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All Navy Aviators Can Fly the SNJ

A WWII Naval aviator remembers carrier qualifications

by George Coombes

Copyright 1992 by the Confederate Air Force and George Coombes. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 17, Number 4, Winter, 1992 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

Editor's note: Col George Coombes began his military career in November of 1942 upon enlistment in the U.S. Navy V-5 Aviation Cadet program — a program that was designed to last 18 months and encompass everything from Pre-Flight School to advanced flight training in single or multi-engine planes. Culminating this sequence was a three-month stint in an Operational Training squadron flying the type aircraft the cadet had been assigned.

Throughout each stage, or training rigor, a cadet would experience a wealth of aviation events, both good and bad, providing a lifetime of memories. From the feelings of euphoria a student pilot experienced when he first soloed, to the stress and worry of Pre-Flight school; training in itself was a real adventure.

Col Coombes readily admits that stories of training weren't the "Guts and Glory" type, but were reflective of the "nuts-and-bolts" type of experience that enabled a cadet to embark on a flying career in the armed forces.

From Col Coombes' autobiography, we have highlighted one of these "aviation experiences," symbolizing one of Coombes' most satisfying and memorable experiences in his training career. This event occurred when Coombes was going through Carrier Qualification (CQ). At this time the fledgling aviators in the Navy made their first carrier landings and takeoffs on training carriers stationed on The Great Lakes.

Before CQ, Coombes had engaged in Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) in F6Fs at NAS in Melbourne, Florida, where landings were practiced on outlying landing strips set up with painted outlines of a carrier deck. Many times the pilots would use landmarks, such as trees, to aid in landings. Coombes had not been in an SNJ prior to this episode for at least three months, and then it was only for an instrument check.

Coombes recalls that the day began when…

gcmbs.JPG - 5.28 K George Coombes, WWII U.S. Naval aviator, on the wing of a Grumman F6F Hellcat.
The training carrier USS Wolverine operated in the Great Lakes. wlvrine.JPG - 3.77 K

Six of us reported to Navy Pier in Chicago one cold, blustery morning with orders to carrier qualify in SNJs rather than the F6F Hellcats, which were not available for use. None of us were current in the "J," but the Navy had a favorite saying, "all naval avaitors can fly the SNJ." We boarded the U.S.S. Wolverine, which was put out onto Lake Michigan, and awaited six other aviators flying out from Glenview in the SNJs that we would use for qualification landings. The ship, U.S.S. Wolverine IK-64 was built as a collier and converted to a training carrier in August 1942. It was a paddle-wheel powered, 482 foot long vessel with a wood deck. The vessel was capable of speeds up to 16 knots. It had a landing arrestment system, which consisted of seven stranded wire cables across the deck that the aircraft tailhook would catch, and one barrier resembling a wire fence across the deck to prevent a landing aircraft from running up the deck into awaiting planes.

After a cursory look around while trying to get my sea-legs, I was relieved at the thought that I would at least get to witness several landings before going aloft, which would build up my confidence. However, during our flight briefing, I learned that this was not to be, as there was one SNJ aboard. I, being first on the list, got the nod to get it (the SNJ) into the flight operation.

I got in, buckled up as the incoming flight started to orbit, and attempted to start the engine using the practices I had employed in South Texas the preceding summer. Quite obviously this didn't work with temperatures near the freezing mark. Restart efforts were to no avail until, a less than friendly Lieutenant Commander air officer, climbed on the wing, leaned in and primed the engine while I ran the wobble pump. Then the air officer, mouthing several non-complimentary phrases I didn't really hear but understood perfectly, had me crank the engine while he pumped both the primer and the throttle until the engine reluctantly kicked off. As he was leaving I inquired as to what trim settings were required for takeoff aboard the carrier, but received nothing more than a very silent, icy stare.

With a minimum of warm-up, I was taxied into position and commenced the takeoff check list by checking the rudder and elevator trim settings at neutral. Dropping the flaps, I made the run up and got the flag to go. Go I did, right over the left corner of the bow because I did not have the necessary rudder trim. Nonetheless I was airborne and about to begin the second greatest experience of flight — the first being my initial solo during flight training in the Navy sponsored Civilian Flight Program (CPT).

