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The Turtle and the Dreamboat

25 July 2022

The Turtle and the Dreamboat: the Cold War Flights that Forever Changed the Course of Global Aviation, Jim Leeke, 2022, ISBN 978-1-64012-413-4, 248 pp.

Jim Leeke’s The Turtle and the Dreamboat slips readers into the world just after World War II (WW II) ended, in 1946, with the race inspired by competition for not losing identity in a newly formed united military—the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The race was between the U.S. Navy (USN) and the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF). The aircraft could hardly have been more different—the Navy’s brand new Lockheed P2V Neptune and the AAF’s mature Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Navy versus Army. Lockheed versus Boeing. One flight primarily challenged by a long flight over the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the other crossing over the magnetically deranged North Pole. A lot was on the table and Leeke tells the story of brilliantly as well as evocatively. 

The race is about the Navy’s Truculent Turtle and the AAF’s Pacusan Dreamboat and what a race it was! Unheard of great circle routes across hemispheres with changing weather being only one of the challenges faced by these innovative flights crews. New navigation challenges, fuel burn awareness and deeply intimate knowledge of the each aircraft, sleep deprivation, long periods with no possibility of radio contact much less radio navigation. These flight crews were working at the absolute thinnest edge of the day’s technology performance envelope.

The aircraft chosen could hardly have been more different from one another. The Neptune was a brand new design powered by two radial engines. The B-29 was a venerable design with four radial engines having over come early trouble with disturbing engine fires (the B-29 was rushed into WW II with that trait).  

The P2V Neptune’s (later redesigned P-2 from PV2) creation was spurred by the birth of the Cold War and the AAF’s (soon to be Air Force) currently being the only service which could deliver nuclear weapons. The Navy had the role of defending on the high seas and rightly feared losing defense budget monies to the Air Force. Back in the day nuclear weapons were large and weighty so the Navy issued a proposal for a long range, twin engine, land based patrol/bomber aircraft to get into the nuclear delivery business. Voilá—the Neptune. It’s arrival on-scene could not have been more opportune since the AAF was setting distance and load-to-altitude records nearly as fast as the newspapers could be printed to report them. Like it or not, a public relations race was on and the Navy knew it was slow off the mark—so decisive and immediate action had to be taken. The Turtle was the first production Neptune off the line—the race with the AAF was now on!

The AAF had been flying the Dreamboat to record after record as fast as the attempts could be thought of and the B-29 was the aircraft to use. Boeing’s Superfortress had seen years of military service by war’s end so there were few, if any, nuances for flight crews yet to uncover. Yet the B-29 was such a revolutionary aircraft that the AAF felt there was still much more potential regarding range and capability which could be realized. Longer ranges with heavier loads that which were now imperative as the Cold War onset. The AAF was the only service anywhere in the world that could deliver a nuclear weapon making the AAF the “Big Stick” against those daring to attempt to intimidate the United Sates—as well as with Congressional appropriations at the expense of the Navy.  

Why was there a race for ultra-long distance, anyway? Technologically the opportunity for ultra-long fights was dawning so great circle routes were now considered as airways to connect hemispheres. The AAF was well accustomed to 3000 mile missions and the Navy equally so with 2000+ mile missions a matter of routine. Commercially, airlines were drooling for what could be learned from these flights. Was the Pacific Ocean able to be routinely crossed without island hopping (each stop depleting revenue while adding travel time)? Could routes between Europe and North America be shortened by thousands of miles using polar great circle routes? These were significant and nerve wracking questions of potential which airlines did not have the money to research themselves.

Flight planning and preparation of these military aircraft for their flights make being head coach of an NFL team seem like prepping for a game of Dodge Ball. Leeke has readers easily understand the complex planning accomplished by both crews. The author relates the facets which bring the reality of each challenge starkly out to the front. Special preparations which were developed are well described such as the smallest of details during final fueling plans so as to not over stress tires and struts and extra fuel tanks as well as extra cargo (for the public relations folks). Leeke amusingly explains how each aircraft went from a single word name to a two word name. No fact seems to have gone unmentioned and all are woven together into an unfolding and evolving story by Leeke.

Running throughout the marvelously written history are the stories of each flight crew member. Leeke brings the story of each flight to include the human dimension by relating the level of professionalism each crew member had attained before their flight attempt as well as who their families were and what they were doing, as well. These flights did not take place in a vacuum… each crew member had family, nearly all were combat veterans and all decided they could place their faith in each other as well as their aircraft for days of flying at a time. The risks were great—especially the ones which could not be easily calculated—an engine failure during the long periods of communication blackouts, mountains and heavy weather, icing (neither aircraft was equipped with deicing equipment) and Saint Elmo’s fire were a few.

In the end two fantastic flights were accomplished (one a new record) within days of one another and with no casualties. For a few their flight was the apex of an honorable service career and for others a magnificent milestone. Thankfully, one aircraft ended up in a museum—restored and placed on display after years of gate guard duty exposed to the elements. Myopically, the other, even after many long distance and record setting flights, was scrapped—leaving only photos and memories behind for us.

Readers can now fly between North America and Europe or the Southern Hemisphere due in major part to the historical flights and flight crews of The Turtle and the Dreamboat. Aside from aviation history book shelves this book also belongs to those who read about explorers and feel simpatico with that special urge to do what has not been done. It is also a quite pleasant read.

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