Before Grumman’s TF-1 Trader began flying Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) hops with the United States Navy in 1956, the company’s single engine TBM-3R Avengers were modified and tasked with carrying freight and personnel from shore bases out to aircraft carriers at sea. As an offshoot of the Grumman S2F-1 Tracker, the Trader was a far more capable COD platform than the Avenger. With high-mounted wings and twin engines, Grumman was able to modify the Tracker fuselage to increase internal volume without having to draw up a completely new aircraft. When the aircraft designation system was overhauled in 1962, the Trader was re-designated C-1A.
Other modifications made to Traders included a double aft fuselage door large enough to allow the Trader to haul bulkier items weighing up to 3,500 pounds total, up to nine removable rearward-facing passenger seats, additional fuselage windows, configurable rail-mounted internal bulkheads, and life raft stowage/cargo compartments built into the interiors of extended engine nacelles accessed via hatches located adjacent to the fuselage. Easily distinguished from Trackers by the shape of the fuselage alone, the two aircraft shared wing and empennage designs and were powered by the same Wright R-1820-82WA Cyclone 9-cylinder radial piston engines developing 1,525 horsepower each.
Unlike many Navy aircraft, Traders weren’t given a variety of derisive nicknames. They were usually called The Cod, Codfish, and occasionally Mailman of the Fleet. When loaded up with mail and freight the C-1A was capable of about 900 miles range at a cruising speed of 130 knots (150 miles per hour). Traders plied routes from Navy shore installations to aircraft carriers all over the world. The first squadron to employ the new COD was Fleet Tactical Support Squadron TWO FOUR (VR-24) World’s Biggest Little Airline supporting Sixth Fleet carriers in the Mediterranean. VR-24 was based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Port Lyautey in Morocco with detachments at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Naples in Italy and NAS Rota in Spain beginning in March of 1956.
VR-21 Pineapple Express began supporting Seventh Fleet carriers in the Pacific from NAS Barbers Point in Hawaii with detachments at NAS North Island and NAS Alameda in California and Naval Air Facility (NAF) Atsugi in Japan later in 1956. A VR-21 Trader delivered a Westinghouse J34 turbojet engine to the Essex-class carrier USS Yorktown (CVS-10) in 1958, signaling a new era in COD capability. Although Grumman only built 87 Traders, it seemed as if there were more of them around because they were so ubiquitous.
In the era of versatility that was the 1950s and 1960s, Traders were adapted for a number of additional roles. Four airframes were modified for electronic warfare (EW) training and designated TF-1Q (later EC-1A). These aircraft were festooned with lumps, bumps, and extra antennae all connected to the radar and radio jammers, electronic counter measures (ECM) receiving units and pulse analyzers, directions finders, and warning receivers stuffed inside. Chaff dispensers were carried on underwing pylons. Crewed by two pilots and three ECM operators, these were the Navy’s first dedicated EW training platforms. Two EC-1As were nominally based at NAS Alameda on the west coast and the other two usually flew out of NAS Quonset Point on the east coast.
The United States Marine Corps (USMC) Test Unit Number 1 (MCTU-1) borrowed a TF-1 in 1956 and proved that the aircraft could be used to insert personnel behind enemy lines by launching from the Essex-class carrier USS Bennington (CV-20) and parachuting from the Trader, landing ashore at NAF El Centro. Traders were also used as pilot and crew trainers for operations around aircraft carriers under night and adverse weather conditions. Fleet Aircraft Service Squadrons (FASRONs) at Air Stations from Norfolk to Naha and Barbers Point to Sangley Point also operated Traders, as did many of the antisubmarine squadrons then operating the Tracker.
Traders continued to do the COD thing throughout the 1960s and 1970s, flying thousands of sorties supporting the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club aircraft carriers and their air wings primarily from NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines and NAS Da Nang in South Vietnam. The CODs were assigned to Composite Squadron FIVE (VC-5) Checkertails, VR/VRC-30 Providers, VR/VRC-40 Rawhides, and VR/VRC-50 Foo Dogs. Every carrier operating in the WestPac had a couple of Traders assigned- some as detachments from their parent VR/VRC squadrons and some attached to the carrier air wings or the carriers themselves. But whatever the organization, the transportation of parts, packages, personnel, and mail earned the Traders admiration from all involved.
Even though Grumman introduced the Trader’s eventual replacement, the C-2A Greyhound, in 1966, Traders continued to do their important jobs through the end of the war in Vietnam, the rest of those simpler 1970s, and well into the 1980s. It’s safe to say every aircraft carrier in service between 1956 and 1986 hosted a Trader at some point. But as the 1980s saw profound changes in the carrier air wings and carrier operations brought about by the Nimitz-class carriers, Traders were on their way out. The bridles required to launch them were by then unique to their use, as was their requirement for high-octane aviation gasoline (avgas) as opposed to the JP-5 the younger jets were drinking and the copious amounts of oil their radial engines often leaked on carrier decks.
No Trader biography would quite be complete without mention of one unique variant. TF-1 BuNo 136792 was modified by Grumman for use as the aerodynamic test aircraft for the airborne early warning WF-2 Tracer and was, for a time, designated XTF-1W. Though never equipped with the Tracer’s radar and associated electronics, 136792 did wear the “roof” or radome shell and also had the Tracer’s revised twin-tailed empennage. The aircraft retained that empennage even after being assigned back to COD duty once testing was concluded, making it the only twin-tailed Trader. 136792 was restricted to shore-based duties only and was retired in 1983. This unique aircraft was last observed displayed at Quonset Air Museum on the grounds of the former NAS Quonset Point located in North Kingston, Rhode Island. The Tracer, or Willy Fudd, or Stoof with a Roof, or Flying Turtle…well that’s a different story you can read right here.
Many Traders were retired during 1982 and 1983, but not without a significant first. The first all-female Navy aircrew to fly an operational mission and trap aboard an aircraft carrier did so in a VRC-30 C-1A Trader aboard the Forrestal-class carrier USS Ranger (CVA-61) on March 21st 1983. The final Sixth Fleet Trader COD flight was made by VR-24 to the modified Kitty Hawk-class carrier USS John F Kennedy (CVA-67) in the Med during 1986. Before the last Essex-class carrier in service, the training carrier USS Lexington (CVT-16) was retired, the last piston-engine carrier aircraft in Navy service, C-1A Bureau Number (BuNo) 146048, flew its final sortie to the Lady Lex on September 27th 1988. 146048 is now one of several Traders that have made their way into civilian hands and continue to remind those who lived their times of their times.
Below is a short video of a privately owned C-1A Trader doing some showing off in 2016. The video uploaded to YouTube by Ed Whisenant.