Tag Archives: All-Weather Interceptor

2 September 1953

Colonel J. Stanley Holtoner with his FAI record-setting F-86D Sabre, 51-6168. (FAI)

2 September 1953: Colonel J. Stanley Holtoner, U.S. Air Force, flew a production North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre, serial number 51-6168, to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Speed Record over a 100 kilometer course at Vandalia, Ohio, averaging 1,110.75 kilometers per hour (690.188 miles per hour).¹ Colonel Holtoner was the commanding officer of the Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California. He was awarded the Thompson Trophy.

On the previous day, Captain Harold E. Collins flew another F-86D Sabre, 51-6145, setting an FAI World Speed Record over a 15 kilometer straight course of 1,139.219 kilometers per hour (707.878 miles per hour).²

North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre 51-6168, FAI World Speed Record holder. (FAI)

The The North American Aviation, Inc. F-86D Sabre was an all-weather interceptor developed from North American Aviation F-86 fighter. It was the first single-seat interceptor, and it used a very sophisticated—for its time—electronic fire control system. It was equipped with search radar and armed with twenty-four unguided 2.75-inch (69.85 millimeter) Mk 4 Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR) rockets carried in a retractable tray in its belly.

The aircraft was so complex that the pilot training course was the longest of any aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory, including the Boeing B-47 Stratojet.

North American Aviation F-86D-1-NA Sabre 50-463, the eighth production aircraft. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The F-86D was larger than the F-86A, E and F fighters, with a longer and wider fuselage. It was also considerably heavier. The day fighter’s sliding canopy was replaced with a hinged “clamshell” canopy. A large, streamlined radome was above the reshaped engine intake.

The F-86D Sabre was 40 feet, 3¼ inches (12.275 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1½ inches (11.316 meters), and overal height of 15 feet, 0 inches (4.572 meters). The interceptor had an empty weight of 13,518 pounds (6,131.7 kilograms), and maximum takeoff weight of 19,975 pounds (9,060.5 kilograms). It retained the leading edge slats of the F-86A, F-86E and early F-86F fighters. The horizontal stabilizer and elevators were replaced by a single, all-moving stabilator. All flight controls were hydraulically boosted. A “clamshell” canopy replaced the sliding unit of earlier models.

The F-86D was powered by a General Electric J47-GE-17 engine. This was a single-shaft, axial-flow turbojet with afterburner. The engine had a 12-stage compressor, 8 combustion chambers, and single-stage turbine. The J47-GE-17 was equipped with an electronic fuel control system which substantially reduced the pilot’s workload. It had a normal (continuous) power rating of 4,990 pounds of thrust (22.20 kilonewtons); military power, 5,425 pounds (24.13 kilonewtons) (30 minute limit), and maximum 7,500 pounds of thrust (33.36 kilonewtons) with afterburner (15 minute limit). (All power ratings at 7,950 r.p.m.) It was 18 feet, 10.0 inches (5.740 meters) long, 3 feet, 3.75 inches (1.010 meters) in diameter, and weighed 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms).

North American Aviation, Inc., F-86-50-NA Sabre 52-10143 banks toward the camera.

The maximum speed of the F-86D was 601 knots (692 miles per hour/1,113 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, 532 knots (612 miles per hour/985 kilometers per hour) at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters), and 504 knots (580 miles per hour/933 kilometers per hour)at 47,800 feet (14,569 meters).

The F-86D had an area intercept range of 241 nautical miles (277 statute miles/446 kilometers) and a service ceiling of 49,750 feet (15,164 meters). The maximum ferry range with external tanks was 668 nautical miles (769 statute miles/1,237 kilometers). Its initial rate of climb was 12,150 feet per minute (61.7 meters per second) from Sea Level at 16,068 pounds (7,288 kilograms). From a standing start, the F-86D could reach its service ceiling in 22.2 minutes.

The F-86D was armed with twenty-four 2.75-inch (69.85 millimeter) unguided Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR) with explosive warheads. They were carried in a retractable tray, and could be fired in salvos of 6, 12, or 24 rockets. The FFAR was a solid-fuel rocket. The 7.55 pound (3.43 kilogram) warhead was proximity-fused, or could be set for contact detonation, or to explode when the rocket engine burned out.

North American Aviation F-86D-60-NA Sabre 53-4061 firing a salvo of FFARs.

The F-86D’s radar could detect a target at 30 miles (48 kilometers). The fire control system calculated a lead-collision-curve and provided guidance to the pilot through his radar scope. Once the interceptor was within 20 seconds of its target, the pilot selected the number of rockets to fire and pulled the trigger, which armed the system. At a range of 500 yards (457 meters), the fire control system launched the rockets.

