By Charles F. Clark, Jr. for Aviation History Magazine
Perhaps the Cold War's least-heralded aircraft, the Lockheed P2V Neptune has been largely overlooked by aviation historians.
It was spring 1954 at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Saufley Field at Pensacola, Florida, and the air was filled with the sounds of student naval aviators returning from formation-training flights. As each pilot struggled to maintain wing position on the aircraft ahead of him, there came a new noise. What sounded like someone whistling for Fido while two hogs squealed at a feeding trough was actually a big, multiengine plane taxiing toward the base of the Saufley control tower.
I was a naval aviation cadet at the time, and I had seen pictures of that plane, a Lockheed P2V Neptune, in my aircraft recognition classes. The instructors all referred to it as the aircraft with the "droop snoot" and the "haystack tail." After landing, I dragged my tired, sweat-soaked body over to get a closer look. The whistling came from two huge, four-bladed props, and the squealing came from the brakes. In years to come, those two distinctive sounds would remain the unmistakable audio signature of one of the Cold War's least-heralded aircraft. Its contributions would be largely overlooked by aviation historians, and what meager recognition it received would often be inaccurate.
During World War II, the submarine threat to Allied shipping was all but eliminated when aircraft were employed to patrol over convoys. Most of the planes assigned to the task were prewar seaplane designs, converted land-based transports or U.S. Army Air Forces bombers, most notably the Consolidated B-24 Liberator and its follow-on Navy version, the PB4Y- 1 and PB4Y-2 Privateer. The overall success of those patrols indicated that airborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) would become an important role in the Navy's future. They demonstrated the need for an aircraft with speed and endurance and the ability to deliver a diverse ordnance load and operate in all weather conditions. Lighter-than-air blimps, though effective in some situations, were not versatile enough and lacked speed. Specialized ASW carrier task forces, or "hunter- killer" groups, were somewhat more flexible, but they proved very expensive to operate.
During the war, a variety of technological innovations came into use, including airborne radar, searchlights and air- dropped underwater listening devices called sonobuoys. Research taught us more about the offensive employment of submarines and defensive tactics to counter their effectiveness. What was lacking was an efficient airborne platform to carry the new technology. In spring 1944 the Navy awarded Lockheed a contract to design and construct such an aircraft, the Lockheed Model 26, P2V Neptune. (After 1962, under the Department of Defense triservice designation system, the P2V became simply the P2.)
The P2V, a twin-engine, midwing plane with a tricycle landing gear, performed well in a variety of roles-as an experimental carrier-launched nuclear bomber, a fast combat transport, a drone launching platform and a hurricane hunter-as well as in special configurations for the Army and Air Force. A few were equipped with skis and used in the Antarctic. The P2V went through seven different model series, from the original P2V-1 to the P2V-7. All were powered by the Wright R-3350 18-cylinder radial engine and later refinements. The most significant models serving in the ASW role were the P2V-5 and the P2V-7, both equipped with AN/APS-20 search radar capable of detecting targets out to 250 nautical miles. With the addition of the Julie/Jezebel underwater detection and localization systems, the AN/ASQ-8 Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) system, the AN/AVQ-2 70-million candlepower searchlight and various passive electronic detection devices, those two P2V series aircraft represented state-of-the-art airborne ASW platforms.
The P2V-6 was configured for aerial mining. It had a larger bomb bay than the -5 and -7 models and carried the AN/APS-33 radar, with a higher frequency and greater target definition than the APS-20. The P2V-6 was used in the ASW role, and 16 of that model series were modified to carry the anti-shipping "Petrel" missile on underwing pylons. The series was retired to training and utility duties after 1957.
The P2V-7 differed the most from its predecessors in that its initial design incorporated wing-mounted Westinghouse J-34 jet engines outboard of each reciprocating engine. As a result, singleengine performance at the maximum gross weight of 80,000 pounds was dramatically improved. The P2V-7 achieved dash speeds greater than 270 knots indicated airspeed. The cockpit was redesigned and modernized, giving it a bubblelike appearance that enhanced visibility above and below the aircraft. The throttles were moved from the center console to an overhead panel, and engine instruments were grouped with the gauges installed to display normal operating pressures and temperatures in either the 3 or 9 o'clock positions, so that the crew could easily detect malfunctions. Cockpit navigation and communications gear was now conveniently located on the center console, while other refinements rounded out the design. Another significant improvement increased the landing gear and bomb bay door hydraulic system pressure from 1,800 to 3,000 pounds per square inch.