Normally, I would have been sweating by this time, but since it was winter and nearly freezing, my open canopy certainly kept me cool enough. I maneuvered into the landing pattern sequence with the other planes and settled in for my first carrier landing approach. Downwind I dropped the gear and extended the flaps, trimmed accordingly, lowered the hook and repeated the check list several times. The hook mechanism on these SNJ's was a simple and novel rig. When the hook was up, it was held by a length of sash cord that was tied to the hook in the tail with the other end looped over the left arm rest. To drop the hook, you merely took loose the sash cord from the arm rest. On turning to the base leg, I found out quickly that my instructors in Florida were right - there were no trees on the water to line up with. With the forward motion of the Wolverine causing a much earlier turn than I had been used to, my first pass was somewhat erratic. However, from a technical point of view it was much the same as expected in my more familiar F6F, except not as much torque was in evidence for the approach.

The Landing Safety Officer (LSO) was easy to pick up, even though the ship looked too small to hit. That is when the saying "thousands have done it before," often repeated to aspiring naval officers, took hold and despite the bobbing motion of the ship and air turbulence, the approach was reasonably respectable with few signal changes.

As the final turn was completed the ship was blocked out of view, except for the LSO and his tiny platform on the port side of the stern. I followed his signal of "Roger," the signal for a good pass, over the fantail of the ship, getting the "cut" signal meaning to pull back on the throttle and land. The nose then dropped, the plane flared as advertised, landed in a three-point attitude and the hook caught the number three wire with a pronounced deceleration, which stopped the plane almost immediately. I drew in a breath that seemed to last an eternity and realized that my first carrier landing was successfully accomplished, and that the second greatest moment of flight was now history.

After release from the arresting gear, I was sent off for the remainder of the qualification. Unfortunately on the third landing, after receiving the cut signal, I dropped the nose a bit too much for my height above the deck, causing the plane to bounce and glide down the deck, the hook hanging just above the wires. After disappointedly passing the last wire, the plane settled on the deck and rolled into the barrier, stopping me and the plane with little shock. The plane started to nose over, with the prop striking the deck causing splinters to fly everywhere. As the aircraft slowly fell back on its wheels, horns started blowing and the deck crew swarmed around the plane. With a sick feeling in my stomach, I switched off the mags and master switch, unbuckled the seat belt and slowly crawled out of the cockpit, recollecting that this was the second time I had dinged an SNJ.

I was quickly relegated back from the past when the bull horn blared with the Captain of the ship giving orders to clear the plane from the deck so further qualifications could be continued, and for the pilot of the damaged airplane to report to the bridge on the double. I gulped, swore more than a little, and sheepishly went to the bridge to face the irate skipper of the Wolverine. He addressed me as "mister" and asked me to look below and reveal to him what I saw. I confessed that I saw a slightly bent SNJ being removed, whereupon he blew his top and responded, "Look at my deck, not that damn airplane. Look at the stranded barrier cables. Look at those planes circling and not making landings." He further informed me that he got paid for getting the proper number of landings credited to the ship and that I had fouled up his schedule as well as tearing up his deck. He then sent me back to the fantail of the ship to observe landings until relieved. I went as ordered, froze my tail and got somewhat seasick from the heave of the ship and fumes from the stack wash. My state of mind was further deteriorating, as I bemoaned my fate of probably having to go through CQ again and not making it home for Christmas.

After witnessing many successful landings and another barrier crash, the bullhorn blared forth with the Captain ordering me to get in the plane that had just landed and finish my qualification "if I thought I had learned anything observing the landings." This was unusual, as most of the time one didn't get a second chance until going through the entire qualification check again. Suffice to say, with the help of the Captain and his bullhorn critiquing each landing, I made the remaining five landings with no further complications, and even received a compliment after my final landing as I was sent off to find Glenview. I didn't hesitate getting off that bobbing cork and headed west with a pair of Navy planes. After getting into the pattern, I landed and promptly did a 360-degree twirl on an icy taxiway. Apparently no one noticed and since I hadn't hit anything I taxied to the ramp, parked and headed to the bar. To say the least it had been an extremely long day.

The next morning I found out why I wasn't chastised for breaking the SNJ when I received a call to report to the Station Engineering Officer who was in charge of such things as bent airplanes. He happened to be so busy trying to make his quota of war bond sales that he traded a lengthy accident report for my purchase of a $50 bond. It was one of my brighter moments in Chicago. And despite my minor incident of the barrier landing, which had ironically counted as one of my required landings, I was now a fully qualified Naval Aviator. Following a few days at home to visit family and friends, I would finally be ready for orders of assignment to a fleet squadron aboard a carrier to begin the job that I had been working for.

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