The Area Rule: Richard Whitcomb Concept

This is the story of a brilliant young engineer who would radically change the way aircraft were designed in the future. A story about a radical new idea in aircraft development: the Area Rule Concept. Most importantly, this is the story of a man and a concept that combined, would revolutionize aircraft designs forever. Richard T. Whitcomb was born in the small town of Evanston, Illinois on February 21st, 1921. Since early in his childhood, Whitcomb was highly influenced by his paternal grandfather who had known the great American inventor Thomas A. Edison. He would sit with his grandfather for hours and hear him tell story after story about the great inventor’s life. Such was the influence of Mr. Edison in young Whitcomb’s life that he decided to study mechanical engineering right after high school. He enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He proceeded to graduate with honors with a degree in the complex field of mechanical engineering. In the summer of 1943 Whitcomb was hired to perform data gathering tests at the famous National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Langley Aeronautical Laboratory at Hampton, Virginia. Young Whitcomb did not know it at the time, but his work at the prestigious Laboratory would eventually lead him to become one of America’s premier aerodynamic engineers. His innovative theories would launch a new era in America’s aircraft design.

The late 1940s saw Langley’s wind tunnels used extensively on high speed research. Test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 with a Bell X-1 aircraft first tested in Langley’s wind tunnel facility. His accomplishment ushered in the era of supersonic flight, and it also pushed speed as a dominating factor in a combat aircraft’s design. It was at this time that Whitcomb was assigned to the Laboratory’s secret eight foot transonic wind tunnel. Within a few years of laboring there, young Whitcomb developed a reputation as an innovative thinker, a man that thought “outside the box” when it came to an aircraft’s aerodynamic characteristics. In the early part of 1950, Whitcomb immersed himself in high speed aerodynamic drag research. He soon realized that the physics of an airflow changed violently as it expanded from subsonic to supersonic speeds. By late 1950, after extensive research, Whitcomb developed a theory that directly concerned the wing shape as it related to the aircraft’s overall drag profile. The wing area, he proclaimed, should be reduced in an effort to smooth the expanding airflow and mitigate the formation of shock waves that produced a high drag profile. To better explain his concept, Whitcomb studied extensively the design of artillery shells and machine guns bullets. Their smooth distribution of what is known as the Cross Sectional Area, in order to reduce the drag profile at supersonic speeds, appealed to him. Whitcomb came away from this unorthodox study with a clear vision: in order to reduce the drag profile of an aircraft, the plane needed to maintain a smooth distribution of cross sectional area in the region of the wing structure, thus reducing the drag profile of the aircraft. To compensate for the increase in cross section at the wing location, the fuselage section would have to be reduced accordingly, thus giving the airframe a waisted “coke bottle” shape. This breakthrough idea later became known as the Area Rule Concept.

As with many new theories, the Area Rule Concept encountered its fair amount of skepticism in aerodynamics engineering circles. As a result, Whitcomb’s research began to encounter a number of obstacles from colleagues and upper management, fortunately for him and the US Air Force, Adolph Busemann stepped in. Busemann, a well respected German aerodynamicist who was also working at NACA at the time, gave his full support to the newly presented area rule concept. With this impressive backing, Whitcomb was once again free to pursue his idea. He carried out a number of wind tunnel experiments during the fall of 1952 that validated his theory. Indeed, much of the collected data from these tests showed that the large drag rise encountered near Mach 1 was reduced almost 60 percent when the fuselage section was sufficiently reduced in the neighborhood of the wing structure. Although impressive as they were, these results were not immediately embraced by the US aircraft industry. With his research testing almost stopped by outside interference, Whitcomb again received unexpected help. This time in the form of Convair’s YF-102 supersonic fighter. The YF-102 aircraft applied a delta wing configuration in an effort to reduce the plane’s drag profile at supersonic speeds. Initial testing of the completed sample plane demonstrated that although designed to fly at speeds above Mach 1, the aircraft simply could not achieve its intended threshold because the transonic drag profile rise was too great for even the powerful Pratt & Whitney J-57 turbojet engine to overcome. It was at this moment that Whitcomb’s concept came to prominence. Convair’s engineers began to research ways to improve the aircraft’s drag profile. Their research, lead them directly to NACA and Whitcomb. They met with Whitcomb and, after carefully examination of the area rule concept’s wind tunnel data, the engineers modified the original YF-102 airframe with an area ruled fuselage. The new aircraft, YF-102A made its maiden flight on the morning of December 20th, 1954. The aircraft out-performed expectations. The area rule concept had increased the fighter’s top speed by an astonishing 25 percent. The US Air Force was so impressed with the new aircraft’s speed and characteristics, that they placed an order for 870 F-102As.

The success of Whitcomb’s concept also meant that it would become classified material. It remained a classified project until September 1955. Two months later, with his work in the public light, Whitcomb was awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy. He lived the rest of his life with the knowledge that he changed aircraft design forever.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Skunk Works, Ben R. Rich & Leo Janos; Back Bay Books 1994
Alpha, Bravo, Delta Guide to the U.S. Air Force, Walter J. Boyne; Penguin Group 2003
U.S. Air Force: A Complete History, Lieutenant Colonel Dick Allan Daso USAF (Ret); The Air Force Historical Foundation 2006

The Bombing of the Sir Galahad

The Falklands War ended more than twenty five years ago and still today we do not have a full account of what happened on the Falklands in 1982. Details of the battles, the exchanges of fire, even the deployment of troops and equipment that occurred during the conflict are mostly incomplete. This fact could be attributed to the relative small impact that the Falklands campaign had on the world stage or the fact that it was not as “dramatic” as others wars. Or maybe it was the fact that the war was being waged during a transitional time, the era of cable news channels and 24-7 news networks were beginning to emerge, thus its coverage was not as conventional as it was during World War II, Korea or even Vietnam. Whatever the fact was, there’s still much to learn about the conflict. There were one particular strike that needs to be reviewed and studied further: the case of the Sir Galahad.

The Sir Galahad was a Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Landing Ship Logistics (LSL). It was commissioned in 1967 and was deployed to the Falklands war theater in 1982. On the night of June 6th a series of sea transfers left the Galahad and another British warship, the Sir Tristam, exposed in an undefended inlet, Port Pleasant, on the south coast of the Falklands. On the morning of June 7th, with the sky clear of cloud cover, the newly arrived Galahad was filled with combat troops and equipment ready for disembarking. Argentine troops on Mount Harriet, a full ten miles away, were observing the Tristram’s movements during the 6th. When they returned to their observation post on the morning hours of the 7th, they were surprised to see another British warship, the Galahad, stationed even closer to their position than the Tristram was a day before. The spotters immediately reported the sighting to command headquarters and they soon afterwards ordered a major air strike against the exposed British LSL ship Galahad. Eight Skyhawks and six Daggers of the 5th and 6th Argentine Fighter Groups were loaded with contact bombs and dispatched to attack the LSL from the south entrance of the inlet. A Learjet was launched to provide the strike group with accurate navigational information. Preceding the arrival of the initial strike package would be four Mirages of the 8th Fighter Group. Their mission was to simulate a low level incursion along the north coast of the islands and then turn away. This strike package would act as a decoy. Their assignment was to lure the British Sea Harrier combat patrols away from the incoming Skyhawks and Daggers.

In the early morning hours of the 7th, the main attack package departed. On their way to the target, three Skyhawks, including both flight leaders, and a Dagger; turned back due to mechanical problems. Meanwhile, the Mirage decoy package was commencing its simulated bomb run. They were successful in attracting the attention of the British Sea Harrier patrols circling overhead the two exposed ships. The package lead attack element was the Dagger asset. Five Daggers were in position to commence their strike profile when the lead element spotted another warship in the eastward vicinity of Port Pleasant. She was the Royal Navy’s frigate Plymouth. The Dagger’s leader decided to turn his formation towards the unsuspecting ship. Each of the five aircraft made a bomb run on the ship’s port side. The vessel was hit with four contact bombs. None of them exploded – a common problem that plagued Argentine’s free-fall bomb arsenal during the war. The Plymouth fired her anti-aircraft guns, hitting one Dagger on the wing structure. After the brief attack, all the Daggers returned safely to their base on the mainland.

As a result of the Dagger’s variation of the profile order, the Skyhawks were left alone with the task of attacking the Galahad. The Skyhawks were helped by the Dagger’s attack on the Plymouth. By the time the five members of the Skyhawks package were commencing their bomb runs, the British air patrol had left the Galahad area, leaving the two ships almost undefended. After reaching their target site, the ‘Hawks dropped down to sea level in an effort to evade the British tracking radar systems. They accelerated to 500 mph. As they approached the Galahad, the leader of the package, First Lieutenant Cachon, spotted a Sea Lynx helicopter near a hill overlooking the inlet. He ordered his team to take evasive action in order to miss the Lynx and avoid detection. They accomplished that task by diving into the inlet’s south side and staying low. As they did this, the British ground troops north of Fitzroy Bay, started to fire at the flight of ‘Hawks. The British even fired a couple of anti-aircraft missiles at the package. The flight immediately banked to the left, at an angle of 30 degree. When they completed their turn, the Galahad was just in front of them. The five Skyhawks began to deploy their bomb load. Two ‘Hawks bombed a vehicle on the Galahad’s deck destroying it. The remaining three aircraft, after watching their teammates attacking the Galahad, decided to attack the Tristram.

