Seaplane Story 1

Outbound

As I was going through some pictures this morning I found this picture I can use in this seaplane story but can also tie to some family history.

The picture I’ve attached is of a Martin Marlin P5M-2 seaplane. The tail identification, “SF”, indicates that it belongs to Patrol Squadron Forty-Eight (VP-48) and the “7” tells you that this plane is #7 of a 12 plane contingency. So, this plane’s call name is “Sugar Fox 7”. I flew in Sugar Fox 7 a number of times but was normally in Sugar Fox 1, the skipper’s plane, as I was the lead technician in that crew.

The P5M-2 was an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) aircraft and was packed with sophisticated electronic gear in order to hunt submarines. Once a sub was located, the plane was capable of firing rockets or dropping bombs on the target. The cylinder hanging under the starboard wing, near the pontoon strut, was a 1 million candle-power searchlight that created a lot of excitement when you caught a sub running on the surface at night and illuminated him. The plane normally carried a crew of 10 or 11 men with varying job assignments.

In the picture, the plane is heading west and is flying parallel to the edge of Point Loma, a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific. The water that is shown just above the seaplane, from left to right, is the San Diego Channel, connecting San Diego Bay with the Pacific.

Finally getting to the point of my story, on the ground, below Sugar Fox 7, and located along the hillside, is Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Among the many veterans buried there you will find the gravesite of our cousin, Donald L. Thomas, a WWI veteran. His wife, Loyce, is buried in the same plot. From their resting places there is a beautiful view to the south of the city of San Diego, the San Diego Channel, North Island Naval Air Station, the city of Coronado, and on the horizon, Tijuana, Mexico. Of course, looking to the right, you see the beautiful blue Pacific.

 

Dave Thomas
March 13, 2012, revised February 15, 2015

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Seaplane Story 5: JATO

JATO (J-toe) or Jet Assisted Take Off is a quick way to get some altitude if you are faced with a short space or obstacles in your take off path. If you read the El Paso articles (Seaplane Story 3) you saw that they had to use JATO to get off that tiny lake.

The JATO containers were referred to as “bottles” (see picture 05a). They are actually solid-fueled rockets. They are not as big in diameter as a 5 gallon can but probably stand 50% taller than a can. On the P5M seaplane 2 bottles were mounted on the rear port hatch and 2 bottles were mounted on the starboard hatch. They were fired as pairs, the lower pair and the upper pair. When airborne and clear of the sea lanes, the bottles were jettisoned.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The most exciting JATO performance I saw was a demonstration piloted by our skipper, Commander “Hap” Hazard. I don’t know what the deal was but there were a lot of Captains and Admirals in the crowd. One of our planes had been stripped of the electronics gear and had a minimum gas load. The only people aboard were the pilot, co-pilot, and a senior mechanic.They started their take off run and almost immediately fired the JATO bottles and I’d swear that plane went almost straight up! You can imagine a fighter plane doing that but to see a giant seaplane was hard to believe.

05b On the step

 

The most exciting JATO run I was involved in was when we were on the way to Japan. We had flown from Hawaii to Kwajalein Atoll, spent the night, and now were ready to head for Midway Island. There was a small harbor formed by a coral reef that looked like it had been enhanced by man. We carried every ounce of gas we could get aboard and were really heavy. The sky was overcast and the sea was choppy. We started our take off run and at the appropriate time, the pilot fired the JATO bottles. We were rushing toward this coral reef but weren’t lifting off. The pilot finally had to abort. By the time we got more JATO bottles aboard, the sea had settled down a little and the pilot had a better feel for the weight and the conditions and we got airborne. That was the hairiest one I got to enjoy.

I was probably aboard for 10 or 15 JATO take offs and was always amazed at how much power you felt when the bottles ignited.

Dave Thomas
March 6, 2012, revised February 16, 2015 

 

 

Seaplane Story 3

Here’s an interesting video lasting only 2 or 3 minutes that outlines the development of the P5M-1.One of the interesting innovations was the incorporation of hydro-flaps. They are hydraulically operated appendages built into the rear of the hull that could be energized separately for steering or could be deployed at the same time and serve as brakes when the aircraft was in the water.

