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Reading 3: Aircraft Delivery Unit and Naval Air Ferry Command
Naval Air Station New York (Floyd Bennett Field) was at the heart of the stunning transformation of U.S. industry from production of civilian automobiles and planes to unprecedented mass production of high-performance military aircraft. Navy personnel flew planes from nearby factories to the naval air station, tested them for flight-worthiness, fitted them out for service, commissioned them into the U.S. Navy, and finally ferried them out, typically to the West Coast, for service in Navy and Marine Corps units bound for fighting in the Pacific theater of war. Floyd Bennett Field became the busiest naval air station in the United States during World War II. Personnel worked tirelessly to make certain that the airfield functioned as an efficient hub rather than a bottleneck.
Prior to 1941, manufacturers of airplanes destined for service in the U.S. Navy tested the planes themselves. Former Floyd Bennett Field pilot Giles Gianelloni explained that fleet pilots were sent directly from their carrier or home base to the factory to fly the new aircraft back to their ship or base. When Floyd Bennett Field became a naval air station, instructor pilots would split their time between ground and air training during the mornings and in the afternoons flying newly-built aircraft from the factories back to the station until dark. The planes would be placed in Navy hangers until pilots from the fleet came to fly them away.
By October 1941, aircraft production had risen to such a level that these procedures were no longer effective, so in response the Navy organized specialized Aircraft Delivery Units (ADUs) near aircraft manufacturers.¹ Hangar 6 at Floyd Bennett Field was home to one of the ADUs; between October 1941 and November 1943 it commissioned 20,000 aircraft and logged 5.6 million air miles in ferry service. Nonetheless, toward the end of 1943, it became obvious that as ever larger numbers of aircraft rolled off the assembly lines the job of the ADUs was getting much too large to be a responsibility of individual air stations. The decision was made to put all naval ferry activities throughout the country under one command.
On December 1, 1943, the U.S. Navy established the Naval Air Ferry Command under the Naval Air Transport Service, and located its headquarters at Floyd Bennett Field (NAS New York ). For the next two years, the Naval Air Ferry Command at Floyd Bennett Field developed the ever-increasing naval air ferry operations nationwide into a smooth functioning part of the war effort. The existing functions of the New York ADU were transferred to a newly-formed Air Ferry Squadron One (VRF-1) and a new Aircraft Commissioning Unit. Under the control of the Naval Air Ferry Command, three operating bases were designated: NAS New York, home to VRF-1 and VRF-4; NAF Columbus (Ohio), where VRF-2 was based; and NAS Terminal Island (Los Angeles, CA), home to VRF-3. At Floyd Bennett Field, VRF-1 grew quickly to become the largest naval aviation squadron ever assembled. In March 1944, 1049 pilots were assigned to VRF-1, which was based in Hangars 9 and 10. A squadron of seaplane specialists, VRF-4, was formed and operated from Hangar B. During World War II a total of 100,000 new aircraft were commissioned into service and delivered to training bases and embarkation points by the combined efforts of all naval air ferry delivery units and squadrons.
From Floyd Bennett Field, ferry pilots flew to the aircraft factories in transport planes, picked up the newly-built planes, and flew them to the Field. After the aircraft were tested, accepted and commissioned at Floyd Bennett Field, ferry pilots delivered the majority of these newly-built aircraft to the West Coast. Normally, transcontinental flights were composed of three planes in V-formation. The main transcontinental ferry routes were laid out so that there would be airports or airfields where the planes could stop; these fields included ferry service units that specialized in providing ground support for the aircraft being ferried. The ferry pilots returned to the East Coast either on commercial flights or by flying battle-worn planes or new planes produced on the West Coast.
