The Naval Aviation You’ve Never Heard Of

Posted on Mon, May 4, 2020
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During World War II, carrier-based aircraft came to symbolize Naval Aviation, especially in combat. But some airplanes filled other roles that were also essential to naval combat. One of these was the ship’s spotter plane, a job done throughout the war mainly by the Vought OS2U Kingfisher.

drawing of kingfisher

A Kingfisher spots the fall of gunfire while dodging enemy anti-air guns.

As a ship’s spotter, the Kingfisher ably filled one of the original roles envisioned for aviation in the United States Navy: finding targets for ships’ guns and helping them hit the target at ranges much greater than the ship itself could see. (A spotter atop a battleship’s mast could see about 10,000 yards, whereas the 16-inch guns on an Iowa-class battleship had a range of 42,000 yards!) 

The Kingfisher was a small, single-engine, two-seat floatplane designed to operate from battleships and cruisers rather than aircraft carriers. It would be launched from a roughly fifty-foot-long catapult on a turntable that allowed it to be pointed into the wind (and away from the ship). On cruisers, these were often located in the middle of the ship and powered by compressed air at 1200 psi.  Battleship catapults were located on the stern with the launching impulse provided by a “blank” round for a 5-inch gun. In both cases, the motive force drove a piston connected to the launch cradle via a long cable strung through numerous pulleys to turn the otherwise fast piston stroke into a slow but powerful pull on the cradle.

kingfisher launch

Kingfisher launching from turntable catapult aboard heavy cruiser USS Quincy (CA-71). [US Navy Photograph, US National Archives, 80-G-K-1946]

Once the airplane launched, the 450 hp Wasp Junior radial engine drove it at 70-100 mph. The pilot would take the plane to where it could see the target. They would then try to keep the airplane in a good position while keeping an eye out for enemy planes. Meanwhile, the observer, in the large rear cockpit, would keep their eye on the target and call corrections back to the ship over the radio. For defense, the Kingfisher had a single .30 caliber machine gun in the nose (firing in between two cylinder heads), while the observer had either a single or twin .30 caliber flexible mount. Despite this light armament, at least two Kingfishers succeeded in shooting down Japanese Zeros over Iwo Jima in 1945 (certainly an unusual outcome!), although the OS2U generally depended on fighter aircraft to protect it.

The Kingfisher could also be sent on long scouting missions to augment the carrier-based scouts or when there was no carrier available. In this case, the aircrew would typically fly a designated course directly from the ship to a given distance, turn and fly a bit, then turn directly back to the ship, resulting in a long, narrow triangular course, reporting anything seen along the way. Usually, multiple aircraft would be sent out to cover more area – battleships could carry three Kingfishers and cruisers typically had two each. The courses of these multiple planes would be spaced so that their visual fields completely covered a wider sector of a circle centered on the ship or task force.

At the end of its mission, the crew would fly back to their ship. The ship would make a wide turn, leaving an area of smooth water in its wake where the airplane could set down. Then the crew would taxi up alongside, where the ship would trail a “recovery sled” – a rectangular net with square holes. 

kingfisher in water

Kingfisher approaching recovery sled alongside USS Quincy (CA-71) [US Navy Photograph, US National Archives, 80-G-K-1954]

The Kingfisher’s main float had a spring-loaded hook on the bottom near the front and this would catch in the mat, allowing the pilot to turn off the engine and keep plane and ship at exactly the same speed. The aircrew would then attach a hook from the ship’s crane to a fitting behind the pilot, and airplane and crew would be lifted back aboard the ship.

Kingfisher lifted

Kingfisher being hoisted back aboard battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) [US Navy Photograph, US National Archives, 80-G-K-4562]

The Kingfisher could also be fitted with fixed-wheel landing gear for operating from shore bases, either for training or as part of the Inshore Patrol anti-submarine operations. For this latter role, the airplane also had bomb racks under each wing and could carry either two 100-lb bombs or two 325-lb depth charges.

