MY SPACE-AGE FLIGHT ON BOMARC
Six miles above Cape Canaveral, this Maclean’s editor and his pilot rode their half bomber, half missile as it zeroed on an “enemy” aircraft — then swerved at the last moment. Here’s how it feels to ride the robot that will soon be Cana defence weapon
The black jet bomber, with the mysterious nose like an anteater’s, broke away from its steep dive as the pilot put it into a climbing turn. Under our port wing the target, a silvery military aircraft, seemed to skid away from us across the dun and green background of Cape Canaveral, the Florida missile test centre.
“Never knew what didn't hit him" said Bob Perry, the pilot, as he pulled the nose up and went looking for other targets to "destroy.”
The strange aircraft in which the two of us were riding was the only one of its kind. Originally it had been a B-57, the U. S. Air Force’s version of the RAF’s Canberra. Many modifications had altered it beyond recognition. It was now half bomber, half missile, one of the most fantastic machines that ever flew. The missile half, at the front end of the old bomber plane, was the nose of the Bomarc. the supersonic ground-to-air missile that is scheduled to replace the abandoned Arrow fighter plane as the chief weapon of Canada's defense.
The Bomarc, w ith a range of two hundred and fifty miles — shortly to be increased to four hundred in a newer model — is designed to hit and blow up attacking bombers under the guidance of an electronic system called SAGE.
T went to the Bomarc’s test centre at Cape Canaveral at the invitation of the Boeing Airplane Company. Boeing expects to be supplying Canada with enough birds, as the missiles are called, to equip two operational bases. To get an idea of how the Bomarc worked I was to ride in the science-fiction hybrid, a half plane, half missile that would charge on a target plane under the direction of its electronic brain and then, just before the fatal collision, be taken back in control of and steered off the collision course by a human co-pilot.
Throughout the flight, the Black Goat, as it is called by some of its hostlers (the others call it “the airplane” or 497), was to be guided automatically by the modern falconers who make their magic while they watch radar scopes and press buttons from control rooms on the ground. They set the initial course of the missile. A rocket booster punches it skyward until it assumes straight and level flight under the power of two ram jets. All this time, with the help of its magic eyes and its two electronic brains — one aloft and one on the ground — it is heading for a radar-spotted enemy. When it comes within striking distance of its prey the Bomarc’s nose mechanism takes over. This is the moment called "dive zero." The controls in the missile lock. From then on — and it’s only a matter of seconds — the missile and the bomber are destined to collide and die together.
That was about all I knew when I arrived on the missile coast late on a spring afternoon. 1 also knew I was to be the first reporter to ride the tail of the Bomarc as it continued its round of tests. As our airline drew near the Cape the pilot said on the p.a. system: “Look out at the left and you’ll see them shoot a missile.” Laboriously, as though the long slim rocket were being drawn painfully from the earth itself, an Ajax began to rise trailing a trembling streamer of orange flame. At a thousand feet the missile began to falter, fell over on its side and swung crazily in the sky before it disappeared into a layer of cloud. A black stain of smoke seemed to fill and spill out of the cloud. Later we heard that it had been necessary to blow up the missile and the flaming fragments had started brush fires on the cape as workers dived for cover under trucks.
The man sitting next to me snorted and sat back. That's how it is with missiles,” he said. "It’s all over so soon.”
I was met at Melbourne by Bob Perry who told me he would be flying me in the Goat. He was stocky, his black hair was crew cut and he was deeply tanned. Out in his car he put on horn-rimmed glasses to read one of the gauges and then whipped them off and put them in the breast pocket of his jacket.
He grinned. “I hope you don’t mind flying with a guy who wears glasses. Actually, I only need these when I want to see something.”
As we drove to the house on the beach which he shared with three Boeing technicians, he told me something about himself. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1939 and flew B-17s in the Java and New Guinea campaigns of the South Pacific war. He did a second tour on transports because, as he said, “I was afraid to take a boat home on rotation for fear we’d get sunk.” After the war he married Alveen Gillespie, whose family had moved to the U. S. from Melfort, Sask. She was now in Seattle so their three children could finish out the year at school before joining Bob.
After the war he went to work for Ethiopian Airways and frequently had Haile Selassie as a passenger and for one period flew Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to and from the location of the movie The African Queen. For the past ten years he has been an experimental pilot and at forty-five he has at least thirteen thousand hours flying time.
