The Three Seahawks Creation
By D. W. Tomlinson (team’s creator and leader) published in Naval Aviation News issue April 1979.
In the fall of 1927, Lt. D. W. Tomlinson was authorized to proceed via Spokane, Washington, on the return flight of an FB-5 from the Seattle Boeing Factory to North Island, California, so that he might observe the National Air Races. From North Island, three Naval Aviators, each from a different squadron with different types of aircraft, were ordered to Spokane to represent Naval Aviation.
The Army Air Corps was represented by its aerobatic team, the Three Musketeers. The Marine Air Corps sent its aerobatic team of Rogers, Sanderson and Towers.
The Musketeers, superbly trained and led by Jim Doolittle, stole the show. Thanks to Jim’s engineering background and ingenuity, the carburetors of the D-12 engines in their PW-8s had been fixed to run at full power, inverted. This was accomplished by the simple trick of plugging the fuel line to the carburetor with solder, then drilling the right size hole through the plug to form a master jet which fed the correct amount of fuel for lull power. Without the modification the float mechanism normally failed and flooded the carburetor during inverted flight. This was a decisive advantage and safety factor when performing low level aerobatics involving flight with negative G.
Thus the Musketeers were able to perform smooth, perfectly executed loops, slow rolls and inverted flight. The airmanship of this team amazed and pleased everyone.
The Marine team members with then P&W Wasp-powered Curtiss F6Cs (same plane as the PW-8) were well trained and put on a nice show, but because they did not have the master jet modification, Towers almost crashed into the grandstand. The team came in echelon to successively slow roll on, pull up and climb cut. Towers’ engine quit while inverted. He tried to recover by doing a hall loop and failed to clear the ground by perhaps a foot. The wheels came up and sheared the front lower spars close to the fuselage, the wheels flew off into the stands causing some injuries. The tips of the props were curled back, the plane bounced, flew over the stands at a 45-degree angle with lower wings flapping and motor howling. Towers managed 90-degree turn and belly-landed in the field. OK.
Though the Navy contingent, with its ill-assorted airplanes flew together, the result was less than impressive. The Three Musketeers made the headlines and justly brought their service much good and deserved publicity. The Navy also ran.
The naval observer present was burned up a; having helplessly watch the Musketeers carry off the honors. He determined that before the next National Air Races, scheduled for September 1928 at Mines Field, Los Angeles, came around, Naval Aviation would have an aerobatic team. It happened that this observer, in addition to being a Naval Aviator, had for five years owned and flown JNs, utilizing his off time as а stunt pilot and barnstormer. In late 1922 and early 1923, under the tutelage of Earl Daugherty of Long Beach, Calif., who was considered the best stunt pilot on the West Coast, he learned from a maestro how to perform low level aerobatics and live.
The observer was no sooner on the ground at North Island, where he was executive officer of VF-6 (soon to become VB-2B), than he began to fix the carburetor in every plane in the squadron, on the QT. Navy regs required bureau approval, but competitive camera gun practice with VF-1 was on the schedule. What а surprise the VF-1 boys got when they tangled in mock combat with VF-6’s F2Bs which ran at full power inverted. There was never any kickback from the bureau.
Also, the exee screened the younger gung-ho pilots fresh out of Pensacola for the two most promising acrobats to become his wingmen. Very soon, he, with Ltjg. W. V. Davis Jr., and A. P. Storrs. used every opportunity to practice close-in. 10-foot, wing and tail formation flying. They progressed to aerobatics, loops, vertical turns, wing overs and inverted flight – always above 1,500 feet when anywhere near North Island. Navy regs were explicit: no stunting below 1,500 feet, only easy turns, level flight and gentle glides.
The real problem was to convince two young Pensacola-trained Naval Aviators that low-level off-the-ground aerobatics were not only possible but safe, if performed properly. This took time and skullduggery. We did not want to be caught until we could go for broke.
First they used the reasonably even top of a fog condition as a reference-point. The stunt team practiced its tricks in this manner, without denting the cloud top. Next they went back into the mountains, well away from prying eyes, just off to one side of Capitaln Mountain. They used the mountaintop as ground level. Anyone who recovered below the top of the mountain would theoretically be a sponge case. No one qualified. Later, at appropriate secluded spots, by prearrangement the leader would peel oil and, close to ground level, perform the maneuvers he expected his wingmen to do.
Well before VB-2B flew aboard Langley for a fleet cruise to Hawaii in the spring of 1928, the stunt team was practicing at ground level,. Inevitably word of the team’s activities worked up to Rear Admiral Reeves, Commander Aircraft Squadrons, Pacific Fleet. On arrival in San Francisco, Langley aircraft were to put on a show over the city. Word was passed down that VB-2B’s exhibition team was to break off after the parade and do its act. No restrictions were given. San Franciscans along Market Street and in adjacent tall buildings were startled to see an F2B flying inverted down Market Street below the tops of the taller buildings. Other aerobatics were carried out a trifle more discreetly. The perpetrators held their breath, but there were no repercussions.
