Thursday, April 2, 2009
Photo by Rick Thompson
After World War II, the world of naval aviation was undergoing a sea change, as high-performance jets began to replace propeller-driver fighters. At the Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center, this meant a change in testing — and in test pilots.
The new Test Coordinator, Capt. Frederick M. Trapnell, was one of the first to earn the ‘‘green card,” the top level of flying qualification, and insisted all his test pilots do the same. Very quickly, they became a crack team ready to take on the job of evaluating the new jets.
The new jets had swept wings, pressurized cabins, ejection seats and radar for flight interception of bombers. They were also faster, and reaction times to thrust changes at low speeds, especially during carrier approaches, were less.
Trapnell was well aware of how aviation would change in the jet age. In the spring of 1943, he had made the first jet flight by a naval aviator by piloting a Bell XP-59 Aeracomet, America’s first jet-propelled airplane.
The new test coordinator was at the center of making the transition happen — and work — for the Navy. Like an umpire, he would call them as he saw them.
As John Lacouture stated in a 1991 article, ‘‘In testing of airplanes, integrity was his motto, and (Trapnell) reported results as they were, not as some senior or contractor wanted them to be. Once the airplane’s flight characteristics were determined, he then had all his pilots work on converting the test results into design change recommendations for the contractors who would improve the capabilities of the aircraft.”
He ‘‘also insisted that an airplane worthy of Navy procurement has to be able to operate well and safely over a broad range of flying conditions.”
Trapnell saw a problem up ahead, though. Most of the test pilots would be moving on to the fleet, where they would be invaluable to squadrons flying the new jets for the first time. Their replacements would be less experienced, and unfamiliar with flight testing new aircraft and equipment.
Pax River had a Test Pilot School, but Trapnell insisted on its upgrading and expansion. It would have a complete flying program that covered performance, stability and control testing. The classroom work would be a complete aeronautical engineering course. Trapnell himself had flown more types of aircraft than any of his pilots, and he flew all aircraft assigned to Pax River.
The goal then, as now: provide the Navy with better airplanes for all missions, whether from carriers or not.
The Test Pilot School at the time had an informal technical school periodically run by Capt. Sydney S. Sherby. As Sherby later wrote, Trapnell and NATC Commander Capt. James Barner ‘‘became very interested in the informal school, and were highly impressed with the results. One of the fallouts of the training was the knowledge that our pilots took back to the fleet with them. It was beginning to show up in improvement in fleet operations. They were the ones who started the ball rolling in the Navy Department to have the school set up as the Test Pilot Training Division of the Naval Air Test Center.”
Barner was relieved as NATC Commander by Rear Adm. Apollo Soucek in 1947, but for six months in between, Trapnell served in the position before reverting back to Test Coordinator. Soucek, like Barner, ‘‘fully concurred with the effort to have the school set up as a permanent school and joined Trapnell in the effort to get the school approved,” said Sherby.
They ultimately succeeded, and on Jan. 22, 1948 Trapnell’s plan for a formal test pilot school as a division of NATC was approved by Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Adm. J.D. Price. The Test Pilot Division was established in April 1948, with Sherby as its first director.
Trapnell’s involvement in the school’s establishment was far from over, though. He chaired the selection of the school’s first class. The criteria, according to Sherby: ‘‘Candidates must be volunteers, have a good operational record, at least a high school education, be commissioned officers and have a letter of recommendation from their commanding officers.”
He chose well. The first class ranged from ex-enlisted pilots with a high school diploma to one with a master’s in aeronautics, with ranks from lieutenant junior grade to commander.
‘‘The traits that all had were a very high intelligence, were exceptionally fine pilots and were all enthusiastic,” said Sherby. ‘‘The course was paced so that we did not bore the Master of Science or leave the high school behind. It took a little doing, but no one flunked the course.”