At the house I met two young Ontario men — Art Meadows of Ailsa Craig, and George Papp of Simcoe, both graduates in electronics at Toronto’s Ryerson Institute. They were employed by Canadair in Montreal but were part of a group of thirty Canadians on the Cape and another hundred and fifty in Seattle studying Boeing’s missile program. In Montreal Canadair officials later explained that this was an attempt to keep together a cadre continued on page 70
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Youngsters around Cape Canaveral can identify each rocket according to the shape of its fins
of missilemen who had worked on the Sparrow, an air-to-air missile that was canceled last September. So far the only missile business the firm has landed has been the manufacture of wings and ailerrons for all Bomarcs, an enterprise which employs only two hundred of the plant’s ninety-five hundred workers.
After dinner that first night in Florida, Bob Perry brought out a model of the Bomarc and he and the other Boeing men talked about their bird with pride. Perry told me that the SAGE operator who pressed the button that sent a Bomarc on a recent successful mission off the cape had sat in a control room fifteen hundred miles away in Kingston. N.Y. Canada will get a SAGE installation to direct its two Bomarc bases which will be at La Macaza, a hundred and thirty miles north of Montreal, and at North Bay in Ontario.
As he put the model back in the bookcase Perry said to me, “Wait till you see that airplane you're going to fly in. They've put so much electronic equipment on it that the centre of gravity is about five feet in front of the nose." He grinned. "As a matter of fact it flies very well although we baffled the air force for a while. They wondered what we were."
The next morning we went down the missile coast to Cape Canaveral, past Patrick Air Force Base, the hangars and test centres of contractors like Con vair, Westinghouse, and of course Boeing, who are working on missiles and other space equipment. We drove through the boom town of Cocoa Beach, past motels with space-age names such as Vanguard. Satellite and Sea Missile. On the lawns of some of the new bungalows stood warsurplus telescopes that have enabled the children of the district to recognize a rocket by its fins faster than they can identify a new car.
The cape itself is guarded at the south and north by gates and guards, but these didn't prevent four elderly women from driving through recently while the guards were interrogating another carload. They were from the Audubon society and had heard the cape was a good place to observe certain rare birds.
Although it is impossible to enter the test area without elaborate clearances, certified by large round lapel badges of the kind worn by convention delegates, complete secrecy is hard to maintain with enterprises as obvious as rockets. At the word of an impending big shoot, when a bird is being aimed at the moon or some other suburb in space, the news permeates the beaches like the smell of deep fried shrimp on Saturday night. Picnic parties gather on the beach the way they do at Toronto Island in the fall to watch the fireworks at the Canadian National Exhibition.
The cape itself is a fiat boomerangshaped sandspit of fourteen thousand acres cut off from the mainland by the Banana River. It is covered with palmetta scrub and shrubs and in places is redolent with the candied, improbable fragrance of sweet clover. In other places the low vegetation has been scorched by the hot fragments of "aborted" missiles that
have received the electrical "destruet” order in midair and have been blown up.
Amid the towering red and white gantry cranes, which act as cages for the birds until they are ready to tly, squat the bunkers from which the shoots are observed, although bleachers have been set up at more distant points from the launching pads. In the Boeing hangar, full of unassembled Bomarcs. I met Glen Rhodes, a former bomber pilot who served in the Mediterranean Theatre during World War II.
Rhodes explained the composition of a Bomarc base — such as Canada will get. The first in the U. S.. in New Jersey, is just being completed. Four more are under construction, not counting the two planned for Canada.
The birds, twenty-eight to a flight, arc housed one each to a shelter which permits the forty-seven-foot missile to lie flat. When the alert button is pressed the Bomarc rises to a vertical position and in less than two minutes is airborne. The process, while it is automatic, can be halted or aborted at almost any point. In the air the bird can he blown up at any time if there should be any late doubt in the mind of the human operator about the desirability of a "kill.” This could happen if the men on the ground decided that the interception of an incoming bomber was going to take place too dose to a builtup area — which could be as lethal as a bombing itself, Rhodes explained.
L-ater in Ottawa I talked about this to RCAF officers who had been working on the program. Each Canadian Bomarc base would be staffed by two hundred and thirty officers and men. Forty RCAF engineering officers have been going back and forth to Seattle keeping in touch with the Bomarc. which the RCAF always figured it would get some time, ever since its development began ten years ago. These experts will help train crews whose
job it will be to ensure that the birds are ftit and ready.
When Rhodes had finished his briefing on the cape and we had both finished our coffee, he got up and said. "Now. how about having a look at one of them?"
Out on the pad a crew was working on the black bird lying on its side. The long preparation for a shoot had begun as the technician checked each part of the apparatus against the Go-No Go of imissilry. These three words, Go-No Go. are the Open (or Close) Sesame of our age. We live each day by them. Here on the launching pad the three words are used as part of a test procedure, but one day the president of the United States, presumably after a brief courtesy call to Ottawa, may have to say the first two or the last four letters of this fateful symbol and say them as an order.