Between December 1949 and September 1954, 2,505 F-86D Sabres (sometimes called the “Sabre Dog”) were built by North American Aviation. There were many variants (“block numbers”) and by 1955, almost all the D-models had been returned to maintenance depots or the manufacturer for standardization. 981 of these aircraft were modified to a new F-86L standard. The last F-86D was removed from U.S. Air Force service in 1961.

After its service with the United States Air Force, F-86D 51-6168 was transferred to the Greek Air Force. In 2009, it was photographed, stripped and sitting on its belly, at Agrinion Airport (AGQ), Greece.

North American Aviation, Inc., F-86-50-NA Sabre 52-10143, right roll over Malibu CA

¹ FAI Record File Number 10428

² FAI Record File Number 8868

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 September 1953

Captain Harold E. "Tom" Collins, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of the FAI World Speed Record setting North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre 51-6145. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots and Flight Test Engineers)
Captain Harold E. “Tom” Collins, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of the FAI World Speed Record setting North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre 51-6145. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots and Flight Test Engineers)

1 September 1953: Captain Harold Edward Collins, United States Air Force, flying North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre, 51-6145, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a 15/25 Kilometer Straight Course of 1,139.219 kilometers per hour (707.878 miles per hour) at Vandalia, Ohio.¹

North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre 51-6145, FAI World Speed Record holder.
North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre 51-6145, FAI World Speed Record holder.

This same F-86D (North American Aviation serial number 173-289) flown by Lieutenant Colonel William F. Barnes, set an FAI World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Straight Course of 715.697 miles per hour (1,151.803 kilometers per hour), 16 July 1953 at the Salton Sea, California. (FAI Record File Number 9868)

The F-86D was an all-weather interceptor developed from North American Aviation F-86 Sabre day fighter. It was the first single-seat interceptor, and it used a very sophisticated—for its time—electronic fire control system. It was equipped with search radar and armed with twenty-four unguided 2.75-inch (69.85 millimeter) Mk 4 Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR) rockets carried in a retractable tray in its belly.

The aircraft was so complex that the pilot training course was the longest of any aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory, including the Boeing B-47 Stratojet.

North American Aviation F-86D-1-NA Sabre
North American Aviation F-86D-1-NA Sabre 50-463, the eighth production aircraft. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The F-86D was larger than the F-86A, E and F fighters, with a longer and  wider fuselage. It was also considerably heavier. The day fighter’s sliding canopy was replaced with a hinged “clamshell” canopy. A large, streamlined radome was above the reshaped engine intake.

The F-86D Sabre was 40 feet, 3¼ inches (12.275 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1½ inches (11.316 meters), and overal height of 15 feet, 0 inches (4.572 meters). The interceptor had an empty weight of 13,518 pounds (6,131.7 kilograms), and maximum takeoff weight of 19,975 pounds (9,060.5 kilograms). It retained the leading edge slats of the F-86A, F-86E and early F-86F fighters. The horizontal stabilizer and elevators were replaced by a single, all-moving stabilator. All flight controls were hydraulically boosted. A “clamshell” canopy replaced the sliding unit of earlier models.

The F-86D was powered by a General Electric J47-GE-17 engine. This was a single-shaft, axial-flow turbojet with afterburner. The engine had a 12-stage compressor, 8 combustion chambers, and single-stage turbine. The J47-GE-17 was equipped with an electronic fuel control system which substantially reduced the pilot’s workload. It had a normal (continuous) power rating of 4,990 pounds of thrust (22.20 kilonewtons); military power, 5,425 pounds (24.13 kilonewtons) (30 minute limit), and maximum 7,500 pounds of thrust (33.36 kilonewtons) with afterburner (15 minute limit). (All power ratings at 7,950 r.p.m.) It was 18 feet, 10.0 inches (5.740 meters) long, 3 feet, 3.75 inches (1.010 meters) in diameter, and weighed 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms).

The maximum speed of the F-86D was 601 knots (692 miles per hour/1,113 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, 532 knots (612 miles per hour/985 kilometers per hour) at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters), and 504 knots (580 miles per hour/933 kilometers per hour)at 47,800 feet (14,569 meters).

A potential adversary of the North American Aviation F-86D Sabre all-weather interceptor was the Tupolev Tu-85 long-range strategic bomber.

The F-86D had an area intercept range of 241 nautical miles (277 statute miles/446 kilometers) and a service ceiling of 49,750 feet (15,164 meters). The maximum ferry range with external tanks was 668 nautical miles (769 statute miles/1,237 kilometers). Its initial rate of climb was 12,150 feet per minute (61.7 meters per second) from Sea Level at 16,068 pounds (7,288 kilograms). From a standing start, the F-86D could reach its service ceiling in 22.2 minutes.

