Grumman Tracker History in Photographs 1
Left: When consideration was being given to what aircraft might replace the Venoms/Gannets, occasional Tracker visitors to HMAS Melbourne were welcome, as they afforded an early look at the type and helped answer questions about their operability aboard such a small carrier. The first of these visits was an S2-F from VS-21 Squadron (USS ‘Philippine Sea’) in 1958. The photo has a certain vintage touch with the Sea Venom radar dome in the foreground. (RAN photo).
Below. Another visitor, date unknown. What better way to check hangar clearance than to take it below?The image dramatically indicates how little room there was for the Tracker. (Navy image)
In 1967 the RAN purchased 14 S-2E Trackers, plus two additional airframes for instruction purposes, making a total of 16 in the initial batch. Their procurement ran in parallel with the initial acquisition of A4 Skyhawks (which were delivered at the same time). The Skyhawk program was beset by problems, mainly in the provision of spares. By contrast, the Tracker program ran like clockwork. Left & Below: Navy News of 04 August 1967 reports on aircrew training.
Right: The first of the new Trackers was officially handed over to the RAN at the Grumman Company plant, Long Island on 23 May 1967. The Australian Ambassador in the US, Mr J.K. Waller, is seen cutting the ribbon. To his right is Rear Admiral G. Crabb, Head of Australian Joint Services Staff in Washington DC (Image: Navy News 15 Sept 1967).
Below: A clipping from ‘The Northern Territory News’ dated 29 May 1967 also reports on the event.
Right. Loading Trackers in San Diego. She commenced loading on Friday 27th October 1967, with seven A4Gs and two TA4G skyhawks stowed that afternoon, and the remaining A4Gs and 14 Trackers the following Monday. She also loaded two Weapon Systems Trainer trailers, together with other items of stores. The ship’s ROP notes she cast off on Tuesday 31st October and set sail with over 800 tons of cargo.
Left: In addition to the 14 new Trackers, the RAN acquired two S2 training aircraft – one an S2A (Bu 133160) and the other an S2E (Bu 151646). The photo left is sometimes reported as SN133160 being transported to Australia on the flight deck of HMAS Sydney circa 1970 (at this time the ship was carrying pennant number P214) (image via Queensland Aviation Museum). This is incorrect, as not only is this some four years after the training aircraft arrived on our shores, but also because Sydney never delivered them. Certainly one, and possibly both of these training Trackers were most probably transported aboard the US freighter “Australian Surf” which arrived in Sydney town on Monday 7th November 1966. It is speculated that the ship loaded 151646 in New York and later called in to San Diego to uplift 133160. A more detailed account of the two training Trackers can be seen at the footnote to the page here. The photo of 133160 aboard HMAS Sydney was almost certainly during passage from Jervis Bay to Sydney, where it was being taken to HMAS Nirimba as a training aid having outlived its usefulness at Albatross.
Sydney’s only other involvement with Trackers was when she subsequently sailed to the US to collect the second batch of aircraft, which reached Australia in July of 1977.
Left: 133160 at Nowra. Note the ‘NW’ designator on the tail: the only Tracker that bore these markings. This S2A airframe was flown from Bankstown to NAS Nowra on 4 May 1967 to be used as a training aid at Albatross, but when the first batch of S2E Trackers arrived later that year it was transferred to HMAS Nirimba.
Below: HMAS Melbourne at sea with her Trackers. After brief visits to Pearl Harbour and Suva she shaped course for Jervis Bay where the Skyhawks were dispatched via barges for transport to Nowra. The ROP doesn’t have much to say about unloading her Trackers, other than it was at a Sydney wharf and was complete by early afternoon on Friday 24th November.
Once the Trackers had been offloaded from HMAS Melbourne (below right) they were trucked to the nearby Mascot airport, where they were de-inhibited and prepared for flight to Nowra. (RAN photos).
Above. With no flying aboard there would have been time on peoples’ hands: certainly enough to enjoy a traditional ‘Crossing The Line’ ceremony between Hawaii and Fiji (Photo: M. Fogarty).
Meanwhile, work had been done regarding transport (right). Apparently HMAS Sydney was originally intended as the pick-up vessel, with options being examined to either offload the aircraft in Jervis Bay or Sydney for HdH in Bankstown. A penscript note in the margin of the letter indicates that the Rydalmere to Bankstown road route was ‘unsatisfactory’. In the event, HMAS Melbourne did the fetching and carrying, and the aircraft were then trucked to the nearby Mascot airport facility for flight preparation.
