Delivery Service on an Aircraft Carrier
Farewell to the Grumman C-2 Greyhound, which has been running supplies at sea for more than 50 years.
Dawn has barely broken and Rawhide 78, a Northrop Grumman C-2 Greyhound, is already dodging storm clouds on its way to the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, about 100 miles off Florida’s northeast coast. The Truman is gearing up for a nine-month cruise and is chock-full of airplanes, but they aren’t launching and landing. Today is a change-of-command ceremony. Rawhide’s load is light: one bulky access panel for an F/A-18, a couple dozen personal packages for the carrier’s crew, 28 empty seats, and one nervous writer. A few-minutes’ flight ahead is another C-2 full of command staff for the ceremony.
The C-2 is—with its close cousin, the E-2 Hawkeye—the heaviest airplane to board the carrier, but its pilots take pride in a crisp “break” over the ship. They make to overfly the carrier at an 800-foot altitude but, midway down the deck, throw their airplane into a hard left bank, lowering the flaps and landing gear as they descend and bleed off speed. When the Greyhound rolls level, it is on glideslope for the Truman’s angled landing area, and as aircrew in the back signal to brace, Rawhide 78 catches the three-wire and jerks to a halt. The pilots fold the wings immediately and taxi to its parking area.
The C-2’s ramp starts to lower before the airplane stops moving, and as soon as it does, the Truman’s deck crew swarm to offload it. The packages are thrown unceremoniously into wheeled yellow baskets. The F/A-18 panel disappears below decks. The Greyhound crew doesn’t pay attention as the Truman’s outgoing captain gives his final speech over the PA. They are checking weather, finalizing the load manifest, inspecting the auxiliary generator, taking instructions from the carrier’s air boss, and conferring with the flight deck personnel. As the speech ends, nine passengers materialize and tromp aboard—one has a broken arm and will be met by an ambulance upon return to shore. The Greyhound starts its engines, taxis to the No. 3 catapult, and—whump, thunk!—Rawhide 78 is airborne again, headed back to Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville. The airplane spent barely 40 minutes on deck, a textbook Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) resupply run.
An aircraft carrier battlegroup sets sail filled to the brim with spare parts, supplies, and crew, but the ships still require a constant churn of fresh parts and people. The only road in or out, so to speak, is the C-2, landing and lifting off with care packages of up to 10,000 pounds or 28 people at a time. Whenever a U.S. aircraft carrier leaves port, a detachment of two Greyhounds follows to keep it supplied.
Unlike other carrier-goers, C-2s are neither permanently assigned to a “boat” nor dedicated to a specific air wing. Instead, the Navy maintains two squadrons—VRC-30 at NAS North Island, in San Diego, and VRC-40 at NAS Norfolk, Virginia—that send detachments to cover the Pacific and Atlantic carrier fleets respectively. The detachments board the carriers at the start of a cruise, but stay aboard only until land is once more within range; then, they set up at the nearest large airport and commence shuttle runs.
As the ship sails onward, the 50-person detachments hopscotch from base to base. For VRC-40 that usually means a first stop on the Azores. A typical itinerary might next send them to fly from Rota, Spain, for a week, then Sigonella, Italy; Souda Bay, on Crete; and finally Bahrain, where they can stay for months as the carrier steams around the Persian Gulf. The goal is two “bounces” per day aboard the carrier, but one is common depending on how far away the ship is or whether a Greyhound needs maintenance. VRC-40 has two detachments out in mid-July, one servicing the Truman from Jacksonville and another in Bahrain keeping the Abraham Lincoln supplied. Unusually, a third detachment is gearing up to support an upcoming Eisenhower deployment.
Once ashore, the detachments are essentially on their own to figure out how to keep airplanes in the air, get cargo to the ship, and find food and lodging. Over the years, that independence has earned C-2 crews a reputation for self-reliance.
“When we go on deployment, we’re pretty much alone in terms of how we coordinate with different countries and airfields and customs—all that stuff,” says Paul Masteller, a VRC-40 pilot. “This is the Navy; something can change overnight and now we’re going to a different location. Now the carrier’s saying hey, we’re off the coast of Morocco and we need a hit tomorrow. Morocco, lead time is 14 days just to get a clearance to fly over their country, so now we have to figure out is there a way around this?”
But being out there alone is a double-edged sword. C-2 crews spend each night ashore, earning the envy of their ship-bound colleagues. They are warned not to discuss things like per diem lodgings or having fun at bars worldwide, lest they stir up resentment. “The air wing thinks that we wake up at 10 a.m., come in, have a cup of coffee, get a day trap, go back home, and start boozing on the beach,” says Eric Bromley, VRC-40’s squadron commander. “They see you for an hour and then you leave, and they think, ‘What the hell?’ We have it good, I’m not going to lie about that. But it’s not as easy as it might appear from the outside.”
