14 April 2016

VFP-62 "Eyes of the Fleet" and the Bay of Pigs Invasion

Over the course of the Second World War, photoreconnaissance in the US Navy progressed from rudimentary handheld photography from whatever aircraft was available to reconnaissance variants of carrier fighters equipped with cameras in fuselage bays. The reconnaissance mission was carried out usually by the fighter squadrons in the carrier air wing (which were still called carrier air groups back then) and in the years after the war, small groups of combat-seasoned photo recon pilots were usually attached to carrier air groups but no standard training, syllabus or even squadron existed for the reconnaissance mission. That all began to change in 1948 when Fleet Air Service Squadron THEE formed a photographic detachment at NAS Norfolk, Virginia. On 8 January 1949, 13 officers and 88 enlisted personnel gathered to form Composite Squadron SIXTY-TWO (VC-62) at Norfolk, with a sister squadron, VC-61, formed on the West Coast at NAS Miramar, California, to serve the Pacific Fleet. The squadrons were tasked to train and perform the photo reconnaissance mission. The first aircraft of the units were photo variants of the Bearcat and Corsair- the Grumman F8F-2P (the P suffix designating a recon variant) and the Vought F4U-4P and -5P. Though specialized for the recon mission, that's a loosely used term since the aircraft carried a single camera in a fuselage bay and the pilots were still considered fighter pilots and VC-61 and VC-62's training regimen still required proficiency in gunnery, rocketry and bombing missions with extra emphasis on navigation. 

A VFP-62 F2H-2P Banshee aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt
Of the two squadrons, VC-62 would soon become famous. The unit was transferred from Norfolk to NAS Jacksonville and converted to the McDonnell F2H-2P Banshee which was a quantum leap in performance over the Bearcats and Corsairs as not only was the Banshee jet powered, but its extended nose bay housed multiple cameras that could photograph targets from over 40,000 feet. In 1953, VC-62 added the swept wing Grumman F9F-6P Cougar to its existing fleet of Banshees. Camera technology also progressed in this time to allow sharper and better quality photos from aircraft moving at much higher speeds than piston-engined aircraft. The arrival of the jets also meant that the pilots no longer had guns to shoot back- the recon variants of the jets were unarmed, requiring the use of speed, maneuverability and sharp mission planning to get home with the photos. On 2 July 1956, VC-62 was redesigned VFP-62 and VC-61 became VFP-63. Two years later, VFP-62 got one of the finest naval photo reconnaissance aircraft in the form of the Vought F8U-1P Crusader. 
A VFP-62 F9F-6P Cougar overflies the USS Essex
The Crusader wasn't just fast, it also had the latest in state of the art camera technology in the -1P recon variant. At the speed of the Crusader, especially at low levels, the images would have been blurred, but the four cameras of the -1P Crusader had what was called IMC (Image Motion Compensation). A set of avionics boxes with controls in the cockpit coordinated the aircraft's speed and altitude with the camera equipment. During a photo run, a vacuum sucked the film frame against a moving shuttle- when the shutter opened, the shuttle would move the film frame in the opposite direction of flight at a speed that canceled out the forward speed of the Crusader for that brief moment. When the shutter closed, the vacuum released the film frame and the next frame entered the shuttle. This process took place with each of the Crusader's four cameras multiple times in a second depending upon the target, the aircraft's speed and altitude, and ambient lighting conditions. The IMC electronics also made sure the frames overlapped the ground to insure a required level of coverage of of the target. 

In 1958, the same year as the conversion to the F8U-1P Crusader, VFP-62 moved to NAS Cecil Field outside of Jacksonville as it had outgrown its Jacksonville base. It was an unusually large squadron compared to most Crusader fighter squadrons on account that it sent detachments of carrier air wings- a typical photo detachment might be three aircraft with 35 officers and enlisted men. The squadron could have multiple detachments deployed worldwide at any given moment. 

A VFP-62 F8U-1P Crusader tanks from an A4D-2 Skyhawk
On 1 January 1959, the revolutionary forces of Fidel Castro defeated Fulgencio Batista's regime in Cuba, putting the island nation square in the communist sphere of influence. Needless to say, having a Soviet client state just 90 miles from American shores would greatly influence the foreign and defense policy of both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. John F. Kennedy won the 1960 presidential elections against Richard Nixon on a strong anti-Castro platform, campaigning that Nixon, as Eisenhower's vice-president, was weak on Cuba. Unfortunately for Kennedy, this put him in a position after entering office of accepting the plan for the invasion of Cuba by US-trained Cuban exiles at a location called the Bay of Pigs. On 18 April 1961, a force of 1,400 Cuban exiles landed ashore at the Bay of Pigs as the Cuban Expeditionary Force (CEF) with plans to start a counter-revolution against Castro. Kennedy was keen to limit the appearance and extent of American involvement and the CIA-trained CEF force had its fleet of Douglas B-26 Invader aircraft cut in half as part of that effort. The young president wanted the CEF to look like a home grown force than a US-backed force to prevent a superpower confrontation. The operation was doomed from the start and when it became clear that the CEF was in over its head against Castro's forces the following day, Kennedy ordered a secret photo assessment of the situation on the ground at the Bay of Pigs. 

VFP-62 had three F8U-1Ps as part of Detachment 41 assigned to the USS Independence which was in the area for contingency operations should US air support be needed (which it was but was never authorized). Det 41's commander was ordered to paint over any military markings and even the maintenance stencils were overpainted in gray. Roman numerals I, II, and III, were painted inside the wheel wells to tell the aircraft apart as they were completely sanitized of any exterior markings. The Crusaders were identified as "Gray Ghost" and then "One", "Two", or "Three" during flight operations. They conducted a series of flights over the Bay of Pigs which confirmed that the CEF was about to be overrun by Castro's forces. It was hoped that the low level overflights of the area might give Castro's forces pause that the CEF might be defended by US airstrikes and give the beleaguered exiles time to regroup, but this wasn't to be the case and the CEF was roundly defeated with those not killed taken prisoner. 
A VFP-62 F8U-1P Crusader prepares to launch from the USS Independence
The USS Independence and its carrier air wing were awarded the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for its clandestine operation, but even after the disaster at the Bay of Pigs had passed, VFP-62 was requested to remain in the area to keep an eye on Cuba. Up until the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the squadron would make periodic flights to Cuba, mostly staging out of NAS Cecil Field. Flights of two aircraft would then "pretend" to making practice approaches to NAS Key West and dash to Cuba at low level. Other missions had two Crusaders appear as a flight transiting to Guantanamo Bay and then dash down at low level before recovering at Homestead AFB in Florida. 

VFP-62's missions would soon take on added urgency as October 1962 approached. But that's a subject for a future article here at Tails Through Time! 

Further reading: 

Source: Blue Moon Over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis by Capt. William B. Ecker USN and Kenneth V. Jack. Osprey Publishing, 2012, pp 33-50.

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