In order to track the whereabouts of individual pilots and aircraft, the ferry command divided the country into an eastern zone and a western zone (divided by the Mississippi River). Individual pilots were responsible for the safe and expeditious delivery of the aircraft and for keeping ferry command informed as to the progress of the flight. There were four ferry command pilot designations: follow pilots, single pilots, lead pilots and senior ferry pilots. The pilot designation as “follow, single, lead and senior ferry pilot” reflected increasing levels of experience measured in terms of ferry trips or flight hours and pilot qualification in various types of aircraft. Joseph O’Brien, VRF-1 Association President, reported that: “new pilots to the squadron had to make five cross country trips as follow pilots before qualifying as a single pilot.”² Single pilots were qualified to ferry a plane alone. Will Carroll, a former VRF-1 Association President, in his VRF-1 Squadron Official History, outlines some of the many questions that pilots and flight leaders had to keep constantly in mind while on ferry flights: “Do I know the quantity of gas and oil aboard? Do I have all necessary charts? Do I know how to operate the radio gear in this plane? Do I know the order of take off and point of rendezvous, the altitude to be flown, the preferred power settings for cruising, fuel consumption, destination for this hop, the traffic pattern at the point of intended landing, the tower frequency, the system for numbering runways, field conditions, break up, approach and taxiing procedures?”³
An article in Naval Aviation News from 1944 described 29 different types of aircraft which pilots needed to know how to fly; although individual pilots were not qualified to fly all types of planes, ferry pilots had to be familiar with multiple engines, ground procedures and plane checkouts. Pilots came from diverse backgrounds, not only commercial airline pilots, barnstormers and skywriters, but even plane salesmen and lawyers. Naval Air Station New York, maintained a “Glory Board” in the ready room listing pilots who had completed five transcontinental flights without accident (signified by gold wings) or 25 transcontinental flights (signified by the squadron’s insignia stork).
U.S. aircraft production doubled between 1942 and 1943 increasing the need for combat pilots and creating a tremendous shortage of pilots for both the Navy and the Army Air Force. Women aviators were called upon to help fill the gap. In September 1942, the first 25 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) were organized at the Army Air Base at Wilmington, Delaware; in 1943 it was integrated along with the Women’s Flying Training Detachment into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), headed by the same Jacqueline Cochrane who had established aviation speed records from Floyd Bennett Field. Together with their male counterparts in the Navy and Army Air Force they helped to deliver the nearly 275,000 aircraft assembled by U.S. manufacturers between the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the surrender of Japan in 1945.
The aviation war in the Pacific theatre of World War II was fought in large part by naval aviators and their aircraft. From Naval Air Station New York, VRF-1, VRF-4, and their predecessors ferried 46,000 aircraft, over 80 million air miles, between December 1941 and 1945. Notable among the aircraft tested and commissioned at Floyd Bennett Field was the Grumman F6F Hellcat, which finally bested the Mitsubishi Zero fighter, and is considered by many to be “the plane that won the war in the Pacific.” The Grumman TBF Avenger was to become an effective torpedo bomber against Japanese aircraft carriers. Marine Corps aviators flew the Vought-Sikorsky F4U Corsair using it with great success as a fighter plane and to provide close air support for ground troops. The quality and quantity of U.S. aircraft eventually helped to turn the tide of battle: at Midway and the Coral Sea; during the island hopping campaigns through the Solomon, Gilbert, Caroline, Palau, and Mariana Islands; in the Battles for the Philippine Sea and the Leyte Gulf; and through bloody battles from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima. Naval Air Station New York, by insuring that the Navy and Marines were supplied with the fighter and bomber planes they needed, played a vital role in the victory of the United States over Japan.
Questions for Reading 3
1. The process used by the U.S. Navy to receive delivery of airplanes from manufacturers changed twice from 1941 to 1943.
2. What types of skills did ferry pilots (whether reservists, WAFS, or naval aviators) need to safely cross the country and deliver their planes on time?
3. Why was the stork was an appropriate emblem for VRF-1 and the pilots with the safest delivery records?
4. Calculate the percentage of World War II aircraft processed through Naval Air Station—New York (Floyd Bennett Field) using 275,000 (the conservative estimate of the number of aircraft produced by U.S. manufacturers) and 46,000 (the number of aircraft processed by ADU, VRF-1 and VRF-4 at Floyd Bennett Field). What does this tell you about the importance of Floyd Bennett Field to the U.S. victory in World War II?
Reading 3 was compiled from the National Park Service's brochure Floyd Bennett Field: WWII 1941-1945; Giles Gianelloni, Interview by James Van Westering, 10 August 2004; Joseph O'Brien, Interview by James Van Westering, 15 August 2004; “Ferry Command Delivers the Airplanes,” Naval Aviation News, July 1, 1944; Will H. Carroll, Official History: Air Ferry Squadron One (VRF-1), Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, New York, (VRF-1 Association, undated); numerous statistical and general references on naval aviation in World War II; and materials in the collection of the Floyd Bennett Field Task Force.
¹ Each ADU had two divisions: an Aircraft Ferrying Division (AFD) which flew new aircraft from factory to naval airfield ('in-flights') and delivered commissioned planes to their final destination ('ferry flights'); and an Aircraft Engineering Division (AED) which installed any equipment and weaponry required, ran a full check on the plane's systems and performed any necessary 'test flights'.