Academic journal article Air Power History

Those Were the Days: Flying Safety during the Transition to Jets, 1944-53

Academic journal article Air Power History

Those Were the Days: Flying Safety during the Transition to Jets, 1944-53

Article excerpt

The World War II army airmen went through a crucial period during the second half of the 1940s. (1) During this timeframe they gained their independence (the World War II Army Air Forces became the United States Air Force in 1947), began to transition from prop to jet power, reduced from the huge World War II establishment to a much smaller force, and started their engagement in the four-decade long Cold War. In the first years of the next decade the new service found itself fighting a different, difficult, and frustrating war in Korea. Throughout this period, flying performance was the primary concern. Compared to these issues, flying safety was of much lower priority.

Flying safety is an important, yet neglected, aspect of aviation history. The romance, the daring, the spectacle, the records, the performance of flying and fliers are the focus of attention, not the ordinary or the negative. Since 1921, the first year the army airmen kept comprehensive records, their flying accident rate has declined. This has not been a straight-line trend, however, as the rate shot upward in a number of years, notably in 1941, when America began the buildup for World War II and in 1946 during the rapid demobilization following that conflict. It then resumed its downward movement even during the hectic Korean War expansion. By the end of that conflict in 1953, the airmen had cut in half the rate of major accidents from the prewar low in 1940 to the lowest yet registered. (2) (figure 13) This dramatic drop in the accident rate suggests that the airman adapted well in the conversion to jet power. Does this observation hold up under closer scrutiny? How much credit does the USAF deserve for this improvement?

Hardware

Jet propulsion offered the airmen several advantages in addition to higher performance. For example, tricycle landing gear, which quickly became the standard configuration on jets, enhanced aircraft safety as it eliminated ground loops on landing and gave the pilot better visibility during ground operations. Jet engines simplified flying with torque-less power, less complex engines, and an absence of propellers. Jet engines had only a throttle, while piston engines had controls for the throttle, mixture, and prop.

Of course, there were, trade-offs. Performance was higher, as were takeoff, approach, and landing speeds. (4) Higher speeds meant not only less time for pilots to react, but due to faster vertical change, increased altimeter lag, which gave the pilot erroneous altitude information. (5) Jet engines were new to Air Force pilots and ground crews. Flying characteristics were different, for example, compared with prop aircraft, jet aircraft decelerated relatively slowly when the throttle was retarded. (Speed brakes were added to provide additional drag to slow jet aircraft more rapidly.) On the other hand, a particularly dangerous aspect of flying jets was that it took some time for jet engines to deliver increased power ("spool up") unlike prop engines that delivered power almost immediately on demand. One early (1948)jet flight manual emphasized: "The acceleration characteristics of a jet-propelled airplane are definitely inferior to those of a propeller-driven airplane." (6) Another peril was that advancing the throttle too rapidly could cause a jet engine to "flame out" and lose all power. In addition, jet engines were prone to suck up foreign objects and damage their internal workings. (7) Tricycle landing gear was novel to most pilots and posed the possibility of dragging the tail when landing. (8)

U.S airmen transitioned quickly to jet aircraft. The first American jet, the, P-59, flew in October 1942 and the first jet fighter introduced into service (P-80) made its maiden flight in January 1944. (9) In the last half of 1949 jet fighter flying hours in the USAF exceeded prop fighter flying hours for the first time and in 1953 87 percent of USAF fighter flying hours were logged in jets. …

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