During the evenings, our cable channel box is pretty well locked on The Military Channel because I'm kind of a one-trick pony when it comes to viewing habits. The other night, one of my top, all-time favorite aviation movies appeared and even though I picked up the action in the middle, I knew instantly that it was The Bridges at Toko-Ri, James Michener's classic Korean-war story.
Any pilot who sees it would have to agree that for a 1950's film, it's terrific and the flying scenes hold up to contemporary scrutiny. Why is that? Because the Navy lavishly supported the production and allowed Paramount crews to film flight ops extensively aboard a real carrier, the U.S.S. Oriskany. For his book, Michener had actually been aboard the Essex and the Valley Forge, where he had been a magazine correspondent in 1952. (The movie was shot a year later.)
One reason the Navy was generous with its access is that it had wised up about value of PR with the public. Three years earlier, the Navy had suffered a disastrous setback when the Air Force skillfully outmaneuvered it in Congressional budget battles. This became known as the Revolt of the Admirals (PDF).
A major new carrier, the United States, had been cancelled and there was even discussion of eliminating the Navy entirely, in favor of the Air Force's then omnipotent B-36 Peacemaker bomber. Even a military leader no less august than Omar Bradley argued that there would never again be need for amphibious landings. Such was the hubris and myopia of the post-nuclear cold-war era.
The onset of the Korean war saved the Navy's carriers, for they could do what the Air Force could not: provide sustained air support on the Korean peninsula. Still, early in the war, the Navy was underfunded and under equipped, which is why in Toko-Ri you see the early jets recovering on wooden-planked straight-deck carriers. The angle deck had been invented and so had steam catapults (credit the Brits) and the optical landing system. The Navy just hadn't had timeor moneyto deploy these improvements.
So in Toko-Ri, you see some great footage of hydraulic cat launches and straight-deck recoveries. In one scene, the one where Brubaker lands with the recovery crane acting as a temporary barrier, you get a brief glimpse of the straight-deck configuration. The Navyand Paramountwas great at filming the landing aircraft from the deck looking aft. What you don't see is what the pilots saw from an approach speed of about 120 knots in the F9Fs: about 550 feet of open deck in front of barriers behind which were parked dozens of airplanes. In those days, there were traps and wave offs, but bolters would have to await the arrival of the angle deck.
I have to think those pilots were made of pretty stern stuff to do that and to do it as well as they did. In those days, the decks had 12 wires and three barriers, versus four wires on a modern angle-deck carrier. In the film and this narrated video, you can see that the approach they flew was almost flat. Over the ramp, the LSO would give the pilot the cut command and the airplane would drop into the wires, just as they had done with piston airplanes during World War II.
The jets were flying approaches about 30 knots faster than the pistons were and given the physics of must-do arrestments, you'd think they'd have a terrible accident rate. And they did. In this paper (PDF), VADM Robert F. Dunn points out that the Navy had an unsustainable accident rate during those early jet years. But it wasn't necessarily because of botched carrier landings.
I found the Oriskany's combat action reports (PDF) for October 1952 to April 1953close to the film shooting periodthe Oriskany reported 6984 arrestments, but only 34 got past all the wires and into the barriers, most of them jets. That's only 3.5 percent and a lot better than I would have guessed. Barrier landings didn't necessarily wreck the airplane, but deck crews had to hustle to clean them up.
If those pilots thought flying jets onto an obsolete deck was madness, they sure were good at it.
CORRECTION: The barrier arrestment rate is .4 percent, not 3.5 percent.
Also, an addition I forgot to mention. The Air Force during this period wasn't dormant on the PR front. It devoted its own promotional efforts toward Strategic Air Command starring Jimmy Stewart, then an active colonel in the reserves. This film prominently features the B-36 and, against Toki-Ri's dark tragedy, it's a cold war tale of the relentless struggle with evil Soviets.
Although Toko-Ri was a fabricated place, Michener based the story on an actual series of attacks in Korea. Similarly, the rescue is based on a real event, although not related to that mission. And there really was a Lt. Harry Brubaker.