Introduction

A catapult launch of a jet aircraft off the deck of a modern U.S. Navy aircraft carrier is one of the most exhilarating, accelerating sensations you can experience....or even watch. We commonly see this type of a "cat shot" almost daily as we watch television or movies illustrating our nation's naval strength in action. But how did this event actually take place, and even more importantly, how did we technologically get to this amazing state of preparedness? In this outline, I will discuss what I feel was one of the more fascinating and critical steps in the United States Naval aviation's development and history, the shipboard use of catapults.

This page begins simply a sharing of information about the U.S. Navy's catapult operations off its cruisers and battleships and the beautiful Curtiss SOC Seagull. One of the many aspects of this aircraft that interest me, is that they were stationed aboard and flew from the ship which my uncle served aboard. I have researching this subject for almost 30 years and would like to share some of it with others. One further caveat, this is my first attempt to set up a web page and it has been a real learning experience for me. You'll notice there are none of the fancy "bells & whistles" you see on many of the fine pages out there on the internet. I am trying to utilize the old "KISS" principle and hope I can improve on it from here. I use a Macintosh and am happy to gotten this far.

 


The "Slingshot Navy"

Today we marvel at the awesome power demonstrated when we see pictures of an F-14 Tomcat or an E2-C Hawkeye catapulted off the deck of a modern carrier. The sudden surge is followed by a steady increase in power as the modern carrier aircraft is thrown from the flight deck at full power. We are left with nothing but the spent steam trail, a tremendous noise and the launch crew running over the deck to ready the catapult for its next short term occupant. A similar event can be witnessed every few minutes on 1000 foot long decks of our modern United States Navy aircraft carriers. It is difficult for many of us to imagine the beginnings of carrier deck operations.

Our earliest images were of propeller powered aircraft launched off the carrier deck edge by their own engine power and assisted by a strong head wind across the flight deck. We have seen these scenes often in still photos and on our televisions in a number of aviation oriented films recently. Prior to the development of modern jet powered aircraft, naval aircraft were normally launched without the aid of a catapult. America's naval air power was deployed to great advantage off the wooden decks of our 100+ carriers by the end of WW II. Certainly naval air power was a key to our military success in the Pacific campaigns of 1941-1945. Certainly one of the most important aspects of our country's carrier aviation is its ability to quickly and safely launch its modern aircraft.

However, there is a link to modern air power which preceded WWII that many of us are largely unaware of and led to the development of the modern catapult's use by our Navy. The link I am talking about is the catapult. In particular the surface naval ship's catapult. This link provides one of the more colorful uses of pre-war aircraft in the U.S. Navy and our Navy's last operational fabric and biwing aircraft. The SOC Seagull began its operational life during the mid-1930's and was about to end with the assignment of the Chance Vought OS2U Kingfisher to the U.S. fleet. The events beginning on December 7th, 1941 gave a new and extended life to these productive and graceful Curtiss Seagull. A few photos of the early scenes taken at Pearl Harbor on that Sunday morning clearly show a few SOC's burning on the Ford Island ramps. I digress. I would like to share with you some of the aspects of the SOC's operations and share the basis of some very interesting modeling. This aspect of naval aviation is often little understood, seldom reported and often misrepresented in models.

Today's steam powered catapult (though we see very little of the machine itself) is the descendent of carrier operations pioneered by our Navy in the late 20's as well as its use of the catapult aboard surface warships.

Early Catapult History

Catapults in warfare were used as early as 340 B.C. and can be traced to Philip of Macedon's use of a bungee-type of catapult to launch stones and other objects toward his army's enemies. These catapults were probably just an extension of the slingshot. The first recorded use of such a contraption (to help launch aircraft) in the United States was recorded in 1896, by the noted glider expert, Octave Chanute. (see note 1)

America's early catapult experimentation and use probably owes some of its earliest inspiration to the railroads! Samuel Pierpont Langley worked as a railroad engineer in his youth and from this experience he apparently gained his insight into using a rail system or catapult to launch his early flying machines. (note 2) An early modern U. S. aviation pioneer, Professor Langley, in 1903 developed and used a spring device to launch his "Aerodrome" off a houseboat barge on the Potomac River for the Smithsonian Institute. Pictures of the Langley experiments show his use of a simple catapult (with a rail type of ramp) as early as 1896 at Quantico, Virginia. (note 3) His "aerodrome" was launched from a seventy foot section of railroad track on a small cart, which Langley called a "catapult car." The Wright brothers were observers of Professor Langley's experiments and realized the benefits of using this type of power and implemented a single beam track system to pull their early aircraft into the air. Their choice of location for their 1903 experiments was based in large part on the constant wind around Kill Devil Hills south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. However, to insure the thrust they needed, their early rail catapult counted on the use of a counterbalance weight which pulled their aircraft in a downhill direction, added speed and helped to insure the success of their flight efforts. Even in these earliest stages of flight the catapult was crucial as illustrated in early photographs of Wilbur's December 17, 1903 successful flight.