The F-86D was armed with twenty-four 2.75-inch (69.85 millimeter) unguided Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR) with explosive warheads. They were carried in a retractable tray, and could be fired in salvos of 6, 12, or 24 rockets. The FFAR was a solid-fuel rocket. The 7.55 pound (3.43 kilogram) warhead was proximity-fused, or could be set for contact detonation, or to explode when the rocket engine burned out.

The F-86D’s radar could detect a target at 30 miles (48 kilometers). The fire control system calculated a lead-collision-curve and provided guidance to the pilot through his radar scope. Once the interceptor was within 20 seconds of its target, the pilot selected the number of rockets to fire and pulled the trigger, which armed the system. At a range of 500 yards (457 meters), the fire control system launched the rockets.

North American Aviation F-86D-60-NA Sabre 53-4061 firing a salvo of  FFARs.

Between December 1949 and September 1954, 2,505 F-86D Sabres (sometimes called the “Sabre Dog”) were built by North American Aviation. There were many variants (“block numbers”) and by 1955, almost all the D-models had been returned to maintenance depots or the manufacturer for standardization. 981 of these aircraft were modified to a new F-86L standard. The last F-86D was removed from U.S. Air Force service in 1961.

After its service with the United States Air Force, the record-setting Sabre 51-6145 was transferred to a NATO ally, the Ellinikí Vasilikí Aeroporía (Royal Hellenic Air Force).

North American Aviation F-86D-20-NA Sabre (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation F-86D-20-NA Sabre 51-3045. (U.S. Air Force)

¹ FAI Record File Number 8869

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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30 August 1952

The left wing attachment points of this Northrop F-89C-30-NO Scorpion, 51-5781, failded during a fly-by at the Inaternational Aviation Exposition, Detroit, Michigan, 30 August 1952. (U.S. Air Force)
The left wing of this Northrop F-89C-30-NO Scorpion, 51-5781, failed during a fly-by at the International Aviation Exposition, Detroit, Michigan, 30 August 1952. (Wikipedia)

30 August 1952: At 4:40 p.m., a tragic accident occurred during a fly-by of two new United States Air Force Northrop F-89C Scorpion all weather interceptors at the International Aviation Exposition at Detroit, Michigan.

Two F-89Cs of the 27th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4711th Defense Wing, based at Griffis Air Force Base, Rome, New York, made a low-altitude, high speed pass in full view of 51,000 spectators, including General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, then serving his second term as Chief of Staff, United States Air Force. Suddenly, the left wing of the lead interceptor separated. The tail also broke away and the fighter crashed and exploded. In the resulting fire, the Scorpion’s 20 millimeter cannon shells detonated.

Photograph by B.J. Mullof from The Detroit Free Press, Sunday, 31 August 1952, Vol.122, No. 118, Page 1, Columns 1–3.

A local newspaper reported:

     The crash occurred 4:40 p.m., toward the end of the day’s show.

     Adams and Richter were swooping down over the field in a “fly-by,” or speed run, Adams flying to one side and slightly to the rear of Recher.

     Suddenly, Adams’ plane swerved to the right. A piece was seen to break off, then an instant later the right wing tore off.

     As the pilot struggled to gain altitude, the left wing and tail section ripped off, and the hurtling fuselage continued across the field. It crashed between the railroad tracks and the Willow Run Expressway.

     It ripped up tracks, fences and telephone lines. Heat from the burning wreck turned the rails cherry red.

     Two passenger trains, eastbound and westbound, screeched to a halt to avoid piling into the wreckage. Railroad service was delayed an hour until tracks were repaired. . .

     AIR FORCE OFFICIALS theorized that the crash was probably caused by turbulent air near the ground added to the stress put on the plane by the maneuver, plus the added thrust of the afterburners, devices which give added “push” to the jet.

Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Air Force chief of staff, said, “This is one of the strongest airplanes that has ever been built, but there are some things you just can’t build against.”

The Detroit Free Press, Sunday, 31 August 1952, Vol.122, No. 118, Page 4, Columns 2–3

Major Donald E. Adams, a fighter ace who had won the Silver Star in Korea just months earlier, was killed, along with Captain Edward F. Kelly, Jr., the radar intercept officer. Five people on the ground were injured by falling wreckage.

The second F-89 was flown by Major John Recher and Captain Thomas Myslicki. They landed immediately at Selfridge Air Force Base.

Northrop F-89 Scorpion. (Military Factory)

This was not the first wing failure in an F-89C, nor the last. The Air Force grounded the Scorpions and ordered Northrop to return the airplanes to the factory or to modification centers using the company’s pilots. Northrop engineers began an intensive investigation to discover the cause of these catastrophic failures.

