The Curtiss SOC Seagull was a biplane scout-observation aircraft that operated from US battleships and cruisers throughout the Second World War, actually outliving two newer aircraft that had been designed to replace it.
Before the Seagull the US Navy had operated separate scout and observation aircraft, with the scouts operating from cruisers and the observation aircraft operating from battleships, with the main job of observing and correcting their gunfire. When work on the Seagull began it was going to be an observation type, so the prototype was given the designation XO3C-1.
The prototype was ordered on 19 June 1933 and made its maiden flight in April 1934. It was a single bay biplane that could operate with a single main central float and stabilizer floats on the lower wing tips, or with wheels. The XO3C-1 was originally built as an amphibian, with twin wheels built into the central float, but this idea was abandoned before the type entered production. Other than the biplane layout the Seagull was quite advanced, with a fully enclosed cockpit for the pilot and gunner and full-span slots and flaps on the top wing. The wings folded to reduce the storage space needed onboard ship. It was designed to be launched by catapult, then land next to the ship to be recovered by winch. The fuselage was built around a welded steel tube frame. The foldable wings and the tail used a light alloy structure. It was covered with a mix of light alloys and fabric.
The XO3C-1 was evaluated against the Douglas XO2D-1 and Vought XO5U-1. The Curtiss design won the contest, and was ordered into production as the SOC-1.
Deliveries of the SOC-1 began on 12 November 1935. It was used to equip Scouting Squadrons VS-5B, VS-6B, VS-9S, VS-10S, VS-11S and VS-12S, although the nature of the aircraft meant that it was rarely if ever used in squadron strength, and was instead allocated to individual battleships and cruisers in small numbers.
US Navy squadrons also changed designation on a fairly regular basis and some of the units appear to have soon become Cruiser Scouting Squadrons (VCS), with the Seagull seen with VCS-7, VCS-9.
Photographs also show it with Observation Squadron Two (VO-2B)
Production of the Seagull ended in the spring of 1938, and the plan was to replace it with the monoplane Curtiss SO3C Seamew. The first prototype of this aircraft made its maiden flight on 6 October 1939, but this first version suffered from serious stability and control problems. Deliveries of the modified version didn’t begin until July 1942. As a result the Seagull was still in service when the United States entered the war. However it was in the process of being replaced by the Vought OS2U Kingfisher in 1941, and this aircraft played a bigger role on the Navy’s battleships as the war went on.
It was soon clear that the Seamew wasn’t as effective as the Seagull (or the Kingfisher), and those Seagulls that had been withdrawn from front line service were quickly rushed back into action . The Seamew was withdrawn from front line service early in 1944, while the Seagull remained in service to the end of the Second World War.
The Seagull was eventually replaced as a cruiser-based scout aircraft by the Curtiss SC-1 Seahawk, a significantly more successful aircraft, which also replaced the Seamew in some cases. The SC-1 remained in service until 1949 when it was replaced by the rapidly improving helicopter. However the Seagull was never replaced as a battleship observation aircraft, the role having been largely replaced by radar.
The exact details of the Seagull’s front line service can be rather tricky to untangle, but they were present at many of the major events of the war. Most of these details come from photographic evidence, and the Seagull was probably present on many more ships for each incident, and at other battles. The Seagull was used to support several shore bombardments, including Operation Torch, the invasion of Sicily and the Salerno landings. During these operations it proved to be very vulnerable to enemy fighter aircraft, and one Seagull unit that was allocated to support the D-Day landings swapped its Seagulls for Spitfires for the duration of the battle.
In 1938 nine Seagulls equipped Observation Squadron Five (VO-5), and were used to provide spotter aircraft for USS Arkansas (BB-33), USS New York (BB-34) and USS Texas (BB-35)
The Seagull was used as a wheeled aircraft from aircraft carriers, with photographs showing it on USS Langley (AV-3) in 1937, USS Long Island (CVE-1) in December 1941 (carrying a single depth charge below the fuselage) and well into 1942. It was still in use on USS Cabot (CVL-28) in April 1945.
The Seagull was used in the North Atlantic, serving on the Tuscaloosa (CA-37) when she escorted a convoy to Iceland in September 1941 (technically before the US entry into the war!).
The Seagull was present with the fleet at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.
The Seagull equipped USS Houston (CA-30) during the disastrous campaign in the Dutch East Indies early in 1942. During one battle her Seagulls were ordered to fly to shore, and the Houston was away from Darwin retrieving one of these aircraft during the major Japanese air raid of 19 February 1942. However the Houston didn’t escape for long and was sunk a few days later during the battle of the Java Sea.
The Seagull was present on USS Chester (CA-27) and Northampton (CA-26) during the US Navy’s raid on the Marshall Islands in February 1942.