Development of the Modern Navy Catapult

The Navy began its own series of experiments with catapults under the leadership and guidance of Capt. Washington Irving Chambers. (note 4) The first attempt was initiated in 1912 at the Santee Docks at Annapolis and used a dual steel track on which a wooden carriage, carrying the aircraft, rolled. Compressed air drove a piston and in turn pulled the cart with the aircraft until sufficient airspeed was achieved to launch the aircraft. Unfortunately, the first attempted launch, piloted by Lt. Theodore G. ("Spuds") Ellyson, flying a Curtiss hydroplane, was a failure. The small Curtiss aircraft gained the airspeed it required for flight too soon and as the float plane lifted from the catapult in mid launch run, it's right wing caught a cross wind and the aircraft crashed into the water rather dramatically.

The catapult was taken to the Washington Navy Yard and rebuilt by Cdr. Holden C. Richardson. Several important changes were incorporated, including the launching cart's modified wheels which would hold it to its rails and metal straps to hold the aircraft onto the launching cart until the cart reached the end of the catapult launching run. As a result of these efforts, Lt. Ellyson and his small Curtiss hydroplane made the first successful Navy catapult launch from a small barge at the Washington Navy Yard on November 12, 1912. Cdr. Richardson continued his work at the Naval Gun Factory and moved to Pensacola in 1914 with the commissioning of the new Naval Air Station there. The first operational Navy catapult was built aboard a coal barge and ran approximately 85 feet in length. Lt. Bellinger made the first successful launch from this catapult in November, 1914. It was also soon incorporated into the early Naval Aviation training program at the Florida NAS, though the shortage of staffing forced the program to be eventually reduced. The sudden growth of Naval Aviation put a strain on all available personnel. The NAS Pensacola Commanding Officer, Cdr. H. C. Mustin was successful in his request for placement of a catapult aboard a ship of the line.

The first shipboard installation was completed in 1915 aboard the U.S.S. North Carolina. On November 5th, Cdr. Mustin (Naval Aviator No. 11) piloted a Curtiss AB-2 flying boat from the North Carolina's catapult with a launch speed of approximately 50 knots. In 1916 elevated track catapults, known as the R-6 types, were added to two other warships, including the cruiser U.S.S. Seattle (CA 11). However the entry into the World War brought all such experimentation to an end and the catapults were removed and these ships were used for convoy duties. In 1920 the experiments were resumed with the installation of a catapult aboard the U.S.S. Langley (AV 3), the Navy's first carrier (previously the coal collier Jupiter). About this same time, the first compressed air catapult was developed as a turntable type and installed on the quarterdeck aboard the U.S.S. Maryland (BB 46) in May, 1922. During this early period steam soon became the primary source of the hydraulic power for the catapult because it was always available aboard ships. The turntable gear was located on top of a rotating round and raised platform. The catapult could then be turned in any direction in order to launch into the wind. Later another catapult was added to the top of the No. 3 turrets as well. (note 5)

Development of Powder Driven Catapults

In 1921, two U. S. Coast Guard officers, LCDR Hamlet and LT Elmer F. Stone (the first Coast Guard aviator), assigned to the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance suggested the use of black powder as the propellant to launch aircraft from a catapult. This led to the highly successful experimental use of black powder. Black powder charges when exploded in a special chamber produced a gas which in turn could be used to power the catapult. The initial explosive power resulting from the gases (by the firing of the powder) into the expansion chamber drove a large piston, which in turn pulled a cable through a series of pulleys. This force was increased many times by the mechanical advantage of the cable passing around these gear wheels.

