Chronicles of Courage: Flying the Beam

Air Date: 12/07/2016
Source:
NBC Learn
Creator:
Kate Snow
Air/Publish Date:
12/07/2016
Event Date:
1945
Resource Type:
Science Explainer
Copyright:
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
Copyright Date:
2016
Clip Length:
00:05:03

After a bloody battle with Japan, U.S. forces gain control of the island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific Ocean, turning it into an important American airbase. From there, U.S. fighter pilot Jerry Yellin escorts bomber planes on long, dangerous raids to Japan in his North American P-51 Mustang with help from a primitive navigation system using Morse code. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.

Chronicles of Courage -- Flying the Beam

KATE SNOW, reporting:

United States warships bombard the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific Ocean.  U.S. Marines advance over the black beaches of this rocky Japanese stronghold, and combat erupts into one of the most violent and relentless struggles of World War II.  After 36 days of intense fighting, the Allies gain control of the island.  They win the battle of Iwo Jima and also gain a strategic air base closer to Japan for attacks against Japan's main islands.  But they need help.

JERRY YELLIN (Pilot, U.S. Army Air Force): The B-29s were flying missions over Japan, and they had terrible casualties from the Japanese, from the long 16 or 17 hour flight, with no fighter escort.

SNOW: U.S. Army Air Forces pilot Jerry Yellin is in the 78th Fighter Squadron, a unit now assigned to escort the Boeing B-29 bombers on their missions.  His unit flies the North American P-51 Mustang, a sleek fighter plane with a powerful Packard Merlin engine and graceful handling in the skies.

YELLIN: That was the airplane of the day, there's no question about it.  It's like flying a gazelle, because the P-51 was very light on the stick, and it was very responsive to what you were doing in maneuvers.

SNOW: The P-51 is capable of flying longer distances than other fighters.  It's also an ideal escort plane to protect the B-29s during raids.  But the missions to Japan and back are long and dangerous.  The P-51s must travel 1500 miles roundtrip over ocean waters, without navigation equipment, and with few landmarks to guide their way back to the 8-square mile island of Iwo Jima.  If they can't find it, pilots risk running out of fuel and disappearing into the vast Pacific Ocean.

YELLIN: Eight square miles of land is really just a pinprick in the ocean. 

SNOW: Navigation is critical, but P-51 pilots are a one-man crew, with little time to look at maps.

YELLIN: When you fly fighter planes, you can't be looking in the cockpit, you have to be looking outside the cockpit.

CORY GRAFF (Flying Heritage Collection): Navigating in a little fighter plane over miles and miles of empty ocean is sort of a lonely and scary experience.

SNOW: Without GPS or radar technology available to them, one of the ways fighter pilots went from place to place without getting lost was through radio navigation.

YELLIN: We couldn't navigate at all over water, but we did have a radio.  And when we learned how to fly, we flew 'the beam.'

SNOW: Pilots 'flying the beam' use low frequency radio range navigation to guide them over hundreds of miles of ocean by following a moving target - typically a B-29 bomber aircraft with a dedicated navigator whose job is to know the aircraft's location and route at all times.  During missions, ground attacks and 'dogfights' may cause fighter pilots to lag behind and lose sight of the B-29s.  To help the fighters find their way back, the B-29 navigators transmit two radio signals in the dots and dashes of Morse code, which are picked up by antennae on the straggling fighters.

GRAFF: If you strayed to the right, you would hear Morse code, say a 'u.’  And then, if you got to the other side of the beam you might hear a 'd.’  If you were straight on the beam, you would hear just a solid tone in your earphones.

YELLIN: And we could pick up that sound behind a B-29, about 30 or 40 miles.  So that's the way we navigated back over the ocean.

SNOW: This low-tech navigation system saves the lives of many fighter pilots, allowing them to cross the daunting Pacific and land safely at their base on Iwo Jima.

YELLIN: The memory of every day, and the pure purpose of every day that I fought for my country, is permanently embedded in my memory.

SNOW: Yellin and other fighter pilots who fly the beam demonstrate the innovative and resourceful use of technology that helps the United States gain air supremacy over Japan and victory in the Pacific.

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