"Flight of the Truculent Turtle"
By Commander Edward P. Stafford, U. S. Navy (Retired)
Article forwarded by Beth Perry (E-Mail Removed By Request) VP-8 Alumni Association
U. S. Naval Institute "Proceedings" - August 1991
TECHNICAL DATA (P2U-l)
Type: Patrol and antisubmarine search
Crew: Two pilots plus six crewmen
Powerplant: Two 2300 hp Wright R-3350-8A
Dimensions: Span l00'; length 75'6"
Weight: 6l,l53 lbs gross
Speed: 302 mph maximum
Range: 2,050 miles tactical
Armament: Six 0.50-in guns, mines, depth bombs, torpedoes
1: Feeling or displaying ferocity; cruel, savage
2: Deadly, destructive
3: Scathingly harsh; vitriolic
4: Aggressively self-assertive; belligerent.
No matter which definition you use, this turtle and most notably its crew--boldly took off in 1946 to set a night distance record that would stand for 16 years.
Commander Tom Davies. U.S. Navy, stood on the brakes and pushed both throttles forward to takeoff power. At the other end of the mile-long runway he could make out a knot of news photographers. Scattered across the air base, hundreds of picnickers stood at the sound of the engines and riveted their attention to the plane. But for Davies and his four-man crew, this was no picnic. He and Commander Gene Rankin, U.S. Navy, in the copilot's seat. scanned the engine instruments. All normal. Davies then released the brakes, and the "Truculent Turtle" began to roll. On this day. 29 September 1946. the Turtle was a veritable winged gas tank, 15 tons over maximum gross weight with fuel, so heavy it could not taxi for fear of breaking the landing gear in a turn (the fuel had been loaded in takeoff position on the runway).
The plane rumbled and jounced slightly, as the speed built up. As each 1,000-foot sign went by. Rankin called out the speed and compared it to predicted figures on a clipboard in his lap. With the second sign astern. the Turtle was committed. Davies could no longer stop the charping, gas-filled aircraft on the runway. it was now. quite literally, fly or burn. When the wavering airspeed needle touched 105 knots, Davies punched a button jury-wired to his yoke, and four jet-assisted takeoff bottles (JATO) fired from their attachment points aft on the fuselage. The crew could hear the roar of the bottles and feel their push. For a critical 10 seconds they provided the thrust of a third engine. The 4.000-foot sign and 115 knots came up at the same time. and Davies pulled the nose wheel off. There were some long seconds while the main wheels continued to rumble on the last of the runway, then they were still, spinning silently as the last pounds of weight were shifted to the wings, and the Turtle new.
The instant he was sure he was airborne Davies called "gear up" and jerked his right thumb upward. Rankin hit the wheel-shaped actuator on the pedestal between the pilots, and the gear came up. The wheel doors closed just as the JATO burned out. Behind the pilots, Commander Walt Reid kept his hand on the dump valve that could drop 500 gallons of fuel a minute. Lieutenant Commander Roy Tabeling. at the radio position, kept all his switches off for now to prevent the slightest spark.
Now the Turtle was out over the Indian Ocean. With agonizing deliberation, altimeter and airspeed crept up ward. Walt Reid jettisoned the empty JATO bottles. At 125 knots--stall speed withflags up--Rankin started the flaps coming in by careful small increments. At 165 knots Davies made his first power reduction, back to maximum continuous.
The sun was setting and the lights of the city blinking on as the Turtle circled back over Perth at 3,000 feet and headed out across the 1,800 miles of the central desert of Australia. On this record-breaking night, one already had been broken. Never before had two engines carried so much weight into the air.
The plan was to stay low--about 3,500 feet--for the first few hundred miles, burning off fuel and reducing weight so the climb to cruising altitude would require less gas. But the southwest wind, burbling and eddying across the hills northeast of Perth, brought turbulence that shook and rattled the overloaded Turtle, threatening the integrity of the wings themselves. Davies took her up to 6,500, where the air was smoother, reluctantly accepting the sacrifice of enough fuel to fly an extra couple of hundred miles at the other end of the flight.
Alice Springs at Australia's center slid under the long wings at midnight and Cooktown on the northeast coast at dawn. Then it was out over the Coral Sea where only just mon than three years before the Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5) had put down the Japanese ship Shoho and turned back Shokuku and Zuikcaku to win the first carrier battle in history and prevent the cutoff and isolation of Australia.