In 1924, the U.S.S. Mississippi (BB 41) became the first ship to host a powder type catapult, which was installed on its No. 3 gun turret. The use and modification of models P-1 through P-4 continued from 1924 through 1931. These catapults could launch an aircraft of up to 6,350 pounds and deliver a launch speed of up to 70 mph. The P-5 model, our first turntable type powder catapult, was capable of launching a 7,500 pound aircraft to 60 mph in only 55.5 feet. This catapult was powered by a simple breech loading 8" chamber into which the brass powder cartridge was loaded and eventually fired. It was installed on all battleships and cruisers of the 10,000 ton class (usually carried amidships). In 1938, the latest development was the Model P-6, which had its turntable base about 2/3rds of the length aft from the launching end rather than in the center of the catapult. This modification was made to insure safe launches from the larger battleships and to facilitate loading and handling aboard the large cruisers. The operation of this catapult included the change to an 8" powder charge. Once the charge is fired, the expanding gases drive a piston device down a narrow hollow shaft, which in turn pulls a cable. This cable has its power increased as it passes around a series of pulleys, the end result of which is the catapult cart (on which the aircraft is attached) is pulled the length of the catapult and launched off the ship. As in the case of modern catapult operations off carriers, the catapult (and ship) were positioned into the wind whenever possible to increase the wind over the wings of the aircraft thereby increasing the lift and insuring its safe launching. One other noticeable aspect of the catapult propulsion gear is the large vented tube which runs outside the side of the catapult (opposite of the side and aft of where the powder breech is located. This tube serves as a bypass system for the excess explosive power of the breech firing mechanism when it is fired. The energy of the launching car was stopped by two hydraulic brakes at the end of the catapult turntable. The first installation was aboard the U.S.S. Washington (BB 56) in 1940, which was commissioned on May 15, 1941.

The definitive P series of catapults was characterized by its girder-like structure. These catapults can be seen in the many photos of the Navy's surface warships taken in the golden era of the 30's. James C. Fahey's richly illustrated guides to the ships and aircraft of 1939 and the war years have been reproduced by the Naval Institute and contains numerous shots of cruisers and battleships with Seagulls and Vought Corsairs on their catapults. (note 6)

Additional beautiful photographs illustrating more details can be found in Bill Larkins' recently reprinted "U.S. Navy Aircraft, 1921-1941," which Crown Publishers has reprinted (along with his companion book on Marine aviation). (note 7) Speaking of "definitive." Bill Larkins has also recently written and published the greatest reference available concerning the U.S. Navy's deployment and use of floatplanes entitled "Battleship and Cruiser Aircraft of the United States Navy, 1910-1949." (note 8) From both historic and photographic standpoints, this book on is without equal. Not only does it cover the subject with hundreds of beautiful photographs (including two on the rear cover flyleaf in full color of pre-war Seagulls!), including the entire spectrum of shipboard operations, the aircraft types and models, colors and markings for the various aircraft operated by our Navy and numerous tables, aircraft specifications and appendices. As an amateur historian and modeler, this book is a must and I can not recommend it too highly. Once I obtained a copy, I sat up almost an entire night pouring over its contents and photos. It has to be seen to be believed.

Catapult Operations From Ships

Catapult operations aboard surface ships were primarily conducted to support the individual ship or battle group. These "slingshot" aircraft were not designed to carry significant payloads and aside from their meager machine gun or two, they could rarely carry more than one or two small bombs or depth charges. Enter the Curtiss SOC Seagull, which is from my point of view, one of the most attractive of the Navy's biwing aircraft. It's entry into the fleet and use was during a time of tremendous change in the Navy's aircraft design and purpose. It was partially fabric covered, a relatively uncomplicated aircraft and yet, in its pre-war markings, one of the more colorful aircraft with the variety of cowl, tail and wing chevron colors noting the various fleet and squadron assignments. Few of their missions could be seen as defensive; they were not used to defend their assigned ships but to support the overall ship's duties. I have been fortunate enough over the past few years to be able to talk with several naval aviators who flew the Seagull. While their individual reactions and appreciation for the Curtiss aircraft varies, to a man, they all admit that it was one of their first flying experiences and that their reaction to every catapult "shot" (regardless of how many they made) is that "it was a real kick in the pants!"

Their primary missions involved observation or scouting work for the fleet, communications (carrying mail or dispatches), photographic, transporting VIPs or senior officers and anti-submarine patrols. A veteran Seagull pilot (and later full Admiral) "Bush" Bringle, described the Seagull as "your basic 70 knot aircraft - it took off, flew, maneuvered and landed at 70 knots." (note 9) A major role during WW II was spotting and guiding the ships shell fire. Providing the "eyes" for the ship's firing was especially important because of the battleships' ability to shoot over the horizon and their need to pinpoint or spot invasion bombardment fire against strategic shore targets. They also provided a search and rescue tool for missing ships or aircraft. The advent of WW II ushered in the need for anti-submarine and anti shipping patrols. These were very important prior to the our entry into the Atlantic war throughout early 1942 to combat the German U-Boat threat along our eastern seaboard. Another critical role came to light during WW II, that of search and rescue. (note 10)

During these years their missions often depended to some extent upon the ship's ranking officers' personal feeling toward flying and the usefulness of aircraft at sea. This was still a transitional period in the history of naval aviation when many traditional naval line officers had little understanding of or use for aviation. Many of the Navy's senior officers during the pre-WW II era were "black shoe" sailors and did not trust or understand the "brown shoe" "airdales." This invisible barrier occasionally led to the second class treatment of the very small aviation community aboard ship. During launch and recovery operations there were often good natured "games" played to demonstrate the dependence of the aircraft upon the ship and served as amusement for the ship's crew. This included sudden changes in the ship's manuerving (altering the sheltered "green" water) or dragging the recovery sled (which also had a cargo type net trailing it in the water) for prolonged distances before bringing the aircraft aboard. "Green water" is the highly visible area created on the surface in the ship's wake. When a surface ship turns or changes its heading its wake leaves this expanse of calm water where the float plan pilots would attempt to land and taxi up to the ship's side. This area is often very green in color compared to the surrounding ocean areas.

