When the Grumman Tracer entered operational US Navy service with Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron ONE ONE (VAW-11) Early Elevens in 1958 at Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island, the aircraft was designated WF-2. The WF designation quickly branded the aircraft with the nickname Willy Fudd. The WF-2 was the third member of the Grumman family of radial engine-powered propeller-driven carrier-based workhorses along with the S2F (later S-2A) Tracker antisubmarine warfare aircraft and the TF-1 (later C-1A) Trader carrier onboard delivery variant.
Ever since the rise of kamikaze attacks during World War II the fleet needed a dedicated airborne early warning/air intercept control (AEW/AIC) aircraft. Project Cadillac was the effort to develop this capability for the fleet. The first type to be fitted with an airborne radar for this purpose was Grumman’s TBM-3W Avenger. After the war the Grumman AF-2W Guardian was the next fleet AEW aircraft. The tremendously flexible Douglas AD Skyraider was modified to carry the same Hazeltine Corporation AN/APS-20 radar system and designated AD-3W, AD-4W, or AD-5W depending on additional modifications. Because these variants were all equipped with the AN/APS-20 radar, they lacked effectiveness.
The first iteration of what would eventually become the Tracer was essentially a Grumman S2F Tracker with a large pylon-mounted radome mounted over the cockpit containing the AN/APS-20 radar. The placement of the radome allowed the aircraft’s wings to fold the same way as the wings of the Tracker and Trader– over the fuselage more or less parallel with the inner wings. But the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) realized that any new aircraft design equipped with the AN/APS-20 would just not be capable of doing what the Navy needed the aircraft to do and cancelled the proposal in 1951.
In 1955 Hazeltine came up with an improved AN/APS-20 designated the AN/APS-82. Though better in just about every way than their previous airborne radar, the AN/APS-82 required a massive scanning antenna. Grumman went back to the drawing board and came up with a modified C-1A Trader with an aerodynamically neutral faired radome mounted on top of the fuselage that provided lift to partially compensate for its added weight. To adapt folding wings for the new design Grumman went back to their World War II-vintage Sto-Wing folding wing design first used on the F4F Wildcat and later the TBF Avenger and F6F Hellcat.
Other than the huge antenna fairing, the WF-2 looked a lot like the Tracker and Trader and shared many of their systems, including the same pair of Wright R-1820-82A Cyclone 9-cylinder radial piston engines putting out 1,525 horsepower each, cockpit layout, landing gear, wings (except for the folding mechanism), and internal flexibility to allow the crew of two systems operators to work in the fuselage just aft of the cockpit. The WF-2 fuselage received an 18 inch “plug” ahead of the wing to increase internal volume for mission equipment and avionics. The empennage was modified to an H configuration with twin vertical stabilizers and rudders. This allowed the aft attachment point for the radome fairing to mount at the base of an abbreviated Trader vertical stabilizer.
An aerodynamic test airframe was modified from TF-1 Trader number 45 (BuNo 136792) and took to the skies on 17 December 1956. After flight testing concluded, the 32 foot by 20 foot oval radome fairing was removed but the airframe retained the Tracer empennage configuration-making this one unique Trader. The prototype WF-2 Tracer flew for the first time on 1 March 1958. In fleet use the aircraft picked up a couple of other nicknames: Flying Turtle and Stoof with a Roof. The radar scanner was 17 and one half feet wide and rotated inside the radome fairing 6 times per minute.
The Navy finally had a real live capable carrier-based AEW/AIC aircraft. With a circular search range of 250 to 300 miles (depending on scanner altitude) and capable or prosecuting up to four simultaneous intercepts via a pair of large display screens, the Tracer was a quantum leap ahead in the Fleet protection business. The WF-2 was capable of contact height determination, of shaking out surface or airborne targets from background clutter via the Airborne Moving Target Indicator (AMTI), and of tracking airborne tankers and vectoring thirsty jets to them and those same jets to their targets. WF-2s could also direct search and rescue (SAR) efforts and share the radar “picture” to the carrier via an early form of datalink, making modern fleet situational awareness much sharper. Tracers were equipped with all manner of radios and encrypted communications equipment allowing them to talk to the entire fleet and every aircraft over it.
Willy Fudds deployed aboard all carrier types, large or small, attack or antisubmarine warfare, during their service years. For several of those years carrier air wings (CVWs) included several different types of Skyraider-based AEW and electronic warfare variants along with WF-2s. After thorough testing and evaluation to ensure the capabilities of this new aircraft were what was expected and needed, the type entered fleet service in 1958 and deployed aboard a carrier for the first time when VAW-11 Early Elevens sent their Detachment D to sea aboard the Essex-class carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19) in August of 1959. After the Fleet-wide aircraft designation changes of September 1962, the WF-2 Tracer became the E-1B Tracer.
E-1B Tracers with VAW-12 Bats were in the thick of the Cuban Missile Crisis aboard the Essex-class carriers USS Essex (CVA-9) and USS Randolph (CVA-15) as well as the Forrestal-class carrier USS Independence (CVA-62) and the at-the-time newly commissioned USS Enterprise (CVAN-65). Carrier air wings (CVWs) deploying aboard attack carriers usually included a detachment of three E-1Bs. Antisubmarine Air Groups (CVSGs) deployed aboard the straight deck Essex-class antisubmarine carriers also brought E-1Bs aboard. Aboard the ASW carriers the E-1Bs were used to help S-2 Trackers with target prosecution, to triangulate radar contacts, and communicate with the other aircraft and rotorcraft involved in tracking targets.
The war in Vietnam was the pinnacle of the Tracer’s service in the Fleet. Willy Fudds deployed a total of 56 times aboard attack carriers steaming in the Tonkin Gulf. The number of lives saved by those E-1B crews is incalculable, but save lives they surely did. Whether they were directing SAR efforts, providing warnings of MiG activity or ground movement, or vectoring damaged outbound aircraft to tankers so they could get back to their carriers, the work of the Tracer was critically important. Even though Grumman’s replacement for the Tracer, the Grumman E-2A Hawkeye began replacing the E-1B Tracer in 1966 and saw service in Vietnam, the E-1B continued to serve for another 11 years.
Eventually the Stoof with a Roof equipped a total of ten active and Navy Reserve squadrons based at NAS North Island in California, NAS Norfolk in Virginia, NAS Agana in Guam, and NAS Quonset Point in Rhode Island. As their service continued and avionics technology improved, the 88 Tracers Grumman built for the Navy gained weight along with capability in the form of new avionics and communications equipment. It wasn’t until 1977 that the last operational Willie Fudds deployment was made by RVAW-110 Firebirds during a Mediterranean Sea deployment aboard the Midway-class carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-41). VAW-78 Fighting Escargots was the last squadron to operate the E-1B, retiring their Tracers on 19 November 1977 and bringing the Willie Fudds’s 19 years of service to a close. The WF-2/E-1B Tracer/Willy Fudd/Flying Turtle/Stoof with a Roof was the first aircraft built specifically for the carrier-based AEW/AIC role- still a very exclusive club.