Left: The S2Es were de-inhibited and prepared for flight by RAN maintenance personnel before being ferried down to Nowra. The first pair arrived on 30th November 1967 and the two crews were greeted with champagne to mark the occasion. Pictured are LCDR Ron Mackenzie, accepting a glass of bubbly, who commissioned 816 Squadron with the task of working it up to operational standard. Behind him (obscured) is John Van Gelder. LCDR Peter Adams is in the centre and the figure behind the PO WRAN steward is CMDR Ken Duncan, who was the XO of Albatross and acted as a copilot (to Peter Adams) for the historic flight.
Following the first pair, the remaining aircraft were ferried down in pairs (by Adams and Mackenzie who were the only qualified Tracker captains at the time), with the final aircraft landing at Albatross on 4th December 1967.
The Trackers were not to return to HMAS Melbourne for nearly 18 months, as the ship went into extended refit which, amongst other things, modified her for the larger aircraft she was to operate. All that changed on 12 February 1969 when LCDRs Ron Mackenzie and Adams landed 852 aboard.. They nearly didn’t make it: a significant rain event at Nowra the night before resulted in minor flooding at the runway intersection and the airfield was closed. By lunch time limited operations were approved and the Tracker departed for the ship. Although 816 Squadron had been commissioned for over a year (since 10Jan68) few pilots had any deck-landing qualifications, so it was a welcome relief to be able to operate to the ship again. Progress was patchy, however, as problems were experienced in Skyhawk catapult bridle strikes and shortage of bridles for the Trackers forced delays.
Right: The first operational deck landing of an RAN Tracker aboard Melbourne. From left to right: Tony Hunt (AEO), Peter Adams and Paul Hamon. Absent from the picture is Ron Mackenzie, the pilot in command.
Below. A general shot of a Tracker on short finals to Melbourne’s Flight Deck. It was a worthy successor to the old Fairey Gannet, with better time-on-task, a good radar and improved sensors including a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD).
Below. The perennial cut-away drawing shows a conventional airframe distinguished not by innovation but by an enduring and solid build. The Tracker was designed as a carrier-borne surveillance aircraft and did its job superbly well. Even the snug fit on Melbourne (a wing-tip clearance of only 1.2 metres with the nose wheel on the centreline) proved to be no obstacle, with very few accidents and none caused by the close proximity of other objects. (With thanks to ‘Air Enthusiast’ magazine).
Below. One of the new Trackers in all its glory. With its radar dome and Mad boom deployed and the bomb bay open, this was probably a posed shot – but it shows off some of the features of the aircraft: the 70-million candle-power searchlight on the starboard wing; the underwing stores carriers; the air-scoops either side of the Radome (to direct air to the rear of it to reduce vibration and buffeting); and the retractable tail bumper that lowered with the undercarriage to protect the tail against over-zealous flaring. (Photo: R. Kenderdine).
Above Left. Captured at the moment the hook engages the wire, this Tracker lands on Melbourne. With the nosewheel on the centreline there was little margin for error, but very few accidents occurred. Above right. Sisters-at-Arms. The initial batch of Trackers and Skyhawks shared the delivery passage aboard Melbourne, and served together for many years.
Below: Looking spick and span, HMAS Melbourne steams on a calm ocean whilst operating her new aircraft. A Tracker is about to capture an arrester wire, whilst other Trackers and Skyhawks are secured in the parking areas forward and aft of the island. Once again, this photo illustrates how little room there was to operate modern aircraft aboard a light fleet carrier. (Photo: Fred Tyler)
Below. A few seconds from touchdown on the deck of HMAS Melbourne, this rare photo gives a pilots’ eye view of a daylight approach and how small the deck was. The pilot was”Farmer” Talbot and the photograph was taken by the aircrewman, Graham Bates. Apparently Graham had to do a fair bit of masking during (wet) development of the image to ‘burn in’ the dark cockpit interior against the bright outside area – this was, of course, the pre-digital era. (Information courtesy of Bob “Timber” Mills, exCPOA).
The loss of the first Tracker in Febuary 1975
Only one Tracker was lost due to a flying accident, and that occurred on the night of 10 February 1975, when N12-153608 ditched into the sea shortly after a ‘bolter’ from HMAS Melbourne (see Navy News clipping above). All four crew members were recovered safely but the aircraft was not.
The subsequent investigation found that inadvertent flap selection by the TACCO as the primary cause of the accident, but this was subsequently overturned when it was determined the Tracker had sufficient performance margin to climb away with any flap setting. The Defence Science & Technology (Aeronautical Research Laboratory) was then asked to investigate the circumstances more than a year after the incident with no wreckage or evidentiary material available other than the testimonies of the aircrew involved. The transcript of ARL’s findings – which is an excerpt from a wider publication about military accidents in general – can be read here.
