beach, Oliver spotted both Jacobs and Coumbe struggling in the surf. While Jacobs had stood in the cockpit trying to help Coumbe on board, the blast from a nearby shell had dumped Jacobs out of the airplane. As he fell, he had inadvertently kicked the throttle wide open, and the aircraft took off unmanned, leaving him and Coumbe stranded on the hostile shore.

"I landed and taxied back, then turned into the wind, flaps down, and sailed backwards through the surf with the main float touching the beach," Oliver recounts. "Since the plane had only one seat in the rear cockpit, I yelled out to Jacobs that he should help the rescued pilot into the back seat and that I would send someone back for him." Jacobs understandably disagreed with Oliver's idea, and scrambled into the back seat along with Coumbes.

Within moments, Oliver's Kingfisher labored aloft. With its center of gravity so far aft, his aircraft "flew like a pregnant duck." It also burned fuel at an increased rate, so Oliver kept a careful eye on his fuel gauge. Some two and a half hours later, he landed alongside the NORTH CAROLINA with what he described as "one cup of fuel" in the tank. For the three pilots, it had been a remarkable close call, and both Oliver and Jacobs received Distinguished Flying Crosses for their bravery.


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In April 1944, a Kingfisher rescued nine downed naval aviators in Truk Lagoon. Here, the aircraft approaches the submarine USS TANG as the rescued fliers cling to its wings.


The Kingfishers Retire

The end of World War II marked the end of the era for using catapults to launch aircraft from ships other than aircraft carriers. Increasingly effective anti-aircraft weapons, improvements in radar-controlled gunfire, and the ascendancy of the helicopter conspired to edge the slow, vulnerable Kingfisher off the stage. Today, some half-dozen Kingfishers reside in museums around the world, including the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Kingfishers are also on display at the USS ALABAMA and the USS NORTH CAROLINA battleship memorials, at the naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL., and at the museums in Havana, Cuba, and Santiago, Chile. These exhibits are all that remain of the more than 1,500 Kingfishers that served during World War II.


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The OS2U-3 was the only variant exported. In all, 1,519 Kingfishers flew, bearing not only U. S. markings, but those of other countries, from Uruguay to Australia.

Capable of remaining aloft for over five hours, the Kingfishers could range out for 400 miles from their ship to scour sky and sea for the enemy.


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