Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Rockets Red Glare

The Northrop F-89 Scorpion was an odd aircraft. It was designed to combat the Russian bombers that were the principal risk to the US in the 1950s. The jet vaguely resembled a P-80 shooting star, with two crew, and a massive nose to house the radar. The first variants had fore and aft remote control gun turrets that were layed by the radar. This was done automatically. When the F-89D entered service, the planes were upgraded by removal of the guns, and gun sights, and the fitting of two huge pods on the wing-tips. These held fifty-two 'Mighty Mouse' rockets. Each rocket was of 70mm calibre and had four folding fins at the rear. The rockets were unguided. However, the radar of the plane was linked to a simple computer that gave a predicted track of the target and would fire the pilot requested number of rockets to hit the predicted flight path, and this was all done automatically. The fire control computer could be set for the target being wings level, or in a bank. A month after their conversion to the F-89D the 437th fighter-interceptor Squadron, based at Oxnard near Los Angeles, would get to use this technological wonder against a live enemy during the Battle of Palmdale.

F-89D Scorpion, the rocket pods are the large wing tip pods.

At 1134 on the 16th of August 1954 a radio-controlled drone took off from the US Navy's air station at Point Mugu. The drone was an F6F-5K Hellcat. These were regular F6F-5's modified with remote control. Painted bright red they were to be used as a target for the development of guided missiles such as the AIM-7 Sparrow. After the drone was airborne the controllers watched with horror as it refused to respond to commands, and conducted a climbing turn towards the Southeast, right towards Los Angeles. An out of control plane crashing into LA would of course cause untold havoc. So the Navy called for help from the Air Force. Two F-89D's of the 437th were scrambled these were flown by Lieutenant Hans Einstein and Lieutenant Richard Hurliman. They soon caught up with the Hellcat at around about 30,000ft. However, it was too late, the F6F, weaving all over the sky had entered Los Angeles air space.

F6F-5K Hellcat drone.

The two pilots easily kept up with the erratic Hellcat, first it headed turned Southwest, then Northeast, then entered a circle. Eventually, after several more direction changes, the F6F left the densely populated city. The pilots locked their radar's on and activated their automatic firing system. Which utterly failed. After several passes, the missiles had failed to be fired by the onboard computer, so the F-89D's had to switch to manual firing mode. However, they lacked any form of sight. The gun sights had been removed when the planes were upgraded to F-89D standard. The pilots then started making attack runs using dead reckoning. This was less of an issue as you might think, as the Mighty Mouse was notoriously inaccurate, so the presence of gunsights would have only been of moderate help. But if you ripple fired off enough rockets one will connect with the errant Red Drone.

The two pilots made their first attack, each firing forty-two rockets. Several of the rockets slammed into the drone and promptly failed to detonate. The pilots made another pass, launching a salvo of thirty-two rockets apiece. This time none hit. A final pass fired off the remaining thirty rockets each, again without any hits.

 Salvo of Mighty Mouse rockets being launched during development at China Lake facility.

The Mighty Mouse had a fuse on it that would disarm should the rocket fall below a certain speed. The idea was that when the rocket ran out of fuel and then decelerated the warhead would safe itself. Like just about everything else about the rocket, this system largely failed to meet expectations. Of the 208 rockets fired, only between thirteen and fifteen were recovered as inert. The remainder, which I remind you were fired around an altitude of 30,000ft spread themselves about the countryside, far and wide. Several houses suffered very near misses, with lumps of shrapnel ripping through the houses. One rocket hit a road just in front of a truck that was being driven by two people and shredded the front of the vehicle. However, the luckiest escape belonged to two co-workers who were having lunch in their truck. Due to the hot weather, they both decided to alight and finish their lunch break under a nearby tree. Moments after exiting the vehicle it received a direct hit from a rocket and was obliterated. Remarkably, although there was serious damage, and several very close misses no one was hurt by the rockets.

But worse was to come. One rocket was seen skipping along the ground, each time it impacted, the rocket efflux would cause a fire to start. many of the other rockets that hit the ground started fires. In the end, around 1,000 acres, and several oil pumps were in a raging inferno, which took 500 firefighters about a day and a half to extinguish. The fire nearly caused more devastation. At one point it had burned to under 100m of the Bermite Powder explosives plant before the fire was stopped.

Crash site of the Hellcat drone.

But what of the Hellcat? After the final pass by the F-89D's the drone continued on its merry way, and eventually crossed back over Los Angeles, and ran out of fuel crashing near Palmdale. The only damage it caused was to some telegraph wires along a road.


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