After their bomb run was over, Cachon and his team had made one of the best executed Argentine air strikes of the conflict. The relative small number of anti-aircraft guns on the Galahad, enabled the package to come in at a sufficiently high altitude to allow their bombs time to arm in flight. Three bombs fell on the Galahad. A couple of explosions followed and then a huge fire erupted. In all, forty-eight men were killed that day on the Galahad. The ship was completely gutted. Only one of the two bombs that hit the Tristram exploded. Although it caused less structural damage to the ship, it killed two sailors on board. When the ‘Hawks returned to their home base and reported what had just occured, the Argentine high command decided to deploy four additional aircraft in an effort to inflict more damage to the British Navy. The four aircraft that were to attempt the attack were also Skyhawks from the 4th Fighter Group. They departed their mainland base en route to engage the crippled Galahad and hopefully, the Tristram. On their way there, they passed above British units conducting combat operations around Fitzroy. The British fired a barrage of heavy anti-aircraft fire including the launching of some Rapier missiles. The four attacking ‘Hawks were all damaged, forcing them to return back to their base. Due to the extent of the damage, the aircraft were only able to fly as far as the Argentine base at San Julian near the coast.

The last Argentine sortie of the day achieved a minor success. Four ‘Hawks of the 5th Fighter Group flying in a back-up capacity, found a British landing craft in the Choiseul Sound. The first two ‘Hawks on the package strafed the craft with cannon fire. The result was the destruction of the small craft and the killing of the six men that where in it. A pair of Sea Harriers patrolling the area where the Argentine’s initial attack occurred, spotted the Argentine fighters striking around the destroyed landing craft. They proceeded to engage the ‘Hawks with Sidewinder missiles. One ‘Hawk was destroyed immediately while the second Argentine fighter was cut by another missile. Another ‘Hawk was also hit by the incoming Sidewinder. In all, three Skyhawks were destroyed and the three pilots were killed. This action ended the air engagement between the British and Argentines for the day. As the news trickled down, the Argentineans started celebrating their surprising victory over the mighty Royal Navy while the British commenced the painful process of identifying their comrades killed. The actions of June 7th, 1982 paved the way for an improvement in British air combat patrols and operations above their fleet. It also helped fuel the impression on the part of the Argentineans that they could engage and inflict damage to the vaunted Royal Navy.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Fight For The Falklands – Twenty Years On

The Aircraft goes to Sea!

At the time when the Wright Brothers flew their famous Flyer aircraft at Kitty Hawk, NC; the navies of the world were still centered on the mighty Dreadnought – a massive battleship that dwarfed anything on the seas. As the development of aircraft proceeded, naval strategists around the world found this revolutionary new tool of war merely interesting at best. They were obsessed with the idea of a Blue Water Navy that could smash any foe with its big naval guns. If any thought was put on using the aircraft in any naval operation, it was in the reconnaissance role. Projects popped up all over Europe and the United States in the early 1910s, looking into the possibility of using seaboard planes as spotters on capital ships such as battleships and heavy cruisers. Later, the perceived ability of aircraft to inflict substantial damage to ships at sea outdid those plans. Ideas began floating into how best to utilize this new weapon and how it could be deployed in a manner that would offer the aircraft the ability to strike deep at an enemy’s naval force.

The pioneer force behind the development of a naval aviation policy was the United States Navy. The US Navy was behind Glenn Curtiss’s ground breaking take-off test performed from a provisional platform installed on the USS Birmingham on a cloudy morning in November, 1910. This eventful test was followed by an equally impressive landing on a similar platform aboard the USS Pennsylvania the following January. As promising as these experiments were, the US Navy top brass failed to fully grasp the potential a sea based aircraft could offer. Across the Atlantic, the British Royal Navy did show interest in the Curtiss experiments and its ramifications. They promptly commenced a series of projects with the goal of taking-off and landing an aircraft on a sea-based ship – not an easy proposition at the time. Preliminary decks installed on pre-Dreadnought battleships were too short for landing, and more importantly, landing on a moving surface presented more difficulties for the pilots. On the other hand, seaplanes with floats represented a more functional platform for naval operations. The Royal Navy did operational maneuvering in mid-1913, using seaplanes to screen for HMS Hermes in fleet exercises. Still, the reconnaissance role of the aircraft dominated the thinking of top naval officials around the globe. That does not mean that offensive experimentation with aircraft halted. In 1914, a 1.5 powder gun was tested in-flight for the first time, as was the first test for an airborne torpedo. Then in 1915 the US Navy deployed the first operational shipboard compressed-air powered catapult system. By 1914, dedicated seaplane-carrier ships were beginning to be deployed by the British Royal Navy. They mainly were converted merchant ships, with slow speeds that made them unable to keep up with the battle fleet.

Naval aviation forever changed when in 1915, HMS Ben-My-Chree launched a Short Type 184 seaplane for the world’s first operational torpedo run – an attack against an Ottoman freighter on the Dardanelles. Further experiments with seaplanes and their tenders proved that, although seaplanes could offer the navy enhanced capabilities, they lacked the necessary power, stamina, and payload to directly affect a naval battle. That role was for land-based aircraft. As we have seen, landing planes on a moving platform in the 1910s was considered extremely difficult at best. Extended platforms needed to be designed and produced in order to accommodate the take-off and landing of aircraft at sea. As in the case of the torpedo attack, the British took the lead in tackling the problem. Installing a wooden take-off deck in the bow of the light cruiser HMS Furious. Although take-offs from this deck were a relative easy proposition for experienced pilots, landing on them was a different story. Thus, the Royal Navy augmented the deck structure to cover the ships after section, but turbulence from the cruiser’s superstructure made the landing approaches tenuous for incoming pilots. Nevertheless, in July 1918, seven Sopwith Camel aircraft took-off from the deck of the Furious to strike Zeppelins bases – eventually destroying two of the massive airships in their pens. The era of the carrier was officially born on that July day. Encouraged by the results of this first attack, the Royal Navy completely rebuilt the Furious superstructure, converting it into what today we can call a conventional aircraft carrier. But the Furious’s life as the only operational carrier was brief. The Royal Navy promptly followed the Furious conversion with the launching of the first ever “true aircraft carrier”, on Her Majesty’s Ship Argus.

While America’s military participation in the Great War was brief; the US Navy forces did train, and eventually served alongside Britain’s vaunted Grand Fleet in 1918. The incorporation of US battle squadrons into the Grand Fleet gave US commanders a unique view of the carrier’s ability to project power over vast distances. Promptly, after the end of World War I, the United States Navy ordered the collier Jupiter to be converted into the US’s first operational carrier: the USS Langley. The Covered Wagon, as the Langley was commonly known to those who served on it, was just basically a flush deck with two massive hinged funnels on the port side. The former coal holds were converted to crew quarters, storerooms, and workshops. The forward upper deck was utilized as the carrier’s hangar. Although she served with the US Navy’s main Battle Fleet, the Langley was mainly utilized as a test-bed system. Various experiments where performed on the Langley, principally the use of arrester mechanisms for capturing incoming planes. Initially, the “Covered Wagon” used a British supplied Longitudinal Wire system to recover inbound aircraft. With wires running lengthwise, this simple mechanism was engaged by the aircraft’s hooks at landing (the hooks were located on their landing gear) to prevent the aircraft from swinging to either side after the violent landing maneuver. The US Navy augmented the Longitudinal system with their own Transverse Wire system – with wires running across the deck, side to side. The Transverse system operated in a similar way to the British system, the major different being that with Transverse, the inbound aircraft is subject to a retarding landing force at the moment the hooks connect with the secure wire on deck. The retarding effect is achieved by hanging shell cases filled with sand on each end of the wire retainer. After being refined to operate with hydraulic power, the Transverse Wire system has become the mainstay on carrier operations today.

Additional improvements were made to the original Argus concept by the US Navy. A flush mounted catapult system was added to the Langley. The catapults, installed on the flight deck, were initially intended to give a take-off boost to seaplanes operating on board. Naval engineers were soon to realize that this same concept could be modified for use by conventional aircraft. Eventually, like the Transverse system, the catapult mechanism became the main take-off procedure for aircraft in all carriers. Further development was performed on the Langley, developments that we can sea on today’s futuristic aircraft carriers designs. It is fair to say that if the British came up with the initial concept idea for a carrier, the United States was in fact the real force in the development of this new weapon platform. An unprecedented platform that has ruled the seas and the air for over sixty years.

– Raul Colon

More information:
A Brief History of U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers Part I — The Early Years
Carriers: Airpower at Sea: Chapter 1 – The Early Years

The Ural bomber Concept: Wever’s Dream

Every major-power air force since the middle of the Great War has possessed a tactical and strategic component. The British Royal Flying Corp, the predecessor of the famous Royal Air Force, developed during World War I a strategic component centered on the idea that a heavy bomber could penetrate the enemy’s air defenses and submit them to an aerial pounding that would reduce their ability to produce, supply and field their ground and naval forces. Beside Great Britain, France, Italy and Imperial Germany implemented, in one form or another; the concept of strategic bombing during the war. When the war ended in 1918, only the victorious allies were able to maintain and expand these concepts. During the inter war years, the idea of strategic bombing gained valuable allies in the UK, France and the United States. Many experiments and trials were conducted leading to efforts to develop and produce long range platforms, bombers, capable of taking the war to the enemy’s farther reaches. The situation was not similar in Germany.

