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    203: Sea-Air Operations

Sea-Air Operations (Gallery 203)

This entire gallery is dedicated to naval aviation, and is a fitting end to your tour of the exhibits. The highlights here are replica aircraft carrier hangar deck and air traffic control center, on different floors within the gallery. Huge video screens, actual audio, and real carrier artifacts surround you as you watch footage of jets catapulting off the deck and returning in for landings.

While the simulated carrier rooms are the highlight of this gallery, there are several good displays covering life and flight operations on an aircraft carrier. Among the displays are an overview of carrier development, including the U.S.S. Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered combat ship; how to land an aircraft on the pitching deck of a carrier; and carrier defense systems.

Naval aircraft on display in Sea-Air Operations include:

Boeing F4B-4 This was one of the U.S. Navy’s primary carrier-based fighters in the early and mid-1930’s. A biplane, its top speed was around 186 m.p.h., and it could carry just under 500 pounds of bombs.

With limited speed and capabilities, the F4B-4 was obsolete before the U.S. entered World War II. Only one of the 586 F4B’s made ever saw combat, and that was as part of China’s air force in the late 1930’s, against Japan (it was shot down). The plane on display here was built for the Marines and donated to the museum in 1959.

Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat The Wildcat became part of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft fleet in 1940, and, as the F4F-3, it was the best carrier-based fighter the U.S. had in the Pacific until the F6F Hellcat (on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly).

The Wildcat was slower, less maneuverable, and had a shorter range than Japan’s A6M Zero (on display across the hall). However, the Wildcat had a great deal of armor, and fuel tanks that could seal themselves if hit by enemy bullets. That meant the Wildcat could absorb a lot of punishment and still keep flying. The Zero, on the other hand, could not. When the U.S. switched from one-on-one dogfight tactics to group formation, the Zero’s advantages were nullified, and the Wildcat racked up an impressive air victory ratio of almost 7:1.

The vast majority of Wildcats were fighters based on Pacific carriers, but a few flew from carriers in Europe into 1945, including attacks off the coast of Norway. The F4F-4 version on display here was introduced in 1942 and featured more machine guns than earlier versions. The actual plane shown in this gallery was based in Oklahoma during the war. Although it features the markings of planes from the carrier Breton, this plane never saw combat.

Douglas SBD-6 Dauntless: If it’s possible for an airplane to change the course of naval history, then the SBD-6 Dauntless did just that.

The “SBD” acronym stands for “Scout Bomber Douglas”) and the Dauntless was used as both a scout plane and a dive-bomber when it entered service in 1940. Early versions of Dauntless saw action at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, 1942. While the Dauntless didn’t fly very fast (255 m.p.h.), it had a range of more than 1,100 miles, could carry 2,250 pounds of bombs, and was strong enough to hold together during steep dives when attacking enemy ships. Those are important characteristics for a dive bomber.

The Dauntless’ finest hour was at the Battle of Midway in June, 1942. It was not yet six months since Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, sinking four U.S. battleships and killing more than 2,400 sailors. While the U.S. had fought well at Coral Sea, they had, to this point, only succeeded in stopping some of Japan’s naval advances; a decisive victory had not yet been won.

After Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing of Tokyo in April, 1942 (see above), Japan sent its naval forces farther out into the Pacific, to capture islands and prevent the Allies from establishing air bases for more raids. In particular, Japan sent 21 major ships towards Midway, which was around 2,200 miles from Tokyo, and an important refueling point for ships and planes heading out from Hawaii.

What Japan didn’t know was that the U.S. had just cracked the secret communication code used by Japan’s navy, allowing the Allies to know how many ships Japan was sending, where, when, and of what kind. To keep the element of surprise, the U.S. positioned its aircraft carriers just outside the range of Japanese radar, on the other side of the island.

At Midway, Japan’s four aircraft carriers had launched a first wave of bombers against the island’s airstrip, and fighters to escort them. While those bombers were refueling on the carrier decks (and the fighters waited their turn to refuel), four squadrons of Navy SBDs attacked from different directions. It was incredibly fortunate timing.

The SBD’s bombs ignited massive firestorms on the Japanese carriers – three of them sank in under 10 minutes. All told, Japan lost 4 carriers, a heavy cruiser, 248 airplanes, and more than 3,000 men. In contrast, the U.S. lost 1 carrier, about 150 planes, and 307 men. It was a huge victory for the Americans, and Japan’s navy never recovered.

The SBD-6 continued in service through mid-1944. It was eventually replaced by the faster Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The SBD-6 shown here was delivered in March, 1944, and spent the war in Maryland.

Douglas A-4C Skyhawk: One of the longest-serving aircraft in U.S. Navy history, the Skyhawk flew from U.S. ships for almost 50 years. Bucking the trend of each aircraft generation to be larger, heavier, and more complex than the previous one, the Skyhawk was specifically designed to be small, lightweight, and simple. It had a single engine, and its small wingspan meant it didn’t need to be folded up to save space on aircraft carriers, thus saving weight. It also had the ability, with an external fuel tank, to refuel other airplanes in flight, making it easier to keep airplanes aloft in far-away places.

The A-4’s were one of the Navy’s main attack planes during Vietnam. It was capable of carrying up to 8,200 pounds of bombs and missiles. Because of the plane’s lightness and speed, it found roles as part of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (you know it as “TOPGUN”), and in the Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatic team.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum