One of the technological advances that proved absolutely indispensable during World War II was radar, which provided warning of impending enemy attack. Such was the success of radars installed at land bases and on board ship that it was a natural next step to install such equipment on board aircraft. In early 1943, scientists at the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began developing what became the APS-20 airborne early warning (AEW) radar, with testing of the equipment involving installation on board a TBM Avenger torpedo plane. Designated the XTBM-3W, it featured a bulbous dish antenna between the landing gear with the bomb bay modified to carry a radar operator surrounded by a maze of antennas and transmitters. The codename for the effort was Project Cadillac and testing during 1944–1945 resulted in detection of single aircraft targets and aircraft formations occurring at ranges between two and four times greater than shipboard radar. AEW was here to stay.
Following World War II, TBM-3W Avengers and later modified attack aircraft, including the AD-3W Skyraider, filled the airborne early warning role. In 1955, engineers at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation sought to create a designated AEW platform based on the company’s proven S2F Tracker antisubmarine warfare aircraft. A key element of the design work involved the aerodynamics of the airplane with a large radome attached to the top of fuselage and internal space to house the required radar equipment. To address the latter, Grumman engineers chose to use a TF-1 Trader, the Carrier On-Board Delivery (COD) modification of the S2F, because of its large cabin. To accommodate the radome, which was tear-dropped shaped, designers replaced the single tail with twin fins and rudders. Following wind-tunnel tests, the aerodynamic prototype made its first flight on December 17, 1956. Just over fourteen months later the first WF-2 Tracer made its maiden flight.
When it began entering squadron service in 1960, the Tracer dramatically expanded the Navy’s AEW capabilities. Its robust and capable APS-82 radar provided a more stable platform that benefited height-finding capability and an airborne moving target indicator (AMTI) canceled radar returns from the ocean when the airplane was on overwater flights. The first deployment for the Tracer came with Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 11 on board Constellation (CVA 64) in 1960, the beginning of a decade during which operations intensified because of the Vietnam War. All told, Tracer-equipped VAW squadrons logged 56 deployments in support of operations over Southeast Asia.
Thought redesignated to E-1B in 1962, the airplane’s original WF -2 designation inspired the enduring nickname “Willy Fudd,” another popular nickname being “Stoof With A Roof.” Both lasted as long as the airplane’s operational service, which ended in 1977.
The Navy accepted the E-1B Tracer (Bureau Number 148146) now displayed at the museum on December 30, 1960. It spent its service life rotating between Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadrons (VAW) 11, 12, and 121, deploying on Atlantic and Pacific cruises in the carriers Constellation (CVA 64), Wasp (CVS 18), Saratoga (CVA 60), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA 42) before being retired to the museum in 1975.
Manufacturer: Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation
Dimensions: Length: 45 ft., 4 in.; Height: 16 ft., 7 ½ in.; Wingspan: 72 ft., 7 in.
Weights: Empty: 20,638 lb.; Gross: 26,600 lb.
Power Plant: Two 1,525 horsepower Wright R-1820-82WA engines
Performance: Maximum Speed: 227 M.P.H. at 4,000 ft.; Service ceiling: 15,800 ft.; Range: 1,000 miles
Crew: Two pilots and two radar operators