Unable to field a regular air force due to the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the new Nazi regime in Germany started to improvise ways to develop a different type of air arm – an air force mainly designed to cover and support ground troops engaging in rapid maneuvers. That this newly designed air arm lacked the vital strategic component can be attributed to several reasons. Mainly that the early Nazi military doctrine of employing rapid panzer formations in open fields would require the use of much of their available air assets in a support role, is the one most attributed to this shortcoming, but there was another, less reported situation that ended up costing the Luftwaffe more than it’s doctrine. There have been many reports and papers written about the strategic shortcomings of the Luftwaffe, but seldom did these papers mention the name of Walther Wever – yet, if he would had lived, his strategic vision might have altered the course of World War II. Wever was a fierce proponent of strategic bombing. He possessed both the vision and the willpower to built a strategic air fleet out of the Luftwaffe – fortunately for the Allies he died before the war started. If not, one can just imagine what aircraft and tactics Wever could have employed in the Battle of Britain or in the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Wever was born in the eastern province of Posen – a product of a middle class environment. When he became eligible, he joined the army as an infantry officer. After completing his training, he was commissioned as second lieutenant. The rank on which he would enter the Great War with. During that terrible conflict, Wever displayed an above average intelligence, valor and superior organization skills. These traits propelled him to the rank of captain and eventually to a post in the staff of the famous German military commander, General Erich Ludendorff. There he is credited with the development of the so called “elastic defense” strategy employed very effectively by the German army all throughout the conflict. The defense called for the abandonment of forward positions during artillery bombardments, making the Allies feel more secure for their advance once the bombardment was over. A strategic troop build-up was placed near the threatened area, passionately awaiting the advancing and unsuspecting Allies’ armies. The strategy was so successful that after the war, French military historians credited it with the breaking of their army’s will to fight in The Somme and other places. Wever’s stock rose during the dull interwar years. He achieved the rank of colonel and in early 1932, was appointed Germany’s Air Command Officer. A title used to deceive the watchful Allies. The reality was that the new command given to Wever amounted to a Chief of the Air Force in the current military lexicon. At forty-six, without any flying training, Wever was now the overall commander of Germany’s air force.

Even before Adolf Hitler sealed the fate of Germany by going to war, Wever understood that the next armed conflict would be a tactical as well as a strategic one. Adhering to his vision, Wever steered the German air industry into developing what he saw as its most precious asset in the next war: a four-engined heavy bomber. The bomber Wever envisioned would have been able to carry a payload of some 3,300 pounds to a distance of at least 1,240 miles. In developing the concept for such an aircraft, Wever had only one enemy in mind: Soviet Russia. He understood what many of his peers and eventual successors failed to see. In order to take the war into the Russian industry, buried deep behind the Ural Mountains, Germany needed an aircraft able to subject those industries to a heavy bombardment that could disrupt the flow of aircraft, tanks, truck, artillery pieces and other tools of war; into the frontlines – the destruction of the enemy’s means of war production. He clearly saw that in order to defeat the air force of a country such as Russia, where the sheer amount of aircraft available to them could had overwhelmed Germany’s fighter force, they would need to destroy the industry that made those aircraft, instead of shooting them out of the skies. Here was the British Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Frederick Sykes’s strategic vision at its most basic. The objectives of the new German air force would not only be concentrated on the support of its ground and naval forces, although Wever was a passionate believer in a mixed-mission and completely independent Luftwaffe, but it would take the tools of war to the enemy’s nerve centers, the troop staging areas, rear bases, their industries and in the end, their population as a whole. This concept of total air war was first promulgated by Sykes in December 1918.

For all of his vision, strategies and directions, Wever’s views were in the minority in the German air force. The most senior Luftwaffe commanders saw little need for the development of a strategic heavy force, although they changed their minds when the British and American heavy bombers began to pound their beloved country. Following Wever’s lead, Germany’s air industry began to conceive plans for the design and production of a fleet of heavy bombers. Two proud German companies, Junkers and Dornier put forward design sketches for a heavy level bomber in late 1934. On January 3rd, 1935, Junker’s chairman, Dr. Heinrich Koppenberg; reported to Colonel Wilhelm Wimmer, head of the Luftwaffe Technical Department and fierce backer of Wever; that a preliminary design for the new bomber, designated Ju 89, had been completed. Dornier followed a couple of months later. On a clear morning in October 28th, 1936, the much anticipated Do 19 made its maiden flight. The Ju 89 followed two months later. But by this time, fate had intervened. On June 3rd, 1936, Wever was in Dresden addressing a gathering of Luftwaffe cadets when he received the news of the passing of a World War I German hero. He decided to leave the city immediately in order to attend the funeral. Wever took off on his He 70 airplane. As the plane started to climb, one wing tipped on the ground propelling the aircraft into a mad tailspin that ended with a fiery crash. Wever and his flight engineer died immediately. With his prematurely passing, his dream, that of a well balanced tactical and strategic Luftwaffe; also died. Without Wever’s vision and relentless drive to pursue, Germany fell behind its main adversaries in the development of a heavy bomber platform.

Wever’s successors were more “yes”-type officers. More eager to please the Luftwaffe’s Chief Commander Herman Goering than in establishing a balanced force. From June 1936 onwards, the main effort of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft development programs was concentrated on the design and production of aircraft capable of providing the German army with a close air support arm. Nearly all of the heavy bomber development resources were diverted to the development of dive bombers. Even the much anticipated and needed He 177 was not ordered into full-scale production until the four-engined plane was refitted to operate as a dive bombing platform. It’s safe to say that with the death of General Wever, the dream of developing a multi-faceted air force, an air force capable of providing Germany with the same kind of capability as the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Forces possessed, died also. There were many aspects of discrepancy between the Allies combat air philosophy and that of Germany’s air arm, but what separates them most profoundly was the strategic aspect of their respective philosophies. The Allies truly believed in the importance of strategic bombing to their overall war effort, while the Germans were more focused on the tactical aspect. Had Wever lived, maybe the Luftwaffe’s philosophy and the product of this philosophy would have been more balanced.

– Raul Colon

More information:
wikipedia: Walther Wever (general)


In the summer of 1962, a secret department of the Lockheed Company, the now vaunted Skunk Works, began researching into a new type of weapons platform. The project was so secret that only about one hundred people inside the department knew what they were doing. The program, code-named Tagboard had its origins with the Administration of President John Kennedy and it achieved operational status under the Nixon Administration. The project was so secret that even today, little detailed information is available. The idea behind Tagboard was the development of a flying drone capable of reaching deep inside the People’s Republic of China to gather sensitive information regarding the country’s infant nuclear program. Since the downing of Gary Power’s U-2 spyplane over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, the United States armed forces began the process of developing the concept of an unmanned, remotely controlled flying vehicle capable of penetrating hostile territory in order to gather information. The concept of a drone gathered support with the loss of four Taiwanese U-2 planes. They were shot down while trying to collect information about Chinese experimentation with nuclear devices and rocket systems in remote sites around the country. One of those sites was Lop Nor. Lop Nor was located two thousand miles inland, nearly at the Chinese-Mongolian border. This facility was the main target of US intelligence collection effort during the late 1950s and all thru the 1960s. The remoteness of the location meant that U-2 pilots had to fly a high risk, deep penetrating mission over rugged terrain for a long period of time. Here’s where Tagboard came in. Skunk Works engineers would develop a drone-type system that could be deployed from a SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft. The drone they envisioned would fly at speeds above Mach 3, while operating at a height of 100,000 ft. After reaching its objective site, the drone would use it’s optical and electronic sensors to gather as much data as possible, then the platform would head back toward a recovery area. After reaching a pre-determined area, the drone would drop it’s camera film and an electronic gathering canister by parachute to a waiting US Navy destroyer. After accomplishing it’s mission, the drone system would self-destruct over the sea.

The idea of Tagboard originated deep inside the Skunk Works. One of its first proponents in the unit was the legendary Ben R. Rich. Rich pitched the idea to an even more legendary aviation eminence, Kelly Johnson; who at first balked at the concept. But political and military events, specially the downing of the four U-2s, persuaded him to pursue the idea. In the summer of 1962, Kelly Johnson met with John Parangosky at the Central Intelligence Agency to pitch the concept. The CIA was not interested, Parangosky stated. Johnson received almost the same answer when he went to the Air Force with the concept. But there were a Brigadier General, Leo Geary, the director of special projects for the US Air Force; who showed interest in the project. Geary pulled some favors and appropriated half a million dollars from the secret Black Projects contingency fund. Tagboard was born. The original concept called for the installation of a six inch ground resolution camera system in a small but sturdy airframe. The camera and electronic package had a combined weight of four hundred pounds; adding to the four hundred and twenty five pounds needed for the platform avionics. The system needed to have a long range capability, thus a minimum of three thousand nautical miles operational range was incorporated into the design equation by Johnson and his team. The first design plan of the new drone called for it to have the flat triangular shape of a manta ray. It was forty feet long and weighed in at seventy thousand pounds. The airframe was built from titanium and was powered by a Bomarc engine. The Bomarc was a ram jet engine design similar to the famous Marquardt engines once used in the development of ground to air missile systems. With the Bomarc, Tagboard could cruise three times faster than the speed of sound. The new drone also possessed the lowest radar cross section signature of any airborne system available at the time. It’s internal electronic packages included a then state-of-the-art, star tracker inertial guidance system that could be constantly updated via a computer feed from the Blackbird’s I.N. platform right up to the point of launch. The system was completely automated. Drone steering was achieved by stored digital signal directed at its hydraulic servo actuators. The system was capable of handling a sophisticated flight plan. It could handle numerous turns and twist to get to the pre-programmed location, then the system would instruct the drone to repeat the process for its extradition. When the drone made it out of hostile territory, the platform would proceed to release its payload in the form of a cone-type canister assisted by parachute. Then the drone would self-destruct.

