Since 1966, the United States Navy has employed the venerable Grumman C-2 Greyhound as its main source of supplying their fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with a vital connection to the outside world. Known as the CODs (for Carrier Onboard Delivery), these aircraft transport personnel, spare parts, mail, and other necessities to the carriers from land.
The C-2, based on the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye AWACS platform, can carry up to 26 passengers or 10,000 pounds of cargo to and from an aircraft carrier. The mission of the C-2 has been considered one of the most important in the operations of an aircraft carrier. With the first of 17 C-2s delivered in 1966, and the last in 1968, by the early 80’s, the fleet was beginning to show its age and limitations.
So, what does the C-2 have to do with airliners? In the early 1980’s, the US Navy put out a request for a new COD aircraft through the MMVX program. Various manufacturers tendered proposals, including Grumman, with an improved version of the C-2. Lockheed offered a new, turbofan design derived from the S-3 Viking, and a few unusual proposals.
Fokker Aircraft, of the Netherlands, proposed a derivative of their successful F28 regional airliner, called the F28 Mk.5000. McDonnell Douglas proposed a navalized version of the venerable DC-9-10 airliner, and lastly, it appears as if Boeing proposed a carrier modification of the 737-200. While it might seem odd operating an aircraft the size of an airliner off of the small flight deck of an aircraft carrier, the concept was proven as possible nearly 20 years before the start of the MMVX program.
In November 1963, the Navy conducted tests to see if the idea of a “Super COD” was possible. These dramatic tests saw a crew, led by Lt. James Flatley, land a KC-130 on the deck of the USS Forrestal 21 times with no tailhook, and take off with no catapult assistance. These tests, while a success, proved that the C-130 was too large of an aircraft to routinely operate off of a carrier, and the Navy in the end procured the C-2.
For this story, I want to take a closer look at the proposed airliners which were made to handle carrier operations.
With the Fokker MMVX proposal, a special STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) version of the F28 was penned. It featured redesigned landing gear that could extend to raise the nose of the aircraft, thus increasing the wing’s angle of attack to improve takeoff distance during a catapult launch, a tailhook, and a slightly redesigned wing that could fold for easier storage on the deck of the ship.
Instead of the standard Rolls Royce Spey turbofans that powered the standard F28, Fokker proposed to replace the engines with either Rolls Royce Tays from the F100, or a non-afterburning variant of the GE F404 turbofan that powered the F-18 Hornet.
Another feature that Fokker proposed was adding refueling pods to underwing hard points. This capability would allow the plane to refuel two fighters at once, doubling the previous carrier tanker’s capacity. Fokker went as far as demonstrating the performance of a stock F28 to the US Navy on a simulated carrier deck, but orders were not forth coming.
Next up was the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 COD proposal. As with the Fokker design, the DC-9 was proposed to feature redesigned landing gear, a slightly redesigned wing that could be folded, the addition of a tailhook, and improved avionics. Similar to the Fokker, the DC-9 COD could have also served as a tanker for the carrier fleet. The major focus of the redesign, however, was the nose landing gear.
The Douglas engineers moved the nose landing gear aft roughly six feet, and also extended its length by two feet. This gave the aircraft a noticeable nose-up attitude on the ground, and served to increase the angle of attack of the wing for improved takeoff performance. However, with a pronounced nose-up angle, one has to wonder how easy it would have been to load and unload the aircraft through the large forward side cargo door.
Another feature that was common to both proposals was the addition of an air refueling probe that was mounted on the left side of the fuselage, similar to the probe that was featured on the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.
Finally, there are two drawings of Boeing airliners that appear to be related to the MMVX competition, however, at this time, they have not been validated. They are noteworthy, though.
One of the drawings depicts a 727 in US Navy markings flying over a Forrestal-class aircraft carrier. The other conceptual drawing shows a 737-200 equipped with a tailhook landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. At the time, it is unkown if these two drawings are truly representative of Boeing proposals for the MMVX program, but they are certainly amazing to look at!
As for what the designation of these aircraft would be – in the early 1980’s, both the DC-9 and the 737 were in active service with the US military, as the C-9 and T-43, respectively. So it is possible that the DC-9 would have been designated as the C-9D, and then since the next opening in the numbering sequence at the time was C-16 and C-17, it is possible the Fokker or Boeing proposals could have been assigned either.
In the end, the Navy decided to go a different route, and awarded Grumman a contract to produce 39 new-build C-2A Greyhounds. These aircraft soldier on to this day, and once again, the Navy is looking at replacing them. The current plan is to either modernize the C-2 yet again, or replace the current fleet with V-22 Ospreys. However, we are already seeing the making of a new competition in the same spirit as the MMVX program.
Lockheed has already proposed a dramatic reworking of the retired S-3 Viking aircraft, many of which are parked in the desert of Tucson. Dubbed the C-3, the aircraft would use the S-3’s wings and empennage while adding an all-new fuselage with a cargo capacity comparable to the C-2.
To sum up, the question begs to be asked: will we once again see a proposal to bring airliners to the deck of an aircraft carrier? In the mean time, the C-2 will continue to be a welcome site on carrier decks for years to come.