USS Colorado (BB-45)

A recent interview with a retired Navy Chief Aviation Mechanic and letters and phone calls with several of his shipmates who served aboard the USS Colorado has provided me with an entirely new and expanded viewpoint of these valuable and little know operations from our many surface vessels. (note 11) From the stories and memories of each of these brave men comes a story that exemplifies the small, but valuable observation operations from our war time battleships and cruisers. One can not help but sense the pride and feeling of accomplishment these gentlemen display when they relate their work and effort to keep the catapult aircraft in operation.

The ships' company included an Aviation Division, known as the "V" Division. This small organizational unit was typically comprised of about 18-20 personnel (normally 3 pilots and about 16 crew including a leading chief, a yeoman, several radiomen, a metalsmith and 9-10 mechanics. This group was almost totally responsible for the maintenance, service and operation of the 2 aircraft assigned to the ship (in pre WW II days, the ship often included 3 aircraft). The aircraft themselves were part of Observation Squadron Four (VO-4), which was comprised of the aircraft assigned to the battleships of Battleship Division Four (comprised of the USS Colorado, Maryland and West Virginia). Their pre-war tails painted in black. The "V" Division's work included planning, navigation, preflight of the aircraft, radio checks, warm up and all other preparation for flight, as well as the all important post flight recovery and maintenance of the aircraft.

Aboard the Colorado like many other surface ships, there were no enclosed hanger spaces, leaving all pre and post flight maintenance to be done on the aircraft on the ships' external deck area. The Colorado had two sets of tracks built onto the deck on each side of the after deck along side the no. 3 and 4 gun turrets, on which the aircraft could be moved forward and aft toward the ship's single stern catapult. The floatplane sat upon a movable cradle (or trolley) It should be noted that like some other surface ships, the Colorado had a stationary catapult on the no. 3 turret (stationary in the sense that it was a fixed piece of equipment which rotated only when the entire turret was rotated). That turret was originally fully operational and used to launch aircraft (as you will see from the attached photos taken in the late 20's). That turret was later used only to store the aircraft when not being readied for flight and was eventually removed from the ship sometime prior to 1943. One of the more demanding task for the "V" Division enlisted crew was the post flight cleaning of the entire engine area following the aircraft's return to the ship. Each sea landing not only presented a sizable hazard physically to the aircraft, and necessitated the complete cleaning of the engine. This was skillfully initiated by hanging onto portions of the cowl with one hand, using the other hand to remove the numerous "Zeus" fittings and removing sections of cowl (without dropping them to the deck below). The mechanics used a mixture of oil and kerosene to "wash" the entire engine to remove the corrosive salt water and ready the engine for its' next launch.

Each operational cycle of the aircraft took approximately an hour of preflight preparation to complete. This included the all important task of seeing that the aircraft was ready for safe launch and flight, including loading it onto the catapult from its storage cradle. The appropriate weapons load was readied (again typically one or two 100 pound bombs on shackles under the wings or a 325 pound depth charge) and loaded onto the aircraft. Ammunition for the 30 cal. machine guns, starter cartridges and flares had to be loaded aboard the aircraft. As the time for a launch and flight drew close, the aircraft fuel tanks were loaded and topped off using a hose system which was strung across the surface of the ships' deck. It was intended to leave the aircraft fuel tanks empty until just before the actual flight. This practice amazing enough seems to have taken root, at least in large part, due to the fact that when the Vincennes, Astoria and Quincy were taken under attack at the Battle of Savo Island, numerous large, very bright fires engulfed the fully fueled Seagull aircraft as the result of those aircraft catching on fire. This led to the later practice of keeping shipboard aircraft empty of fuel to avoid such future conflagration. Immediately following the fueling, which was slow and tedious, the deck fuel lines then had to be back flushed with sea water to reduce that potential fire hazard as well. If the flight was cancelled, the fuel hoses were again brought out on deck, the fuel drained from the aircraft and the hoses then once again flushed with salt water again and stored.