Armed with Tagboard’s impressive blue print, Kelly Johnson descended on Washington during the second week of February 1963 to pitch the idea once again to the CIA. Again he was refused. The story was different at the Air Force. Secretary Harold Brown was impressed with the concept. He took the idea further, suggesting that the proposed drone platform could expand its mission profile to include the delivery of a nuclear payload. The Air Force’s interest in the project made the CIA think twice about the drone idea and on March 20th, 1963, the Central Intelligence Agency awarded a Letter of Contract to Lockheed, thus sharing budgetary and operational responsibilities with the Air Force. With this accord, the Tagboard project became the most secret program ever developed by the famous Skunk Works, even more secret that the assembly of it’s Blackbird aircraft. The Works became the new Fort Knox. In order to get inside the facility, engineers and operators were given secret passes. Regular background checks were performed on all those involved in the program. The strict regulations and security measures made a strained situation even more so. The task of designing and developing this new weapons system was daunting. The most technically challenging situation arose when the team began developing the form in which the drone would be delivered by an aircraft flying at three times the speed of sound. The sheer magnitude of the shockwave presented the engineering team with a monumental problem. It took the Works engineering teams nearly six months to figure out a possible solution to the dilemma. After gaining the upper hand in the deployment mechanism, other problems raised. The guiding system, parachute deployment mechanism, electronic and camera packages, and finally the avionics components; all were monster-like problems that needed solutions.

After three years of around the clock working, the drone system was finally ready to be unveiled to the air force and CIA top brass. On the morning of February 27th, 1965, with test pilot William “Bill” Park at the controls, a specially modified SR-71 took off from a secret Works facility carrying Tagboard with it. When the Blackbird reached the coast of California at an altitude of 80,000 feet, Park ignited the drone engine and Tagboard was released. It flew perfectly. Speeding at Mach 3.2, the drone flew 120 miles out to the sea before it ran out of fuel and crashed. The next month, another test flight proved to be even more successful. This time Tagboard flew an amazing 1,900 miles at a speed of Mach 3.3. The test showed that the drone’s aerodynamic characteristics were sound. The next test phase was designed to evaluate the complex steering system. On June 16th, 1966, the specially configured SR-71, again with Park at the controls, took off and headed to the California coast, just north of Los Angeles, he released the drone without any inconvenience. Tagboard made a 1,600 mile flight that included eight pre-programmed turns, at the same time the drone activated it’s camera system. The test was a complete success. The collected data on these early flights indicated that the system was a success. Aerodynamics, avionics, guidance, even the camera system; performed admirably during these early flights. The program seemed to be heading for full operational deployment sooner than expected when tragedy struck. On the afternoon of July 30th, 1966, Park and his weapons operator took off and proceeded west towards California. The test called for the release of the drone at Mach 3.25. But when deployed, the drone went down immediately and struck the Blackbird’s fuselage sending the aircraft into a tailspin. Park and his operator, Torick, ejected from the doomed aircraft, and splashed down 150 miles from the coast. Unfortunately, Torick opened his helmet visor while ejecting, thus at splashdown water began to pour into his pressure suit, sending him to the bottom of the sea. This was a setback to the program. Not only the loss of a crewman, which was daunting, but the lost of the modified SR-71, pushed the program back. Without anymore specially modified Blackbirds available anytime soon, Kelly Johnson drafted in the Strategic Air Command’s backbone, the B-52, as the vehicle to carry Tagboard. After meeting with then deputy secretary of defense, Cyrus Vance, Johnson got the go ahead to proceed with the use of a B-52 as a release platform. The air force supplied Johnson and his team with two of the massive bombers. Test flights commenced again in the winter of 1968. One B-52 would carry two Tagboard drones, one under each wing. The tests where conducted on the Hawaiian Islands and the drones were to follow a coordinated flight pattern. They flew over Christmas and Midway Islands, mapping them and anything that moved in the vast Central Pacific on their way there. The so called Captain Hook test flight series met considerable success during its fourteen month duration. The Air Force was really impressed with the results and by November 1969; Tagboard achieved operational status.

The drone system’s first operational mission, the over-flight of the Lop Nor region, was planned for November 9th. A sole B-52 took off from Beale Air Force Base, carrying two Tagboard drones in case one platform failed to separate from its mother-ship. When the B-52 reached its intended launching area, beyond China’s early warning radar stations, it deployed one Tagboard. The system penetrated Chinese airspace and proceeded to its target but communication with the system was lost before it reached Lop Nor. Guidance system error was believed to be the cause of the drone’s demise. Eleven months later, another operation was performed. This time Tagboard performed as advertised. It flew to the intended area and back, but when the system released its cargo, the cone parachute failed to open and the package plummeted to the bottom of the sea. The last operational flight of Tagboard occurred in late March 1971. This time, the drone was tracked by Chinese radar for the first time, 1,900 miles deep inside China, then the system disappeared from US tracking systems. The reason was never determined. The complexity of the system that was needed to launch and recover the drone and the limited operational success doomed the program. After this flight, the complete program was cancelled by the Nixon Administration in July 1971. In a footnote to the story of this remarkable system, in July 1986, a piece of Tagboard surfaced in Washington via a CIA courier. A Soviet agent gave the piece to a CIA counterpart during a Christmas party that past winter. Engineers promptly recognized the piece as being part of the second Tagboard mission drone, codenamed D21. It was found in Siberia by a local farmer. Although the program ended before the system could be further developed to meet new standards, Tagboard achieve legendary status serving as the cornerstone of the US unmanned aerial vehicle programs for decades.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Air Power, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
Front-Line Strike Aviation at the Threshold of the Missile Age, Alexandr Medved 1978
Russian X-Planes, Alan Dawes, Key Publishing 2001

Newsflash: Italy Bombs the Turks!

The first decade of the Twenty Century saw the birth of the heavier than air machine, or aeroplane, as not only a transport vehicle but also as a military reconnaissance platform. In the years that followed the Wright Brother’s amazing feat at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903; the aircraft evolved from a primitive looking machine, to a more efficient platform. By the end of 1909, advances in aircraft design had fermented a different military vision of the aircraft. Aviation pioneers frequently postulated possible uses for this new dimension of warfare. An obscure Italian Army officer named Giulio Douhet, who today is considered the father of the current strategic bombing concept, wrote in 1909 that: “At present we are fully conscious of the importance of the sea. In the near future, it will be no less vital to achieve the same kind of supremacy on the air”. Prophetic words that hold true today.

In 1910, a series of test were performed that seemed to confirm what Douhet had stated a year before. On the morning of January 19th, United States Army Lieutenant Paul Beck, dropped dummy bombs in the form of sandbags over a remote area of Los Angeles, CA from a rudimentary aircraft flown by Louis Paulhan. On June 30th, American aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss dropped dummy bombs from an altitude of 50′ on a buoy silhouette in Lake Keuka. This exercise was followed on August 20th by another performed by US Army Lieutenant, Jacob E. Fickel, who fired a rifle round at a ground target while flying his aircraft near Sheepshead Bay, NY. These types of experiment made headlines around, not only the US but the rest of the world. They sparked the aviation community to tinker with devices aimed at dropping grenades or bombs from an aircraft. Again, another US Army officer took the lead when Lieutenant Myron Crissy, flying in San Francisco, CA; became the first man to drop a live ordinance from an airplane. All these experiments proved that the dropping of live bombs from an aircraft was feasible, but as it is the case with so many innovative ideas, perception, not reality, carried the early torch for the proponents of massive bombing campaigns.

Bomb dropping had been a constant topic among aviation pioneers and military leaders since early 1910. Even the respected Scientific American magazine ran cover stories about it. They all imagined cities reduced to rubble, fortifications destroyed, entire battle fleets sunk; all by the perceived power of this new dimension of warfare. They failed to notice, that while early test results were promising, they were conducted in a controlled environment. Their attack altitude was no more than three hundred feet. No gun was fired at them and their targets were stationary. Added to this was the fact that by the start of 1909, no armed force in the world possessed an operational airplane. The situation improved in 1910, when around fifty aircraft were operational in the entire world. But by mid 1911, the situation was different. The aircraft was used in combat for the first time. The occasion was a little known colonial dispute that erupted in a larger conflict pitting the Italians against the Ottoman Empire for the control of Libya. The Italians, aware of the fact that they would be fighting in territory the Turks considered a home area and in need of an edge, decided to deploy their infant air component. Their air assets consisted of nine of the early Taube airplanes and two observation balloons. The Taube was the brainchild of a brilliant Austrian engineer named Igo Etrich. The Taube, meaning Dove in German, was an all wooden, canvas covered aircraft. It had a fuselage length of 33′-5″ and a height of 10′-5″. Its wingspan covered 45.8 sq ft. Its air-form frame allowed the aircraft to become nearly invisible to the people on the ground when it flew at altitudes above 1,200′. The plane was powered by a primitive piston engine that gave it a top speed of just under 60 mph. Controlling the Taube was a relative easy task by those day’s standards. Control in flight was achieved by warping or twisting the wings and tail, very similar to what the Wright Brothers did with their Flyer airplane. The first Taube prototype flew in early July 1910, and by late that year, the German company Rumpler bought the license to manufacture the aircraft. The aircraft went on to serve in the Great War. One sample even flew over the French capital in late September 1914 dropping propaganda leaflets. On the Eastern Front, the Taube played an important role in the Battle of Tannenberg, providing German commanders with accurate information regarding the Russian army movements and troop dispositions. Badly outclassed when the War began, by early 1915, the plane was delegated to training duties. But in November, 1911; the Taube was destined to make history. On the early hours of November 1st, 1911, a lone Taube aircraft took-off from a desert strip en route to the main Turkish line. At the controls was Italian Army Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti. Passing at around three to four hundred feet, Gavotti made a fleeting impression on the Turks just below. After two passes, the Italian pilot commenced what we now call a bomb run. Once in position, Gavotti proceeded to drop four 4.5lb Cipelli grenades. He literally pulled their pins out with his teeth before lobbing them out of the plane’s rudimentary cockpit.

