Navy’s First Blind Flight

By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum

On May 1, 1934, Lt. Frank Akers climbed into the rear seat of an OJ-2 at Naval Air Station (NAS) Anacostia in Washington D.C. and taxied out onto the runway. For naval aviators of the era, flights in open-cockpit aircraft like the OJ-2 made them one with the elements, from views of the sky and clouds to the slipstream whipping by their heads. However, on this day, Akers sealed himself off from the outside, pulling a hood over the cockpit for a short flight to College Park, Md.

Lieutenant Frank Akers (wearing flight helmet) shows Rear Admiral Ernest J. King (wearing civilian hat), the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, the cockpit of the OJ-2 in which he performed the Navy’s first demonstration of a blind landing system intended for use on board aircraft carriers. He made the landing “under the hood” at College Park, Maryland.

In the darkened confines of the cockpit, Akers peered at instruments and other equipment that included an automatic direction finder, which would allow him to hone in on a radio beacon at College Park. Akers could trigger a switch that would convey this information to an instrument called a “cross-pointer.” As Aker later wrote, “The instrument was so connected that the intersection of the [instrument’s] two needles represented the aircraft and the small circle in the center of the instrument face represented the path. In following the instrument indications, the pilot endeavored to fly this intersection toward the circle.”

With standardized instrument flight training non-existent, Akers had prepared for the Navy’s first blind flight through time-honored trial and error, on one occasion settling a little too fast on a landing approach and passing through the top of a tree growing directly on the approach line to the runway.

With the equipment tested and safety procedures in place, Akers made the first successful demonstration on May 1. “I took off the blind, found the field at College Park by means of the visual direction finder, lined up on the localizer and glide path, and landed on the field.”

OJ-2, (AN-31783), 14 October 1932. NHHC Photograph Collection, Visual-Aid Cards, Aviation.

Only when the airplane came to a complete stop did he open the hood. Additional flights carrying senior officers, among them Rear Adm. Ernest J. King, the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, followed.

So did a new challenge, landing blindly on a moving airfield, which Akers successfully accomplished on the flight deck of the carrier Langley (CV 1) steaming in the Pacific off San Diego on July 30 , 1935.

These flights were the foundation of the ability of today’s naval aviators to fly their aircraft day and night in the most extreme weather conditions, carrying out their missions around the world.

Editor’s Note: Established in June 1962, to select, collect, preserve, and display historic artifacts relating to the history and heritage of U.S. naval aviation, the National Naval Aviation Museum on board NAS Pensacola, Florida, is one of the largest aviation museums in the world, displaying some 150 vintage aircraft including the first airplane to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, the only surviving aircraft flown during the Battle of Midway, and a VH-3A Sea King that flew as Marine One. Exhibits of personal artifacts and archival resources complement the display of these aircraft, educating active duty personnel, veterans, and the public about the contributions of naval aviation to Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard operations from 1911 to the present day.

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