Typically the crews were kept on a 45 minute standby schedule, allowing for the last minute preparation of the aircraft and crew prior to launch and flight. The actual preflight checklist, which was signed for by both the plane captain and the pilot was approximately two pages long and covered such critical items as Propeller, Engine, Landing Gear (which in this case meant the floats), Wings, Tail, Fuselage and Warming Up. In the case of one such check made at San Pedro on January 12, 1944, OS2U-3, BuNo 5960, squadron number 4-0-4 was signed for, attesting to a full load of 130 gallons of fuel, 8.5 gallons of oil and 25 starter cartridges on board. Both the plane captain, R.E. (Bob) Shields and his pilot, D.D. (Dan) Huston signed for the Kingfisher before they took it out for a 2.3 hour familiarization flight that afternoon.

The pilot's preflight work included the pilot being briefed, removing the tie downs and wing braces from the aircraft. Another important function of his preflight work was the pilot's being briefed by the ship's navigator and planning for the actual flight. The importance of this briefing was to insure the aircraft knew where they ship would be at the point of their intended return and recovery. When one stops to realize that these were sometimes flights of several hours' duration and that neither ship nor aircraft had any of the sophisticated radio or navigation gear we are accustomed to today and flew in total radio silence, it gives you an increased awareness of the navigational skills of these airman. The plane and catapult were then readied by the crew chief, who was assigned to the ship to service the aircraft. Flying from surface ships generally instilled superb navigational skills among the observation pilots. While the pilot was accompanied by a radioman-observer, there was little or no actual use of any radio communications aboard these observation aircraft; radio silence was generally practiced whenever operating over water. Pilots were given their initial briefing by the ship's navigator (who provided the mission and the ship's position guidance as well).

Preparing and maintenance of the catapult was the task of the Deck Division, "F." Loading and firing the powder charge (into catapult's breach) was carried out by men from the "T" Division (ordnance). The charge was contained in a brass case, which looked like about an 8" brass ships shell, specifically designed for the catapult "gun." Following it's firing, the empty casing was returned to the ordnance division for reloading and reused. Catapult maintenance consisted primarily of cleaning the catapult gear itself, greasing the cable, lubricating and cleaning the operating gear and insuring the tension on the catapult cable.

The actual "firing" of the catapult was usually directed by one of the ship's gunnery officers, often a warrant officer. He was stand or kneel along side the catapult and actually "sight" down the length of the catapult and carefully time the catapult "shot" to insure that the launch was made as the ship was on the upward movement of any water swell present. The importance of this timing was to insure the catapult aircraft actually cleared the ship and was not launched into a wave or the water as the ship settled back down into the water after a swell. The aircraft also had to be deployed prior to or during any bombardment fired by the ship. This was to insure that the aircraft were not only free of the ship, to allow greater mobility of the ships guns and to prevent damage to the aircraft by the concussion of the ship's guns. There was at least one report where the concussion actually resulted in a catapult aircraft being blown back overboard from the ship due to the concussion blast from their guns.

The plane captains were skilled enlisted men in their respective ratings, and also normally operated the radio aboard the aircraft, including the aircraft's trailing wire antennae, had to be familiar with not only radio communication but semaphore flags and coded light gun signals as well. They also operated the aircraft's 30 cal. movable turret gun. Many of these men also enjoyed the opportunity to pilot the aircraft and were sometimes "rated" pilots and eventually commissioned as naval aviators.

These ship board catapult flights were also not always "easy duty." The Colorado lost a plane and its two man crew off Okinawa, when it was apparently lost to enemy gun fire, with only pieces of the Kingfisher later spotted. In his Sea Classics article, Dan Huston cites several other losses, illustrating the potential danger for these crews. An aircraft was initially lost when in error the pilot punctured it's float while taxing near a small Atoll. The Colorado also lost one of their pilots and senior CPO during one kamikaze attack. Dan also relates his own experience in having a two foot hole blown through one of his wings by enemy shell fire, though he was able to successfully recover the aircraft for repairs. (note 12)

The various memories, recollections and stories passed on by the Colorado's gallant crew are illustrative of a way of life and fighting a war, which none of us hopefully will ever fully appreciate. Over 55 years has passed by since these heroic aviators and sailors placed themselves in harms way to defend the freedom all too many of us take for granted today.

Those of you fortunate to see the recent WINGS show on Catapults on the Discovery Channel saw a beautiful color sequence of film of a Kingfisher being recovered aboard a battleship. Among other interesting aspects of the recovery was the obvious discomfort to the aircraft and its crew - taxiing through some very heavy water, attempting to recover onto the net and trying to hook the aircraft to the ship's crane line. The radioman/gunner's climbing out of the rear cockpit area, hoisting himself up onto the canopy sills, straddling the canopy area, opening the cable storage compartment on the top of the wing, catching and attaching the crane's hook - all while riding the waters' swells was clearly a precarious and daunting task! It appears to have been a most challenging and potentially dangerous job at that. Several photos illustrate this when you see a large number of the ship's crew watching these recoveries, just to see how it all concluded.