The interior configuration aft of the cockpit changed over the years as necessitated by new equipment, but the crew's working environment was always crowded and somewhat uncomfortable. It was hot in the summer, but the cabin heater did a good job of heating the flight deck in winter. Crews patrolling the icy waters of the North Atlantic and North Pacific had to wear anti-exposure suits, necessary for survival if the aircraft had to ditch at sea. Wearing those suits during a 12-hour flight was like stewing in your own juices.
The introduction of the more powerful P2V-7 prompted modification of the P2V-5, by adding jet engines. It was redesignated P2V-5F Though the "F" did not stand for faster, it could have easily meant fuller.
Effective ASW missions required lots of electronics, and the planes were stuffed to the gills with black boxes, each creating its share of heat. Some crewmen stripped to shorts and T-shirts when operating in the tropics.
The P2V-5, -6 and -7 handled much the same in normal flight. With a maximum single engine (reciprocating only) weight of 67,500 pounds, straight and level flight in smooth air was comfortable, although pilots had to be somewhat cautious when maneuvering. In 1956 Lockheed test pilot Jay Beasley demonstrated to a group of Patrol Squadron 17 (VP-17) pilots--I was among them-the stability of single-engine performance in our P2V-6, which was not equipped with jet engines. Shutting down an engine, he promptly turned into it. Turning into a dead engine was near heresy to most pilots of the twin-engine community. The powerful Wright R-3350-36WA engine swung a 14-foot-diameter, four-bladed Hamilton Standard full-feathering, reversible pitch prop. The plane performed well regardless of his maneuvers, however, and we were all impressed. Nevertheless, we did not forget that Beasley had had far more experience than we had. We realized it would be best if we continued to turn into the good engine in such a situation.
Engine-out maneuvering in the jet-configured P2V was straightforward. One simply lit off both jets--a standard emergency procedure-and then, after the failed recip was secured, trimmed the plane back into balanced flight with the jet engine opposite the good recip. As a practical matter, the jet-equipped model P2V single-engine weight was the same as its maximum gross weight.
Neptunes were not glamorous aircraft, though they were certainly graceful looking. They attracted no particular following except among the crews operating them. The fuselage was long and slender (81 to 91 feet, depending on the model) and the 103 foot, high-lift wings tapered, with a slight dihedral, to fuel tanks attached at the tips. The Neptune did not possess the blinding speed of a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, and it did not capture the imagination of the public like the North American P-51 Mustang or the Vought F4U Corsair. But it did the job as we knew it then, as well as served as a test-bed for the more advanced ASW aircraft of today.
The Neptune remains the Navy's first operationally successful, land-based, multiengine patrol plane that was originally designed for that purpose. You won't find much written about the Neptune. It cast its shadow over the world's oceans, but not over the pages of aviation periodicals. Still, it was remarkable in ways that pilots and crewmen appreciated.
On September 29,1946, a P2V-1 named Truculent Turtle, loaded with 8,467 gallons of fuel, flew 11,235.6 nautical miles, setting a world nonstop distance record for an aircraft of its class. Though there were teething problems to begin with, the P2V proved to be a safe, stable platform for reconnaissance and could fly in the worst weather Mother Nature could conjure up. In the ASW role the P2V generally needed to fly into or under just about all weather rather than over it. The leading edges of the wings and tail assembly were heated with hot air to prevent icing, and in later models the props were heated electrically. No one who has flown a P2V in icing conditions can forget the reassuring tattoo made by ice chunks hitting the fuselage as the prop de-icers did their work.
Neptunes usually behaved well in flight. Since most Neptune missions involved primarily ocean surveillance, flights generally lasted hours. The autopilot always got a good workout. Manual flying was easy and enjoyable, and was usually delegated to the co-pilot or navigator/third pilot. The plane's midwing design meant that it gave a fairly comfortable ride in moderate turbulence, and the wing construction resulted in flexibility that made severe turbulence bearable. The incorporation of wing spoilers added to its maneuverability, and the Fowler-type flaps made slow flight stable and uncomplicated.