"This is the last Bomarc A we will be testing." Rhodes told me. "With the new' B we can refuel, using a solid propellant, much more quickly. Using liquids it takes a day to prepare a second missile, but in the event of war it probably wouldn't make any difference. You would win the war or lose it — that day."
As w'e walked away from the shelter toward the bunker three B-17s, the famous Flying Fortresses of World War II. flew overhead. They were so low you could see that the aircraft in the middle of the V, a battered streaked veteran, was temantless. "A drone going out on the range," said Rhodes. The range stretches far out in the Caribbean, right down to Ascension Island. Here on the Cape are the last of these proud and honest airplanes. Soon they will all be gone, shot down in the interest of science. However, there are plenty of other airplanes available. new jet bombers which are rapidly becoming obsolete as the intercontinental missiles loom larger and uglier in mankind’s ingenious plan to destroy itself.
Rhodes explained that when Perry llew the Goat against a target, the target would probably be one of these old Forts. Due to weather and earlier commitments our flight was postponed a couple of times until one day about noon the pilot took off his glasses, got up from his desk and said, "Let’s blast off.” He picked up a piece of paper and dropped it again on his desk. Perry is not his happiest at a desk. He handles memos with the air of a man picking up a bloodstained knife.
Out on the tarmac the ground crew .,ad our part missile, part plane in position. It looked dark, squat and self-conscious about its long nose. We had stripped down to our shorts before putting on the nylon flying suits. Perry’s was a vivid orange. Mine was an olive drab coverall.
The sky was blue in spots, the best day of the week. "It s a nice day at thirty thousand.” said Perry, and went over to the control tower to file his flight plan while the crew began the laborious task of lengthening the seat and parachute straps for the passenger, because he was bigger than Bob Johnson, the regular observer. "Tourists." one of the hostlers muttered as he sweated with the stubborn webbing. Even with the canopy raised, the cockpit was hot and full of the sweet metallic smell military aircraft have.
By the time Perry came back the passenger had been briefed on the escape procedure. "Pull the left handle to tighten your shoulder straps. Pull the right ate to blow the canopy and this trigger io eject yourself. This ball here will start up your emergency oxygen supply. If you have to get out you will be fired free with the seat which will fall free and your parachute will open automatically at a safe altitude. Oh, and don't forget to put your feet in these stirrups just before you go.” said Johnson.
Perry was back by now' and he looked in at the passenger, so trussed up by now that he could scarcely wipe away the sweat that was streaming down his helmet and bouncing off his oxygen mask. “If we’ve got to get out you go fast or you’ll get tromped to death in the rush," he said. Then he settled into the front cockpit obscured from the passenger’s view' by the high pommel of an instrument panel. The canopy settled into place. Perry switched on his radio. His breathing sounded stertorous.
“You okay?" he asked.
"I think probably I should go to the washroom," said the passenger.
“You go to hell,” said Perry. “Fire one.”
The starboard engine was enveloped in a cloud of greasy black smoke.
“Looks like it’s on fire, but that’s the gunpowder we use in the starting charge,” said the pilot.
Then he went into the litany of his cockpit check. When he was finished he called the tower for taxi clearance and we were ready to go.The young Canadians from the house waved encouragement to
us and the Black Goat began to move.
We paused at the end of the runway and then the word came from the tower: “Clear to take off 497.”
“Roger,” said Perry to the tower, and —to the passenger—“All set?” The passenger gulped and replied "Roger.” although he felt foolish saying it because it didn’t really make any difference whether he was ready or not. After a short run the tw'in-engined bomber had its wheels tucked up.
"I like to hold it off the deck like this, just a few' feet up, in case anything goes
wrong. Then you can slam it down,” said Perry.
The last time I had seen a take-off like this was when a young RCAF pilot tried it with an elderly Bolingbroke before he had quite attained flying speed and it had sagged into the runway on its belly into a shower of sparks and reprimands. Most jet pilots on take-off are inclined to "hot rod" or start climbing sharply. Perry had a reputation for caution. He also had charge of a unique and priceless test aircraft.
With a little grunt, magnified by the sensitive intercom, he pulled back on the half w'heel that was the stick and we began to climb. The clock showed an air speed of one hundred and eighty miles an hour.
At thirty thousand feet we were looking down on the cloud layer which had appeared smooth from the ground but now looked nubbly and tufted like an enormous candlewick bedspread. Above us the sky was blue-black even in the noonday sun and against this background tw'o aircraft, almost too small to be seen, chalked their progress u'ith white vapor trails.
