Thursday, April 25, 2013


Off Midway Island, June 4, 1942.  The flight deck of USS Enterprise (CV 6) was crammed with airplanes waiting to launch against the Imperial Japanese Navy task force reported nearly 200 miles distant.  Grumman Comet fighters were first off, requiring less of a deck run than the Douglas Mohave scout-bombers.  Below on the hangar deck, laden Douglas Scorpion torpedo planes awaited their turn.

The carrier aviators had a position report of their target, thanks to long-range reconnaissance by Consolidated Clemente patrol planes.  Meanwhile, Marine Corps land-based Comets and Brewster Twister fighters were engaging a losing battle against more than 100 Japanese aircraft blasting the atoll.  At the same time six Grumman Dragons, the Navy’s newest torpedo planes, were flying outbound to attack the enemy carriers alongside aging Vought Stratford scout-bombers.


The facts of the Battle of Midway are accurately stated, but the aircraft names are anachronisms.  They accurately reflect the original popular names proposed by the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in a document released 12 months before the climactic battle. 

Between June and October 1941, someone drastically changed the names of naval aircraft.  Comets became Wildcats; Mohaves became Dauntlesses; and Scorpions turned into Devastators.   Of the land-based planes, Dragons emerged as Avengers and Stratfords became Vindicators.

Very few of the original names survived the change.  Probably the most notable was Consolidated’s PB2Y Coronado while the PBM Maryland emerged as the Mariner.  As noted, the classic PBY Catalina began as the Clemente.

It’s interesting to note (to me anyway) that the June 1941 document was signed by “Commander Durgin.”  That was Calvin T. Durgin, an aviator since 1920 and owner of a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from M.I.T.  He made a solid reputation during WW II, commanding the carrier Ranger (CV 4) during Operation Torch, the November 1942 invasion of French Morocco, and as an admiral he led escort carrier task groups in the Pacific.  He died in 1965, leaving us to ponder the whimsical names that he or his board original chose for some of the fightingest airplanes in Navy history.

Americans have never been very good at naming or designating airplanes.  Look no farther than the 1980s “F”-117 Nighthawk, a stealth “fighter” without air to air armament or the speed to get out of its own way.  The next generation stealth machine, the eternally-delayed and problem-plagued F-35, skipped 11 numbers, leaping from the prototype Northrop F-23.

Other nations put America to shame in aircraft designations, especially the British.  The RAF’s alliterative naming system made it easy to remember many aircraft, especially the elegant Supermarine Spitfire, but also the Avro Anson, Handley-Page Halifax, and Short Sunderland.  A few exceptions crept in, particularly the Avro Lancaster and the Vickers Wellington bombers.  But on the other hand the Brits outdid themselves with the Blackburn Blackburn, a massively ugly 1920s biplane.

The long-lived, innovative De Havilland company probably remains the prominent exception to British consistency.  While the firm’s prewar lightplanes were a succession of Moths (Fox, Gypsy, Tiger, etc) its military products ran the gamut from Mosquito to Sea Vixen.  Perhaps the company’s naming philosophy was to remain inconsistent.

However, even when the system partially broke down, the RAF lads maintained an internal logic.  Following the Hawker Hurricane were the firm’s next fighters, the Typhoon and Tempest.  We might say that the “light blue” service possessed a breezy sense of humo(u)r in that regard.

One aircraft name that spanned not only nations but cultures was “Thunderbolt.”  Americans are well acquainted with Republic’s hulking P-47, but two other WW II fighters were Italy’s Macchi Castoldi 202 Folgore (also translated as Lightning) and the Japanese Navy’s Mitsubishi J2M Raiden land-based fighter. 

Whatever names they bear, combat aircraft remain a subject of fascination spanning generations.  But how and why some of those names are chosen seems to remain lost in the mists of time.  

A dip of the wingtip to my colleague Rick Morgan for producing the obscure 1941 documents.