All Neptunes originally carried defensive armament. The P2V-1 had a small nose turret, mounting twin .50-caliber machine guns. The P2V-2 through P2V-4 had fixed, forward-firing guns-either .50-calibers or 20mm cannons. Later on, the P2V-5, -6 and some -7 models had twin 20mm cannons mounted in an Emerson ball nose turret. All models had an upperdeck turret with twin .50-caliber machine guns and a tail turret that was initially fitted with twin .50-caliber guns. Later these were replaced with twin 20mm cannons. All the turrets were maneuvered electrically, though all aiming and firing was done manually by the gunner. The nose and tail guns had an interesting effect on speed. The plane gained about 5 knots when the tail guns were fired and lost the same amount of speed when the nose guns were fired.
In 1957 all defensive armament was removed and replaced with ASW equipment. A plexiglass nose section with an observer operator/MAD position replaced the bow turret. The tail turret was replaced with MAD gear housed in a tapered, stingerlike fairing. The upper deck turret was faired over with plexiglass. The aircraft was still equipped with offensive ASW weapons, including 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of ordnance--combinations of rockets, bombs, torpedoes and depth charges that the Neptune could deliver on surface or submerged targets with great effectiveness.
For tactical missions such as ocean surveillance patrols, the crew had to begin preparations about 36 hours in advance of actual takeoff. The eight- to 10-man flight crews would assemble for an intelligence briefing by the squadron air intelligence officer. One crew would be assigned the mission while another acted as backup. If they were designated as backup, they would preflight and man their aircraft alongside the mission crew. If the primary crew aborted for some reason, the backup crew took off.
During the preflight briefing, the route of flight, or track, was assigned; the weather was discussed; and previous ship or submarine activity was described. Any special instructions for new or unusual sightings also were given. A takeoff time was assigned, and radio frequencies were reviewed. Following a general question and-answer period, the crewmen operating specialized electronic gear, such as electronic countermeasure receivers (ECMs), would be individually briefed on specific things to look for and report.
The mission aircraft was expected to be airborne precisely on the scheduled minute, so the crews were normally up hours before that time. The pilots of both mission and backup crews filed their flight plans and then received a weather briefing and detailed pictorial cross section of the weather. When the primary mission aircraft was airborne and had sent an "operations normal" message, indicating that their engines and equipment were functioning normally, the backup crew secured from flight operations and prepared for the mission they would fly the next day.
Tactical flights were usually launched before daylight and frequently returned to home base after dark-often in adverse weather that necessitated a ground controlled approach. Our cruising speed on patrols was about 170 knots, and we consumed an average 200 gallons of 115/145-grade aviation fuel each hour. The normal fuel load was between 3,400 and 3,700 gallons, depending on the tiptank size. The maximum endurance approached 15 hours, and flights usually lasted nine to 11 hours.
Though searching for submarines and surface warships was the primary goal, most of our time on patrol involved surveillance of commercial shipping. This involved photographing each ship; determining its name; plotting its position, course and speed; and noting significant information about any visible cargo and whether it was loaded or in ballast. In order to accomplish all that, the pilot would descend to about 200 feet above the water, 1,000 feet abeam of the ship, and fly a course parallel to the ship's. Each crew member had an assigned task during ship rigging. We reported on specific characteristics of each vessel such as the shape of the bow and stern; the profile of the hull; the position of the major structures above the deck line; the sequence of masts, funnels and cranes; and any identifying markings on the main funnel or smokestack. Put together, all those characteristics identified a specific ship. It was precise and often dangerous work, depending on the weather conditions and the state of the sea. Ideally, we could accomplish the job in one pass, and after that the pilot would climb back up to search altitude, usually 1,500 feet-and continue on course. The sensor operators would return to their work stations and get back to monitoring their equipment.
Not all flights were routine, of course. Many included unusual sightings or incidents. On September 10, 1957, several days after our squadron arrived at Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan, to relieve VP-22, I was assigned to ride as an observer on a Sea of Japan patrol. Eighteen months earlier our squadron had deployed to Okinawa for six months, and as the junior pilot in the crew, I had served as the navigator. Now I was a plane commander with my own crew, and that patrol would be an exciting introduction to the type of operational flying we would be doing in that region for the next six months.