Northrop F-89C-1-NO and F-89C-5-NO Scorpions at the Northrop Field, Hawthorne, California, circa 1952. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

When designing the airplane, engineers tried to use materials that provided the greatest strength at the lightest weight. A new aluminum alloy had been used for the wing attachment fittings. This material had properties that weren’t understood at the time, but when subjected to certain types of dynamic loads, it could fatigue and become brittle rapidly. It was also very sensitive to surface imperfections, such as scratches or machining marks, that could rapidly propagate fatigue fractures.

Northrop YF-89 Scorpion 46-679, circa 1949. (Military Factory)

A second problem was that, under certain conditions, the Scorpion’s wings could enter a sequence of rapidly increasing oscillations, actually twisting the wing. This occurred so quickly that a pilot was not likely to see it happening. The twisting motion focused on the wing attachment points, and resulted in a catastrophic failure.

Northrop redesigned the wing to reduce the oscillation, and replaced the aluminum attachment fittings with new ones made of forged steel.

The F-89 was returned to service and became a very reliable airplane.

Flight crew (pilot, radar intercept officer) of a Northrop F-89C Scorpion. Their helmets are decorated with an image of a scorpion and the Northrop corporate logo. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

Major Adams’ Scorpion, Northrop F-89C-30-NO 51-5781, was a two-place, twin-engine, all weather interceptor, designed as a replacement for the World War II-era Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter. It was operated by a pilot and a radar intercept operator. The F-89C was 53 feet, 5 inches (16.281 meters) long with a wingspan of 56 feet, 0 inches (17.069 meters) and overall height of 17 feet, 6 inches (5.334 meters). The wings’ leading edges were swept aft 5° 8′. There was 1° dihedral, and the angle of incidence was 1° 30′. There was no twist. The total wing area was 638.0 square feet (59.27 square meters). The F-89C had an empty weight was 24,958 pounds (11,321 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 37,619 pounds (17,064 kilograms).

Northrop F-89C-30-NO Scorpion 51-5785, sister ship of Major Adams’ interceptor.

The F-89C was powered by two Allison J35-A-21B or J35-A-33A afterburning turbojet engines. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet with an 11-stage compressor section, 8 combustion chambers, and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-33 had a maximum continuous power rating of 4,800 pounds of thrust (21.35 kilonewtons) at 7,650 rpm. Its military power rating was 5,400 pounds of thrust (24.02 kilonewtons) at 8,000 r.p.m. (30-minute limit), and it produced a maximum 6,950 pounds (30.92 kilonewtons) at 8,000 r.p.m. with afterburner (5-minute limit). The J35-A-33A was 3 feet, 1 inch (0.940 meters) in diameter, 16 feet, 3.5 inches (4.953 meters) long, and weighed 2,725 pounds (1,236 kilograms).

It had a maximum speed of 547 knots (629 miles per hour/1,013 kilometers per hour) at 10,550 feet (3,216 meters). It could climb to 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) in 8.4 minutes, and 50,000 feet (15,240) in 17.5 minutes. The service ceiling was 51,550 feet (15,712 meters) and combat radius 297 nautical miles (342 statute miles/550 kilometers). The maximum ferry range was 768 nautical miles (884 statute miles (1,422 kilometers).

An Air Force master sergeant loading 20mm cannon shells for an F-89’s six M24A-1 20 mm guns. (LIFE Magazine/Jet Pilot Overseas)

The interceptor was armed with six  M24A-1 20 mm autocannon in the nose, with 200 rounds of ammunition per gun.

Northrop Corporation built 1,050 F-89 Scorpions. 164 of these were F-89Cs. Variants produced after the F-89C deleted the six cannon in the nose and used aerial rockets instead. Scorpions served the Air Force and Air National Guard in the air defense role until 1969.

Northrop F-89C-30-NO Scorpion 51-5795. (Military Factory)
Major Donald E. Adams, United States Air Force. (Imperial War Museum)

Donald Earl Adams was born 23 February 1921 at Canton, New York. He was the first of two sons of Alonzo Deys Adams, a wallpaper and paint salesman, and Mae C. Hurd Adams.

Adams attended Western State Teachers College, Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was a member of the baseball, boxing and wrestling teams.

After graduating from college, Adams enlisted as a private, Enlisted Reserve Corps, at Rochester, New York, 10 October 1942. He was 6 feet, 0 inches (1.83 meters) tall and weighed 155 pounds (70 kilograms). Private Adams was appointed an Aviation Cadet, 18 November 1942.