They flew aircraft from the ship for 2-4 hours and had to return to the ship's position without any modern or electronic directional aids. And this involved locating the ship after several hours of flying and finding her new location, while she had been underway for that entire time. Flying over water, which provides no visual references, is an experience for any pilot. You can well imagine the significance of a briefing on positions for the crew of a small aircraft being launched from a ship in mid ocean, realizing they would return in several hours and want to locate their ship. Additional first person insights into the catapult operations and flying can be found in a recent web site, written by a retired Naval aviator, Paul McKinley (see my note in the references at the end of this text).

Drawings, Photographs & "The Real Thing"

The accompanying drawings were produced by Greg Reynolds, a skilled engineer and avid modeler who now makes his home in the San Francisco area. Copies of very large, original Navy engineering drawings served as the basis for these drawings and provide details unavailable until this time. You can scale them to suit your needs by reducing or enlarging them. The Type P Mark 6 catapult was 70 feet long, with a power run of approximately 55.5 feet. The catapult rail system used hydraulic bumpers to stop the launching cart as it came to the end of its launching run. For a 1/72nd scale drawing, the catapult should be 11.66" long and for 1/48th scale, 17.5" long. As in the case of all of the photographs supplied for this webpage, they have been done using PhotoShop and compressed in JPEG formats on my trusty Mac.

 

The accompanying photographs are from several sources, including Bill Larkins and George Lee, the National Archives and a few personal photos.

 

The USS Alabama has the only known example of a P-6 catapult still in existence. This catapult was stored for years at NAS Pensacola and finally loaned to the USS Alabama restoration to complete their display aboard the ship which is moored in Mobile bay. While the Kingfisher "model" displayed holds little interest for modelers, the P-6 catapult is a piece of history and of real historical significance. A visit to Mobile Bay and the USS Alabama is a most worthwhile effort, if for no other reason but to view this important naval artifact.

Modelers' Notes and References

I hope you enjoy this interesting glimpse at Naval aviation from a different perspective. After deciding to build a catapult, it is a natural leap to construction of a catapult launched aircraft, right? Should you choose to model either the SOC or Kingfisher aircraft to display with your catapult, there are two 1/72nd scale Hasegawa Seagull kits (both the same basic kit, one with floats), the Monogram Kingfisher kit in 1/48th scale and Airfix's 1/72nd Kingfisher kit. In August, 2000, Hasegawa has once again re-released their 1/72nd kit, with new box art, but the same kit, featuring both the float and non-float versions.

These kits require some work and analysis of photographs to reveal the many overlooked details missing from them. Rigging the Hasegawa kit is a task in itself, but the finished model is quite nice and when completed in some of the very colorful markings of the pre-WW II period, a real eye catcher. (note 13) There are also two reasonably accurate vacuformed 1/48th scale SOC Seagull kits available from Wings. This is a fairly accurate kit allowing you to build a quarter scale Seagull and provides the most comprehensive finishing references and bibliography for the Seagull I have seen. However, each of these kits suffers from the ravages of time and a lack of detail. There is currently a rumor that another attempt is going to be made to release a full blown 1/48th scale kit of the Seagull. I have heard both that it is to be a resin cast model and an injection molded kit. In either case, I believe it would be a welcome addition to the world of pre-WW II U.S. Navy aircraft.

The only kit attempt at a catapult I recall was Hasegawa's very crude version with a Japanese float plane marketed in the mid-70's and have seen several modelers display their modeling efforts with it. From my meager knowledge of Japan's catapult efforts, this is not even a close approximation of their catapults. However, with the information you now have on the P-6 catapult and some basic research and modeling effort you can build a beautiful model of the U.S. Navy's "slingshot."

A few added references not mentioned include the Bowers Curtiss Aircraft book, (note 14) the Aviation News scale plans for the SOC Seagull (note 15) and the older (but still invaluable) Profile Number 194 on the Seagull, also authored by Bill Larkins. (note 16) I should also mention, there appear to be numerous errors in the Aviation News drawings and before one depends on that source for modelling information, it is strongly suggested that your use all available photographic references before building a model using those drawings. There is an article on building a 1/48th scale catapult in FineScale Modeler, which I recommend you get and compare against the drawings and the photos which accompany this article. (note 17) There is a great deal of useful information and construction hints in this modeler's article which will save you many hours of work. However, you will notice the FSM catapult 1/72nd drawing shown scales out to approximately 93.5' x 8.4' while the actual dimensions are approximately 70' x 3.6'.

