One of the first concerns of those planning the record-breaking attempt, even before it was proposed to the Secretary of the Navy, was to select a take-off point and a landing point. Selecting two suitable airfields 12,000 miles apart was not an easy task, especially considering that landing in the United States, and maybe even in Washington, D.C., would have the most political and public affairs impact. Logistics could be a problem. The point selected for take-off would have to be “friendly territory” and accessible to the media and to all the support personnel who would be necessary for the record attempt.
Early in the history of naval aviation, there were numerous attempts to set distance records. In 1919, the Navy sent three NC bi-planes out in an attempt to become the first to fly across the Atlantic. The Navy had stationed ships at 50 mile intervals all across the ocean to aid the fragile planes in their navigation and to be close at hand should emergencies develop. The same precautions were taken again with early attempts to fly from Hawaii to the U. S. mainland. But in 1946, a trip halfway around the world was a different story in a different political atmosphere. First of all, the Navy didn’t have enough ships to station them all along the intended route of flight. More importantly, what sort of signal would such precautions send to the politicians and pundits about the abilities of and the confidence in the Navy’s new patrol aircraft?
Working with a National Geographic global map, Tom Davies determined that Perth, Australia and Bermuda were almost diametrically opposite each other on the globe. A West to East flight from Perth would allow the first 1,800 miles to be over the Australian land mass, which would be important if an early emergency developed. The longest stretch of about 2,800 miles with no land masses (or runways) would be between the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the U.S. Toward the end of the flight, they would be over the U.S. and able to determine whether they could safely make it to Washington, D.C., and whether they could stretch the flight even further to Bermuda.
CDR Tom Davies, with his extensive knowledge of the P2V was the likely choice to be the pilot in command. CDR Eugene P. Rankin was chosen as co-pilot. CDR Walter S. Reid was selected as Engineering Officer and relief-pilot. LCDR Roy H. Tabeling was picked as Communications/Electronics Officer and relief-pilot. There were to be no other crew members. All four pilots were experienced in VP operations. All but CDR Davies had flown extensively over the entire intended route of flight.
The weather along the route of flight was critical. Wind patterns, cloud cover, storm centers all played a part in choosing both the route of flight and the timing of the flight. The Navy assigned a full-time aerologist to the project and stationed him on the USS Rehoboth, which deployed to Freemantle (the port for Perth) in early September. From the time they would leave the Australian continent until they arrived over the U.S., the availability of weather broadcast updates would be extremely limited. Townsville, on the northeast coast of Australia, and Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands would be the only possible weather update opportunities, and Kwajalein came with no guarantees owing to the intentional lack of long-range radio communication equipment on the aircraft. Even as they passed the Hawaiian Islands, they would likely be out of radio range. So, a great deal of effort was expended in providing reliable weather forecasts.
Not many are aware that, in June of 1946, Tom Davies and Eugene Rankin set a national speed record with the P2V even before the flight of the Turtle. In an effort to promote publicity for the new P2V, they flew the first XP2V from Floyd Bennett Field in New York City to Burbank in nine and one-half hours setting a new East coast to West coast time record that stood for many years. It also provided the opportunity to test the P2V’s new Wright R-3350 engines which operated almost continually at a high rate of power during the flight. Those would not be the engines used by the Turtle, however.
Despite its many performance attributes, the P2V-1 aircraft coming off the production line in Burbank were not capable of the flight proposed by Admiral Nimitz. Much work needed to be done to a P2V to enhance its long-range endurance before the record-setting flight could be attempted. The first two P2V-1’s from the production line were designated as XP2V’s and were used for test and evaluation. The third P2V was diverted from its planned assignment with VP-ML-2, a forerunner of VP-2. Bureau Number 89082 was pulled off the production line and converted to become the Turtle. Aircraft weight was a driving factor in the record attempt, and anything that wasn’t needed for the flight was removed to make room and weight for added fuel. Off came the turrets and the guns. The main oxygen system, cabin heaters and much of the radio equipment was removed. A few small oxygen bottles were installed for short-term emergency use. Wing and propeller anti-icing and deicing equipment was removed.
Additional gas tanks were installed in the nose (800 gallons), in the rear fuselage (2,190 gallons) and in the bomb-bay (2,123 gallons). Wing tip tanks that were originally designed for the Lockheed P-38 fighter were added. Those tip tanks were designed to hold 330 gallons each, but were restricted to 200 gallons each for the Turtle due to structural limitations. Additional fuel storage cells were installed in cavities in the wings to add another 1,552 gallons of gas. In total, the plane could hold 8,525 gallons of fuel… more than 5,000 gallons more than a standard P2V. For the long-range flight, an additional oil tank was installed in the nose that carried 370 gallons of oil for the two Wright Cyclone engines each of which already had its own 90 gallon oil tank. As planned for the record attempt, the plane would be nearly 13 tons over its normal maximum takeoff weight.