Over 1500 Kingfishers were built between 1938 and 1942. Most numerous were the OS2U-3 variant, with over a thousand made by Vought and another three hundred by the Naval Aircraft Factory as the OS2N. (This permitted Vought to concentrate on producing the much-needed F4U Corsair.) Most served with the U.S. Navy, but one hundred went to the British Royal Navy, with handfuls of aircraft going to another half-dozen minor allies, including two in the Soviet Navy. The Kingfisher finally began to be replaced in service by the Curtiss SC Seahawk in late 1944, but there were still Kingfishers serving aboard ships when the Japanese surrendered in September 1945.

Air/Sea Rescue

In addition to spotting, scouting, and sub-hunting, the Kingfisher also found a use rescuing aircrew downed at sea. One of its most famous rescues was of World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who had been a passenger on a B-17 that went off-course and ran out of gas in the South Pacific in October 1942. After more than three weeks adrift, a patrolling Kingfisher spotted the first of the survivors’ three rafts, this one with one man aboard, who was able to give general directions to Rickenbacker’s raft. About the same time, the three men in the second raft were found on a nearby island. The next day, the same Kingfisher that had rescued the first man ((albeit with a different pilot) was also the one to spot Rickenbacker’s raft. The aircrew helped a seriously-injured survivor into the rear cockpit, lashed Rickenbacker and the third occupant onto the wings, and taxied to meet a PT-boat to complete the rescue.

people on Kingfisher

John Burns’ overloaded Kingfisher carrying a total of nine men in Truk lagoon. [US Navy Photograph, US National Archives, 80-G-227991]

On April 30, 1944, during a carrier raid on the Japanese stronghold of Truk, two Kingfishers were sent out to rescue a carrier pilot who had gone down in Truk’s lagoon. The first plane landed but was damaged while plucking the downed pilot from the water and began sinking. The second plane, piloted by John Burns, landed, recovered all three aviators, and, unable to take off with all the weight, taxied to a nearby submarine, USS Tang, which had been unable to enter the lagoon. The Kingfisher was then sent after another downed aviator. While recovering him, two damaged TBM Avengers ditched nearby, and the Kingfisher picked up each of their three-man crews. Carrying seven rescuees distributed along the wings, the airplane taxied back toward Tang, which had gone off to rescue yet another airman. The effort damaged the plane enough that it could not take off again and Burns and his observer had to board Tang as well. The sub then sank the heroic airplane with gunfire to keep it out of Japanese hands. Lieutenant Burns earned the Navy Cross for his actions.

Thomas Oxendine (a Lumbee Indian from North Carolina), was the U.S. Navy’s first Native American Naval Aviator. He earned his wings in December 1942 and spent much of the war flying a Kingfisher off the light cruiser USS Mobile(CL-63). Oxendine and his observer, F.P. Appleton, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing downed airmen off Yap Island in July 1944 while dodging gunfire from Japanese shore batteries.

Our Kingfisher and a Silver Star

The Museum’s Kingfisher has an interesting history that includes its own dramatic rescue story. Vought delivered the OS2U-3 with Bureau of Aeronautics number 5909 to the Navy in March 1942. It was soon assigned to the newly commissioned battleship USS Indiana (BB-58), followed by assignment to a shore-based patrol squadron in New Caledonia in December 1942. 5909 spent late 1943 and early 1944 in overhaul at NAS Alameda in California, after which the Navy once again assigned it to the Indiana.

On July 4, 1944, Indiana was supporting naval strikes on Rota and Guam. 5909’s pilot, Rollin M. Batten Jr., accompanied by his observer, were on rescue duty. They spotted two airmen in the water near Guam. Despite heavy fire from Japanese shore batteries, Batten chose to land near the men and rescue them, earning himself the Silver Star.

That August, 5909 was assigned to another shore-based unit as a utility aircraft, then returned to Alameda in December 1944 for another overhaul. It remained in the United States when the war ended, doing very little flying until it was prepped for storage in 1947. Though earmarked for the Smithsonian in 1948, it remained in Navy storage until 1960. The airplane was loaned to the USS Massachusetts Memorial at Battleship Cove, Massachusetts from 1968 to 1980 and is now on display at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Vought-Sikorsky 0S2U-3 Kingfisher at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Kingfisher Bureau Number 5909 on display at Udvar-Hazy Center.

Laurence M. Burke II is the curator of U.S. Naval Aviation at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.