When it comes to building models of catapult and the planes which flew from them, there appears to be only one way to actually make it happen, that's to scratch build it. Again, while I am speaking from only my limited (about 35 years) experiences in plastic scale modeling, there are a few intrepid scratch builders who undertaken such an effort. The only person I know to have completed it is Arlo Schroeder in his magnificent 1/16th scale scratch build SOC-3 and it's associated P-6 catapult. While Arlo was able to exhibit this beautiful aircraft at the 1998 IPMS-USA National Convention in Orlando, Florida, it now resides in the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensecola. Another related modeling artifact is John Alcorn's scratch built Vought O3U Corsair floatplane. This model was initially started by George Lee, prior to his untimely death in 1982 and represents the aircraft's marking as flown from the USS Pennsylvania before World War II. George has actually acquired the actual side panel material from this very aircraft while he was working at NAS Alameda. One of his objectives was to complete not only the aircraft model, but to display it on a model of the catapult as well. As a tribute to George and their friendship, John Alcorn has worked for the last several years to complete George's model, which was displayed at the 2000 IPMS-USA National Convention in Dallas, Texas. Following the Convention, John traveled to Pensacola, where this model was also donated to the Naval Aviation Museum, along with the original aircraft fabric and markings. While there are numerous powerful reasons to visit the Pensacola Museum, these two outstanding modeling efforts are worth the price of a ticket there in themselves.

"CLOCKS"

Another note I want to include is about those mysterious "clocks" we see in so many pre-war photos taken from both battleships and cruisers. I recognize almost anyone knows more than I do about the pre-WW II battleship Navy than I do. I looked, in vain, for some time to learn exactly what the "clock" like displays are on the upper cage masts on battleships. I often saw photos of these indicators from the fantail and have now seen several from the bow as well. At first to the untrained eye (mine at least....) they appeared to be some type of a large clock display. But obviously as you look at the numbers, it is apparent they are not clock faces.

These devices are in fact often referred to as "range clocks." Apparently even this in incorrect. These devices are what was referred to as concentration dials. They display a display on a white disk with black numbers from "0" to "9." Take a look at this enlargement of the face from the no. 3 turret photo shown earlier aboard the USS Colorado. The inner pointing arm was generally painted blue, with a diamond shaped designator, while the outer arm was painted red and ended with a circle. I have found photos of these devices on both battleships and cruisers. At lease one source indicated these dial faces could be turned approximately 30° to either side to enable better viewing from other ships.

These devices and their use were borrowed from the Royal Navy. The British experiences at the Battle of Jutland resulted in many revised practices. One of those followed since the ships manuevering behind the lead battleships could not adequately see what or where the action and enemy ships were because of the smoke. These devices were normally carried from WW I through the period immediately prior to our entry into WW II. In fact there is quite a discussion about when and which ships at Pearl Harbor may have still been carrying such devices on 7 December 1941.

These range clocks (as they were most often referred to) were to provide other ships in the same group of where the lead ship was in fact directing her gunfire so the follow-on ships were not operating totally blind. There were also apparently "angle gauges" set around the main gun mounts which indicated the range and angle of deflection when firing on another vessel. The range finders allowed the distance to be updated and along with the targets' position (conducted in the ship's central plotting area), the relative position could be updated on these range clocks as well. I suspect the advent of modern gun directors and surface radars were the real source of the demise of these devices. The use of observation aircraft (as noted above) was probably the greatest reason these devices lost their value in the modern Navy.

Additional recommended references & notes:

An outstanding source for this type of information is the wonderful narrative story published by a former Seagull pilot and radio operator/observer, Paul A. McKinley. This is a particularly interesting and telling narrative written and copyrighted in 1995 by Mr. McKinley (who unfortunately has since passed away). It is based on his wartime diaries, the flight log , cruise books, personal photos and his observations and memory about his flying experiences wit the Seagull and operations off cruisers, both before and after the World War II. I highly recommend this narrative story. It can be located at: www.commpro.com/navy/contents.html

William A. Riley & William Larkins, "Thirty Years of Navy Markings," American Aviation Historical Society Journal, Vol 2, No. 3, July-September, 1957, pp. 143-175. Basic Navy/USMC marking info. plus good detail shots of SOC's and info to explain SOC operational markings aboard cruisers and battleships.

Harvey Lippencott, "The Navy Gets An Engine," AAHS JOURNAL, Vol 6, No. 4, 4th Qtr; 1961, pp. 247-258. Information on basic Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines used to power the SOC.

