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The Flight...

    Taxiing tests had shown that the P2V-1 landing gear might not be able to handle the extreme weight of the Turtle and that the landing gear struts could fail in turns under such weight conditions.  For that reason, the Turtle was only partially filled with fuel before it was positioned at the head of the Pearce Aerodrome runway 27 at 7:00 a.m. on September 29th. Lined up for take-off, all fueling was completed by 4:00 p.m.  At the same time, JATO packs were attached to the fuselage for the jet-assisted take-off that would be needed to get the Turtle off the ground.

    The Turtle would take-off with CDR Thomas D. Davies, the pilot in command, in the left seat and CDR Eugene P. (Gene) Rankin, the copilot, in the right seat. In CDR Rankin’s own words:

“Late afternoon on the 29th, the weather in southwestern Australia was beautiful.  At 1800, the two 2,300 hp Wright R-3350 engines were warming up. We were about to commence a takeoff from a 6,000 foot runway at a gross weight of 85,561 pounds (the standard P2V was rated at 61,000 pounds), of which about 50,000 pounds were gasoline.  Sitting in the copilot’s seat, I remember thinking about my wife, Virginia, and my three daughters and asking myself, “What am I doing here in this situation?”  I took a deep breath and wished for the best, knowing the takeoff would be the greatest risk of the entire flight.”

    At 6:11p.m., CDR Tom Davies stood on the brakes as the throttles were pushed forward to maximum power.  At the other end of the mile-long runway he could make out the throng of news reporters and photographers.  Scattered across the air base were hundreds of picnickers who came to witness the spectacle of a JATO takeoff, and who stood when they heard the sound of the engines being advanced to maximum power.  Tom Davies and Gene Rankin scanned the engine instruments, which all showed normal readings.  Davies then released the brakes and the Turtle reluctantly began to roll.  On this day, September 29, 1946, the Turtle was a veritable winged gas tank that was more than thirteen tons over maximum gross weight.

    The Turtle rumbled and bounced on its tires that had been over-inflated to handle the heavy load.  Slowly it began to pick up speed.  As each 1,000-foot sign went by, Rankin called out the speed and compared it to predicted figures on a clipboard in his lap. With the second 1,000-foot sign astern, the Turtle was committed.  Davies could no longer stop the aircraft in the runway remaining. It was then, quite literally, fly or burn.  When the quivering airspeed needle touched 87 knots, Davies punched a button wired to his yoke, and the four JATO bottles fired from their attachment points aft on the fuselage.  The crew could hear the roar of the JATO bottles and feel their push.  For a critical twelve seconds, they provided the thrust of a third engine.  At about 4,500 feet down the runway, 115 knots was reached on the airspeed indicator, and Davies pulled the nose wheel off.  There were some long seconds while the main landing gear continued to rumble on the last of the runway.  Then the rumbling stopped as the main landing gear left the runway and the full load of the aircraft shifted to the wings.

    As soon as they were certain that they were airborne, but still only an estimated five feet above the ground, Davies called “gear up.”  Rankin moved the wheel-shaped actuator on the pedestal between the pilots to the up position, and the wheels came up. Davies likely tapped the brakes to stop the wheels from spinning, and the wheel-well doors closed just as the JATO bottles burned out.  Behind the pilots in the aft fuselage, CDR Walt Reid kept his hand on the dump valve that could quickly lighten their load in an emergency.  LCDR Roy Tabeling, at the radio position, kept all his switches off for now to prevent the slightest spark.

  The Turtle had an estimated 20 feet of altitude and 130 knots of airspeed when the JATO bottles burned out.  The JATO bottles were not just to give the Turtle additional speed on take-off, but were intended to improve the rate of climb immediately after lift-off. The Turtle barely cleared the trees a quarter of a mile from the end of the runway.  The field elevation of Pearce Aerodrome was about 500 feet, and the terrain to the west sloped gradually down to the Indian Ocean about six miles from the field.  So, even without climbing, the Turtle was able to gain height above the ground in the critical minutes after take-off.

    Fortunately, the emergency procedures for a failed engine had been well thought out, but were never needed.  At their takeoff weight, they estimated that they would be able to climb at a maximum of 400 feet per minute.  If an engine failed and they put maximum power on the remaining engine, they estimated that they would be forced to descend at 200 feet per minute.  Their planning indicated that if they could achieve 1,000 feet before an engine failure they would have about four minutes in which to dump fuel to lighten the load and still be 200 feet in the air to attempt a landing.  With their built-in fuel dump system, they were confident that they were in good shape at any altitude above 1,000 feet because they could dump fuel fast enough to get down to a comfortable single-engine operating weight before losing too much altitude.

