Harnessing the Sky

Harnessing the Sky

Frederick “Trap” Trapnell, the U.S. Navy’s Aviation Pioneer, 1923-1952

Fredrick M. Trapnell and Dana Trapnell Tibbitts

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 288 pages

Book Review published on: July 7, 2017

The threat of war in 1940 found the U.S. Navy severely deficient in fighter aircraft. The Navy’s recently acquired Grumman F3F aircraft, the last American biplane fighter, and the Brewster F2A Buffalo, the Navy’s first monoplane fighter, were no potential match against the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero or the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109. To fight this war, the Navy would require a whole new stable of high-performance aircraft of all types, especially fighter planes. The Navy counted on a test pilot, Lt. Cdr. Frederick M. “Trap” Trapnell, to lead the Navy in developing aircraft to win the impending war. Frederick M. Trapnell Jr. and Dana Trapnell Tibbits tell the remarkable story of retired Vice Adm. Frederick “Trap” Trapnell, a legendary naval aviator and test pilot, tracing his career from open-cockpit biplanes and dirigibles to experimental jet aircraft and his contributions to shaping naval aviation in Harnessing the Sky.

Trapnell’s contributions to naval aviation include implementing a quantitative approach to flight testing. Early test piloting was limited to a pilot’s subjective description of the aircraft’s handling and characteristics. Harnessing the Sky describes how Trapnell formulated flight regimes based on his hours as a test pilot, engineering skills, and his intuition about aerodynamics. Trapnell required his test pilots to use measuring devices he developed and to record detail notes describing aircraft behavior under measured flight conditions. He invited engineers and other aircraft company representatives to participate in discussions with test pilots to address a variety of issues of new aircraft prototypes. His team’s evaluation of an intact Japanese Mitsubishi Zero discovered in the Aleutians resulted in the development of effective countermeasures to that aircraft, negating its superiority in aerial combat. Trapnell’s innovations ensured the timely fielding of the Grumman F4F Wildcat, Vought F4U Corsair, and Grumman F6F Hellcat. These aircraft enjoyed a superior kill-to-loss ratio over their Japanese opponents.

The end of World War II preceded a new era of naval aviation as jet aircraft appeared on the scene. Trapnell selected some of the most skilled pilots available to help build a jet-oriented Navy. Harnessing the Sky describse the test pilot contributions by aviation greats like Adm. John Hyland, Capt. William V. Davis Jr., Cdr. Tom Connolly, Marine Lt. Col. Marion Carl, and Cdr. Syd Sherby. Trapnell collaborated with these men in developing the Navy’s six-month Test Pilot School.

Trapnell’s contributions to naval aviation are reflected in his posthumous induction into the U.S. Naval Aviation Hall of Honor in Pensacola, Florida; his enshrinement in the Carrier Aviation Test Pilots Hall of Honor on board the USS Yorktown in Charleston, South Carolina; and the renaming of the runway complex at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, as Trapnell Field. Harnessing the Sky is more than just a story of a naval aviator—it is a reminder that one man truly can make a difference. It is for this reason that Trapnell is rightly celebrated as “the godfather of current naval aviation.”

Historians, aviation enthusiasts, and biographers alike will be impressed with the authors’ depiction of Trapnell and his contributions to naval aviation. Harnessing the Sky is a must read for those with an interest in the naval aviation.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas