Story Behind: The Controlled Crashes

Photograph/Unknown Image Source/US Department of Defence

Image Source/US Department of Defence

The invasion of the Gilberts Islands by Japan in 1941 was the first large scale amphibious assault during the Second World War. Aircraft carrier ships were vastly used to haul fighter planes and bombers across the Pacific Ocean. The above image shows the crash landing of a Hellcat F6f-3 fighter plane, into the carrier’s weapons gallery. Lieutenant Walter L Chewning is seen climbing up the plane to evict the pilot from the inferno. Technical glitches and wet landing tracks were major factors that contributed to the adverse landing conditions, making the deck an action-packed zone. Planes would often miss their designated landing area and crash on the deck or hit the water. Such landings were called controlled crashes.

During times of war, the US carriers always used to sail with a photographer on board. Their vantage point was an area called vultures row on the deck. The pilots would take a quick look at the photographer before touching down. If the photographer looked bored, then the pilot knew that his landing approach was fine. But if he had his camera up against his face, it was the sign of a crash to come. What makes this picture unique is that this is the only image from a series of similar plane crashes which shows a person climbing up the burning wreckage.

This story was originally published in April 2014.

Tags: Story Behind the Picture, history, Second World War, US carriers, crashes, analogue photography, black and white film, historical photograph, Us department of Defence