The COD’s primary business is people: sailors headed to or returning from leave, specialist maintainers flying in for repairs, medical evacuees and their replacements, corporate technical representatives, visiting admirals and command staff—anyone the battlegroup needs or no longer needs goes by C-2, and the churn is constant. The carrier is first a tool to spread American influence, and the personnel of whatever nearby nation’s political or military establishments the U.S. wants to impress are regular passengers. The cargo they fly can be critical and time-sensitive: rotor blades for the HH-60 Seahawk helicopters that fly plane guard, pipes to restore a ship’s hot water, pistons for the carrier’s arresting gear—if it fits and the Navy needs it, C-2 crews have flown it.
“Literally three days ago we flew out a bunch of trash cans,” says Bromley. Other crewmembers tell stories of flights full of fresh eggs, flowers, copy paper, even a working car. “It was part of a contest,” says James Wallace, who flew Greyhounds from 1979 to 1982. “The contest winner drove it around on the deck for a little bit, then we put it back on the plane and flew it back to shore.”
The Greyhound in no way resembles the sleek and speedy racing dog it was named for. It looks more like that other famous Greyhound—the bus. It’s a small turboprop airliner, with a bulbous black nose in the front and four vertical stabilizers sprouting from the back like rear-end antlers. The C-2 squats awkwardly unless otherwise directed—its beefy main gear extends hydraulically by 18 inches for catapult shots—and it is so obscure an airplane that many of its crew hadn’t heard of it before they received their orders.
Nor is the C-2 an easy airplane to fly, particularly for new pilots fresh from smaller, newer training airplanes. Like its direct progenitor, the E-2 Hawkeye, it is unstable in pitch and yaw. The Greyhound is unstable in roll as well. “Out of all the planes I’ve flown so far in my career—which has only been the T-6, T-44, and the T-45—this has by far been the most challenging and physically strenuous plane to fly,” says Masteller.
At 8,000 feet above southern Virginia, Masteller and copilot Stovall Knight demonstrate the C-2’s idiosyncrasies. “These props are so big and powerful, every power addition requires a significant amount of rudder correction to counteract the force of the blades,” Masteller explains preflight. “It’s to the point where it can be very confusing for a pilot to fly this plane, because you’ll be in a left-hand turn and require a significant amount of right rudder to be coordinated.”
In the air, he pulls the power off, and the C-2’s nose promptly drifts left and begins to fall; when he adds power, the nose drifts to the right. The autopilot holds only altitude and heading and, in any case fails regularly, compelling pilots to fly manually for the whole flight. “If you’re doing a three-and-a-half hour flight, it’s three-and-a-half hours of constant back-and-forth,” Masteller adds.
None of this is ideal for carrier-going airplanes, and by carrier standards, the C-2 is enormous: on centerline, its 81-foot wingspan leaves only about 10 feet of margin on either side when landing aboard the ship. “It never gets old, it never gets easy, and it’s never like the last one you just did,” squadron commander Bromley says of landing. “And you don’t really ever think about what you have in the back [because] you’re focused so hard. Self-preservation is kicking in. You do your best to fly a safe, predictable pass at the ship.”
Masteller demonstrates this too as he turns final at Naval Outlying Landing Field Fentress, where Norfolk-based pilots fly pretend carrier approaches. After a crisp, face-draining break over the field, his hands and feet are in constant movement over the throttle, stick, and rudder. He keeps the Greyhound on glideslope despite a stiff crosswind and Knight’s gentle ribbing. The landing signal officer below waves us off at the last second, which is typical for C-2s—why add one more stressful landing to the old airframe?
And the Greyhound’s age is showing. Air traffic control tells us that our transponder is not operating; they can see only our primary radar reflection and ask that we notify them upon reaching certain positions and altitudes. After two mock-carrier approaches, we are abruptly headed home after our flaps get stuck—first partially down, then entirely up; it’s a relatively benign issue, but we conduct a high-speed, flaps-up landing back at Norfolk.
“Overall, this is a very reliable airplane,” Bromley says. “They are 30 years old, however, and based on legacy technology. Things break quite frequently, but our mechanics are good. That’s what they’re here to do, and they fix the airplanes.”
Carriers have probably always had informal squadron “hacks,” fighting airplanes with guns and combat equipment replaced by seats or cargo space. But the first formal CODs didn’t come about until after World War II, when a handful of surplus TBM Avenger torpedo-bombers were converted to carry a maximum of six people (and a limited amount of cargo in the bomb bay). They were replaced in the late 1950s by larger, twin-engine Grumman C-1 Traders, offshoots of a new carrier-based anti-submarine airplane.
Early cold war strategists saw the future in ballistic missiles and behemoth, eternally airborne Air Force bombers, but the Navy convinced planners that carriers had a role in delivering tactical nuclear weapons and that to do so required enormous “supercarriers.” The problem was that the C-1’s cargo bay was too small to carry either nukes or jet engines, which early jets burned through regularly. By 1960, a new airborne early warning airplane, the E-2, was in the works to replace the C-1’s progenitor, and the Navy had the idea to repeat its earlier experiment: Rebuild the airframe as a transport. This time the transformation was substantial. Two of the slim E-2s were rebuilt into prototype C-2s—one of which crashed into Long Island Sound during testing, killing all four aboard. The Navy pressed the remaining prototype into service and ordered 17 more from Grumman. Deliveries began in 1966.