The Seagull was in use on US cruisers during the battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942), at the battle of Midway of June 1942, and on the fleet that supported the invasion of Gaudalcanal and Tulagi in August 1942. At Midway twenty-eight Seagulls equipped Cruiser Scouting Squadrons 4, 5 and 6 (VCS-4, VCS-5 and VCS-6). During the Guadalcanal campaign Seagulls were used to try and find the Japanese ships ferrying reinforcements to the island at night (the Tokyo Express), with at least one being shot down.
At least one Seagull was used on the ‘Q-ship’ USS Pelican (AVP-6) during her time in that role between May 1942 and April 1943. The Pelican was disguised to look like a Tuna boat, with a large ‘bait tank’ at the rear which actually held the Seagull. She operated along the California coast.
The Seagull was in use on USS Wichita when she formed part of the escort for convoy PQ-17 in June-July 1942. The convoy was ordered to scatter after the Tirpitz was believed to be about to attack, and 24 of the 35 merchant ships were sunk.
In July 1942 Seagulls from the Indianapolis (CA-35) and St Louis (CL-49) attempted to spot for the cruisers bombarding Kiska in the Aleutians, but they were driven off by Japanese fighters.
The Seagull was present at the battle of Savo Island (9 August 1942), where some of them were set on fire by Japanese gunfire, illuminating their ships and making them easier targets.
The Seagull was active during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, operating from USS Philadelphia (CL-41) and USS Savannah (CL-42). One of the Savannah’s aircraft was used as a bomber, using a depth charge to knock out an artillery battery.
The Seagull was in use in the south Pacific early in 1943.
In March 1943 the Seagull was in service on the USS Santee (CVE-29) when she was the heart of Task Group 23.1, a hunter-killer anti-submarine group operating in the North Atlantic.
On 27 March 1943 the Seagull was present at the battle of the Komandorski Islands, when one on the cruiser Salt Lake City was set on fire and had to be jettisoned.
The Seagull was used during the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, where several aircraft were shot down by Italian Regianne RE 2001s and Focke Wulf Fw 190s.
The Seagull was used to spot gunfire during the US raid on Wake Island on 5-6 October 1943, operating from USS Minneapolis (CA-36)
Seagulls of VCS-8 were used to spot the fall of shot from the cruisers supporting Operation Avalanche, the landings at Salerno, but suffered heavy losses when attacked by German Bf 109s.
Cruiser Squadron Seven (VCS-7) was equipped with the Seagull in June 1944 when it was based in Britain, although it temporarily converted to borrowed British Spitfires to spot naval gunfire during the D-Day landings. The Seagulls remained with the squadron, which used them again when it went back to sea.
Also in June a number of Seagulls saw action during the battle of the Philippine Sea, including use as an air-sea rescue aircraft. They were also used as spotters during the invasion of Guam, and two Seagull pilots from the Cleveland were awarded Air Medals for their efforts.
The SOC took part in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of the south of France in August 1944, operating from USS Brooklyn (CL-40).
The Seagull was in use on USS Saint Louis (CL-49) when she was hit by a kamikaze off Leyte on 27 November 1944.
At least four were operating from USS Portland (CA-33) in 1944.
The Seagull was in use on USS Montpelier during the invasion of Balikpapan in July 1945.
The Seagull was in use on USS San Francisco (CA-38) when she took part in the post-war liberation of south Korea in September 1945.
The Seagull didn’t leave service immediately after the end of the war. In 1947 it was photographed operating in Antarctic waters from USS Currituck (CV_7).
The SOC-1 was powered by an Pratt & Whitney R-1340-18 Wasp radial engine. A total of 135 were built.
The SOC-2 was a land based version built without the ability to swap to the floats. They were powered by the R-1340-22 Wasp engine and had a number of more minor improvements. 40 were built. In 1942 some were given arrester gear so they could operate from aircraft carriers, and became the SOC-2A.
The SOC-3 was similar to the SOC-2, but used the interchangeable landing gear of the SOC-1, so could operate with floats or wheels. 83 were built. In 1942 some were converted to serve on carriers as the SOC-3A.
Three SOC-4s were built for the US Coast Guard. In 1942 they were taken over by the Navy and modified to the SOC-3A standard.
During the 1930s the Navy wanted to build 10% of its aircraft at its own Naval Aircraft Factory. As a result a total of 64 Seagulls were built there, as the SON-1, or SON-1A when equipped with arrester gear.
The SO2C was a single example of an improved version of the aircraft, although it was identical in appearance to the standard SOC. The new model wasn’t worth putting into production, so only a single prototype was ever produced.
SOC-1 as floatplane
Engine: Pratt & Whitney R-1340-18 Wasp radial
Span: 36ft 0in
Length: 26ft 6in
Height: 14ft 9in
Empty weight: 3,788lb
Maximum take-off weight: 5,437lb
Max speed: 165mph at 5,000ft
Cruising speed: 133mph
Service ceiling: 14,900ft
Range: 675 miles
Armament: Two .3in machine guns - one fixed forward firing, one flexibly mounted
Bomb load: 650lb