Aviator Lt. Gavotti Throws Bomb on Enemy Camp. Terrorized Turks Scatter upon Unexpected Celestial Assault was the headline on all the wire services. A tremendous exaggeration to put it mildly. But an exaggeration that would in the future hold true. The astonish Turks response to the world’s first aerial raid was even more exaggerated. They claimed that the Italian’s bombs had hit a civilian hospital outside the contested area and that the damage had caused “great lost of life”. A fact that was vigorously denied by the Italian government. A post-conflict inquiry found that an artillery shell was the culprit for the hospital’s damage and that no civilian or military personnel were injured in the attack. In the aftermath of the raid, with both sides claiming major damages resulting from the use of this new kind of “indiscriminate” attack, outside observers were brought in by the governments of Great Britain, France, Germany, Imperial Russia, and even the United States. After carefully analyzing the data collected, many of them subscribed to the idea that the raid was less positive than originally reported. Many of the Italian grenades failed to detonate at all, the ones that did exploded harmlessly over the vast desert sand. But the most significant find was that of the attitude of the Turks to the raid. Contrary to common belief, the Turks had not been scared by the small Italian raid. On the other hand, when the first Italian Taube appeared in the sky, Turkish ground forces tried to zero in on it with their machine guns. A tactic they had perfected while targeting the slow moving Italian balloons that flew once in a while over the battlefield.

Again, the reality was different from perception, and once again, perception gathered the biggest press. Time and time again, newspapers across Europe would report the exploits of this obscure Italian army officer and proclaimed the death of the navy and army, while ascending the aircraft to almost mythical levels.


1 Air Power, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004
2 World War I, HP Willmott, Covent Gardens Books 2003
3 The Myth of The Great War: A New Military History of WW I, John Mosier, Perennial 2001
4 The Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, Edt Paul Eden, Amber Books 2007

– Raul Colon

Early Development of the United States
Defensive Missile System

As the tactical integration of the continental defenses in the United States in the later stages of World War II evolved, the airplane emerged as the main offensive weapon platform. It had demonstrated that its strategic advantage was un-rivalled at the time. The airplane, especially the bomber, was capable of delivering a heavy bomb payload to far and away locations with devastating effects. This concept was proven over the skies of Spain during that country’s civil war and then over the first two years of World War II. But the action that really made the bomber a weapon of fear was the bombing of Dresden, a major German city, in the later part of the war. The city’s destruction in just one day is widely recognized as the starting point for the development of the strategic annihilation of a city-wide target. As these developments were taking place overseas, the United States began to develop and deploy Interceptor Commands Units all around their coastal areas in late 1941. These units were a combination of two major assets that were to be re-arranged in order to provide a more reliable anti-aircraft system. The first, were the attachment of units of Army Air Forces to Interceptor Command and their deployment near major coastal cities in America. Also, on March 1942, the United States Army constituted the Army Anti-aircraft Command (AA). The newly created command would have control over all Costal Artillery Anti-aircraft Army Units as well as that of the Army’s Interceptor Commands. During the next months, the United States Army developed more advanced anti-aircraft weapon systems. At this time, rockets were staring to appear as accepted weapon systems. Radar, developed in Britain before the war, was rapidly becoming a serious method of detecting and tracking incoming targets. When the war ended in Japan on August 1945, the United States had over 331 active AAs battalions world-wide, with around 246,000 troops at their disposal.

On June 1945, Bell Labs, acting on a request from the Army, commenced the development the first integrated defensive missile system. The Army’s first surface-to-air missile system program was based on an internal Army memo suggesting that the United States must not waste any more time in the development, and ultimately, deployment of an advanced radio-controlled anti-aircraft rocket system that could protect major cities in America against bombing from the air. The new program was code-named Project Nike, after the winged goddess in the Greek mythology. Three months later, with the surrender of Imperial Japan, the U.S. Army started its massive de-mobilization. Most of the active AA units in Europe and the Far East were de-activated and shipped home along with their equipment, the same holds true for the AA battalions in Continental America. The majority of them were de-activated within weeks of the armistice. But the situation would change dramatically in three years. By 1948, the Cold War had broken out in Europe – countries on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain were engulfed by the Soviet Union, and a new age of terror had arrived. America began a prompt process of re-arming and re-organizing its coastal defenses and the U.S. Army re-started its missile development programs that had been shutdown after the war. At the beginning it was anticipated by high ranking officials in the newly created United States Air Force, that high flying interceptor fighters would be the main layer of defense against massive Soviet bomber formations and first generation Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) coming inbound from Soviet mainland bases. U.S. Air Force Strategic bombers as well as the Navy carrier-based attack planes would also participate in the defense of the continent, but it was clear early on, that a new mechanism for dealing with the bomber and, more importantly, with the offensive ballistic missile, was needed. A missile defense system that could replace the outmoded conventional Anti-Aircraft-Artillery guns was imperative to the defense of America. The three services, Navy, Army and the Air Force, revamped their respective missile development programs with the idea of fielding a continent-wide defense missile platform as quickly as possible. In the end, the Navy dropped out of the running, but the Air Force and the Army would fight for the next two decades over control of the missile systems and its funding. A fight that would make a possible deployment of a workable defense missile system a long and tedious process. The main responsibility for the defense of the United States against bomber attacks was assumed by the Air Force in the early 1950s. The Air Force went on to develop the Defense in Depth Strategy that would form the backbone of the U.S. Cold War continental defenses. The new strategy called for the use of high-frequency early warning radar stations along with ‘ready for take-off’ interceptor fighters and long-range anti-aircraft missiles positioned around the perimeter of the U.S. If this defense system was breached by a Soviet force, the U.S. Army would activate its own batteries of anti-aircraft missile systems located around key U.S. industrial and military sites.

In the mid 1960s, the United Stated Air Force was ready to deploy its first advance surface-to-air missile defense system, the Bomarc. The Bomarc was to have a 440 mile range of operation, but constant problems with their guided system limited the deployment of the system from nation-wide, integrated system to a more regional basis. On the other hand, the U.S. Army had fielded its own missile defense system since 1953, the Nike. The initially deployed surface-to-air Nike system used the Nike-Ajax liquid fueled missile with an operational range of thirty miles as it’s main interceptor asset. By the late 1958, there were over two hundred Nike missile batteries in the U.S., primarily defending nuclear research facilities and depots. On December of 1958, the Army began the process of supplanting its Nike-Ajax missile with the more advance Nike-Hercules. The Hercules was a leap forward in the development of a surface-to-air missile. It was propelled by solid-fuel which gave the missile an operational range in excess of seventy five miles. The Hercules was also the first interceptor missile with a nuclear warhead capability. About one hundred Nike sites were upgraded with the Hercules. Of these facilities, around fifty were redeployed to defend the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command bomber bases. The Air Command was the United States primary source for massive nuclear retaliation after a Soviet attack. The key component of the Nike system was an advanced early-warning radar. The U.S. Defense Department was committed from the beginning to building a series of interlocking radar stations that would allow the Army to monitor the perimeter and selected interior parts of the North American continent. The goal of the system was to provide the Air Force and Army with up to five hours of warning to respond in case of a Soviet bomber attack. The U.S. Air Force took the lead in the design, development and deployment of radar systems. The first significant anti-aircraft radar platform was the LASH-Up system. It was designed by the Air Force to cover America’s costal centers and major nuclear production facilities. In 1949, LASH-Up radar stations numbered just seven, but by the end of 1951, the system grew to fifty stations. The LASH-Up system was eventually replaced by the PERMANENT system, which was to number seventy-four radar locations by mid 1952. The U.S. early warning radar system was supplemented by the thirty four stations of the PINETREE LINE system located across the vast Canadian territory, which in theory could provide the Air Force with two additional hours of warning in a case of a surprise attack.

In the summer of 1957, the U.S. Department of Defense approved the production of its more ambitious early detection radar system, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) radar line and the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense control system. The DEW consisted of a series of radar stations fifty miles part, stretching along the northern boundary of the North American continent, several miles north of the Artic Circle. In 1962, the system was upgraded to include an imaginary line from Midway Island to Scotland. The DEW radar line was the outmost line of early warning and it was assisted by the Mid-Canadian Line, the PINETREE Line, the PERMANENT radar system and the Gap Filler Radar System. By the mid 1960s, the U.S. Navy had joined the club with its ship and air-borne radar picket units. With all of these layers of protection, America was still susceptible to one weapon platform, the intercontinental ballistic missile. The SAGE system incorporated the latest in computer technology to support the estimated fifty Air Force Combat Direction Centers it was schedule to defend. The Combat Direction Center was the predecessor of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD. Its main function was to coordinate all aspects – radar, sensors, the interceptor aircraft squadrons and the anti-aircraft missile batteries – of the continental air defense system. SAGE became partial operational in 1958 and was fully deployable in early 1961. Each of the massive 275 ton SAGE tracking and targeting computers were housed in four-story windowless buildings. Because of their immense size and the fact that they needed to be located above ground, they were extremely vulnerable to any air attack. Still, SAGE was the first truly integrated tactical command system in the United States. It linked the Air Force’s Air Defense, Tactical Air and Strategic Command with the Army Air Defense Command and ARADCOM’s Nike missile system. This capability gave NORAD the necessary resources to detect and track and inbound aircraft coming to the North American continent.