Another interesting part of the video is the take-off. As the plane gets up to speed it creates a “rooster tail” higher than those seen at the thunder boat races. At the tail of the plane is a 50mm machine gun turret that has a spectacular view during take-off. The turret was no longer armed or occupied so, with the pilot’s permission you could sit back there during take-off. You are facing backward and as the speed increases, the walls of water get higher and higher until it feels like you are looking down a canyon. What a ride!

http://www.livingwarbirds.com/martin/p5m-marlin.php

Here’s an interesting thing about water take-offs. Sometimes at dawn and for a short time thereafter, San Diego Bay is as smooth as a sheet of glass. No ships or boats have been moving to cause ripples or waves. It sounds like it would be perfect for take-off but you can’t develop any lift and get airborne. On a morning like this, the pilot calls the tower and tells them to watch out for surface traffic while we tear around the bay in circles and try to develop some waves.

I was doing some research and found a YouTube video about the crash of a Martin P5M-2 seaplane from VP-48, my squadron. It crashed in the Laguna Mountains 1/1/1959 on a flight to the Salton Sea. The pilot and co-pilot were killed but 8 members of the crew bailed out successfully. The 2 men in the crew that I knew best were Allen Van Dyke and William Little. The crew roster appears in the last few seconds of the video. Bill Little was an Aviation Electronics Technician First Class (AT1) and we worked out of the same shop so I saw him every day. Both guys said that bailing out was a hairy experience because the plane was just barely clearing the mountain tops.

http://youtu.be/p8d2JgrHrcU

Dave Thomas
March 15, 2012. Revised February 20, 2015 

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It’s for real: Seaplane ended up in and took off from Ascarate Lake

Trish Long / El Paso Times

POSTED: 05/08/2009 11:31:34 PM MDT

Dear Trish, my name is Eddie Bustamante. I’m not from here. I have heard from people that have lived here all their lives that a seaplane landed on Ascarate Lake many years ago. If it is true, what year? And how was it able to lift off the lake? I keep wondering if people are just pulling my leg. Can you help?

They’re not pulling your leg, Edward. On April 10, 1960, a U.S. Navy P5M Martin Marlin seaplane was made an emergency landing on the 3,000-foot long Ascarate Lake.

The pilot, Lt. M.T. Burke, said he made the decision to land in the “pond” when the starboard engine began cutting out every few minutes.

“The trouble started around Yuma,” Burke told the El Paso Times at the time. “But it didn’t get serious until we were 50 or 60 miles out of El Paso.” The officer decided to come to El Paso rather than try for Elephant Butte Lake.

Before landing, much of the fuel was dumped from the seaplane, which the El Paso Times article also referred to as a “flying boat.”

Burke and his crew had left San Diego en route to Baltimore, via Pensacola, Fla. The seven people on the flight were members of a ferrying group that transported planes across the nation.

The plane landed from south to north, then was towed with the assistance of a Sheriff’s Department boat piloted by Deputy Charlie Barker, and a County Recreation Department boat, handled by Earl Thurston, to the north end of the lake.

Additional personnel, tools and spare parts were flown in to help get the flying boat ready for takeoff while Burke held an “open house” so that Mayor Raymond Telles, County Judge Woodrow Bean and other City and County officials could inspect the seaplane — “a rarity in El Paso.”

The landing, however, wasn’t as complicated as the takeoff later.

Four rockets were added to the seaplane, it was stripped of all unnecessary equipment, and it carried a minimum load of fuel to make it as light as possible. The trees at the south end of the lake were soaked overnight and pushed over with bulldozers.

In the early morning of April 23, an Air Force helicopter hovered overhead and emergency crash trucks stood ready in case of trouble.

Capt. Ted Vogel of the El Paso Police Department and two members of the Sheriff’s Department Boat Patrol were also on watch, and Mexican police had an ambulance and fire truck ready on the Mexican side.

At 6:13 a.m., the 77,000-pound flying boat, using its extra jets and aided by small motorboats kicking up waves, took off successfully from Ascarate Lake.