Perry immediately identified them as B-47s, part of Strategic Air Command's around-the-clock operational readiness. He had test-flown hundreds of them after they had come off the Boeing line in Wichita.
A legend of the cape
To our right the outline of Lake Okeechobee and beyond the needle nose were Vero Beach, where the Brooklyn Dodgers used to prepare to lose the World Series, and beyond that was Palm Beach where the vacationers were regarding fheir first drink of the day with a boiled eye. Inside the cockpits the air conditioning had reduced the temperature pleasantly.
"We sometimes get requests from people to scatter the ashes of relatives from the airplane, but we turn them down," said Perry. “I don’t want to scatter any ashes, particularly my own.” Later I asked about one of the cape’s few legends which had attached itself to the Bomarc. When a well-liked mathematician on the project, Mollie McGrew, died some of her sentimental associates were reported to have put her ashes in one of the birds that was being tested. "Nice story, but no,” said Glen Rhodes, although he admitted the fable persisted.
We were flying straight and level now at slightly more than thirty thousand when Frank Silhan. operating the ground station with Fred May, called us.
"Hello 497 — have a bogey at seventeen thousand feet bearing two-ninety degrees, range thirty - five miles, your course two-forty. Over.”
Perry acknowledged the transmission, which was also being fed into the directional equipment on the airplane electronically. "Okay,” he said to me. “They've got a target for us.” The Black Goat yawned slightly as he pulled it on course. "This will be a crossing intercept. The target is flying straight and level and if we hold this course we will cross its path. Here’s a correction now.”
Behind his voice Silhan was altering our course slightly. "Range thirty miles —you're closing fast,” said the man on the ground. While we were staring into the sky he was peering at the unearthly green face of the radar scope miles and miles below'. He knew better than we did what was going on. Two dots were on his scope, one representing our Bomarc-plane and one our target plane. We were on a collision course.
AWe’re closing—closing.” said Perry. “I’m flying the ship, of course, but ail
the dope is coming in just as though we were an actual missile. We’re almost on it . .
“Dive zero,” said Silhan with all the uncontrolled excitement of a Montreal streetcar conductor announcing “Guy— Ghee.”
“Here we go,” said Perry and flicked the bomber’s tail in the air as we dived. The altimeter unwound like a fisherman's spinning reel. I tried desperately to see the target but it could not be seen for a cloud bank that was rising to meet us.
“It’s in there?” I asked.
"That’s what the man says,” replied Perry as the first torn wisps of cloud whipped past the windscreen. “But this is as far as we go.” he added as he pulled the nose up.
Now we were back at thirty thousand. “When the missile dives it locks on to the target and even though the man in the target plane could take evasive action the target seeker in our nose would take us straight in on him. During the last dive the Bomarc is on its own. independent of the ground although it can always be deliberately blown up," Perry explained. “Here's the ground station."
"You passed right over it," Silhan reported.
"If we hadn't broken off we would have flown right up his exhaust,” said Perry.
"That’s not necessary. I get the point,” I said.
"Let's get another target.” said the pilot. In a few minutes Silhan's radar sweeping the sky had found a military aircraft approaching us. A slight variation was all that was needed to put us on a head-on collision course.
The interception was soon over, for the combined speed of the two airplanes —target and simulated missile—was close to the speed of sound.
“Dive zero,” came the command again, at the point where the Bomarc. as an unmanned missile automatically locks on. This time the nose dropped as sharply as though it had fallen off. While there was no normal sensation of speed my insides were grateful when Perry said, “Got to pull out — I can't dive this thing any longer.” The speed had built up to five hundred and fifty miles an hour, close to the safe limit for the aircraft. We wheeled in a sixty-degree arc around the target which continued its unperturbed course.
Perry had come closer this time for the intercept had been made in the clear and from a point halfway through the dive he had been able to see the target and avoid it at the last moment. A Bomarc would have come in at twice the speed of sound and with a built-in desire to destroy anything it approached either with a nuclear or conventional warhead made sensitive by a proximity fuse that does not require contact to fire it.
“How was that?” asked Perry.
“I'm impressed,” said the passenger. “It works.”
“I didn’t want to come any closer because a collision, especially a mid-air collision. can spoil your whole day,” said Perry.
The passenger agreed. “Ready to go home now?” asked the pilot. The passenger was ready. He had seen how the Bomarc stalks and grapples with its prey. He had even seen the sun. Besides his back was tired.
As the black bomber dropped down toward the landing strip he had one more panoramic view of the Cape shrouded in mystery and cloud. Over there amid strange space-age shapes deadly new birds were being bred that would soon make this Bomarc, for all its sophistication, as primitive as a slingshot, ^