– Raul Colon

More information:
wikipedia: Bomarc Missile
The Pinetree Line
SAGE Air Defense

A Brief Look at China’s
Current Military Capabilities

In the past few years, The People’s Republic of China’s growing military capability has attracted a great deal of interest, but major details regarding China’s near-future military strength have been hard to combine. At this very moment, China is spending massive amounts of financial resources in order to improve its overall military capability. This spike of budgetary expenses by China is setup in the background of the country’s need to upgrade its low-tech armed forces. At this time, reports have placed the number of deployable nuclear weapons China possesses at four hundred. Of these, around twenty are deployed in the Intercontinental ballistic missile configuration. Nearly two hundred and twenty are reported to be deployed in various delivery platforms such as aircraft, submarines and short-to-medium range missile systems. All of these weapons are of tactical capability. The remainder weapons are held in tactical reserves for short range missiles, low yield attacks and demolition purposes. The Central Military Commission, headed by the Chinese President, is the sole administrator of the country’s nuclear arsenal. China’s current Intercontinental ballistic missile force of twenty units is mainly used as a deterrence force. The main component of the system is the Dong-Feng 5 liquid-fuelled missile, with an estimated range of 13,000 km and can carry a single use, multi-megaton warhead. The Dong-Feng 5 was first deployed in the summer of 1981 and has remained the backbone of China’s ICBM force for the past two decades. Twenty frontline Feng 5’s are believed to be stationed in full alert somewhere in Central China. The Feng 5 was a drastic change from the early versions of China’s ballistic missiles. Those early missiles were mainly stored in caves and were rolled-out for launch. The Feng 5 can be launched from vertical silos after just a few hours of the order being received by their launch crews. The Feng 5 operational range gave China the ability to launch a small nuclear attack against most of Europe, Asia and some parts of the United States, mainly the southeast part of the country. Today, two additional missile platforms are deployed or being tested for possible deployment by China. They are the medium range DF 31’s, which entered first-line operation in 2005, and its long range variant, the DF 31A, formerly called the DF-41; which is expected to be fielded by late 2010. Both missiles are going to be propelled by solid fuel cells and based on mobile launchers. China is expected to attempt producing a multiple re-entry vehicle (MVRs) for their new missile systems. An attempt to produce the more technical challenge multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) is underway.

China also deploys intermediate range ballistic missiles and medium range ballistic missile systems. These weapon platforms are capable of threatening the security of many countries in Asia, including India, but its effects on the overall strategic security of Russia are minimal. China’s intermediate missile systems are also capable of hitting targets on Japan’s coastal cities and United States base stations in South Korea and Japan. The oldest missile platform deployed by China is the near stationary DF 3A missile system. This missile platform is being phased-out in favor of the more modern DF 4 and DF 21 systems. The DF 4, with a maximum operating range of 4,750 km, is still the backbone of China’s regional deterrence force. The DF 4 is a liquid fueled system that operates mainly now out of fixed launch sites. With the deployment of the DF 21 in 1986, China’s regional ballistic missile capabilities increased twofold. The operational DF 21 has an estimated range of 1,800km and is carried in mobile launchers for security reasons. The DF 21 is also the base of China’s sea-launch ballistic missile systems. The older, liquid fueled missiles can carry a single nuclear warhead of an estimate 3.3mt yield. The newest missiles also carry a single warhead with maximum yields in the hundreds kilotons range. China also possesses a limited number of short-range ballistic missile batteries. The DF 11/M 11, with an operational range of 300km, and the DF 15/M 9, with a range of 600km, are the backbone of China’s tactical force. Is believed that most of this missile platforms are configured to carry only a small nuclear or conventional warhead.

China’s bomber force is based on the local production of Russian made aircraft first deployed in the 1950s. With the overdue retirement of the Ilyushin IL-28 bomber from front-line, nuclear delivery role, the Tu-16 Badger assumes the role of a medium range, nuclear strike bomber. Being a product of the 1950s technology, the Tu-16 could only carry two or three nuclear bombs over a range of 1,5,00 to 3,100km. China is believed to have over 130 of these vintage planes in operational conditions. The Chinese Navy also operated the Tu-16 in a reserve role primarily. Although the Chinese Air Force possesses a great number of other possible nuclear carrying aircraft, such as the venerable MiG-21, the Russian supplied Su-27, and the newly designed JH-7s; they are not believed to be used for such a role. The Chinese Air Force also has a large inventory of strike and fighter aircraft at their disposal. It is estimated that by 2004 China has a total aircraft inventory of around 4,200 operational aircraft of many types. This inventory includes all the variants of the J-6 or MiG-19 fighter, J-7 or MiG-21, Su-27, IL-28 and Tu 16 bombers. Of these aircraft, the vast majority entered service with the Chinese air force before 1970. The tactical airlift aspect of the air force is at a diminishing capability. Over the last two decades, Chinese leaders have stressed the development of a localized aerospace industry sector capable of designing and developing advanced avionics needed for military aircraft. Despite the investment of large amounts of budgetary and human resources, the Chinese had not shown the ability to promptly design, develop and mass produce an indigenous combat aircraft. The recently revealed J-7, and the J-8, both of which took so long in their developmental stages that by the time they were ready to enter front-line services they were already obsolete by Western standards, showed China the need for more investment in financial and human resources as well as the training of experienced technicians to work in all aspects of the technical design of a combat aircraft. The same holds true of the most vaunted of China’s aircraft developments, the J-10.

China is not alone in this area, other countries had tried in the past to design and mass-produce indigenous aircraft systems, most notable Israel, South Africa, India, Taiwan and south Korea; all abandoned their programs in favor of purchasing existing and proved aircraft types from the five largest weapons producers: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany. The main reason is the fact that the economic resources needed, not only to design a generation-leaping aircraft, but to be mass produced for local consume, are so massive that developing countries with a small industrial base simply can not afford to spend the necessary resources for a long period of time. This also holds true of large economies with a small gross national product output such as Russia, which is lagging far behind the Western countries in military technology designs. As a direct result of their failure to establish a permanent industrial base capable of producing front-line aircraft, China has renewed its imports of combat airplanes from Russia.

China also had the distinction of having one of the largest conventional military force in the world. The shear mass of numbers is enough to make a potential enemy think twice about provoking China. The truth is that, although the numbers of weapons are impressive, most of China’s military hardware is obsolete, both physically and technologically. Most of the weapon platforms utilized by China today, entered service in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and still serve the country in front-line units. Although the systems varied in age of development and deployment, the technologies used to create them are sorely based on Soviet blueprints of the 1950s. As a result, while older systems are being phased-out, the overall size of China’s conventional weapon force would be reducing. As of late 2001, estimates reported the size of China’s military force as 2.5 men under arms, of which, roughly 1.8 serve the People’s Liberation Army (China’s ground forces). They are divided into 27 military districts through the country. Within these districts lie 20 army groups, each containing around 60,000 men. They are subdivided into 44 infantry, 5 artillery, and 10 armored divisions. There are also brigade-sized groups in these army units. There are also three airborne divisions under the direct command of the Chinese Air Force. The reserve units are mostly compromised of infantry, artillery and anti-aircraft divisions. These forces are estimated to be composed of 1.1 million personnel. There are also the People of China Para-military units. The Armed Police, Border Defense Force and the Forces of the Ministry of Defense compromise a large sector in China’s strategic reserves. They counted a total of forty four divisions. These reserve formations are expected to increase in size as China moves forward with its major modernization and re-organization plans that emphasize the movement of active troop formations to the strategic reserve roles. The Army’s equipment is also being phased-out as new models were introduced to the force. China’s main battle tank platform, the Soviet designed T-54/55, also a product of the 1950s technologies, is no longer the main tank platform. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, China designed, with Soviet cooperation, and produced various tanks systems, but although their designs were more recently than that of the T-54, its overall capabilities are about the same. All of this changed in the summer of 1988, when China unveiled its newest battle tank, the Type 80. The 80 represents China’s first attempt at breaking with Soviet design concepts for a battle tank. The 80 had a formidable set of systems, some of them are: fire and control computerized? system, a laser range finder, a gun control system and night fighting capability. This tank breakthrough was followed by the Type 85, introduced in the mid 1990s as follow-up development of the 80. China’s latest main battle tank system, the massive T-90II, first revealed in 1991, is still not completely operational with the PLA. This new tank resembles in more than one way, the mainstay of Russian tank formations, and the T-72 heavy tank. China also possesses a force of around 2,100 light tanks, which as it is with much of their weapon systems, are based on Soviets designs from the 1950s. It is estimated that China’s tank strength is between 9,000 to 11,000 units. This number is deceiving; the majority of tanks in China’s front-line services are systems with over forty years of service life. Most of them could not function properly and a great number of them could not function at all. The most interesting part of the situation is that China, which, like the former Soviet Union, tends to value numbers more than any other matters, thus service maintenance of existing systems is poor. The same maintenance problem applies to the new weapons platform entering service today. Thus a major gap exists today in main battle tank design between China and the Western countries, the Chinese are in the processes of designing a new tank system that could compare with that of the Europeans; also they would like to emphasize quality over quantity. With these developments and the expected reduction in its tank force, China expects to be able to support its main battle tank systems with more efficiency in the future.

