[I] have been meaning to expand on my first discussion of the tailhook (HERE). The recent problems with the F-35C’s brought that topic up to first on the list. More on that after a brief history of the tailhook.
The first landing of an airplane on a U.S. Navy ship, the cruiser Pennsylvania, was accomplished by a civilian pilot, Eugene Ely, on 18 January 1911—hence 2011 being the Centennial of Naval Aviation. A temporary wooden platform about 134 feet long and 32 feet wide had been added aft of the mainmast, extending aft over the after turret and past the stern of the ship. It angled upward from the fantail, the first 14-foot section at about a 30-degree angle and the remainder, less steeply but still “uphill” so as to help slow the airplane. Two low, wooden guide rails ran fore and aft on the platform about 12 feet apart to help keep the airplane on the deck. Two low canvas screens were strung across the deck about ten feet from its forward end and a high canvas screen was hung from the mast to the forward end of the platform. These foreshadowed the barriers and barricade respectively used on axial deck carriers to protect the crew forward and hopefully the pilot in the event that the airplane overran the landing area. Canvas was also slung outboard on both sides of the forward two thirds of the landing area to keep the airplane from falling into the sea if it came off the platform.
The arresting gear consisted of 22 pairs of 50-lb sandbags, each connected by a rope and placed outboard of the guide rails, which helped hold the rope above the deck. Each pair was three feet apart going up the deck. Three steel hooks were attached to the longitudinal frame of the landing gear of Ely’s Curtiss pusher. These were intended to snag the ropes, with the bags then dragging the airplane to a stop. (The weight of each bag was carefully measured to insure that they were equal in order to reduce the likelihood of a bag having more drag than its partner and pulling the airplane to the side.)
The arresting system worked exactly as planned. The heritage of today’s system is clearly evident.
It took a few more years of aircraft development before the U.S. Navy was ready to operate land planes from an actual aircraft carrier. The tailhook was instrumental to the success of the enterprise and a closely held innovation.
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