Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Night Flying aboard SAVANNAH

When I was the Senior Aviator for Cruiser Scouting Squadron Eight aboard the brand new light cruiser SAVANNAH in 1939 someone at fleet got a great idea, we should try night operations. Up until that point, we were really a Day VFR Only operation. Our SOC Floatplanes were fitted for instrument flying, but we did very little of it. Anyway, the fellow up at fleet directed SAVANNAH’s air detachment to conduct a feasibility study on night operations. They apparently never thought about a gradual approach. Our first operation called for all six aircraft to launch at night and conduct a sortie, then land. The operation was to be conducted on a night with a full overcast.

The night came. We launched all six aircraft. I climbed into my cockpit, started the engine. As the gyroscopes wound up, I caged the attitude and heading gyros and called for the catapult shot. I was slammed back into my seat. When the aircraft stabilized, I uncaged the attitude indicator, then the heading indicator. Black as the inside of a cow it was. Hopefully, we were still right side up. The gyros would self correct for vertical over time and I could adjust the heading from my compass.

After flying around uselessly for about two hours, we came back to land. The ship had her lights on. She turned giving us a wake to land in. I touched down and came to a rather abrupt stop. My aircraft almost went over on her back, but she made it.

My five other aircraft all ended up upside down in the water. Frankly, I don’t think it was because I was the best pilot(although I expect I gave the others that impression), I was just way luckier. I wish I could remember the names of the other pilots and observers. Brave men, all.

That flight was my most terrifying experience of my career. It pretty well showed that at that time night flying was impractical for floatplanes. There just weren’t enough brave marines embarked to get a pilot in the plane for a second flight.

ADM Jackson D. Arnold, Oral History December 2005

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