Miss Mary Ann Lewark, 1942

On 13 February 1943, at Montgomery, Alabama, Adams married Miss Mary Ann Lewark, the 21-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Glenn W. Lewark, and a graduate of Western Michigan College at Kalamazoo. They would have three children, Donald, Nancy and Steven.

On completion of flight training, Cadet Adams was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.), 30 August 1943.

Lieutenant Adams was assigned as a flight instructor until July 1944, when he underwent operational training as a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot.

Second Lieutenant Adams joined the 343rd Fighter Squadron, 55th Fighter Group, at RAF Wormingford (Air Force Station 131), Hertfordshire, in February 1945. He was assigned a North American Aviation P-51D-15-NA Mustang, 44-15372, with squadron markings CY R. He named his fighter Sweet Mary, after his wife. Adams is credited with destroying a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Me 410 and damaging a second Bf 109, in strafing attacks on the afternoon of 9 April 1945, and a second Bf 109 damaged, 17 April 1945. He was promoted to First Lieutenant, A.U.S., 2 May 1945.

1st Lieutenant Donald Earl Adams, 343rd Fighter Squadron, 55th Fighter Group, 1945. (Imperial War Museum)

On 24 August 1946, Lieutenant Adams was appointed a second lieutenant, Field Artillery, with date of rank to 30 August 1943, his original commissioning date. In November 1946, Lieutenant Adams was assigned to the 307th Fighter Squadron, 31st Fighter Group, on occupation duty at Kitzigen Army Airfield in Bavaria. The 307th was one of the first units to be equipped with the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star jet fighter. On 1 May 1947, Lieutenant Adams was transferred to the Air Corps.

Returning to the United States in June 1947, Lieutenant Adams was assigned to the 62nd Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, at Selfridge Air Force Base, near Mount Clemens, Michigan. The squadron flew P-80s and F-86 Sabres.

In October 1951, Major Adams joined the 16th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, 51st Fighter-Interceptor Group, at Suwon Air Base (K-13), Republic of South Korea, flying the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre.

Silver Star

On 3 May 1952, Adams was leading a flight of six Sabres. He and his flight attacked a group of twenty Chinese MiG 15s. During the battle, he shot down the enemy flight leader and then the deputy flight leader and damaged three more enemy fighters, completely breaking up the enemy flight. He was awarded the Silver Star.

While flying the the 16th, Major Adams was credited with destroying 6½ enemy aircraft in aerial combat, and damaging another 3½. On his twentieth mission, he had just shot down a MiG 15 when he was attacked by four more. The enemy fighters chased Adams out over the Yellow Sea before he could break away. By this time, he was 250 miles (402 kilometers) from base with fuel remaining for just 100 miles (161 kilometers). He said, “I climbed to 45,000 feet [13,716 meters], shut of the engine and glided 150 miles [241 kilometers] before starting up again.”

Adams flew 100 combat missions during the Korean War. He returned to the United States 16 June 1952, and in July, was assigned to the 27th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, 4711th Defense Wing, Air Defense Command, at Griffis Air Force Base.

In addition to the Silver Star, Major Adams had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with one silver and two bronze oak leaf clusters (seven awards), the Presidential Unit Citation with one oak leaf cluster (two awards), the American Campaign Medal, European African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three service stars, World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with three service stars (three campaigns), the Air Force Longevity Service Award with one oak leaf cluster (ten years service), the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, the United Nations Service Medal for Korea, and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.

Major Donald Earl Adams, United States Air Force, is buried at the Clinton Grove Cemetery, Mount Clemens, Michigan.

Edward F. Kelly, Jr., was born in New York, 5 May 1918. He was the first of four children of Edward F. Kelly, a pawn broker, and Agatha M. Tynan Kelly. Captain Kelly flew 69 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II. He was a resident of New York City.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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19 July 1957, 14:00:04.6 UTC

Northrop F-89J Scorpion 53-2547 fires a live MB-1 rocket during Operation Plumbbob John, 1400 GMT, 19 July 1957. (U.S. Air Force)

During 1957, a series of 29 nuclear weapons tests were carried out at the United States’ Nevada Test Site, 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, under Project Plumbbob. Shot John was the first and only firing of a live, nuclear-armed, air-to-air anti-aircraft missile.

On Friday morning, 19 July 1957, a United States Air Force Northrop F-89J Scorpion interceptor, serial number 53-2547, flown by Captain Eric W. Hutchison, Pilot, and Captain Alfred C. Barbee, Radar Intercept Officer, launched a Genie MB-1 unguided rocket at an altitude of 18,500 feet (5,640 meters) over NTS Area 10.