At noon the Turtle skirted the 10,000 foot Peaks of southern New Guinea, and in mid-afternoon detoured around a mass of boiling thunderheads over Bougainville in the Solomons. As the sun set for the second time since takeoff, the Turtle's crew stood out across the vast and empty Pacific Ocean and established an "at sea" routine, standing two-man, four-hour watches, washing, shaving, and changing to clean clothes each morning, eating regular meals. The two Wright 3350 engines ran smoothly--on all the gauges the needles were in the green-and every hour another 200 miles of the Pacific had passed astern. The crew's only worry was Joey, a nine-month-old, 35-pound female kangaroo destined for the Washington Zoo. She had hunched unhappily in her crate and refused to eat or drink.
Dawn of the second morning found the Turtle over Maro Reef, halfway between Midway and Oahu in the long chain of Hawaiian Islands. In the first voice-radio contact of the flight, Honolulu Radio warned of icing and severe turbulence over Seattle, the Turtle's planned landfall in the United States. Davies changed course to hit the coast in northern California, dropped the empty 200-gallon fuel tanks from the wing tips and eased up to 10,000 feet. At noon Reid came up to the cockpit smiling. "Well," he reported, "the damned kangaroo has started to eat and drink again. I guess she thinks we're going to make it."
The mission in which Joey's dim marsupial brain may or may not have acquired confidence was no stunt, despite her presence. In this early fall of 1946, the increasingly hostile Soviet Union was pushing construction of a submarine force nearly ten times larger than Adolf Hitler's at the start of World War II. Antisubmarine warfare was the Navy's responsibility. The Truculent Turtle was the first of the P-2V "Neptune" patrol planes designed to counter the sub threat. Tom Davies' orders derived straight from the offices of Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal and the Chief of Naval Operations. Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. A dramatic demonstration was needed to prove beyond question that the new patrol plane, its production representing a sizeable chunk of the Navy's skimpy peacetime budget, could do the job. With its efficient design that gave it four-engine capability on two engines, the mission would show the Neptune's ability to cover the transoceanic distances necessary to perform its ASW and sea-surveillance functions. And at a time when roles and missions were being developed to deliver nuclear weapons, it would not hurt a bit to show that the Navy, too, had that capability.
So far, the night had gone according to plan. But now as the second day in the air began to darken, the Pacific sky, gently clear and blue for so long, turned rough and hostile. An hour before landfall, great rolling knuckles of cloud punched out from the coastal mountains. The Turtle jolted and jarred. Ice crusted on the wings. Static blanked out radio transmission and reception. The crew strapped down hard, turned up the red instrument lights and took turns trying to tune the radio direction finder to a recognizable station. It was midnight before Roy Tabelling. with his years of electronics training and experience, succeeded in making contact with the ground and requested an instrument clearance eastward. A delightfully female voice reached up through the murk from Williams Radio, 70 miles south of Red Bluff, California.
"l'm sorry," the voice said. "I don't seem to have a night plan on you. What was your departure point?" "Perth. West Australia." "No. I mean where did you take off from?" "Perth, West Australia." "Navy zero eight two, you don't understand. I mean what was your departure airport for this leg of the flight?" "Perth, West Australia." "But that's halfway around the world!" "No. Only about a third. May we have that clearance?"
But the static and atmospherics closed in again, and no the weird and wonderful phenomenon of St. Elmo's fire added to the problems of the Turtle's crew. The two propellors whirled in rings of blue-white light. Violet tongues licked up between the laminations of the windshield. Eerie purple spokes protruded from the Neptune's nose. All those distracting effects would increase in brilliance with an accompanying rise in the volume of static on all radio frequencies then suddenly discharge with a blinding flash and a thump and begin slowly to rebuild. It was not for another hour, somewhere over the cliffs and ridges of the Donner Pass. that an instrument clearance could be patched together and the flight could proceed in regulation fashion.