For most of its history, the People’s Army Liberation Navy submarine fleet has consisted of a small number of coastal vessels. The mainstay of their coastal fleet was the domestic produced version of Russia’s Romeo class submarine. It’s estimated that between 20 to 30 Romeos are still operational with the PALN. In the early 1970s, China decided to start a submarine development and production program aimed to build a local submarine in five years. It succeeded; the first indigenous submarine developed by China is the Ming Class. Although they are not better than the Romeos, they do represent China’s first attempt at self-sufficiency in designing weapon platforms. The next Chinese submarine class, the Song, entered service with the PALN in late 1999. In addition to these subs, China has purchased or is in the process of acquiring, more samples of the Russian-made Kilo Class submarines. In the nuclear-powered submarine field, China’s first attempt to produce a local system produced disappointing results for the PALN. The Han Class first entered service in 1974. Major power plant problems plagued the lead ship of this class. So much so, that the next commissioning of a Han Class sub was not made until mid 1980. China is also believed to be developing, with considerable assistance from Russia, a follow-on nuclear attack submarine, very similar to the Russian’s Victor III Class. China’s SSBN force consists of the Xia Class submarine, which is fitted to launch twelve Ju Lang-1 missiles with a single warhead of 200-300kt and an operational range of 1,700km. In part to its technical difficulties, the Xia Class is never deployed beyond regional waters. The newer submarine class, codename Type 094, would have better reactors and a quieter signature than its predecessors. This new class would be able to deploy 16 JL-2 missile, each capable of carrying up to six nuclear warheads. China’s surface fleet has been growing in size since the 1970s. The Chinese posses a number of Soviet-build Sovremenny destroyers as its main surface fleet weapon platform. They are equipped to carry the advanced SS-N-22 Sunburn supersonic, anti-shipping missile system. The Chinese are also building its own class of destroyers, the Luhai Class which displaces 6,000 tons. The lead ship of this class entered service in late 1999. The largest class of destroyers China operates is the Luda Class. China operates about sixteen of these ships. The remaining force is compromised of 37 frigates. As in the case of destroyers, China’s frigate force is mostly used as an air-defense force. China’s amphibious assault fleet is the Achilles heels of the PALN. China possessed around 49 amphibious assault vessels with full displacement of 1,000 tons. Many of these vessels are vintage WW II systems. Most of them, being United States Navy’s LST used in assaults around the South Pacific. China is planning to deploy an aircraft carrier. They are looking at buying a platform, most likely from Russia. The carrier probably needs to be conventional on take-off and landing aircraft since China does not posses vertical, short take-off and landing aircraft capability. Since China would probably would like to supply the air wings of the carrier with its J-10 fighters and Su-27 fighter-bombers, they would probably would need a carrier platform that could displace around 50,000 tons, which would put China in the need to acquire a carrier like the Russian Kuznetsov or the French Charles de Gaulle. China’s need to acquire a carrier capability is probably more for internal promotion that to actually being a first attempt by them to deploy a Blue Water navy.

The small size of China’s amphibious fleet excludes the Chinese of taking control of Taiwan by means of an amphibious assault. In the past, Chinese leaders had threatened to take action against Taiwan if the island, which China considered a renegade province, decided to declare its independence. The reality is that even if China decided to use force, it lacked the necessary military resources needed to complete the operation. An amphibious assault, which is the only mean China could take control of Taiwan’s territory, is out of the equation. First, China can only transport one armored division across the Straits, and even this would be hard to accomplish. Second, any amphibious landing would need complete control over the skies in the Strait, which the Chinese air force probably could not accomplish. Finally, both Taiwan and the United States could see the signs of pending military offensive months before the actual event. What China could do is to attack Taiwan with a barrage of missiles, the DF 15 and the DF 11. These missile systems are not accurate enough to destroy strategic targets such as airfields, radar stations and transport facilities; their only use would be as terror weapons, such as the V-2 or the Scud. If they are not fitted with nuclear warheads, the damage they could cause would be similar to a natural disaster. China also possesses a limited number of these missiles and any missile siege would be limited in duration. A naval blockade of the island is possible, but due to the strong U.S. statement regarding any attack on Taiwan and the notion of a powerful U.S. fleet coming to relive the besieged island, China would be hard pressed to perform any naval operation in the area.

The reality is that China is investing massive amounts of money to modernize its armed forces, but the current force structure is so old, that the rate of retirement will surpass the rate of acquisition in all major weapon platform systems. This fact means that China overall military force would decrease in size. Aircraft, missile systems and ground combat systems would decrease in numbers, the only possible exception could be China’s surface ship fleet. Also, the modernization process is slow due to the massive investment needed to accomplish it. China is also adding a small number of new technology weapon systems to its overall arsenal. New weapon platforms are purchased in small quantities, which can not dramatically alter the balance of power. China current acquisitions of Russian systems are not as impressive as they might look. Those systems are not comparable to the ones fielded by the United States or Japan. The main problem of China’s militarization might be their inability to produce a continuous indigenous weapon industry to produce next-generation military technology. Which could be used on their existing or newest systems? The recent reversal of policy from the Chinese government, from developing its own weapon systems to purchasing systems, mainly from Russia and Israel; has left the government in Peking without control over the military they so desperately desire. For the foreseeable future, China’s potential military action, mainly against Taiwan, is limited, let alone branching out of the regional setting they are now. Overall, the balance of power in East Asia would remain the same for the next decade.

1 John W. Lewis and Hua di, China’s Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals, International Security, Original: July 1997 – Updated December 2006.
2 Jeffrey Lewis, The Ambiguous Arsenal, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, May-June 2003.
3 Bill Gertz, China Advances Missile Program, Washington Times, June 22, 2005.
4 NTI and The Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, China Profile: Nuclear Capabilities, Nuclear Treaty Initiative, Fall 2003.

– Raul Colon

Japan’s World War II Tailless Aircraft

During the early days of World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army’s Air Forces had minimal interest in the development of a tailless configuration airplane. This dramatically contrasted with the view held by their main ally, Nazi Germany, who had experimented with tailless aircraft for several years. The lack of effort by the Japanese Navy, the one service viewed by most observers as the forerunner in military aviation in Japan, did not imply that the Army would follow them. Indeed, the Army quickly started a crash design program in late 1939. Because of the lateness of their start, the Japanese Army top brass knew that they needed to set up a program that could achieve in a short time, and with a dwindling financial resource base, maximum results.

The HK1 with a rudder but no tailplane. (photo, via author)

Efforts by the Imperial Japanese Army concentrated on the glider designs of the Kayaba Works Corporation, as well as the Mitsubishi Company’s tailless aircraft designs, which copied the German Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket fighter concept. The Kayaba designs were first conceived to collect data on tailless airplane configurations. Many designs were submitted by engineers inside Kayaba and outside consultants. The most promising design program was the HK1. The HK1 was the brainchild of a brilliant, albeit, obscure Japanese engineer, Dr. Hidemasa Kimura. He based his design on the concept of Kumazo Hino, the pioneer aviator who was the first person in Japan to fly a plane – performing the feat in the spring of 1910. Initial tests on the HK1 design were promising and lead the Japanese Army to sponsor an aircraft concept program – the first step in establishing a development and production program for a military aircraft. Working closely with Kayaba’s Chief Developing Designer, Dr. Shigeki Naito, Kimura designed and constructed a tailless test model aircraft. The model, designated the KU2, was extensively tested between early November 1940 and May 1941.

The KU2 with wingtip rudders. (photo, via author)

After the test phase of the KU2 was over, Dr. Kimura, with the assistance of another brilliant Japanese engineer, Joji Washimi, began to work on a more advance design in the spring of 1941: the KU3 was born. The KU3 was a two-system experimental model, it had no vertical control surfaces and the edges of its wings were cranked, incorporating sections of different angles of sweepback. The KU3 had three-control surfaces arrayed along the trailing edge of each wing. The KU3 made 65 test flights before the only built model crash landed in late 1941.

The KU3, showing it’s cranked wing. (photo, via author)

Kimura wasn’t done with tailless aircraft. He took the data recollected on the KU3 program and used it to built the first Japanese powered tailless aircraft, the KU4. At this moment time was running out for Japan and Kayaba had not shown sufficient concrete results to merit further investment of resources. Japan’s limited resources were needed in other areas. The tide of war had turned against the Empire. The KU4 program was terminated by the Army as soon as the drawings were on the table. This marked the end of any official Japanese-funded research on a tailless aircraft design. Then in 1944, the appearance of America’s massive B-29 bombers in the skies over Japan’s Home Island changed the equation. The Japanese Army, now with the complete support of the Navy, re-started the tailless aircraft program. The need for a high flying interceptor plane to take out the B-29s became imperative. The Army knew time was running out, and so turned to the Germans for help. They knew that any aircraft development program would take years to produce a serviceable plane, and in the case of a radical design such as a tailless aircraft, the development process could take at least a decade. With this situation on their minds, the Japanese Navy leadership decided that the only route available to them was to copy the only successfully operational tailless design program in the world, Germany’s Me 163 Komet rocket fighter. The Mitsubishi Company, using German supplied Me 163 Operational Manuals as well as a Walter HWK 109-509 rocket engine, was selected for the job of interpreting the data given by the Germans. They promptly went to work on a design for the new tailless airplane. In a matter of only months, thanks to the assistance of German engineers, Mitsubishi produced a test version of what they thought would be the next great Japanese plane. The J8M-1 Shusui (Swinging Sword) was unveiled in late December 1944. Mitsubishi built first a glider version for data collection purposes. It first took to the air around mid January 1945 and was subsequently placed in full prototype production mode. Two prototypes models were designated for the two services, the previously mentioned J8M-1 for the Navy and the Army’s Ki-200.

Two MXY-8 training gliders. (photo, via author)

Pilots started taxi-run practices with the J8M-1 gliders at Kashima Air Base in the spring of 1945. Rigorous testing and practice runs were made at Kashima by Navy pilots in preparation for the day when the Walter rocket engines would be fitted on the J8M-1 and the aircraft could take-off under their own power. The first powered J8M-1, fitted with the Walter engine, first took to the air on the morning of June 7th, 1945. A catastrophic engine failure shortly after takeoff resulted in a massive crash and subsequent explosion. The test pilot was killed instantly. This crash and the end of the war just two months after, spelled the end of the minimal Japanese attempt of acquiring a tailless fighter. The J8M-1 never entered assembly line production status, and the next generation Ki-202 advanced fighter never made it off the drawing board. When the Allies entered Japan in August 1945, they discovered, to their relief, a crude tailless program, a program that was doomed before it could takeoff.