The rocket accelerated to Mach 3 and traveled 2.6 miles (4,250 meters) in 4.5 seconds when, at 07:00:04.6 a.m., Pacific Daylight Savings Time (14:00 UTC), its W-25 warhead was detonated by a signal from a ground station. The resulting explosive yield was 1.7 kilotons.

Plumbbob John fireball as seen from Indian Springs Air Base, 30 miles away from the detonation. The aircraft in the foreground is a Northrop F-89J Scorpion, a sister-ship of the launch aircraft. (U.S. Air Force)

The Northrop Corporation F-89J Scorpion was a two-place, twin-engine, sub-sonic all-weather interceptor. It was flown by a pilot and radar intercept officer in a tandem cockpit. It had a straight wing at mid-fuselage and a “T” tail horizontal stabilizer. Earlier variants of the Scorpion were armed with machine guns and rockets, but the F-89J carried only rockets and guided missiles.

The fireball of the W-25 warhead, photographed from approximately 5 miles. (U.S. Air Force)
The fireball of the W-25 warhead, photographed from approximately 5 miles. (Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Field Office)

F-89J 53-2547 was built as an F-89D-60-NO Scorpion, and was one of 350 D-models which were upgraded to the F-89J standard. It was a missile-armed all-weather interceptor with a two man crew assigned to the Air Defense Command.

The Northrop F-89J Scorpion was 53 feet, 8.4 inches long (16.368 meters) with a wingspan of 59 feet, 9.6 inches (18.227 meters) and overall height of 17 feet, 6 inches (5.334 meters). The leading edge of the interceptor’s wings were swept aft 5° 8′. The angle of incidence was 1° 30′, with no twist, and 1° 0′ dihedral. The total wing area was 606 square feet (56.30 square meters).

The F-89J had an empty weight of 26,883 pounds (12,194 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 47,719 pounds (21,645 kilograms).

The F-89J Scorpion was powered by two General Electric-designed, Allison Engine Company-built, J35-A-35 engines. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engine with an 11-stage compressor section and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-33 had a Normal (continuous) power rating of 4,855 pounds of thrust (21.596 kilonewtons) at 7,400 r.p.m. The Military Power rating was 5,440 pounds (24.198 kilonewtons) at 8,000 r.p.m. (30 minute limit), and it could produce a maximum 7,200 pounds of thrust (32.027 kilonewtons) at 8,000 r.p.m., with afterburner (5 minute limit). The engine was 16 feet, 3.5 inches (4.966 meters) long, 3 feet, 1.0 inches (0.940 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,830 pounds (1,284 kilograms).

Cutaway illustration of J35 turbojet engine. (General Electric)

The F-89J had a cruise speed of 402 knots (463 miles per hour/745 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 528 knots (608 miles per hour/978 kilometers per hour) at 11,100 feet (3,383 meters). The service ceiling was 43,900 feet (13,381 meters). The interceptor’s combat radius was 435 nautical miles (501 statute miles/806 kilometers), and the maximum ferry range was 1,498 nautical miles (1,724 statute miles/2774 kilometers).

The F-89J could be armed with two MB-1 Genie rockets and four Hughes GAR-2A (AIM-4C) Falcon infrared-seeking air-to-air missiles; or two MB-1 Genies and 104 2.75-inch Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR).

F-89s served with the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard from 1948 until 1969. Northrop F-89J Scorpion 53-2547 was transferred to the Montana Air National Guard in 1960. It is on display at the Air National Guard Base, Great Falls, Montana.

A Douglas MB-1 Genie nuclear-armed air-to-air rocket is loaded aboard the F-89 Scorpion in preparation for Operation Plumbbob John. (U.S. Air Force)
A Douglas MB-1 Genie nuclear-armed air-to-air rocket is loaded aboard the F-89 Scorpion in preparation for Operation Plumbbob John. (U.S. Air Force)

The Douglas Aircraft Company, Missiles and Space Systems Division MB-1 Genie (AIR-2 after June 1963) was an unguided, nuclear-armed, air-to-air anti-aircraft rocket. Its solid-fuel Thiokol SR49-TC-1 engine produced 36,500 pounds of thrust (162.360 kilonewtons) and gave the Genie a maximum speed of Mach 3.3. Its range was 6 miles (9.6 kilometers). The rocket weighed 822 pounds (373 kilograms) with its W-25 warhead, and was 9 feet, 8 inches (2.946 meters) in length, with a maximum diameter of 1 foot, 5.5 inches (0.445 meters). The fins spanned 3 feet, 4 inches (1.118 meters). In production from 1957 to 1962, 3,150 missiles were produced. The Genie was in service from 1957 to 1988.