The C-2 community became a backwater of naval aviation. Navy crews rarely switch airplanes, and the Greyhound, with its small fleet and unglamorous role, was all but a career dead end. That changed gradually in the 1980s as the C-2 aircrew track was combined with that of its E-2 brethren, which allowed a career path beyond the COD. But it took time for their dead-end reputation to fade, and it’s still a sore point in the community. “It’s about changing the spin, changing our tune a little bit, so we’re not viewed as the guys flying rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong, like in Top Gun,” says Bromley. (“But if they want me to do that, then I’ll do that,” he adds.)
Carrier life is hard on airplanes, and in the early 1980s, the Navy began looking for Greyhound replacements. None of the ideas (including a carrier-going 737) made it off the drawing boards. In the end, the Navy decided to put the C-2 back into production as the C-2A(Reprocured). More Greyhounds were built this time—39—boasting more powerful versions of the Allison T56 engine, updated avionics, a new auxiliary power unit, and tweaks to the cargo bay. Production began in 1985; in 1990, the last-ever C-2 rolled off the Grumman production line.
Today the C-2A(R)s need to rest. VRC-40’s oldest bird (serial number 162144) still flies after more than 1,000 punishing carrier landing/catapult cycles and nearly 11,000 hours in the air. The type’s retirement is scheduled for 2024, accelerated from 2027 because the mission readiness rate, even with money channeled to improve it, reached only 40 percent in 2018. Today, airplanes with major problems are retired rather than repaired. One such “strike bird” resides in an NAS Norfolk hangar. “It needed like $2 million worth in parts,” says VRC-40’s Bromley. “We can resurrect that airplane if we have to, but the juice is not worth the squeeze, and that airplane has been giving life to other airplanes through cannibalization and moving parts around.”
Soon the Bell-Boeing CMV-22 Osprey, a bespoke COD version of the V-22, will take over. The new CMV-22 will look a lot like the V-22s already flown by the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force but will come with added internal fuel tanks, a high-frequency radio, and a public address system, among other tweaks.
The Osprey will take some getting used to. On the plus side, the CMV-22 will fly farther with more weight—1,150 nautical miles with a 6,000-pound payload on a tropical day, versus 850 nm for the C-2. It will use a palletized cargo system that sailors can load beforehand, meaning it will spend even less time on deck than the bulk-loaded Greyhound. Vertical takeoff and landing makes for slow approaches to the carrier and ends the need for hair-raising, airframe-stressing arrested landings and catapulted takeoffs. The first CMV‑22 pilots are training to land at night, a task all but mythical for the C-2.
But the Osprey also has a few strikes against it. It has less interior space, and so cannot carry as many people or as much cargo; nor will it fit an assembled F-35 engine inside its protective canister, one of the COD’s primary requirements. If the tiltrotor’s engines are left running while the engine nacelles are in the vertical position, heat from the engine exhaust scorches the flight deck. It’s not pressurized and, so, can’t fly passengers above bad weather. Tiltrotors are more complex overall, thus requiring more maintenance; CMV-22 detachments will have to deploy with three aircraft instead of two, and 88 people instead of 50.
Like it or not, here it comes: The first CMV-22 squadron, VRM-30, was stood up in November 2018 at NAS North Island. The new squadron’s pilots and maintainers are training with the Marine Corps V-22 training squadron at MCAS New River, North Carolina, and will receive their first brand-new CMV-22 by the end of this month.
VRM-30 commander Trevor Hermann, a veteran C-2 pilot and instructor, likes his new ship. “I’d never hovered before in my life prior to hovering the V-22, so it was a whole new experience to me,” says Hermann. “It’s kind of unnerving as you’re rotating the nacelles back and bleeding off airspeed…you almost feel like you’re going to stall, but obviously it’s been designed to do that. It’s one of those things that’s pretty cool.”
The CMV-22’s first operational cruise is set to take place in 2021—a very short breaking-in period for a new airplane type, but the first cruise is always a learning experience and Hermann is not worried. “There’s going to be growing pains, just like anything else,” he says. “We’re taking this out with some assumptions. We’ll test the assumptions, and we’ll adjust from there.”
“It’s a hideous airplane. It’s horrible to fly, [but] we’re traveling all over Europe, we’re flying to the boat, and we’re doing all kinds of interesting stuff,” opines James Wallace about his time flying the Greyhound nearly 40 years ago. After his Navy service, Wallace went on to set up several aviation companies. “One of the best things I got out of the C-2 was how to navigate, file flight plans, deal with Customs, all that stuff that none of the [other] guys in the service ever got,” he adds.
An old military axiom holds that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. The Greyhound, an essential cog in the carrier fleet’s complex logistics, has done its part quietly, without fuss or fanfare, as professionals do. The C-2 may never appear in Top Gun, but Maverick dare not set sail without it. Whether the CMV-22 can suitably replace the Greyhound remains to be seen, but the people who keep the C-2 flying never forget their time or what it taught them.