    Departing the Aerodrome boundary, the Turtle was over the waters of the Indian Ocean.  With agonizing slowness, the altimeter and airspeed readings crept upward.  Walt Reid jettisoned the empty JATO bottles.  The Turtle was thought to have a 125 knot stall speed with the flaps up at that weight.  When they had established a positive rate of climb, Gene Rankin started bringing the flaps up in careful small increments. At 165 knots, with the flaps fully retracted, Tom Davies made his first power reduction back to the maximum continuous setting.  The sun was setting and the lights of the city were blinking on as the Turtle circled back over Perth at 3,500 feet and headed out across the 1,800 miles of the central desert of Australia.  On this record-breaking night, one record had already been broken.  Never before had two engines carried so much weight into the air.

    The plan was to stay fairly low… about 3,500 feet… for the first few hundred miles, burning off fuel and reducing weight so the eventual climb to a higher cruising altitude would require less gas.  But the southwest wind, burbling and eddying across the hills northeast of Perth, brought turbulence that shook and rattled the overloaded Turtle, threatening the integrity of the wings themselves. Tom Davies applied full power and took her up to 6,500 feet where the air was smoother, reluctantly accepting the sacrifice of enough fuel to fly an extra couple of hundred miles at the other end of the flight.

    Alice Springs at Australia’s center slid under the long wings at midnight and Cooktown on the northeast coast at dawn.  Then it was out over the Coral Sea where, only a few years before, the Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5) had put down the Japanese ship Shoho and turned back Shokuku and Zuikcaku to win the first carrier battle in history and prevent the cutoff and isolation of Australia.  Within a day, the Turtle would fly near the site of the Battle of Midway, which changed the course of World War II in the Pacific only a month after the Battle of the Coral Sea.

    At noon on the second day, the Turtle skirted the 10,000 foot peaks of southern New Guinea, and in mid-afternoon detoured around a mass of boiling thunderheads over Bougainville in the Solomons.  As the sun set for the second time since takeoff, the Turtle’s crew headed out across the vast and empty Pacific Ocean and began to establish an “at sea” routine.  They stood two-man four-hour watches, washing, shaving, and changing to clean clothes each morning, and eating regular meals cooked on a hot plate. Every two hours, a fresh pilot would enter the cockpit to relieve whoever had been on watch the longest.

    The two Wright 3350 engines ran smoothly; all the gauges and needles showed normal conditions, and every hour another 200 or so miles of the Pacific passed astern.  The crew’s only worry was Joey the kangaroo, who hunched unhappily in her crate and refused to eat or drink.

    Dawn of the second morning found the Turtle over Maro Reef, halfway between Midway Island and Oahu in the long chain of Hawaiian Islands.  The Turtle only had one low-frequency radio, because most of the modern radio equipment had been removed for weight reduction.  Calls to Midway and Hawaii for weather updates were unsuccessful due to the distance.  Celestial navigation was showing that the Turtle was drifting southward from their intended great circle route due to increased northerly winds that were adding a headwind factor to their track.  Instead of correcting their course by turning more northward, thereby increasing their headwinds, CDR Davies stayed on heading and accepted the fact that they would reach the west coast of the U.S. somewhere in northern California rather than near Seattle as originally planned.  With the wing tip tanks empty, they were jettisoned over the ocean as the Turtle eased up to 10,000 feet and later 12,000 feet.  At noon, CDR Reid came up to the cockpit smiling. “Well,” he reported, “the damned kangaroo has started to eat and drink again.  I guess she thinks we’re going to make it.”

    The mission in which Joey’s dim marsupial brain may or may not have acquired confidence was no stunt, despite her presence.  In the fall of 1946, the increasingly hostile Soviet Union was pushing construction of a submarine force nearly ten times larger than Adolph Hitler’s at the start of WWII.  Antisubmarine warfare was the Navy’s responsibility, regardless of the views of the Army Air Forces.  The Turtle was among the first of the P2V Neptune patrol planes designed to counter the sub threat.  Tom Davies’ orders derived straight from the offices of Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, and the Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.  A dramatic demonstration was needed to prove beyond question that the new P2V patrol plane, its production representing a sizeable chunk of the Navy’s skimpy peacetime budget, could do the job.  With its efficient design that gave it four-engine capability on two engines, the mission would show the Neptune’s ability to cover the transoceanic distances necessary to perform its ASW mission and sea-surveillance functions.  And, at a time when roles and missions were being developed to deliver nuclear weapons, it would not hurt a bit to show that the Navy, too, had that capability.