Douglas MB-1 (AIR-2) Genie. (Nuclear Weapons Archive)

The W-25 was a Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory-designed anti-aircraft warhead. It was a fission device, using implosion of both uranium and plutonium. The warhead’s diameter was 17.35 inches, and it was 26.6 inches long. The warhead weighed 221 pounds (100 kilograms). The W-25 was produced from May 1957 to May 1960. All had been retired by December 1984.

Detonation was by time delay fuse. Lethal radius of the warhead was estimated to be approximately 1,000 feet (300 meters).

Plumbbob John. The Nevada State Journal described “a weird spray trailing earthward.”

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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16 July 1953

LCOL William F. Barns with his North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre 51-6145, after his record-setting flight, 16 July 1953. (U.S. Air Force)

16 July 1953: Lieutenant Colonel William F. Barns, United States Air Force, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) absolute World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Straight Course at the low-altitude course at the Salton Sea, California. ¹

Colonel Barns flew this North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre, serial number 51-6145, a radar-equipped all-weather interceptor. Lieutenant Colonel Barns was the Air Material Command’s pilot representative at the North American Aviation Los Angeles plant. The Sabre was a standard production airplane, the first Block 35 model built. It was fully loaded with twenty-four 2.75-inch (70 millimeter) aerial rockets.

Barns made the FAI-required four passes—two in each direction—in the Sabre interceptor. His four passes were timed at 720.574, 710.515, 721.351, and 710.350 miles per hour. (1,159.651, 1,143.463, 1,160.902, and 1,143.198 kilometers per hour).

Lieutenant Colonel William F. Barns, the Air Material Command’s pilot representative at the North American Aviation Los Angeles plant, in the cockpit of a brand-new North American Aviation F-86D-30-NA Sabre, 51-6112. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

Barns averaged 715.745 miles per hour (1,151.88 kilometers per hour)  at only 125 feet (38 meters) above the surface. The air temperature was 105 °F. (40.5 °C.)

The surface of the Salton Sea is -236 feet (-71.9 meters)—below Sea Level. Barns’ Sabre was flying at -111 feet (-33.8 meters). Under these conditions, the speed of sound, Mach 1, was 794 miles per hour (1,278 kilometers per hour), so the margin between the record speed and the onset of transonic compressibility effects was increased. Barns’ Sabre reached a maximum 0.91 Mach under these conditions.

North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre 51-6145, FAI World Speed Record holder.
North American Aviation F-86D-35-NA Sabre 51-6145, FAI World Speed Record holder.

The Associated Press reported the event:

Air Force Colonel Breaks Record

THERMAL, Calif. (AP)—An Air Force colonel flashed to a new air speed record of 715.7 miles per hour Thursday in a north American F-86D Sabre Jet.

Skimming over the hot beach of Southern California’s Salton Sea, Lt. Col. William F. Barns, 32, broke the record set last Nov. 19 over the same run by Capt. J. Slade Nash of Edwards Air Force Base.

On his first try, Barns averaged 713.6 miles per hour, a record performance, but came back a half hour later to beat that.

The airplane could not exceed 500 meters altitude (1,640 feet) at any time after takeoff on the trial, and the 3-kilometer dash had to be made below 100 meters (328 feet).

The Daily Illini, 17 July 1953, Vol. 82, Number 189, at Page 1, Column 2.

The same F-86D, 51-6145, flown by Captain Harold E. Collins, set an FAI World Record for Speed Over a 15/25 Kilometer Straight Course of 1,139.219 kilometers per hour (707.878 miles per hour) at Vandalia. Ohio, 1 September 1953. ²

William Frederick Barns was born 30 August 1920 at Baltimore, Maryland. He was the son of Claude Cox Barns and Nellie C. Hedrick Barns. The family moved to the Hawaiian Islands in 1925. He attended Theordore Roosevelt High School, in Honolulu. In 1940, William was employed as a clerk at the Bishop National Bank.

Barns began civilian flight training at John Rodgers Field near Honolulu in 1941, and was at the airfield during the attack on the Hawaiian Islands by the Imperial Japanese Navy, 7 December 1941. Barns enlisted in U.S. Army Air Corps 13 April 1942. He had brown hair and eyes, was 5 feet, 10 inches (1.78 meters) tall, and weighed 138 pounds. After qualifying as a pilot at Luke Field, Arizona, Barns was commissioned as a second lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Forces.

During World War II, Barns flew 210 combat missions with the 324th Fighter Group. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Silver Star.

Major and Mrs. William F. Barns, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaiian Islands,1949.

Colonel Barns married Miss Marylouise Hamilton at the Flyer’s Chapel of the Mission Inn, Riverside, California, 18 August 1947. They had two children, Terrie and Bill. At the time of Barn’s world speed record, the family resided in Palos Verdes Estates, a few miles south of the North American factory.

