Grumman S-2E/G Tracker

Grumman S-2E/G Tracker
Type
Carrier-borne anti-submarine patrol aircraft
Manufacturer
Grumman
Number Ordered
32
First Delivered
9 November 1966
Last Delivered
16 March 1977
Length
43 feet 6 inches
Height
16 feet 7 inches
Weights 18,750
Dimensions Wing span: 72 feet 7 inches
Speed 265 mph
Range
9 hours
Crew
4
Engines Two Wright Cyclone engines each developing 1520 hp
Performance Ceiling: 21,000 feet
Armament
Bombs: 2 x anti submarine torpedoes or 4 depth charges (bomb bay), 6 x underwing racks for rockets, torpedoes or 250 lb bombs, Sonobuoys (active and passive)
Ships embarked in HMAS Melbourne (II)

The Grumman S-2 Tracker was an anti-submarine warfare aircraft designed and built in the United States for service with the US Navy. Commencing operational service in 1954 the Tracker was a conventional propeller driven aircraft with twin radial engines, a high wing that could be folded for storage on aircraft carriers and a tri-wheel undercarriage.  Grumman produced 1185 Trackers with another 100 manufactured in Canada under license by De Havilland Canada.  The Tracker ceased operational squadron service in the US Navy in August 1976 although it continued to be used in a training role.

Trackers were equipped with an internal torpedo bay capable of carrying two lightweight torpedoes.  There were six underwing hard points for rocket pods and bombs or up to four additional torpedoes.  The aircraft also had a ventrally mounted retractable radome, for the AN/APS 39 radar, and a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) AN/ASQ mounted on an extendable rear mounted boom.  Sonobouys could also be carried as well.   

The RAN acquired its first Trackers (S2-E) in late 1967 with 14 aircraft collected by HMAS Melbourne  from the US, along with ten A4 Skyhawks and delivered to Australia in November 1967.  Also acquired were two ex-US Navy non flying S-2A Trackers for use as training aids and instructional airframes at HMAS Albatross and HMAS Nirimba.   The Trackers replaced the Fairey Gannet ASW aircraft and were allocated to 816 Squadron for embarkation as part of the carrier air group.  Trackers were also operated by 851 Squadron as training aircraft for twin engine pilot conversion training.

Following extensive aircrew training the Trackers were embarked in Melbourne in early 1969 and were on board the carrier during its deployment to Southeast Asia in May.  This deployment was marred by the collision between Melbourne and the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans on the night of 3 June in which 74 US sailors were killed.    By 1970 the Trackers were fully integrated into carrier operations and 816 Squadron was embarked regularly for deployments to Southeast Asia, Japan and the then annual Exercise RIMPAC in Hawaiian waters.   In Australian waters there was also a regular exercise program with the first of the Kangaroo series taking place in mid-1974. 

During their service only one Tracker was lost during flying operations.  This was Tracker 853 lost off Melbourne on 10 February 1975, while operating off the east coast of Australia, when an arrester wire snapped while landing.   The Tracker had insufficient power to launch and continued down the flight deck and crashed into the sea; the aircrew survived the crash.

Following Exercise RIMPAC 75 Melbourne undertook a refit and several 851 Squadron trackers were allocated to Operation TROCHUS; conducting aerial patrols over the north-west coastline of Western Australia searching for illegal foreign fishing vessels.  During this time the Trackers were based at Broome airport.    The Trackers also took part in another northern coastal patrol tasking, Operation SEAWATCH, which was the patrol of northern waters for approaching Vietnamese refugee boats.  Based in Darwin the Trackers flew regular patrols up until December 1980 when a contracted aerial patrol service took on this responsibility.  After Melbourne completed her refit in early 1976 the ship worked up and embarked the carrier air group in August 1976 for training and exercises and the year ended with the Trackers returning to Albatross.

The Trackers very good safety record came to nought on the evening of 4 December 1976 when a disaffected member of the RAN deliberately set fire to H hangar at the Naval Air Station – Nowra.  Despite extraordinary efforts by many air station personnel to extinguish the fire and extricate the Trackers, at great risk to life and limb, nine trackers were completely destroyed, or damaged beyond repair, and three moderately damaged.   Only one Tracker (842)  was not at Nowra on the night of the fire, undergoing a major overhaul in Sydney, and of the three aircraft damaged only two were eventually repaired.   Action was quickly taken to replace the Trackers and following Exercise RIMPAC 77 in Hawaiian waters, in February 1977, Melbourne sailed to San Diego to collect 16 ex US Navy S-2G Trackers and returned them to Australia in April.  The support provided by the US Navy during the RAN’s hour of need was exceptional.   

Melbourne, with Trackers embarked, deployed to the United Kingdom in mid-1977 for the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee activities and in 1978 took part in Exercise RIMPAC 78.     In 1980 Melbourne deployed to Exercise RIMPAC 80, the last time the carrier took part in this exercises before being decommissioned in 1982.  Trackers commenced Bass Strait Oil Rig Surveillance (BSORS) anti-terrorist patrols in 1980 as part of Operation ESTES which saw the regular patrols of the oil rigs by both RAN warships (mainly patrol boats) and the Trackers.  The trackers continued this task up until the end of 1983.

In November 1981 Melbourne returned to Sydney from a deployment to Southeast Asia and participation in Exercise KANGAROO 81. The carrier air group including the Trackers were disembarked to the Naval Air Station-Nowra.  There was much uncertainty about her future and a planned refit was cancelled and she was decommissioned in June 1982.  816 Squadron was decommissioned on 2 July 1982 and the Trackers transferred to 851 Squadron.  A plan to acquire HMS Invincible from the Royal Navy faltered and following the change of Government in March 1983 the decision was made not to obtain a new carrier and rely on the RAAF to provide fixed wing capability for the Australian Defence Force; with ASW support to be provided by the P3C Orion airacraft.   

In the meantime the Trackers continued ASW training from Nowra and the Bass Strait patrols awaiting a decision on the future RAN aircraft carrier.  By mid-1983 it was obvious the carrier debate was over and not in favour of the RAN.   851 Squadron ceased fixed wing flying in August 1984 and the RAN’s Grumman Trackers were disposed of with several sold to the United Aeronautical Corporation, USA or private collectors.

Grumman S-2E/G Tracker
Left:  A Grumman S-2G Tracker operating over the east coast of Australia.  Right:  A Grumman S-2G lands on HMAS Melbourne during the late 1970's. 
Grumman S-2E/G Tracker
Grumman S-2G Tracker 846 conducting an anti-submarine search during the early 1980's