The Turtle and the Dreamboat

BOOK REVIEW: The Turtle and the Dreamboat: The Cold War Flights that Forever Changed the Course of Global Aviation

By Jim Leeke / Potomac Books

Reviewed by Tony Bruno

The ReviewerTony Bruno is a former Navy pilot, a retired airline pilot, and currently a Gulfstream G-650 instructor and contract pilot. He also instructs in polar navigation. Bruno writes a monthly blog about aviation museums and is the curator of the Dare County Airport Museum.

REVIEW -In the 1920s and 30s, aviation was often on the front page of the daily newspaper. The time was dubbed the Golden Age of Aviation and there were constantly records being set for altitude, distance and speed. Some of these records were set by military pilots, but the majority were set by civilian pilots. That era however, came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War II.

In the post-war years, most of the attention on record setting switched to military flying and Jim Leeke’s, The Turtle and the Dreamboat, is about two long distance flights, one by the Navy, and one by the Army Air Force (AAF), that took place in 1946. The flights did not begin as a competition, but events turned them into one.

The book contains many interesting anecdotes, most of which I had never heard before. One example is that at the end of the war in the Pacific, flights of B-29s flown by commanding generals (including Curtis LeMay), flew non-stop from various Pacific islands back to Washington DC. Kind of a victory lap. One group flew the long way round (westbound) and made it with just two stops. These flights were pre-cursors to the 1946 flights. 

Setting up the plot of the book- the AAF had a B-29 Superfortress outfitted for long range flying, with the goal of flying from Hawaii to Cairo, over the North Pole. The B-29 was a nice flying airplane, hence its name Pacusan Dreamboat. The Dreamboat was commanded by Colonel Clarence “Bill” Irvine.

The Navy planned a flight in a brand-new Lockheed P-2V Neptune, also fitted for long range flying, with the goal of flying from Perth, Australia to Seattle. It was commanded by Commander Tom Davies. Being much slower than the B-29, the P-2 was named the Turtle from the tortoise and the hare fable. Both flights planned to follow a great circle routing, the shortest distance between two points on the globe. The AAF was ready to go long before the Navy but mechanical and weather delays resulted in the two flights preparing for departure around the same time.

There are many back stories to these flights, and the author does a great job of weaving them throughout the book. The two main events in the background were the impending reorganization of all military flying. The result was the formation, in 1947, of the U.S. Air Force. In 1946 that was not yet finalized and there was still much debate and lobbying going on. The second event was the beginning of the Cold War. In March of 1946, Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech in Missouri and the threat of nuclear war was on everyone’s mind. Both the Navy and the Army were eager to show their capability to deliver a nuclear weapon over a long distance.

Early chapters of the book relate stories of pre-war long-distance flying. One was about two 1937 Soviet flights from Russia, over the Pole, to the west coast of the U.S. After the flights, the Soviet Union issued a warning, “Let this be kept in mind by foreign enemies threatening war. Let them remember the distance between here and their capitals is much less than the distance to Portland, Oreg., or San Jacinto, Calif.” In the U.S., this warning was ignored. Russia was still considered an ally and the flyers were called heroes, even treated to lunch by Shirley Temple.

The second half of the book covers the two competing flights. Another of the many interesting sub-plots of the book is what was the actual destination planned for each flight. The AAF and the Navy wanted favorable publicity for their efforts but there were also aspects of the flights that were classified secret. Leeke builds suspense about what would be the final destination of each flight. You will have to read the book to find out.

Following along with the flights, the author talks about the challenges of weather and navigation. The discussions are technical in nature, but not too technical and don’t bog the story down. They are technical enough to encourage further reading. It is a nice balance. The AAF was more pro-active in their weather planning, having a number of B-17 flights out in front of Dreamboat to provide current information. The Navy relied more on standard weather reporting facilities and they ran into some problems with the reports they got. The process of stripping down the two aircraft for the flights included removing deicing equipment, which became a factor for both flights.    

Navigation issues on the flights were different. The Navy Turtle flew over the vast and unoccupied middle of Australia, and then the South Pacific, while the Army Dreamboat had to deal with the vagaries of the magnetic North Pole, and some very cold weather. Leeke is quite descriptive of the geography of the two routes. The Turtle, for instance, flew over many sites of WW-II Naval battles and he points them out along the way. One of the few flaws of the book is that it does not provide a map. Before you read it, get yourself a good world map. Better yet, get a globe and two long pieces of string. If you are not familiar with great circle routing, this is the best way to visualize it. Place one end of a piece of string on Honolulu and the other end on London. Pulled tight, the route will just about go over the North Pole.  

The Turtle and the Dreamboat is an interesting book. It is fast paced and engrossing. Jim Leeke is very thorough with his footnotes and there is a complete bibliography and index as well as photos of the planes and their crews.

This book earns a solid three out of four trench coats.



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