Colonel Barns retired from the U.S. Air Force, 31 May 1966. He died in Phoenix, Arizona, 17 April 1995.

North American Aviation F-86D-1-NA Sabre 50-463. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The F-86D was an all-weather interceptor developed from North American Aviation F-86 Sabre day fighter. It was the first single-seat interceptor and it used a very sophisticated—for its time—electronic fire control system. It was equipped with radar and armed with twenty-four unguided 2.75-inch (69.85 millimeter) diameter Mark 4 Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR) rockets carried in a retractable tray in its belly.

A North American Aviation, Inc. advertisement, 1953. (Vintage Ad Browser)

The aircraft was so complex that the pilot training course was the longest of any aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory, including the Boeing B-47 Stratojet.

The F-86D was larger than the F-86A, E and F fighters, with a wider fuselage. Its length was increased to 40 feet, 3 inches (12.268 meters) with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1.5 inches (11.316 meters), and its height is 15 feet, 0 inches (4.572 meters). The interceptor had an empty weight of 13,518 pounds (6,131.7 kilograms), and maximum takeoff weight of 19,975 pounds (9,060.5 kilograms). It retained the leading edge slats of the F-86A, F-86E and early F-86F fighters. The horizontal stabilizer and elevators were replaced by a single, all-moving stabilator. All flight controls were hydraulically boosted. A “clamshell” canopy replaced the sliding unit of earlier models

The F-86D was powered by a General Electric J47-GE-17 engine. This was a single-shaft, axial-flow turbojet with afterburner. The engine had a 12-stage compressor, 8 combustion chambers, and single-stage turbine. The J47-GE-17 was equipped with an electronic fuel control system which substantially reduced the pilot’s workload. It had a normal (continuous) power rating of 4,990 pounds of thrust (22.20 kilonewtons); military power, 5,425 pounds (24.13 kilonewtons) (30 minute limit), and maximum 7,500 pounds of thrust (33.36 kilonewtons) with afterburner (15 minute limit). (All power ratings at 7,950 r.p.m.) It was 18 feet, 10.0 inches (5.740 meters) long, 3 feet, 3.75 inches (1.010 meters) in diameter, and weighed 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms).

North American Aviation F-86D-20-NA Sabre 51-3045. (U.S. Air Force)

The maximum speed of the F-86D was 601 knots (692 miles per hour/1,113 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, 532 knots (612 miles per hour/985 kilometers per hour) at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters), and 504 knots (580 miles per hour/933 kilometers per hour)at 47,800 feet (14,569 meters).

The F-86D had an area intercept range of 241 nautical miles (277 statute miles/446 kilometers) and a service ceiling of 49,750 feet (15,164 meters). The maximum ferry range with external tanks was 668 nautical miles (769 statute miles/1,237 kilometers). Its initial rate of climb was 12,150 feet per minute (61.7 meters per second) from Sea Level at 16,068 pounds (7,288 kilograms). From a standing start, the F-86D could reach its service ceiling in 22.2 minutes.

North American Aviation F-86D-60-NA Sabre 53-4061 firing a salvo of FFARs.

The F-86D was armed with twenty-four 2.75-inch (69.85 millimeter) unguided Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR) with explosive warheads. They were carried in a retractable tray, and could be fired in salvos of  6, 12, or 24 rockets. The FFAR was a solid-fuel rocket. The 7.55 pound (3.43 kilogram) warhead was proximity-fused, or could be set for contact detonation, or to explode when the rocket engine burned out.

The F-86D’s radar could detect a target at 30 miles (48 kilometers). The fire control system calculated a lead-collision-curve and provided guidance to the pilot through his radar scope. Once the interceptor was within 20 seconds of its target, the pilot selected the number of rockets to fire and pulled the trigger, which armed the system. At a range of 500 yards (457 meters), the fire control system launched the rockets.

A potential adversary of the North American Aviation F-86D Sabre all-weather interceptor was the Tupolev Tu-85 long-range strategic bomber.

Between December 1949 and September 1954, 2,505 F-86D Sabres (sometimes called the “Sabre Dog”) were built by North American Aviation. There were many variants (“block numbers”) and by 1955, almost all the D-models had been returned to maintenance depots or the manufacturer for standardization. 981 of these aircraft were modified to a new F-86L standard. The last F-86D was removed from U.S. Air Force service in 1961.

After its service with the United States Air Force, the world-record-setting Sabre, 51-6145, was transferred to NATO ally, the Royal Hellenic Air Force.

North American Aviation F-86D-30-NA Sabre 51-6143, right roll over Malibu, California.

¹ FAI Record File Number 9868

² FAI Record File Number 8869

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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