In August 1945, as a global war neared its end, the U.S. Navy sought to arm its expanded carrier fleet with a platform capable of carrying a bomb load five times that of the front-line bombing aircraft then operational on board Essex-class carriers. The specifications called for in a design proposal submitted to the nation’s aircraft manufacturers was for an aircraft capable of carrying 10,000 lb. of ordnance, which was the approximate weight of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. On June 24, 1946, North American Aviation received a contract for the production of three prototypes of the airplane that in production would be designated the AJ Savage.
With carrier decks having long been the exclusive domain of single-engine aircraft, the AJ represented a change in that it was a twin-engine airplane powered by two 2,400 horsepower Pratt and Whitney R-2800-44W radial engines with a 4,600 lb. static thrust Allison J333-A-19 turbojet in the tail to provide an extra boost and insurance in the event of an engine failure. Such power was needed for the large airplane that was 63 feet in length with a gross weight of over 50,000 lb.
“The early version of the AJ…was a dream to fly. When everything was working properly—it handled like a fighter,” recalled a North American Aviation test pilot. “The problem was that everything was working properly only about five percent of the time.” Indeed, the company testing of the airplane proved problematic with the loss of two of the prototypes in deadly accidents. However, with Composite Squadron (VC) 5 having employed models of the P2V Neptune to set the stage for the introduction of atomic bombers on aircraft carriers, the squadron accepted its first AJ-1 Savage in 1949, completing carrier qualifications on board Coral Sea (CVB 43) the following year.
Initial operations at sea resulted in a number of accidents, prompting repeated groundings, which delayed extended at sea deployments for the Savage. On most occasions, the aircraft were forward-deployed at land bases and went aboard ship as required. This was welcome news for flight deck crews for the size of the airplane, the requirement to manually fold its wings, and propensity to leak hydraulic fluid profusely made them quite unpopular. Despite these difficulties, the AJ demonstrated its capabilities during exercises at sea in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, on one occasion staging a simulated 1,400 mile strike from the aircraft carrier Midway (CVB 41).
In addition to the heavy attack mission, the AJ was adapted to perform other missions. This included photoreconnaissance with the bomb bay and nose compartment modified to carry an array of camera equipment. In addition, the Savage could be equipped to serve as a tanker, providing in-flight refueling. One of the more famous occasions in which it performed this mission was on July 7, 1957, providing some of the refueling for future astronaut Major John Glenn, USMC, when he established a transcontinental speed record in an F8U-1P Crusader.
The Navy accepted a total of 140 production versions of the AJ, including 55 each of the AJ-1 and AJ-2 and 30 AJ-2P photoreconnaissance aircraft before the airplane’s retirement from service in 1960.
The museum’s aircraft, an AJ-2 (Bureau Number 130418), was accepted by the Navy in February 1953, and operated from the aircraft carriers Bennington (CVA-20) and Yorktown (CVA 10). Stricken from the Navy inventory in 1960, it operated as a civilian firefighting aircraft until 1975. It arrived from AVCO Lycoming Corporation in 1984 in flyable condition after having served as an engine test platform.
Manufacturer: North American Aviation, Inc.
Dimensions: Length: 63 ft.; Height 21 ft., 5 in.; Wingspan: 75 ft., 2 in.
Weights: Empty: 27,558 lb.; Gross: 55,000 lb.
Power Plant: Two 2,400 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800-44W engines and one 4,600 lb. static thrust Allison J-33-A-19 turbojet
Performance: Maximum Speed: 471 M.P.H.; Service Ceiling: 40,000 ft.; Range: 3,000 miles
Armament: Two 20mm cannon and capacity for 12,000 lb. ordnance