    So far, the flight had gone pretty much according to plan.  But now as the second full day in the air began to darken, the Pacific sky, gently clear and blue for so long, turned rough and hostile. An hour before landfall, great rolling knuckles of cloud punched out from the coastal mountains.  The Turtle bounced and vibrated.  Ice crusted on the wings.  Static blanked out radio transmissions and reception.  The crew strapped down hard, turned up the red instrument lights and took turns trying to tune the radio direction finder to a recognizable station.  It was midnight before Roy Tabeling succeeded in making contact with the ground and requested an instrument clearance eastward from California.  They were 150 miles off the coast when a delightfully female voice reached up through the murk from Williams Radio, 70 miles south of Red Bluff, California.

“I’m sorry” the voice said. “I don’t seem to have a flight plan on you.  What was your departure point?”

“Perth, West Australia.”

“No, I mean where did you take off from?”

“Perth, West Australia.”

“Navy Zero Eight Two, you don’t understand. I mean what was your departure airport for this leg of the flight?”

“Perth, West Australia.”

“But, that’s halfway around the world!”

“No. Only about a third. May we have that clearance?”

    The Turtle had departed Perth some thirty-nine hours earlier and had been out of radio contact with anyone for the past twenty hours.   That contact with Williams Radio called off a world-wide alert for ships and stations between Midway and the west coast to attempt contact with the Turtle on all frequencies.  With some difficulty due to reception, the Turtle received an instrument clearance to proceed on airways from Oakland to Sacramento and on to Salt Lake City at 13,000 feet.  The weather report was discouraging. It indicated heavy turbulence, thunderstorms, rain and icing conditions.  As Gene Rankin wrote in a magazine article after the flight, “Had the Turtle been on the ground at an airport at that point, the question might have arisen: ‘Is this trip necessary.’”

    The Turtle reached the west coast at 9:16 p.m. about thirty miles north of San Francisco.  Their estimated time of arrival, further north up the coast, had been 9:00 p.m.  They had taken off about forty hours earlier and had covered 9,000 statute miles thus far. They had broken the distance record by more than a thousand miles, and all of their remaining fuel was in their wing tanks which showed about eight-tenths full.  Speculation among the pilots began as to how much further the Turtle could fly before fuel exhaustion.

    The static and atmospherics closed in again as did the weird and wonderful phenomenon of St. Elmo’s fire that added to the problems of the Turtle’s crew.  The two propellers whirled in rings of blue-white light.  Violet tongues licked up between the laminations of the windshield.  Eerie purple spokes protruded from the Neptune’s nose.  All those distracting effects would increase in brilliance with an accompanying rise in the volume of static on all radio frequencies then suddenly discharge with a blinding flash and a thump only to slowly rebuild.  The Turtle’s oxygen system had been removed for the flight, so the pilots were using portable walk-around oxygen bottles to avoid anoxia at the high altitude.

    The St. Elmo’s fire had been annoying but not dangerous.  It can be a heart-thumping experience for those witnessing it for the first time.  The tachometer for the starboard engine had been acting up, but there was no problem synchronizing the engines.  The pilots kept the fuel crossfeed switches, which connected both main tanks to both engines, in the “off” position so that each engine was feeding from the tank in that wing.  Somewhere over Nevada, the starboard engine began running rough and losing power. After scanning the gauges, the pilots surmised that the carburetor intake was icing up and choking itself.  To correct that, the carburetor air preheating systems on both engines were increased to full to clear out any carburetor ice as quickly as possible.  Very quickly, the warm air solved the problem and the starboard engine ran smoothly again.

    With an engine running rough, CDR Davies had to be thinking about their mission.  The Turtle had broken the existing record, but was that good enough?  It was just a matter of time before the AAF would launch another B-29 to take the record up another notch. The Neptune was now light enough for single engine flight, but how much farther could it go on one engine?  And was it worth risking this first expensive aircraft of what should one day be a family of hundreds for the sake of improving a distance record?

