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U.S. Navy honours WWII veteran for life saving innovation

Lt. Volkema changed take-off procedure on aircraft carriers

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan - The U.S. Navy dispatcher who began directing fighter planes to take off from aircraft carriers at an angle rather than straight of the bow, keeping them out of the ship's path if they crashed, recently was awarded the Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service for his amazingly simple innovation. All the aircraft carriers for decades have been built to incorporate Russell Volkema's life-saving technique.

Volkema's innovation soon came to the attention of the Navy's commanders who wanted to find out why the U.S.S. Essex in the South Pacific during WWII had such success getting fighter planes up quickly and safely. It even prompted a personal visit by Rear Admiral John McCain, the father of the current candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. The U.S. Navy however failed to immediately incorporate the technique in its official protocol although Volkema tried to make it so.

The U.S.S. Essex' innovation was ‘unofficially' copied already during WWII by other dispatchers but it took much longer for the U.S. Navy to incorporate structural changes in its aircraft carrier building program.When he joined the U.S. Navy in 1941, Volkema (now 79) already had his pilot's license and been training Navy pilots in Kansas before serving aboard the U.S.S. Essex. He found the customary straight take-off of a plane "inefficient and unnecessarily dangerous." Volkema's innovation also allowed the deck winds to more quickly wash away prop streams, troublesome for following planes. The technique also moved planes that crashed out of the way of the ship, allowing survivors to be rescued instead of being in the way of a ship.

The legacy of Volkema who made a career as a trial lawyer in Columbus, Ohio before retiring to Western Michigan, likely would have remained buried in archives had it not been for Richard W. Streb's book, "Life and Death Aboard the U.S.S. Essex." Through Streb's efforts to gain an official acknowledgement for Volkema's contributions, the U.S. Navy decided to make good.