We left Chitose Air Base, on the island of Hokaido, and flew north until we reached Hokkaido's northwestern tip, then turned west to approach the Soviet Siberian coast. From that point, about 25 to 30 miles off the coast, we turned to a southerly heading, paralleling the coast. About an hour after we took up the new heading, a crewman manning the upper deck turret (the guns had been removed but the turret was still installed) reported two jet aircraft approaching from the northwest. I was sitting between the pilots, where the plane captain (flight engineer) usually sat. Within seconds of the initial sighting, two Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG- 15 aircraft bracketed the Neptune, one on each wingtip and slightly above us. When he saw the MiG on the starboard wing, the co-pilot attempted to turn away to port. But he forgot that the autopilot was engaged, and as hard as he tried to turn to port, the autopilot turned the aircraft back to starboard. At that point the plane commander, sitting in the left seat, disengaged the autopilot and began a gentle turn into the MiG on the port wing. As the MiG turned away and gained a little altitude, the pilot reversed his turn into the MiG on the opposite wing. That aerial dance was repeated several times while the co-pilot ignited the jet engines.
It seemed that the MiG pilots mostly wanted to look us over. The experience was of benefit to us, as well. We were able to get detailed photos of the two planes. We also noted that their pilots wore leather flight helmets, and we listened in on their conversation over our receiver. Meanwhile, the radio operator had signaled our home base that we had been intercepted. The response was immediate: "Abort the mission." By that time the jets were on line and we were approaching a cloud deck that was slightly below us. The pilot called for 100 percent power from the jets and pushed the recips to maximum continuous power-about 48 inches of manifold pressure and 2,600 revolutions per minute and we ducked into the clouds, heading for home at 250 knots.
Such encounters did not happen often, but none of us took them lightly when they did. Patrol aircraft operated over international waters, so as not to provoke hostile reactions. After 1950, a number of patrol aircraft were fired upon by Communist forces, and several were shot down. The patrol aircraft crews were at the mercy of any attacker. Perhaps the most aggressive response we could make was a high-speed, right-angle approach to a coastline. That normally resulted in the hostile pilots lighting off all their radar, affording us an opportunity to record the various radar signatures. That was good intelligence gathering.
For pilots, I believe the most endearing characteristic of the P2V was the ease with which the plane could be landed. While some pilots were fearful at first, there was a gentleness, a stability, about the P2V that accommodated almost every flier. In fact, an instructor pilot once demonstrated to me that the plane could be maneuvered throughout the landing pattern and final approach and flared for landing using trim tabs alone.
There was, however, one caution of legendary proportions that was drummed into all of us. The aircraft had a tendency to porpoise on landing if the initial touchdown was too flat, or the pilot flared high and dropped the aircraft onto the runway. Somewhere along the line I must have done both, but I was spared the dreaded porpoise. I suspect that the legend was legitimate, but the problem was usually confined to pilots under instruction.
Whether by virtue of design or just unadorned luck, the Neptune was one of the few aircraft that could be "greased" onto the runway. You could stop the plane within 1,000 feet if necessary, using reverse pitch and judicious braking. Another useful function of reverse pitch allowed the pilot to back the plane into a parking spot if necessary.
Probably the highest compliment I could pay to the Neptune is that it always got me home. I suffered my share of engine failures, fires and systems failures, but true to the proposition that what goes up must come down, we always did-and usually without mishap.
Production of the P2V ended for American Navy squadrons in April 1962, when P2V-7, Bureau of Aeronautics No. 150283, rolled off the assembly line. In April 1978 the last P2V-7 aircraft in ASW squadron service was retired. After that, most went to Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., where their fate was determined largely by the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center.
A few Neptunes can be found on static display at Naval Air Stations such as Brunswick, Maine; Barbers Point, Hawaii; and Moffett Field, Calif. The National Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola, Fla., has the historic Truculent Turtle on display. Several private organizations have also acquired them for display purposes or flight demonstrations at airshows around the country. Two are parked at the old Stead Air Base in Reno, Nev. Of the Neptunes still flying today, most are being used to fight forest fires in the western states. More than 50 years after the first P2V became airborne, a few of its descendants are still performing vitally important work. But rather than patrolling over the world's oceans, Neptunes now cast their shadows-and the fire- retardant chemicals they deliver--over our nation's treasured forests.
This article was written by Charles F. Clark, Jr. and originally published in Aviation History Magazine, November, 2000. Charles F. Clark, Jr. US. Navy (ret.), served as a maintenance and electronics officer on P2V-2s, P2V-3s and P2V- 5s.
And now available in Kindle format...