As the United States Navy built up its Carrier Force in the mid to late 1930s it continued to develop aircraft specifically designed to operate from aircraft carriers. It continued its development of fighter, dive bomber and torpedo bomber aircraft. In 1935 the Navy was operating the Grumman FF-1 biplane fighter which it had began using in 1933 and the Curtiss F11C and BF2C Goshawk. The Curtiss aircraft were built in fighter and bomber variants and while initial aircraft had an open cockpit and fixed landing gear later aircraft had an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear. They had top speed of 157 miles an hour and due to limited success and were retired from service by 1939. The Goshawk was operated against the Japanese by Nationalist China and also served in a number of air forces including Thailand where they were used against the French and Japanese.
The Grumman FF-1 was a two-seater that had a enclosed cockpit with retractable landing gear and a top speed of 201 miles an hour. The FF-1 was faster than any naval aircraft of its era, a follow-on variant designated the SF-1 followed and 120 aircraft were built. Most of the operational aircraft served aboard the USS Lexington CV-2 in a fighter and scouting role. The FF-1 and SF-1 were withdrawn from first line service and placed with the reserve as well as being used in aviation training commands. The aircraft was manufactured under license by the Canadian Car and Foundry Company and served in the Canadian Air Force until 1942 as the Goblin and 40 of the Canadian aircraft were used by the Spanish Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War.
The FF-1/SF-1 was followed by the Grumman F2F a single-seat model with improved speed and maneuverability over is predecessors. 54 F2F’s were ordered in 1934 with the production models being delivered between April and August 1935. The aircraft were armed with 2 .30 machine guns mounted above the cowl and had a top speed of 231 miles an hour and maximum range of 985 miles. The aircraft would remain in service until they were replaced in 1939 with the Grumman F3F. However they remained in service as utility and training aircraft until retired from service toward the end of 1940.
The Grumman F3F followed the F2F with 157 production models. It was more aerodynamic and had a more powerful engine that the F2F which enabled it to achieve a top speed of 264 miles an hour. It was operated by seven Navy and Marine Corps Squadrons and entered service in 1936 and would serve aboard carriers until replaced in late 1941. It continued with 117 aircraft being stationed at naval air stations and used for training until 1943.
The first monoplane fighter developed and placed in service by the Navy was the F2A Brewster Buffalo. The Buffalo served with Navy and Marine Corps squadrons and was purchased by Great Britain for service in the Royal Australian and Royal New Zealand Air Forces which received 202 Buffalos. They would also serve with the Royal Navy. The Royal Netherlands Air Force received 144 most of which served in the East Indies. The final nation to receive the Buffalo was Finland which received 44 aircraft. Buffalo was underpowered and the addition of armor and added fuel capacity further diminished the speed and performance of the aircraft. The Navy placed its Buffalo’s in advanced training squadrons in early 1942 and one of the two Marine Corps squadrons (VMF-221) operated it at the Battle of Midway where they endured fearful losses at the hands of Japanese Zero fighters.
Despite the lack of success in U. S. service the Buffalo performed in a heroic manner for the Finns destroying over 500 Soviet and German aircraft and producing 36 Buffalo Aces. The highest scorer was Captain Hans W. Wind with 39 of 75 victories flying a Buffalo. British Commonwealth and Dutch aircraft did not fare as well as the Finns as the tropical climate degraded the aircraft considerably.
The Navy also developed aircraft for bombing missions as well as that could launch aerial torpedoes. The first aircraft built were dual purpose in that they could be used in level bombing and torpedo missions. In 1935 the primary aircraft of this type was the Martin T4M which had entered service in 1928 and replaced the Douglas DT and Martin T4M aircraft. The T4M was a biplane with a crew of three that had a maximum speed of 114 miles an hour (I have driven much fast than this on the German Autobahn but I digress) and it could carry a torpedo or bombs. 155 were purchased by the Navy and the Marine Corps between 1928 and 1931. They were operated from the Lexington and Saratoga until 1938 as no replacement aircraft offered enough improvements for the Navy to purchase and were instrumental in the development and demonstration of the capabilities of naval air power. They were finally replaced by the Douglas TBD Devastator.