    Over Nevada and Utah, the weather was a serious factor.  Freezing rain, snow and ice froze on the wings and fuselage, forcing the crew to increase power to stay airborne.  The aircraft picked up a headwind and an estimated 1,000 pounds of ice, which was problematic since the plane’s deicing and anti-icing equipment had been removed as a weight-saving measure.  Three hours of higher power settings and increased fuel use at 13,000 feet were estimated to have cut about 500 miles of distance from the flight.

    After passing Salt Lake City, the weather finally broke with the dawn of the Turtle’s third day in the air.  The Turtle was cleared to descend to 9,000 feet.  All morning, CDR Davies tracked their progress eastward over Nebraska, Iowa, and the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.  To the north, the haze of Chicago was in sight.  But now, not surprisingly, fuel was becoming a problem.  The wingtip tanks had long ago been emptied and jettisoned over the Pacific.  The bomb bay tank, the nose tank and the big aft-fuselage tank were empty.  The fuel gauges for the wing tanks were moving inexorably toward zero.  CDR Davies and his crew consulted, tapped the fuel gauges, calculated and recalculated their remaining fuel, and cursed the gauges on which one-eighth of an inch represented 200 gallons… more than an hour’s flight.  At noon they concluded they could not safely stretch the flight all the way to Washington, D.C., and certainly not to the island of Bermuda.  CDR Davies chose the Naval Air Station at Columbus, Ohio to be their final destination.

    At quarter past one that afternoon the runways and hangars of the Columbus airport were in sight.  The Turtle’s crew were cleaned-up and shaven and in uniform.  And the fuel gauges all read empty.  With the landing checklist completed and wheels and flaps down, CDR Davies cranked the Turtle around with a left turn onto final approach.  As the plane leveled out on final, the starboard engine popped, sputtered and quit, but the port engine continued to provide power.  At 400 feet, both pilots realized the problem and reached for the fuel crossfeed valves on the floor between their seats.  In the banked turn, the near empty starboard fuel tank had stopped feeding fuel into the starboard engine.  Within seconds, the starboard engine began running smoothly again and continued to run.  The Turtle had been in no danger, since they were light enough to operate on one engine, but it would have been embarrassing to have an engine quit at that point.

    At 1:28 p.m. on October 1st, the Neptune’s wheels once more touched the earth… touched it hard… with tires that had been overinflated in Perth, 11,236 miles and 55 hours and 17 minutes from where they had taken off.

    After a hastily called press conference in Columbus, the crew was flown to NAS Anacostia in Washington, D.C. by a Marine Corps Reserve R5D, where they were met by their wives and the Secretary of the Navy.  The crew were grounded by a flight surgeon upon landing in Columbus, so the Turtle was flown to Anacostia by a flight crew flown in from NAS Patuxent River.  Before the day was over, the Turtle’s crew had been awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses by Secretary Forrestal, and were scheduled to meet with President Harry S. Truman the next day.  And Joey, observably relieved to be back on solid earth, had been installed in luxurious quarters in the Washington zoo.

    The record established by CDR Tom Davies and the crew of the Truculent Turtle stood not just for a year or two or three, but for decades.  The distance record for all aircraft was broken in 1962 by a jet-powered B-52.  The Truculent Turtle’s record for piston/propeller driven aircraft was broken by Burt Rutan’s Voyager, a carbon-fiber aircraft, which made its historic around the world non-stop flight in 1986... more than 40 years after the Turtle landed in Columbus, Ohio.

    After a well-earned publicity tour, the Truculent Turtle was used by the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland as a flying test bed for advanced avionics systems.  Although assigned on paper to join VP-2 along with the other P2V-1’s that were first to come off the Lockheed production line, it never did.  The Truculent Turtle was retired with honors in 1953 and put on display in Norfolk, Virginia, where it was repositioned in 1968 at the main gate of Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia.  In 1977, the Truculent Turtle was transported to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida where it now holds forth in a place of honor in the museum’s Hangar Bay One display area.

--Many thanks to the Naval Institute Proceedings magazine, Naval Aviation News magazine, the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation magazine, CDR Eugene P. Rankin, CDR Walter S. Reid and CDR Edward P. Stafford, whose articles about the Truculent Turtle were the basis for this website article.

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