– Raul Colon

More information:
wikipedia: Kayaba tailless gliders
The Mitsubishi J8M Shusui
wikipedia: Mitsubishi J8M

Angels on Heaven:
A Brief Look at the U.S. Navy’s
Blue Angels Air Demonstration Team

In the fall of 1946 the world looked to be at peace. The greatest conflict in the history of humanity, World War II, was over. United States servicemen were being re-deployed back home. Oversees troop levels were drastically reduced as the seeds of victory began to spread all over Europe and Asia. With the decommissioning of so many recruits, the U.S. Navy faced a growing dilemma in mid 1946. How could the Navy present a credible deterrence force against a possible aggressor, (Soviet Russia was now looming large in the East), and how could it persuade decision makers in Washington that it could provide the nation with a credible offensive capability in the future? Especially in the light of what the Navy saw as a growing conflict with the U.S. Army Air Force, soon to be the U.S. Air Force. Also in the minds of Navy aviation planners were the recent rapid advances in aviation technologies and tactics, and how to implement this new capability in it’s carrier-based aircraft. But the most pressing need for the Navy was the recruitment of new pilots. In the past, the Navy had a surplus of candidates to choose from, but due to the stunning success of the Army Air Forces and the reality of the new nuclear delivery environment, the Navy had been hard-pressed to find recruits with the same level of talent as during the War. New answers were needed. One idea floated and eventually implemented was the formation of an air demonstration team. A team that could demonstrate the Navy’s new hardware as well as the latest in aerial-combat tactics to new recruits in an effort to wow them.

The Navy had tried this option before. In 1928, they formed the Three Sea Hawks Aerial Team. Based on the West Coast, the team flew in popular air shows around the country during 1928-1930. They flew the Boeing F2B-1 biplane and were modestly successful. Then, in 1930, a pair of new teams were formed. The Three Gallant Souls of Flight Squadron 1B, flying the venerable Curtiss F6C-4 and the Three Flying Fish, also flying the F6C-4, began performing at airports mainly on the East Coast of the U.S. After a few years of performance, the teams were disbanded as the clouds of war loomed over Europe in late 1930s. In early 1946, and responding to a request by the Secretary of the Navy, the Office of the Chief of Information, headed by the Captain Roy Sempler, began drafting a discussion paper regarding the feasibility of forming a new team for air demonstrations, with the sole intention of presenting the Navy as an attractive and cutting-edge service. After many turns in the chain of command, the papers finally arrived at the desk of Rear Admiral Ralph Davison, commander of the Naval Air Advanced Training Command. He promptly moved the papers down the chain of command. The papers landed first in the office of Commander Hugh Winters who, after carefully studying it, forwarded it to Lieutenant Commander Roy M. Voris, Chief Flight Officer in the Instructors Advanced Training Unit; who promptly wrote that he “concur in advisability of establishing such a team”. Eventually these words reached Washington and the Secretary of the Navy; who instructed Voris to have a preliminary team ready to take the air by June 15th, 1946. Following this order, a team structure was formed. It was to be based at the Navy’s Training Command. There were two major reasons for the initial decision to base the team at Training Command. First and foremost, the original team was assembled in a “draw down” period. This refers to a period of time when the overall structure of the service force, its weapon assets as well as active personnel, are drawn down or reduced to base force structure. Because the Navy was in one of these periods when they ordered the team to be assembled, financial resources were scarce, and the service needed to find a command capable of assimilating this new structure relatively easily, thus the selection of Training Command. The other deciding factor was the aircraft the team would be flying, the F6F. Training Command had extensive experience in handling maintenance for the vaunted Hellcat. There’s another, less reported reason for the selection of TC. The Navy thought that with the introduction of this new air demonstration team it could boost the morale of young pilots, placing an added incentive to choose a naval aviation career and TC was where the recruits went to see actual flying maneuvers in those days. Now that the team was in the process of being formed, a commanding officer was needed. It was a no-brain decision for the Navy; Lieutenant Commander Voris was giving full command of the Navy’s newest asset, properly called the Navy Flight Exhibition Team.

The team’s first ground maintenance crew,
June 13th, 1946. (photo, via author)

Voris handpicked the team members. Each was rated the best of the best. C.W. Barber, R.M. Boudreaux, C.H. Casey, H.B. Hardee, C.C. Hicks, L.J. Johnson, W.L. Miller, L.R. Reid, W.E. Stanzeski, J.D. Turrentine, and T.P. Valentiner; were selected to comprise the first team. After selecting the team members, Voris next task was the selection of the team’s aircraft. Various models were tried. The first aircraft to be considered was the Grumman F4F Wildcat. After extensive research, Voris declined to use the F4F. The F4F possessed a long nose that could restrict forward visibility during inverted maneuvers, added to the perception that the Wildcat was underpowered, this ultimately doomed the aircraft’s chances of being selected. Another option evaluated was the F7F. But the F7F was deemed too big for acrobatic maneuvers. Ultimately, Voris did choose a Cat for the team, the Grumman F6F Hellcat. The selected F6F units were refurbishing platforms having undergone operational cycle refitting. The newly refurbish Hellcats were 33 ft 7 in in length with a height of 13 ft, 1 in. The wing area covered 334 sq ft. Maximum take-off weight was an impressive 15,413 lbs. The power plant installed in these modified Cats were the R2800-10W engine capable of generating 2000 hp. This power plant gave the Hellcat the ability to cruise at 168 miles per hour, with a top speed of just under 380 mph. The operational ceiling was established at 38,300 ft. After these changes, Voris when on to perform a set of minor modifications on the Hellcats, mostly stripping the plane of unnecessary systems such as oil tank armor, ammo boxes and the wing mounted guns, in an effort to make the aircraft lighter. Next on Voris list was the selection of the team’s color. The patriotic red, white and blue was quickly discarded because they represented the newly formed U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Acrobatic Team; then Voris came back to his original idea of colors, the Navy’s long-time colors: blue and gold. He utilizes a softer shade of blue for the fuselage, mixed with gold or yellow paint to augment the aircraft’s accent. The markings, U.S. Navy logos and serial numbers, were painted in bright yellow.

Back in Washington, the office of the Secretary of the Navy seemed to have a double agenda in creating the team. As we have already seen, the primary force behind the creation of an air demonstration team was the necessity by the Navy to gather a bigger piece of the budgetary pie, especially since the Army Air Force was about to compete directly with the Navy for aircraft related appropriations in the defense budget. But there’s another reason that had floated since late 1947. The U.S. Navy, which saw itself as the senior service and the sole source for force projection, since it’s operational aircraft-carriers structure could deploy anywhere on the globe, did not want allow the Army to challenge that position. Never mind the reason for the creation, by the spring of 1946 the team was up and running. After several months of practicing, Dan Smith, Director for Training at the Navy’s Air Advanced Training Command, wanted take a closer look at the team abilities to perform – abilities highly advertised by Voris. After an afternoon practice run which included Smith at the controls of his own F6F, he was more than pleased with the results. A couple of days after the demonstration, Voris went into the air again, this time in front of Admiral Davison at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, FL. After a spectacular display of maneuvers and gun tactics which culminated in the simulated downing of a captured Japanese Zero fighter, Admiral Davison recommended to his superior, Admiral Wagner, that the team be given operational status as soon as possible. Wagner flew from Washington to personally observe a demonstration by Voris’s team. When the impressive but uneven show, (there was an incident relating to the parachute on the dummy Zero pilot), ended Admiral Wagner was so impressed that a recommendation to the Secretary of the Navy was promptly written and summited. Full approval for the team came a couple of weeks later from the Secretary.

Rare photo of the US Navy’s Flight Exhibition Team first performance on May 30th, 1946.
The Team is flying a Vee-Type formation. (photo, via author)

June 15th, 1946 saw the public birth of the team. On that day, Voris lead the team during a series of maneuvers and demonstrations in front of a packed house at the Southern Air Show and Exhibition on Craig Field, Jacksonville, FL. To open their first show, the team started by building up speed in a three plane “vee” formation over the runway and then took to the air with a loop. After the initial loop, the formation went into a Cuban eight, and then moved to a chandelle turn, and out that, to a vee roll. From that stunt, the formation moved to into a reverse echelon roll, out of that and into a left echelon roll, then, again into a chandelle turn. After all that turning, the team went out and destroyed the dummy Zero, blasting the fighter out of the air with a short burst of machine gun fire. Back on the ground, the aficionados were stunned. They had never seen the kind of aerial maneuvers they saw today. They were more than trilled, they were exited. They lined up in rows to watch the pilots climb out of their cockpits, and immediately went to them asking for autographs. The team had arrived. Just one more thing remained; a new, more catchy name was needed. ‘Flight Exhibition Team’ was not that glamourous, at least for Voris and the rest of the team members. Voris organized a naming contest around Training Command. The response was unexpected. Hundreds of ideas floated into Voris’s office. None of them wowed Voris or his staff that is, until a proposal came in from an unexpected quarter. Captain William “Bill” Ginter, Chief of Staff of the base commander, told Voris he had another name for consideration: The Blue Lancers. The name ran a bell inside Voris head, the more he thought about it, the more he enjoyed the sound of it. But again, fate interfered. During a trip to New York Voris was glancing at a column called Goings On About Town which focused on New York’s legendary night life. On the column were a list of famous nightclubs, one in particular raised Voris attention, a club called Blue Angels. As it was the case with the Blue Lancers, the name stuck on him.

Agonizing over the decision, Voris and the rest of the team traveled to Omaha, Nebraska for a scheduled appearance. At the preceding press conference, Voris stunned the audience when he enlisted the press help in making the final decision. As is the case with the media, past or present, they pushed the name they found most newsworthy. After the air show was over, the press touted the acrobatic performance with Blue Angel quotes. The Blue Angels had arrived!

– Raul Colon

More information:
Blue Angels Alumni
Blue Angels Official Website