The Trackers offered day and night capability. Any night landing on a carrier was by its nature notoriously difficult, but only one Tracker accident ever occurred (see below). The time-lapse photo by Peter Clever above captures the last few moments of a Tracker’s night landing aboard Melbourne, and just how tight it really was.
Right: Sometimes rescues happened by chance rather than design, as one lucky group stranded in North Queensland found out when an RAN S2 found them. Although it was an unplanned event the newspaper article underscores the high situational awareness and professionalism of the crew.
Right: An unusual shot of a Tracker, which appears to include the bridle catcher/catapult strop on the bow of Melbourne (RAN image).
Left. Doing one of its jobs. The S-2 was principally a surveillance aircraft but Search and Rescue was never far from top of the list of secondary roles. According to the Canberra Times of 16 March 1974 this was a distressed yacht some 50 miles each of Jervis Bay which had been located by the Tracker. A Wessex helicopter later rescued five people (three men and two women) from the vessel. A ship was diverted to tow the yacht to a safe port but was delayed by rough weather so we don’t know of its fate. (RAN image)
Not long after cyclone Tracy (Dec ’74) VC851 Squadron’s Trackers were tasked with Operation TROCHUS, which was surveillance of the ‘top end’ to combat illegal fishing. Three Trackers and one of the Squadrons HS748 communications aircraft were deployed to Broome. Originally intended to be for just one month, the Operation proved so successful that it was extended to over 18 months. VC851 was supplemented by VS816, with the two Squadrons sharing the task until mid to late 1976. By the end of that year all aircraft were repatriated to NAS Nowra – in time for the disastrous fire on 4th December 1976.
We have found little in the history books about Operation Seawatch. Most accounts of the time tend to ‘bundle’ it with Operation TROCHUS, but in fact it took place at a different place and a different time.
SEAWATCH commenced around mid November 1977 in response to the increasing number of ‘Boat People’ arriving on our shores (the first was in April 1976 and over the next five years 2059 boat arrivals were recorded). Under the control of the Department of Transport, it involved VC851 crews and aircraft tasked with the location (and guiding to port) of refugee boats primarily coming out of Vietnam. As the operation progressed this role was expanded to include detection of illegal fishing by Indonesian and Taiwanese boats, out to the 200nm limit of the Australian Fishing Zone proclaimed on 1 November 1979.
The Fleet Air Arm’s involvement in Operation Seawatch continued until at least 1980 and generally involved up to three Trackers. The role was replaced by Australian Customs Nomad aircraft specially equipped for the task.
Below: Tracker 153605 in Bass Strait. This aircraft was one of the original S2E airframes and was destroyed in the hangar fire, so this photograph pre-dates December 1977. Trackers were not officially assigned to Operation ESTES (Bass Strait restricted area surveillance) until 1980, so this photograph was most likely taken for PR purposes, noting that the aircraft has its radome and MAD boom deployed and has the oil rig strategically placed in the photograph. (Navy image). You can read about the cessation of ESTES in a Navy News article here.
The Hangar Fire
Disaster struck on the night of Saturday 4 December 1976 when a fire swept though “H” hangar. The alarm was raised at about 2330 and despite heroic attempts by over 100 of the ship’s company most of the aircraft were lost. The press reports of the time suggest that 12 were destroyed, but in fact only nine were written off immediately. One was damaged and became a training aid, and a further two were damaged but subsequently returned to service. Only one escaped unscathed as it was away from HMAS Albatross at the time. Navy News reported it a few days later by means of a special two page spread (Navy News 10Dec76). [Click on images to expand]. A Police report of the subsequent Arson Investigation, which includes additional photographs, can be read here. A compendium of high quality images, courtesy of Owen Nicholls, can be viewed here: Fire Photos
The need for replacement aircraft resulted in a marvellous effort to find, acquire and deliver suitable airframes, but especially by squadron maintainers working flat out to bring them to an airworthy standard. You can access that story here: Out Of The Ashes . You can also read a detailed two page report on the Board of Inquiry outcomes and the Minister’s subsequent report to Parliament here: Fire Report .
Above. Very few aircraft were pulled from the hangar, and none were unscathed. This photo shows four of them, but is the only known image to capture the three survivors in one shot. 845 never flew again but was used as an airframe training aid and later displayed outside the FAA museum. 843 and 849 were airlifted by Chinook to HMAS Melbourne in Jervis Bay (Left) and thence by barge and road to Hawker De Havilland at Bankstown. They were repaired and returned to service. 850, furthest from the camera, was deemed beyond economic repair and was scrapped. (Photo: Owen Nicholls).
With its surveillance and ASW capability literally in ashes, the RAN found itself in a dire position: but salvation was just around the corner. Click on the button below to continue this story…