How did WWII pilots find their way back to their aircraft carriers?

In all the confusion of battle, how did aircraft pilots find their way back to their carriers? It seems like this must have been hard, since in some battles the carriers changed course or had to maneuver due to enemy attack. Out in the ocean, it would seem quite difficult for a pilot returning, low on fuel and possibly with a damaged aircraft, to be able to find their carrier and land safely. How did the various powers involved tackle this conflict?

Dead reckoning, mostly. You go out and fly your mission with a good idea of your own carrier’s future course and speed and then try to fly a reciprocal course back to it. Of course, as you are asking, there might be some combat maneuvering going on while you’re gone. The thing to remember is that at 8,000 feet you can around 90 miles to the horizon on a clear day. With a three hour (or so) mission the carrier group can’t get all that far away from where you think it ought to be.

And yeah, coming back low on fuel, shot up, or anything else untoward makes it extremely difficult to get back on the boat safely. IIRC at Midway a fair number of SBD’s had to ditch near their carriers and have the crews picked up by the destroyers in the group.

Strangely enough, SF writer Robert A. Heinlein, who served in the Navy during the 1930s, happened to leave an account of this in his book Expanded Universe, as an incident in which he was a key player was used as the jumping-off point for his short story “Searchlight.”

Pilots were “talked in” by the radio operator, who used DF radio where the antenna could be turned towards or 90º away from the aircraft (or of course anything in between), maximizing or minimizing the signal respectively. This reduced the possibilities of what direction the aircraft was to two, 180º apart, and it was fairly easy to reason which was accurate. Knowing that a plane was 5º north of west from the carrier made it possible to tell the pilot to fly 5º south of east to get there.

I never realized the visibility factor- it makes a lot of sense. Even if the Carrier decided to haul ass at flank speed (30 knots?) in some arbitrary direction during a 3-hour mission there would probably be a good chance the pilot could still spot the carrier…

I also had thought of the radio, but wasn’t so sure how useful it would be- isn’t it possible that any enemy planes sniffing around for the carrier group could zero in on the radio signal? Seems like the carrier group hollering into a megaphone, “IM OVER HERE!”

Then there was the case of the carrier group commander who ordered all the lights on for the pilots coming home after a late battle. Was late in the Pacific war (Phillipines?), so no danger from enemy aircraft, per se, but still lots of danger from subs.

Anyone know who I’m talking about? Read this years ago…

At Leyte Gulf, Adm. Marc Mitscher took a big risk and launched his planes at extreme range against the fleeing Japanese carriers. It was late in the day and even if the carriers could close the range enough to pick up the pilots, it was going to be dark by the time they returned.

There was a risk of enemy submarines, but Mitscher took that risk too and ordered the lights turned on–all of them. The fleet was even launching star-shells and playing its floodlights across the sky.

It was a fine gesture toward the pilots and crew who were at the sharp end of the stick, and it wasn’t the first time it had happened, either. Two years previously, Adm. Spruance gave a similar order at Midway. That, arguably, was an even ballsier move because the USS Yorktown had been finished off by a Japanese submarine the previous day. As it happens, Marc Mitscher was commanding the USS Hornet under Spruance’s orders that day.

It wasn’t merely a symbolic gesture, either. In the aftermath of Leyte Gulf it was discovered that the Japanese carriers were used as a “bait force,” largely because they didn’t have enough trained pilots to fully man the carriers they had left. American willingness to risk its replaceable ships over its less replaceable aircrews appears to have paid off well.

Just remember also that carriers tend to travel in battlegroups or fleets, so it’s not just looking for one ship, it’s looking for at least a dozen in close proximity.

The Radio DF Steer is still used. In fact, I used to fly them in my Grumman all the time, because we were based on a military airstrip that had the equipment.

It’s actually really easy. The operator will just say, "Rate one turn…now. End turn…now. Half-rate turn…now. Slightly above glidepath, adjust your rate of descent. On Glidepath, 500 feet to touchdown.

Etc. You fly it just liike flying a VOR or other instrument approach, except your ‘needle’ is the voice of the controller. Our guys could put us within 30 feet of the button, every time.

Sofa King speaks facts about Mitscher’s “turn on the lights” order, but they’re strung together a little haphazardly. The incident occured towards the end of the First Battle of the Philippine Sea (better known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”), not Leyte Gulf. But he did give the order to launch late in the day—there was no other way to reach the Mobile Fleet, whose aitcraft were longer-legged than the Americans—and he did indeed order the lights turned on. Which, BTW, was doubly gutsy because he wasn’t in command of the Fifth Fleet—Raymond Spruance was.

Never heard of a similar thing happening at Midway, though. And I find it unlikely that Spruance, a highly conservative type, would have issued such an order (in fact, at the end of the first day of Midway Spruance ordered the operational American carriers to steam away from the Japanese).

Similarly, it is a fact that at Leyte Gulf the Japanese carriers were virtually planeless bait. But the commander at Leyte Gulf was “Bull” Halsey, not Spruance.

End of smartass quibble.

Something I heard once (don’t know if there’s any truth to it) was that there was more than one occasion when a Japanese plane accidentally came in for a landing on the wrong (ie, an American) carrier. Anybody else hear about this?

Jim Lovell, Apollo Astronaut (VII and XIII) wrote this famous bit in his book:

Getting Home
written by William Broyles Jr. & Al Reinert, from the book by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger

Television Reporter: And I asked him recently if he ever was scared.

Jim: Oh, well, I’ve had an engine flame out a few times in an aircraft…and was kind of curious as to whether it was goin’ to light up again–things of that nature–but, uh, they seem to work out.

Television Reporter: Is there a specific instance in an airplane emergency when you can recall fear?

Jim: Uh, well, I tell ya, I remember this one time–I’m in a Banshee at night in combat conditions, so there’s no running lights on the carrier. It was the Shangri-La, and we were in the Sea of Japan, and my, my radar had jammed, and my homing signal was gone…because somebody in Japan was actually using the same frequency. And so it was – it was leading me away from where I was supposed to be. And I’m lookin’ down at a big, black ocean, so, I flip on my map light, and then suddenly: zap. Everything shorts out right there in my cockpit. All my instruments are gone. My lights are gone. And I can’t even tell now what my altitude is. I know I’m running out of fuel, so I’m thinking about ditching in the ocean. And I, I look down there, and then, in, in the darkness, there’s this, uh, there’s this green trail. It’s like a long carpet that’s just laid out right beneath me. And it was the algae, right? It was that phosphorescent stuff that gets churned up in the wake of a big ship. And it was, it was, it was just leading me home. You know? If my cockpit lights hadn’t shorted out, there’s no way I’d have ever been able to see that. So, uh, you, uh, you never know…what…what events are going to transpire to get you home.

Sam Stone is correct in that DF Steer is still used but not for a GCA (Ground Controlled Approach) of which he describes, that is accomplished with radar and is also some times referred to as a no gyro approach or a total navigation failure approach. Actually, most approach controllers can do the same thing and they practice it. They can give the glide slope info if they have the appropriate radar. The military usually does at it’s fields. They are more likely to have damaged aircraft trying to land. (combat you know) Not just a military thing.

Back to the DF Steer. That is usually done with an Flight Service Station and a direction finder that is a bit more sophisticated than the old loops of WWII which were used at the time. But the DF Steer is used to find lost pilots and to giver them a 'steer’ to an airport.