The pilot was Lieut. Commander William L. Schad, and his co-pilot was Lieut. Gordon R. Williams. They flew from El Paso to Corpus Christi and then on to Baltimore, Md.
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The pilot mentioned in the next-to-last line, Lt. Cdr. William Schad was the plane commander of Crew 4, SF 4, of VP 48. He was a skilled pilot and I flew with him a number of times.
Dave T

 

Seaplane Story 4: Communicating

When a squadron returned from deployment in WESTPAC, sailors were discharged or transferred and were replaced by new men. Training took place all day, every day. Flight crews were flying almost every day and sometimes flew two or more hops per day. The Navy tries to fit all the activities into a standard day that ends at 4:00 PM. That way everything can be secured and the single men can be ready to hit the mess hall on time. However, with all the training flights going on I was never sure what time my last flight would get in.

For a couple of years, we lived in Navy housing in Coronado that was located right on San Diego Bay. It might have been 10 or 15 yards from our building to the water’s edge. Looking east, we had a great view of the bay and the San Diego skyline behind it.

When the seaplanes landed they came in from the ocean, heading east, and crossed over the Silver Strand which is the name of the isthmus connecting the city of Imperial Beach, on the south, with the city of Coronado, on the north. In some places the Strand is only 200 or 300 yards wide and accommodates the highway and a strip of public beach and that’s it. After crossing the Strand the planes turn to port (north) and fly up the bay. At the point where the plane passes our apartment in Navy Housing, they were probably only 50 or 75 yards off shore. Pat knew the side number of my plane so she recognized it when we flew past. Sometimes we would be shooting touch-and-go landings and would go past the house over and over. Pat would sometimes sit out on the grass and wave when we went by. We were close enough that I could recognize her from the plane. I had a window (or port) beside my position at the radar and one time, as we flew past. I picked up a white rag that I used to clean the radar screen and waved it at the window as we went past Pat. She saw the rag and later that evening we were talking about it and she said “why don’t you wave that rag when you go past for the last time of the day and I’ll know when to start supper?” It sounded great to me so that’s what we did from then on. Of course, it didn’t last long. The novice pilots learned how to land  and take off and the whole training atmosphere evolved and the flights got longer. Pat and I had a good thing going while it lasted.

Dave Thomas
Revised February 16, 2015 

Seaplane Story 2

Two of the early seaplanes or “flying boats” used by the U.S. Navy were the PBY and the PBM. Then, from the early 1950’s through 1967 the Glenn L. Martin Company produced the P5M-1, P5M-2, and the Anti-Submarine Warfare version, the P5M-2S. When I joined VP-48 in June of 1958 they were flying the P5M-1 and had just returned two months previously from a 6 month deployment at Naval Air Station Iwakuni, Japan. Still flying the P5M-1, we deployed again to Iwakuni in April of 1959 for 6 months and after we returned we started taking delivery of the P5M-2’s. I don’t remember the details but after receiving just a couple of the -2’s we started receiving the P5M-2S, the “S” suffix meaning that the plane was equipped with the jazzy electronic gear of the new Anti-Submarine Warfare package. We had to obtain a “Secret” clearance just to work on the gear.

The first picture shows the difference between the appearance of the P5M-1 and P5M-2. On the “-1”, the horizontal stabilizer on the tail is down low, at the height of the fuselage. On the “-2”, they put the horizontal stabilizer at the top of the tail section and created that “flying tail” or T-tail” effect. Cool!

P5M-1 & P5M-2

The second image is a spec. sheet. It says that the cruising speed was 150 knots but as I recall it was more like 140 knots. We didn’t move too fast.

02b P5M-2 Specs

The third picture was included to show the size of the aircraft. Also, notice the red rectangle above the tires on the port side and the green rectangle above the tires on the starboard side. Those are flotation chambers. After the plane is launched and is in the water, a crew member throws a lever, setting the wheels adrift and they are towed away from the aircraft. This plane can only take off and land on water.

Moving P5M

That bulbous white nose is a radome housing a parabolic dish antenna that was at least 4 feet in diameter. I don’t remember exactly but I do remember that when working on the antenna I could bend a little at the waist and neck and could move clear around the front of the antenna. The radome must have been almost 6 feet at its maximum diameter.

Dave Thomas
February 29, 2012, revised February 16, 2015