Trapnell collected a library of about 550 technical books and assorted used desks to outfit the school, and the Test Pilot Training Division’s first class began July 6, 1948. He would eventually write the foreword to the textbook Airplane Aerodynamics. The book had been created from the Test Pilot Training Division’s lectures and concepts by Sherby and his successor, Capt. (eventually Vice Adm.) Thomas Connolly. Twenty-seven universities would eventually use its four editions (1951, 1957, 1961 and 1967) as the text for courses in aircraft design.
In the book’s foreword, Trapnell wrote, ‘‘In the flight testing of aircraft, the talents of the engineer and the pilot must be available to the maximum attainable extent in one individual. Without a sound understanding of the basic principles and a reasonable appreciation of the more advanced problems of the aeronautical engineer, the test pilot can neither gather usable data nor analyze his own experiences with sufficient clarity to convey them to others in usable form. The requirement grows more severe as the complexity of the aircraft increases.”
However, ‘‘Such dual personalities do not occur in nature. Very few pilots have acquired an engineering background in the normal course of events. In most cases, both time and inclination are missing during the early stages of his career. Later on, however, the inclination often appears rather strikingly,” Trapnell said. ‘‘When advantage is taken of this manifestation, and time and facilities are provided for study, the results are likely to be gratifying.”
He concluded, ‘‘Such a procedure may not produce aeronautical engineers, but it does qualify pilots to meet the aeronautical engineer on common ground and to perform their flying duties with greatly improved insight and effectiveness.”
In June 1949, Trapnell again became NATC commander. It was later that year he appeared in House Armed Services Committee hearings that disputed Air Force claims for the B-36 — that flying at 40,000 feet it would be undetectable by radar and unreachable by enemy fighters.
According to Time Magazine’s report, Trapnell ‘‘testified that standard Navy radar had no trouble picking up small jet fighters at 40,000 feet, and that Navy fighters had made interceptions at that altitude by day and by night.”
He told the committee, ‘‘If you were able to ride as an observer in a B-36 at 40,000 feet during joint exercises, you would see (F2H) Banshees diving and zooming all around you and making repeated gunnery attacks with a speed advantage of over 100 miles per hour.”
That summer Trapnell was named recipient of the Octave Chanute Award, named for the man who gave critical support and encouragement to the Wright Brothers during their design of their aircraft. Given annually by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for ‘‘notable contribution by a pilot to the aerospace sciences,” the award recognized Trapnell for ‘‘showing outstanding ability not only in flying every type of aircraft but also in detecting critical defects in new airplanes and suggesting ways to deal with them.”
Trapnell’s career at Pax River ended in April 1950 when he was named commanding officer of the carrier USS Coral Sea. While CO, he developed a two-line system for aircraft takeoff, with the left line turning left and the right line turning right. This system significantly reduced takeoff times over carriers that used only one line.
Promoted to rear admiral in Feb. 1951, Trapnell was deputy commander of Sandia Base and of the Field Command Armed Forces Special Weapons Project at Albuquerque, N.M. from March 1951 to April 1952. That was when he suffered a heart attack and was retired for physical disability in Sept. 1952 with the rank of vice admiral. The medical findings also ended his days as a pilot.
He spent the next 23 years as a consultant for Grumman Aircraft, and became a sailing enthusiast, first in the Long Island, N.Y. area and then San Diego. Vice Adm. Frederick M. Trapnell died in the U.S. Naval Hospital, San Diego, on Jan. 30, 1975..
On April 1, 1976, the 33rd anniversary of the commissioning of NAS Patuxent River, the station’s air field was officially named ‘‘Trapnell Field.” A small memorial to the left of the tarmac outside Air Operations was unveiled in his honor. Over 300 guests attended the ceremony.
Chief of Naval Material Adm. Frederick Michaelis said in his keynote address, ‘‘Vice Adm. Trapnell was a pioneer test pilot whose calculated daring and prophetic vision served to advance the science of naval aviation test and evaluation. ‘Get the numbers’ was the watchword of the test pilots he trained and led. His contributions to aviation were enormous.”
Michaelis added, ‘‘All who fly in Navy blue remain indebted to Vice Adm. Trapnell. This field will serve as a living reminder of that debt.”