In 1946 I was assigned to the office of the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. James Forrestal. The work involved any radio engineering tasks that might occur, and included portions of the Bikini Island atomic tests. One morning in late September Mr. Forrestal called me to his office and asked if I could install a radio broadcast studio in a navy aircraft. After learning some of the details I assured him it could be done. He told me to have it ready in two days.
Those were two pretty hectic days. I was assigned an aircraft, a pilot, and one technician, at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. After a grueling 18 hours the technician and I had the makeshift studio completed and made a test flight over southern Maryland. When we reached altitude I contacted the RCA radio station in New Jersey where facilities were available to patch our transmissions into the NBC radio network in New York City. The test was perfect and I chatted with the RCA operator for about one-half hour.
On return to Washington I reported the results to Mr. Forrestal, and he then revealed the purpose of the installation. The U.S. Navy had secretly flown a new model P-2 propeller driven long range patrol aircraft to Pearce Field at Perth, Australia and planned to make a historic long range non-stop flight with the aircraft. The plane was nick-named The Truculent Turtle, and Mr. Forrestal indicated he would release details of the flight to the press later in the day. I heard on the NBC evening news that the Turtle had departed Australia, and was flying toward the United States. NBC assigned a young newscaster named David Brinkley to do the radio broadcast. I picked him up at his apartment and we drove to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. Our aircraft with the broadcast studio was ready and we took off, intending to intercept the
Truculent Turtle somewhere out West, fly alongside, and thus permit Brinkley to interview the pilot and have the interview broadcast over the NBC radio network.
Shortly after takeoff I contacted the RCA radio station and they patched me directly to the New York City NBC control position. The controller conducted several tests, adjusted volume decibel levels, and reported all was ready, with excellent reception from the aircraft. A short time later the controller told me an NBC news flash handed to him indicated the Turtle had landed at Columbus, Ohio short of fuel, but was being refueled and would immediately proceed on to Washington, D.C. I discussed this with Brinkley and we decided to proceed toward Columbus, Ohio and accompany the Turtle to Washington. About 30 minutes later I made radio contact with the now airborne Turtle, and Brinkley was ready to begin his interview with the pilot, when we smelled smoke. Our transmitter was physically located near the front of the plane and our make-shift studio was about 15 feet away near the center of the plane. Our pilot could see the transmitter and he reported smoke was coming from inside the transmitter cabinet. I immediately removed power from the transmitter and fortunately the small electrical fire was contained within its metal case. We did not have a spare transmitter.
We then proceeded to the Naval Air Station, Anacostia, landing ahead of the Turtle. Brinkley and I rushed over to the administrative building, near the aircraft control tower, where a reception committee was assembled, and where the Turtle taxied to a stop. The navy representative was the famous explorer Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN (Retired). Brinkley, with his portable recorder, was able to interview Commander Davies, the pilot, as the newsreel cameras recorded the event. Also aboard the plane were Commander Eugene P. Rankin, USN, Commander Walter S. Reid, USN, and Lieutenant Commander Roy Tabling, USN. Then a surprise, in the form of a small crate, was unloaded from the Turtle. Inside the crate was a young kangaroo, a present to the United States from Australia. Mr. Mann, director of the National Zoo, was present, and showed us how to control a kangaroo. You grasp it firmly at the base of the tail, from its rear, and this permits you to maneuver the “Joey”, as kangaroos are referred to in Australia. Mr. Mann demonstrated the technique for the cameras, then loaded the kangaroo into his Zoo vehicle and drove away.
The Turtle’s original destination was Washington, D.C Unfortunately there was a serious navigational error, as well as a long communications blackout. The aircraft had strayed from the great circle path thus lengthening the flight and causing it to run short of fuel. In the original plan, if the aircraft reached Washington, D.C. with sufficient fuel, it was to continue on to Bermuda; however this was not realistically expected. The Turtle had flown 11,235.6 miles non-stop in 55 hours 17 minutes. The plane had taken off with a load of 85,000 pounds, a record at the time. The flight record was not beaten until 11 January 1962 when an Air Force B-52 jet bomber flew non-stop from Kadena AFB, Okinawa to Madrid, Spain, a distance of 12,532.28 miles. That record stood until 23
December 1986 when Richard Rutan and Jeana Yeager completed an around the world non-stop non-refueled flight in their light aircraft named VOYAGER.
The day after our transmitter mishap we tore into the faulty apparatus to see what had happened. A ceramic antenna feed through insulator from the final amplifier had somehow cracked thus shorting the transmitter’s output to ground.
The Truculent Turtle is now retired to the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida. When I visit the museum it certainly brings back memories of that day of 1 October 1946 when the plane landed at Anacostia, District of Columbia.