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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 7, 2010

WVs flew Cold War from Isles

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By William Cole

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A Lockheed Constellation WV-1 "Willie Victor" at Barbers Point Naval Air Station in the 1950s. Over the Pacific, their radar domes were used to scan for Soviet aircraft.

U.S. Navy photo

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In the mid-1950s, the United States faced a new threat from the Soviet Union.

New bombers were capable of delivering nuclear weapons at intercontinental ranges, and U.S. military planners worried that a bomber gap existed between the Cold War adversaries.

The Navy responded with radar picket ships, early warning aircraft and the ability to summon fighter aircraft.

One of those radar aircraft was based on the legendary Lockheed Constellation, a graceful, curvaceous and distinctly different four-engine propeller aircraft that sported triple tail fins.

A Navy version of the "Connie," designated the WV, was based at Barbers Point Naval Air Station. Hawai'i Kai resident Ray McManamas remembers piloting "Willie Victors" from Hawai'i to Midway Atoll, and from there up to the Aleutian Islands and back to Midway on barrier patrols.

There were eight flights in about 18 days per flight crew out of Midway. "That was to keep our Red brothers honest," he said.

The WVs had radome bulges top and bottom that could reach out 200 to 300 miles to detect Soviet bombers heading our way, McManamas said.

"What you had to watch for was the weather," the former plane commander said. "The biggest thing that we had to watch for was the jet stream because with the jet stream, they had the capability of flying to the West Coast and dropping their load. They could do it with the jet stream."

McManamas was first based at Barbers Point in 1956.

"They (the WVs) were slowly coming in. We had a few," he recalls. By around 1960, there were about 36 of the Constellation variants at Barbers Point, he said.

McManamas, who tallied up close to 18,000 hours in the WV, said he loved the big airplane.

There would be a minimum of 22 crew members on board, he said.

"To me, it was a pilot's dream if you knew the aircraft," he said. "It could be disastrous if you didn't know the aircraft."

An engine could conk out or there could be icing problems.

According to Aviation History magazine, the Constellation was known as "the world's best trimotor" because it had so many engine failures it often flew on three instead of four.

Commander Airborne Early Warning Wing Pacific was established at Barbers Point in January 1956, according to a 1999 report in the Naval War College Review. Over the next 11 months, three squadrons became operational.

McManamas said he never saw any of the Soviet "Bear" bombers the Pacific barrier was watching for, but he got them on radar "a few times."

"It was basically in the wintertime when the jet stream was over there," he said. After 1962, the WV-2, based on the Super Constellation, became the EC-121K.