The Turtle’s Wright R-3350-8 engines that were being installed on the P2V’s in the production line were removed and replace with R-3350-14 engines to allow higher horsepower at maximum cruise RPM settings.
The plane was immediately known as “The Turtle,” named, of course, after the Lockheed project to study extending the P2V-1’s range… Operation Turtle. Even before its famous flight, the crew began calling it the “Truculent Turtle”… truculent, meaning defiant, aggressive, self-assertive, pugnacious… a determined fighter. Long before Johnny Carson made fun of beautiful downtown Burbank, Lockheed and Walt Disney Studios had a special relationship as Burbank neighbors during the war. A Disney cartoonist designed the now-famous nose art for the plane of a determined turtle astride a bicycle sprocket turning a propeller. The turtle is smoking a pipe and has a rabbit’s foot dangling on his key chain. His face shows complete contentment. The logo was intended to be a humorous depiction of the Aesop Fable in which the tortoise (Navy) and the hare (Army Air Forces) have a race. The tortoise wins and exhibits the rabbit’s foot as proof of his victory. There is no evidence to this day to suggest that the new U.S. Air Force found the logo humorous.
The engineers were concerned about the weight and the single-engine flight abilities of the aircraft at take-off. They built-in an emergency fuel dump system that featured a ten inch diameter aluminum pipe in the fuselage that could be coupled to a three way valve leading to the nose, bomb-bay and fuselage tanks. The pipe, which poked through the belly aft of the bomb-bay, could dump 800 gallons of fuel in the first 20 seconds and 5200 gallons in six minutes. That feature was never needed, but it was extensively tested in the month before the Turtle departed the U.S. for Australia. Flying out of NAS Miramar, the Turtle practiced dumping loads of fresh water into the ocean.
Tom Davies and Eugene Rankin made numerous test flights in the Turtle at various take-off weights and operating weights so that performance figures and charts could be generated to predict how their plane might react during the record run. They did not test the Turtle at its planned maximum take-off weight. In fact, their heaviest take-off during their testing phase was more than 20,000 pounds lighter than at the Perth departure. In all, it took eight weeks for the Lockheed crew to configure the Turtle for the record attempt. Another four weeks was spent in the flight testing of the aircraft.
By late summer of 1946, all preparations had been completed, and Navy crews and Lockheed technicians headed across the Pacific to Australia, set to take advantage of summer’s prevailing tailwinds. Tom Davies and Eugene Rankin, along with four Lockheed employees flew the Turtle across the Pacific to Perth with stops in Barbers Point, HI, Majuro in the Marshall Islands, and Townsville, Australia. Walt Reid, Roy Tabeling and all of the support personnel made the trip in a Navy R5D Skymaster, which also carried all the spare parts.
The original plan was to begin the record flight from Guildford, the civilian airport in Perth that was on the outskirts east of town. Tom Davies and Eugene Rankin flew several test flights out of Guildford, including a JATO takeoff for the benefit of the local photographers. After those test flights, it became apparent to the two pilots that the use of Guildford for their heavy takeoff might pose a danger for the citizens of Perth. They would be departing on a westerly runway and, if an engine coughed just after takeoff, the Turtle could drop into the middle of downtown Perth. After some discussion with the Royal Australian Air Force, the Turtle was moved to Pearce Aerodrome about 20 miles north of Perth. It, too, had a 6,000 foot runway and was closer to the coast.
For planning purposes, the take-off time from Perth was set for early evening. An evening departure would provide cooler air, which would allow more power for take-off. That timing would also put them at the east coast of the U.S. at around noon on the third day of the flight… a good time for the best news coverage. On September 27th, their dedicated aerologist predicted that the weather would be satisfactory on the 28th, but better on the 29th with a slight tailwind component at the start. The 29th was chosen, and the ball was put in motion for a 6:00PM departure.
On the day of their departure, Mr. C.W. Hobson, the managing secretary of the South Perth Zoo presented the Turtle crew with a nine-month old female kangaroo, named Joey. He intended that she be a passenger aboard the Turtle and be given to the Washington, D.C. Zoo.
The crew thanked Mr. Hobson profusely for his generous gift, but tried to talk him into substituting a koala bear (or something else lighter than the kangaroo). They couldn’t get out of adding Joey to the manifest since the local newspapers had already run the photo and the story of Mr. Hobson’s presentation. The crew graciously accepted Joey and left eight gallons of precious fuel in Perth.
When all was ready on September 29th, the Turtle weighed in at 85,575 pounds. No twin-engine aircraft had ever lifted that much weight before. No twin-engine aircraft has lifted that much weight since!