The TBD which first flew in 1935 entered service in 1937 and at the time was possibly the most modern naval aircraft in the world and was a revolutionary aircraft. It was the first monoplane widely used on carriers and was first all-metal naval aircraft. It was the first naval aircraft with a totally enclosed cockpit, the first with hydraulic powered folding wings. The TBD had crew of three and had a maximum speed of 206 miles an hour and carried a torpedo or up to 1500 pounds of bombs (3 x 500) or a 1000 pound bomb. 129 were built and served in all pre-war torpedo bombing squadrons based aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet with a limited number embarked aboard Wasp. The Devastator saw extensive service prior to the war which pushed many airframes to the end of their useful service life and by 1940 only about 100 were operational. They were still in service in 1942 as their replacement the TBF Avenger was not ready for service. They performed adequately against minor opposition at Coral Sea and in strikes against the Marshalls but the squadrons embarked on Yorktown (VT3), Enterprise (VT-6) and Hornet (VT-8) were annihilated at Midway with only 6 of 41 surviving their uncoordinated attacks against the Japanese Carrier Strike Force. They were too slow, had poor maneuverability, insufficient armor and defensive armament. Only a few were able to launch their torpedoes as the Japanese Combat Air Patrol tore through them. Their sacrifice was not in vain as the Dive Bombers arrived facing no opposition and sank three of the four Japanese carriers getting the fourth later in the day. After Midway the remaining aircraft were withdrawn from active service in the Pacific. The Ranger’s VT-4 operated them until September 1942and Wasp’s VT-7 operated them in the Atlantic until she was transferred to the Pacific in July 1942. By 1944 all remaining aircraft had been scrapped.
In the mid 1930s the Navy began to develop Scout and Dive Bombers for use in carrier scouting (VS) and bombing (VT) squadrons. The first of these aircraft types were biplanes. The Grumman SF-1 was used in a scouting and bombing role and was joined by the Vought SBU Corsair in 1935 and by 1937 both were being replaced by the Curtiss SBC Helldiver, a biplane with a 234 mile an hour maximum speed, retractable landing gear, enclosed cockpit which could carry a 1000 bomb.
However the era of the biplane was drawing to a close and the Helldiver would be relegated to training squadrons based in Florida. Although they had a brief service career they were instrumental in develop dive bombing tactics at which the U.S. Navy excelled and which were copied by the German Luftwaffe with the Junkers JU-87 Stuka and the Japanese with the Aichi 99 Val naval dive bomber. 50 aircraft were transferred to the French and served aboard the carrier Bearn but due to the French surrender in June of 1940 saw no action and spent the war rotting in Martinique.
The Helldiver’s were joined by the first monoplane dive bomber in U.S. service the Vought SBU2 Vindicator in 1937. The Vindicator was used by the Navy and the Marine Corps serving aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger and Wasp. They would remain in service until September 1942. The Marine aircraft equipped two squadrons VMSB 131 and VMSB-241, VMSB 241 suffered heavy casualties at Midway as the aircraft were underpowered and were limited to glide bombing missions. After they were taken out of the operational squadrons the Vindicator served as a training aircraft until retired in 1945. A French Naval Air Squadron was equipped with the Vindicator but they served ashore against the German invasion. Most were lost to enemy action. The Douglas SBD Dauntless was introduced in 1940 and 1941 but I will cover that aircraft in the World War II aircraft article that will follow this in a week or two.
These aircraft helped pave the way to aircraft that would be the mainstays of the Navy in the Second World War, aircraft with names such as Dauntless, Helldiver, Avenger, Hellcat and Corsair. Naval aviation earned its “wings of gold” in these early years wings that continue to shine in the 21st Century.