In my last article, I shared the lead-up to the record-breaking flight of the P2-V Neptune “Truculent Turtle,” the long-distance reconnaissance and search aircraft built for the U.S. Navy by Lockheed back in 1946.
The Truculent Turtle’s historic flight evoked the spirit of the classic race between the tortoise and the hare. The Turtle’s spirit and tenacity would beat the odds and the crew of Cmdr. Thomas Davies, Capt. Eugene Rankin, Cmdr. Walter S. Reid and Lt. Cmdr. Roy Tabling would establish a record for non-stop, unrefueled flight that would remain unchallenged for 16 years.
Picking up from where I left off last time, I got to thinking of the famous old song of boredom “One hundred bottles of beer on the wall,” and how many bottles would need to be added to cover the 11,568 miles between Perth, Australia, and Washington, D.C!
As the pilot sat at the end of a 6,000 foot runway, the most dangerous aspect of the flight in his mind was not about the upcoming boredom, but the challenge of getting a plane weighing 85,561 pounds off the ground — with 50,000 pounds of that being gasoline. The co-pilot may have been sitting there, thinking of his wife and kids and wondering ‘What am I doing here?’ as the pilot’s talk with the control tower snapped him back to reality, with a cheery “Good luck!”
Pushing the throttles forward, the P2-V Neptune Truculent Turtle reluctantly began to roll and pick up some speed. At 3,000 feet down the runway at 75 knots, the lumbering smoothed out as weight began to shift from the wheels to the wings. At 87 knots, pilot Davies fired the four JATO (jet assisted takeoff) bottles to increase takeoff speed. At 4,500 feet down the runway, the Turtle reached 115 knots. The pilot said, “She is supposed to fly at 115, so pull up the wheels.” Coming up to the 5,000-foot marker, the wheels began to fold with the props only five feet above the runway — and when the wheels finally housed, there was only 500 feet of runway left. Finally, at 150 knots, the white knuckles on the controls began to loosen as the Turtle began to respond to flight inputs by the crew. Crossing Perth at 5,000 feet, they were airborne and made a slow gradual climb to 9,000 feet and headed towards New Guinea. Once the routine set in, the crew set the automatic pilot and began the rotation schedule of a pilot flying four hours on and then four off.
Flying in the South Pacific has its weather challenges, to be sure. From New Guinea to Kwajalein at sunset, the crew dodged thunderstorms. Doing as much as they could to save fuel and miles, they took up a course aimed at the middle of the Hawaiian Islands. The radio equipment back in those days was not like we have today, and the crew could not give positions to Midway or Honolulu. Thus, for 18 hours they flew in a radio blackout until they could raise Oakland, Calif. Crossing the international date line, they had the Groundhog Day-experience of living the previous day over again. After contact with Oakland, the crew filed a flight plan for Washington, D.C. They were now 9,000 miles from Perth and at this point had broken the previous nonstop record of 7,916 miles, set by a B-29 flying from Guam to Washington, D.C. With all the fuel transferred to the main tanks and with over 2,000 miles to go, it looked like success was in grasp — but the Rocky Mountains had other ideas.
As night fell over the Rockies, weather became a major factor. Freezing rain, snow and ice froze on the wings and fuselage, forcing the crew to increase power to 80 percent to barely stay airborne. During the P2-V Neptune Truculent Turtle’s preflight modifications, the anti-icing and de-icing equipment had been removed to reduce weight. The turbulence and heavy fuel use for almost three hours to maintain flying altitude at 13,000 feet cut 500 hundred miles off the possible distance for the flight.
After calculating the remaining fuel at dawn, the crew notified Naval Operations that they would have to set down in Columbus, Ohio. After the rough night over the Rockies, the final leg of the flight was mercifully uneventful. The crew found time to shave and change uniforms and, looking “smart and fresh” they landed in Columbus. When the mains set down, they had covered 11,236 miles in 55 hour and 16 minutes. The record would stand until January 1962, when a B-52 flew from Okinawa, Japan, to Madrid, Spain, covering 12,519 miles nonstop. As a piston-driven aircraft, the P2-V Neptune Truculent Turtle’s record stood until 1986 when another piston-driven aircraft, Voyager, piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, flew around the world to set the all-time record.
After a news conference in Columbus, the crew of the Turtle was flown to Washington, D.C., where they met up with their wives and were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.
But wait, there’s more! So the one part of this story that really pulled at my interest was a passenger that was on board for the historic flight, who I believe was probably responsible for keeping the crew entertained for the majority of the trip. This bit of precious cargo made the trip from Australia thanks to a Zoo in Perth, and was presented to Dr. William Mann of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. One slightly bedraggled and exhausted female baby kangaroo survived the long trip safe and sound. Her name became a fitting tribute to the P2-V Neptune Truculent Turtle and its crew, as her new country christened the little joey with the name “One Long Hop.”
Until next time, Bob out!