Another tremendous insight into the life of a Kingfisher pilot can be found in a recent article in SEA CLASSICS. Dan D. Huston who served as one of the Colorado's pilots also published his insight in his "Low & Slow: The Misadventures of A Battleship Aviator." This article, which is beautifully illustrated with a number of photographs, provides an invaluable look into the life of a WW II observation aviator assigned to one of our great battleships.

Several other books should be mentioned, both of which contain many related photographs and contain information related to shipboard use of the catapult and observation aircraft. These include the short, but excellent "Fantail Fighters" by Jerry Scutts, published in 1995 by Phalanx Publishing Co; Ltd. and "American Cruisers of World War II, A Pictorial Encyclopedia" by Steven Ewing, published in 1984 by Pictorial Histories Publishing Co.

Steve Wiper is a ship modeler and manufacturer of beautiful resin ship models along with having pulled together some excellent ship references. Two of the these in particular, contain numerous excellent photos of the P-6 catapults used aboard many of our pre-war cruisers and as such are "have-to-have" references for any serious modeler. These include his Warship Pictorials Number 3, "USS Louisville, CA-28" (2000) and Number 7, "New Orleans Class Cruisers" (1998), both published by Steve's Classic Warship Publishing.

Note 1: Roscoe, Theodore, On The Seas And In The Skies, Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York, 1970.
Note 2: John W.R. Taylor, editor of the History of Aviation, Crown Publishers Inc., New York, 1972.
Note 3: Early Flight - From Dream to Reality, National Air & Space Museum, Washington, 1980.
Note 4: Catapults - Vol. I - Hydraulic, Naval Air Technical Training Unit, U.S. Navy, GPO, October, 1958.
Note 5: Gordon Swanborough & Peter M. Bowers, United States Navy Aircraft Since 1911, Second Edition, U.S. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1976.
Note 6: James C. Fahey, editor, The Ships and Aircraft of the United States Fleet, 1939 Edition, U.S. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1939.
Note 7: William T. Larkins, U.S. Navy Aircraft, 1921-1941 and U.S. Marine Corps Aircraft, 1914-1959, Orion Books, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1988.
Note 8: Larkins, William T. Battleship and Cruiser Aircraft of the United States Navy, 1910-1049. Shiffer Publishing, Ltd., Atglen, PA. 1996.
Note 9: William Floyd "Bush" Bringle, Admiral USN (Ret.), personal interview with Admiral Bringle in San Diego, California on October 31, 1980. ADM. Bringle served aboard the USS Milwaukee (CL 5) in 1941-42.
Note 10: Raphael Semmes, Capt. USN (Ret.) "A Seaplane Built for Two" in Aerospace Historian, Summer, June 1979 issue.
Note 11: Interviews with Harley Hall and correspondence and phone conversations with other USS Colorado (BB 45) crewmen, including Andy Adresen, Larry Dillin, Marvin Haag, Dan Huston, Jim LaLeFave, Harvey Madsen and Bob Shields.
Note 12: Dan Huston's fine article, "Low & Slow: The Misadventures of A Battleship Aviator," Sea Classics, October, 1999; pages 24-35.
Note 13: Micro Scale (later Super Scale) Decals had two sheets in the early series which provide a variety of the markings for Seagulls; I assume that both sheets 72-61 and 72-62 covering U.S. Navy (1935-1942) are still available though it appears Super Scale may longer produce these sheets.
Note 14: Peter M. Bowers, Curtiss Aircraft 1907-1947, Putnam, Conway Maritime Press, LTD, United States edition published by the Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1979.
Note 15: Aviation News , Volume 4, Number 21 (19 March-1 April, 1976), published by Alan W. Hall, Amersham, England. Note 16: William T. Larkins, The Curtiss SOC Seagull, Profile Publications LTD; Surry, England. date unknown but about 1968.
Note 17: Dave Hodge, "Modeling a U.S. Navy catapult in 1/48th scale," FineScale Modeler, August, 1987, pages 34-38.

 


THANKS

I hope you have found this information to be interesting. It's a subject that is now apparently lost except for a very small group of interested historians and modelers. I apologize for any errors, mistakes or omissions. These are clearly the result of my error and should in no way reflect poorly on those who have been trying, in vain, all these many years to assist me with my research. I also wish to again thank Bill Larkins for instilling in me the basic interest in the SOC Seagull and the Navy's catapult. His many beautiful photographs have inspired me beyond my wildest dreams. Thanks again Bill.

If you have any feedback or additional information regarding anything in my notes, I would greatly appreciate hearing from you and you will find a feedback opportunity at the end of this web site.

And finally, to those many Naval aviators and crewmen. THANK YOU for your efforts both toward Naval Aviation and the freedoms we enjoy in the United States.