On arrival in Honolulu the Army Air Corps, flying PW-9s, was to come out and attack the fleet. Langley VF squadrons were to defend. Legend had it that in 1925, in the course of a similar problem when the Air Corps boys were flying MB3s and the Navy VE-7s and TSs. the Air Corps pilots literally ran the Navy out of the air. One TS was chased so closely that the Navy pilot, in his effort to escape his pursuer, flew into the wafer and crashed – no injury. With this score to even, the VB-2B pilots had blood in their eyes. The stunt team was raring to go. Navy had a field day. The Army was glad to get back to Wheeler Field with the PW-9s’ tail surfaces intact.
A few days later the stunt team took on three brash PW-9 pilots and hung on their tails until they landed at Wheeler Field. The team then flew across the field close to the ground into the wind, pulled up vertical at the end of field, eased over the top to inverted and flew downwind an appropriate distance, eased off power, came down and landed.
By happenstance, Captain Jack Towers, C.O. of Langley, was standing on the operating line watching the show. That noon, on the quarterdeck of Langley, he stopped the leader of the stunt team and said, “I think the Army has been sufficiently impressed.” That put the quietus on the stunt team for a few days.
But then several PW-9 pilots were heard moaning about how dangerous the air currents were through the Pali (Naruanu Pali, a mountain pass). This evoked the commitment, “We will fly through the Pali tomorrow morning at 0900 inverted!” So it was, with an Army observation plane circling overhead to make sure.
Upon return to North Island, the stunt team took advantage of every opportunity to polish its bag of tricks. Since the previous fall the team had been referred to by several appellations which we did not consider suitable. Putt Storrs, in the course of a discussion of possible names, suggested The Three Seahawks, and that stuck.
In the summer of 1928 when the Pacific Fleet Aircraft Squadrons were concentrated at North Island for summer training and maneuvers, Lindbergh Field in San Diego was dedicated. It was a big deal. All the Pacific Fleet Squadrons were to form up, led by the VF wing, and pass in review over the bay in view of a reviewing stand on the east side of the field where the Navy brass and public officials would be seated.
Due to the difference in speed and handling characteristics of the several types of planes, plus poor visibility, the form and precision of the mass flight, except for the wing, was hardly as envisioned. At least there were no collisions.
The leader of The Three Seahawks had succeeded to command of VB-2B. He had orders for The Three Seahawks to peel oil from the squadron, alter the mass flyby, and put on a demonstration in front of the reviewing stand. Again, there had been no mention of restrictions. This was the chance to break the ice, the team would either be selected to represent the Navy at the coming National Air Races, or they would be in deep trouble. As General of the Army, Mac-Arthur once said. “It is the order you disobey that makes you famous”.
The Three Seahawks squared away to make a diving approach parallel to the stands so that the tips of the inside wingman’s plane would clear the outside of the stands by about 50 feet. Directly in front of the stands, when the leader’s wheels were raising dust, the team pulled up for the first loop. We were almost close enough to count the whiskers in Rear Admiral Reeves’ beard. People in the stands ducked as we came in. Two similar loops followed.
The team then approached again from the east, into the wind and away from the city, and passed close in front of the stands, with the leader inverted and the wingmen cocked up, flying on the side of the fuselage. Upon recovery, the team climbed several hundred feet and, in good view of the stands, performed formation slow rolls, wingovers, vertical turns, et al., in close order. Nothing like this had ever been done before in public – especially under the nose of Navy brass.
Rear Adm. Reeves congratulated The Three Seahawks. (It was a foregone conclusion that VB-2B would fly for the Navy at the coming National Air Races).
At the Air Races at Mines Field, Los Angeles, in September 1928, VB-2B took off each afternoon with 15 F2Bs in five three-plane sections, with The Three Seahawks in the lead. The squadron demonstrated the standard maneuvers of the era, right and left (90-degree) crossover turns. Taylor turns (180 degrees), and parade maneuvers in five-section V, big V and in echelon. For the finale, the squadron climbed to about 5,000 feet and staged a simulated dive-bombing attack on a target in the field. The Three Seahawks came down over the stands from the north, six planes dove from the east, and six from the west, passing simultaneously across the target. Then The Three Seahawks broke away to maneuver for position while the rest of the squadron landed.
They began their demonstration heading west into the wind, doing four consecutive wing-and-tail formation loops. The team then maneuvered to the west to come in downwind parallel to the stands with the inside wingman just clearing the stands about 50 feet up. At the edge of the field the leader half rolled to inverted, the wingmen cocked up flying on the side of the fuselage. In this formation the team flew the length of the field in front of the stands. At the eastern edge of the field, the leader rolled upright and the team maneuvered to come back across the field (in front of the stands) at about 200 feet, doing formation slow rolls. The next act was the squirrel cage loop, the planes spaced 120 degrees apart, each making three loops. The team then climbed, separated and took position for a three-way dive-bombing attack from 5,000 feet – on a target in front of the center stands. The attack and pullouts were closely timed so that it appeared as though the three planes passed over the target virtually at the same time. Actually this was pretty hairy a couple of times. Collision seemed inevitable. The roar was great. The act shook the crowd.
The resulting nationwide favorable publicity was so great that in following years Naval Aviation was represented at the National Air Races at Cleveland, Ohio. However, the name of the team, The Three Seahawks, was never used again. But a tradition had been established and, after WW II, Naval Aviation commissioned the Blue Angels as a full time unit and demonstration team.