Flightline: 147 - U-2/C-130 Carrier Operations
Two of the most important aircraft of the 1950s and beyond, the U-2 and C-130, both saw trial runs as carrier aircraft.
CV-66 USS America, November 1969
In the late 1950s, the CIA began to look into options for extending the range of its U-2 spyplanes. The early model Dragon Ladies had a range of only 3000 miles or so, and required bases in Turkey or Pakistan to fly over the USSR, then land at Bodø Air Station in Norway with fuel tanks nearly dry. Given the performance of the U-2, it was beloved that one could land on and take-off from a Forrestal-class supercarrier with only minor modifications. The CIA approached the NRO, and Operation (sometimes Project) WHALE TAIL was born. Late one night in August of 1963, a U-2A was craned aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, which then sailed out of San Diego Harbor. Safely out to sea (and out of sight), the U-2 launched from the deck, managing a 300-foot takeoff roll without the ship’s catapult. Test pilot Bob Shumacher performed several landing approaches, which proved that a U-2 could manage a approach (including a possible wave-off) and arrested landing without issue.
The U-2A, with false N number and Office of Naval Research markings on the Kitty Hawk . | Photo: NRO/CIA
As a result of the test, Lockheed modified three (possibly four) U-2As, reinforcing the landing gear and adding an arresting hook and spoilers. In March of 1964, Bob Shumacher began trials of the newly christened U-2G, this time landing on the USS Ranger. This time the trials were less successful, and the aircraft pitched down into the deck when the hook grabbed the arresting cable, breaking off the pitot tube. The damage was repaired on the carrier, and the plane successfully took off again.
One of the U-2Gs, this one with false registration N808X on the tail, snags an arresting cable. | Photo: NRO/CIA
Another accident occurred on the next trial, this time with pilot Jim Barnes, who approached the deck too slowly and stalled just over the Ranger’s fantail. Barnes firewalled the throttle, avoiding a crash but striking the arresting gear with a wingtip, tearing off the skid in the process. Barnes was able to fly to Edwards AFB, where the U-2 was repaired. The U-2Gs were further modified after the accident, adding reinforcing plates and springs to the wingtip skids.
U-2G “N801X” lands on the USS Ranger . | Film: NRO/CIA
There was only one recorded mission from an aircraft carrier: Operation FISH HAWK in May of 1964. USS Ranger sailed to the South Pacific with the mission of spying on an expected French nuclear test. A CIA NPIC interpreter was added to the ship’s crew, and the Navy set up a lab for rapid development and analysis of whatever film the Dragon Lady captured. A U-2G, modified with “sniffers” for atomic particles, flew to the Ranger from California via Hawaii. Two sorties were flown between May 19th and May 23rd, and after initial results were obtained on the Ranger, the film was flown to New York for further processing by Eastman Kodak.
Illustration: Kirstin Hill
Even with the success of FISH HAWK, rapid evolution of technology meant that the need for U-2 carrier ops was limited. Improvements in engines allowed the planes to fly further, even without in-flight refueling. Advances in satellite technology granted the ability to survey wide swathes of land without having to risk aircraft. New camera technology provided lighter modules that also could transmit data in real-time. Still, “You never know...” as the saying goes, so the CIA retained carrier capabilities in newer makes of the U-2, with the U-2R being flown onto the USS America in 1969 to prove the concept still worked. The U-2R, being larger than its predecessors, also featured folding wings, and as a part of the test “N812X” was lowered on the carrier’s elevator and was maneuvered without issue into the hangar deck.
U-2R catches the three wire on the USS America . | Photo: NRO/CIA
CIA pilots kept up with carrier qualifications in T-2 Buckeyes into the Eighties, though no further use of an U-2 on a carrier has been acknowledged.
CVA-59 USS Forrestal, October 1963
Transporting cargo onto a carrier in the middle of the ocean is difficult even today. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the idea of Carrier Onboard Deliver was born, with the C-1 Trader flying needed material to the Navy's carriers, The Trader, being piston engined, had limited range and capacity however, and the USN sought a Super COD to carry heavy loads or to reach carriers far from shore. A line was painted on the deck of the carrier for the Hercules crew to follow to maintain clearance from the island. A USMC KC-130F (BuNo 149798) was tapped for the demonstration, with the only modifications being an improved anti-skid braking system and removal of the underwing refueling pods. Trials began on 30 October 1963, with -9798 completing 29 touch-and-goes, 21 landings (all unarrested) and 21 takeoffs (unassisted), at weights from 85,000lbs to 121,000lbs. On one landing, the KC-130 touched approximately 150' from the fantail, stopped rolling after 270', and then took off again from that position.
KC-130F 9798 taking off from the carrier Forrestal. | Photo: USN
The Herc on the deck of the Forrestal. The dashed line was used to center the plane and to keep the wingtip from striking the ship's island. | Photo: USN
The tests aboard Forrestal proved that a C-130 could comfortably carry a 25,000lb cargo 2,500 miles to a carrier, but the Super COD idea was judged to be too risky and disruptive to other carrier operations, and the Navy sought another COD aircraft, resulting in the C-2 Greyhound.