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Museum Honors Navy Test Pilot who 'Harnessed the Sky'

Nimitz. Halsey. Spruance.

Mention those names in a town like San Diego and you're likely to get a lesson in naval history. They're legends.

Mention Frederick Trapnell and you're likely to get blank stares -- even though he ranks among the most influential test pilots and engineers the Navy has ever had. His achievements are the stuff of legend.

It's a little-known story that's finally getting some attention in San Diego, where Trapnell died 40 years ago.

One of his sons and a granddaughter have written a critically acclaimed biography that details how Trapnell helped the Navy evolve from flimsy bi-planes and delicate dirigibles to brawny jets with laser-guided weapons. Along the way, he became known as the father of naval aircraft testing.

Trapnell's accomplishments also are being feted by the San Diego Air & Space Museum. On Thursday night, he'll be posthumously inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame, along with nine other people and organizations.

The museum is expected to talk about Trapnell's near-mythical ability to evaluate military aircraft. He heard, saw and felt things that escaped others' attention, from the soft cough of a carburetor to subtle quirks in a wing's flaps.

His sense and sensibility led to an overhaul of the Corsair fighter and sped up the development of the Hellcat, another fighter. The two planes helped the U.S. win World War II.

"I've been urging the San Diego museum to put him in the hall of fame for years," said Bill Allen, founder of the Allen Airways Flying Museum at Gillespie Field in El Cajon. "The Corsair was pretty much a disaster until 'Trap' said, 'You need to fix this and do that.'

"Could you imagine how the war in the Pacific would have turned out if the Corsair had not been improved?"

Trapnell's story isn't widely known for several reasons.

The Air & Space Museum is often slow to honor genuine heroes. For example, it didn't add the late Sally Ride of La Jolla to its hall of fame until 2009, more than a quarter-century after she became the first American woman in space.

Trapnell's personality also was a factor.

"He was a very private man who didn't like to draw attention to himself," said Dana Trapnell Tibbets, his granddaughter.

She co-wrote the new biography, "Harnessing the Sky," with Frederick Trapnell Jr., one of Trapnell's sons.

The book has been praised by prominent historian Barrett Tillman, who told The San Diego Union-Tribune: "When we think of test pilots, we tend to think of people like Chuck Yeager, who was good, but not very modest. Trapnell was also extremely capable, but he wasn't a chest-thumper."

Trapnell's humility and humor are apparent in a brief autobiography he wrote when he was named an honorary fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots: "I was born naked in 1902 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and attended Pingry School in that town and the Naval Academy -- from which I graduated without distinction in 1923. This led to serving 29 years in the United States Navy, 26 of which were in the semi-respectable status of naval aviator.

"Practically all of my shore duty was in flight test, where I became familiar with the lingo and some of the primitive procedures of the 30s and 40s. I commanded a couple of Patrol Squadrons and the carriers USS Breton and USS Coral Sea -- without going aground -- noticeably. So in 1951, I became a rear admiral. In 1952, the medicos caught up with me and grounded and retired me."

That's not the half of his story.

Trapnell became a naval aviator in 1926 -- 15 years after the Navy bought its first plane. He was soon flying missions from the Lexington, a San Diego-based carrier that helped prove that flattops could extend the Navy's reach in surveillance, bombing and defense.

The primacy of battleships soon came into question. Today, they no longer exist.

In the cockpit, Trapnell was a natural thriller. He pushed planes to their limits with a personal flair that got him appointed to the Three Flying Fish, a Navy aerobatics team that briefly operated in the 1930s. It was a way of showing off a rapidly involving technology.

He was later assigned to help the Navy find ways for pilots to fly planes into the internal hangars of traveling dirigibles. That required pilots to creep up on the dirigible and use a hook to attach itself to the airship. The idea was that planes could drop from the dirigible, as needed, to perform surveillance and possibly do bombing.

It was dicey business.

Pilots struggled to snag the hook without destroying their aircraft. Trapnell redesigned the capture system, but the plan was later abandoned when it became clear that dirigibles wouldn't be good surveillance platforms in a war zone.

The matter was also laid to rest by San Diego's Consolidated Aircraft, which began producing the highly reliable PBY patrol plane.

Trapnell's problem-solving abilities became widely known, leading the Navy to appoint him in 1940 as senior flight test officer in Anacostia, a neighborhood of Washington, D.C., as the U.S. was preparing to enter World War II.

By then, the nation had fallen far behind Japan and Germany in aircraft technology, prompting a catch-up program partly built around the F4U Corsair, a plane designed to operate off of carriers.

Officials soon learned that the speedy Corsairs weren't suited for carriers. They tended to bounce onto the deck. They sometimes stalled in the air. Their landing gear was a mess.

Finding a solution was essential. "The Corsair was a half-generation ahead of the Japanese Zero. We needed that plane," Tillman said.

Trapnell sussed out many of the Corsair's problems, using a style of testing that became the standard for Navy pilots.

Trapnell's expertise was so far beyond reproach that Roy Grumman approached him in 1942 to evaluate the new Grumman F6F Hellcat, which had been designed to fight the Japanese Zero.

After some test flights, Trapnell gave the plane a thumb's up. That enabled Grumman to expedite construction of the Hellcat, which went on to have an outsized impact. The plane was responsible for more than half of the air victories claimed by the Navy and Marine Corps in World War II.

Trapnell held numerous other positions after the war. He also become the first Navy pilot to fly a jet.

In 1952, Trapnell suffered a major heart attack that ended his naval career.

He eventually moved to Coronado, where he lived on a quiet side street, a short distance from where planes were craned on and off Navy ships for the first time.

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