The St. Elmo's fire had been annoying but not dangerous. Now came a serious threat to the mission. At the left center of the instrument panel a red-lighted pointer that all during the flight had been aligned parallel to its mate--as though a pair of red clocks both read five minutes past one--flickered, oscillated, dropped down to the left, came back up momentarily. then dropped off again, farther this time, built up and again dropped off. In the language of engine instruments, that tachometer was announcing that the Turtle's left engine was failing. In the jarring, crackling night sky somewhere over Nevada, Davies suddenly had much to ponder. Navy and civil flight regulations and common sense required an immediate landing at the nearest available field in the event of engine failure. But where was that? Probably Reno. Would that field be open, or did the present foul weather extend all the way to the deck? And what about the mission record? The Turtle was now 9,000 miles from Perth, 1,000 better than the old mark. But was that good enough? The Neptune was now light enough for single engine flight, but how much farther could it go on one engine? And was it worth risking this first expensive aircraft of what should one day be a family of hundreds for the sake of improving a distance record?
Whatever the answers to all those questions, the first thing to do was to shut down the bad engine, reducing its drag and minimizing the damage. Davies reached up for the button that would feather the prop. But at that moment it struck him that something about this sick engine was not normal. The altimeter showed no loss of altitude. Control pressures remained unchanged--no retrimming or extra force had been needed on yoke or rudders. He jabbed the beam of a flashlight over his left shoulder. The prop out there whirled normally. There was no sign of smoke or oil. He checked the panel. Manifold pressure, oil pressure, and oil temperature. and fuel now all were normal. Davies ran the throttle forward on the port engine and felt a welcome swerve under his hands and feet. Relief surged. That beautiful left engine was as good as ever. Only the tachometer was faulty.
The weather finally broke with the dawn of the Turtle's third day in the air, and all morning Davies followed the section lines of the plains states to the eastward. Nebraska, Iowa. and the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers slid past below. To the north, the haze of Chicago was in sight. But now. not surprisingly, fuel was becoming a problem. The wingtip tanks had long ago been emptied and jettisoned over the Pacific. The bomb bay tanks, the nose tank, and the big fuselage tanks were empty. The fuel gauges for the wine tanks were moving inexorably toward zero. Davies and his crew consulted, tapping the panel, calculating and recalculating remaining fuel, and cursing the gauges on which one-eighth of an inch represented 200 gallons--more than an hour's flight, nearly 200 miles. At noon they concluded they could not safely stretch the flight beyond Columbus. Ohio.
At quarter past one that afternoon the runways and hangars of the Columbus airport were in sight. The Turtle's crew were cleaned-up and shaven and in uniform. And the fuel gauges all read empty. With the landing checklist completed and wheels and naps down. Davies cranked the Turtle around into final approach. As the plane leveled out in final, the left engine popped, sputtered and cut out. Not- now. he thought. palms moist on yoke and throttles, not after all the miles, just one mile from touchdown! But the right engine continued to provide power and the left caught and ran again (a fuel boost pump had acted up). At 1325 on I October, the Neptune's wheels once more touched the earth--touched it hard, with tires that had been inflated to support the ten Cadillacs' weight of fuel that had now been burned--11·,236 miles and 55 hours and 16 minutes from where they had taken off.
Before that day was over, the Turtle's crew had been decorated by Secretary Forrestal and were scheduled to meet with President Harry S Truman. And Joey, observably relieved to be back on the solid earth, had been installed in luxurious quarters in the Washington Zoo. The record established by Tom Davies and the Truculent Turtle stood not just for a year or two or three, but through the remaining 1940s and the entire decade of the 1950s-for 16 years, until early in 1962.
A thousand sisters followed the Turtle. For a quarter-century after that epic flight, seven generations of Neptunes painted with the colors of a half-dozen nations have patrolled the oceans of the world and provided an effective global counter to the threat of hostile submarines. And today, that first long-legged Neptune with the Disney turtle painted on its nose stands in honored dignity at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, an inspiration to all, but especially to the generations of patrol-plane pilots who have followed in the daringly professional tradition of Commander Tom Davies and his crew.
Commander Stafford is a prolific freelance writer whose work has appeared many times in Proceedings. Among the many publications for which he has written National Geographic and Reader's Digest. Commander Stafford is perhaps best known as the author of the World War II history of the USS Enterprise (CV-5), The Big E, now available as part of the U. S. Naval Institute's Classics of Naval Literature series.
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