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American night fighters 1945-55


By Sakhal

Albeit United States had realized already before the end of the Second World War about the necessity of a fighter that complied with both diurnal and nocturnal missions, it was during the Korean War when this idea took a new dimension. The main night/all-weather fighter in service with the USAAF in 1950 was the F-82 Twin Mustang - an aberration created by joining together two P-51 Mustang fighters - albeit the first nocturnal operations over Korea were carried by the F4U-5N, night fighter version of the F4U Corsair naval fighter, and the F7F-3N Tigercat, a twin-engined night fighter that entered service a bit too late to serve in the Second World War; both aircraft operated with the squadrons of the US Navy and the US Marine Corps.

American night fighters 1945-55

Grumman F-7F Tigercat, two-seater night fighter, propelled by two Pratt & Wittney R-2800-34W Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial engines with 2100 HP, capable of a maximum speed of 700 kilometers/hour, and armed with four 20-millimeter cannons. Wingspan: 15.69 meters; length: 14.27 meters; height: 5.05 meters; weight (empty): 7043 kilograms; weight (full load): 10818 kilograms.

American night fighters 1945-55

Douglas F3D Skyknight, equipped with search radar and complex fire control systems, built with two seats placed side-by-side. Propelled by two Westinghouse J34-WE-38 turbojet engines with 1635 kilograms of thrust each, this aircraft could reach a maximum speed of 910 km/h. Armament was diverse: four Hispano-Suiza M2 20 mm cannons, two Tiny Tim 298-millimeter rockets, four Sparrow I air- to-air missiles (not introduced until 1959) and two 900 kilograms bombs. Wingspan: 15.25 meters; length: 13.84 meters; height: 4.90 meters; weight (empty): 8237 kilograms; weight (full load): 12180 kilograms.

From November 1952 the support operations for night bombing over Korea were carried by the F3D Skynight, the first carrier-based two-seat turbojet fighter adopted by the US Navy, which replaced the Tigercat from the VMF(N)-513 Squadron. However, the most powerful night fighter to serve in Korea would be the F-94C Starfire, which entered combat in the beginning of 1953. The Starfire was one of the three aircraft developed to fulfill a requirement for a two-seater fighter equipped with radar, armed with cannons or machine guns, having a maximum speed of 965 kilometers/hour and a service ceiling of 12200 meters. The first aircraft presented for evaluation, the Curtiss XP-87, was a two-seater (side-by-side), two-engined turbojet fighter, projected for nocturnal interception via radar; this project was refused by the government, which costed a fatal price to the manufacturing company: bankruptcy. The funds destinated to this aircraft were transferred to the other two projects, the Lockheed XF-94 (the forementioned Starfire) and the Northrop XF-89 (the future Scorpion).

American night fighters 1945-55

Lockheed F-94B Starfire from the 61st Fighter Squadron.

The first of the XF-89 prototypes flew the 16th August 1948 and, after evaluation by the USAAF, Northrop received an initial order for 48 exemplars. The first of them flew in the late 1950, starting shortly after the deliveries to the USAAF, being assigned the first Scorpions to the squadrons of the defended zones in the Arctic, such as Alaska, Greenland and Iceland. The first series model of the Scorpion, the F-89A, was propelled by two Allison J35-A-21 turbojet engines fitted with post-combustion and was armed with six 20-millimeter cannons placed in the nose. The F-89B and F-89C were developments with improved Allison engines, while the F-89D had the cannons suppressed and replaced by a load of 104 folding-fin aerial rockets fired from launchers in the wing tips; additional fuel tanks externally placed under the wings increased in 11 percent the operational range in respect of the F-89C; the F-89D was equipped as well with an automatized fire control system. The F-89H, which entered production after the F-89D, was armed with six Falcon GAR-1 missiles developed by Hughes and 42 folding-fin aerial rockets, being capable to carry the nuclear air- to-air rocket MB-1. The Falcon missiles were installed in launchers with retractable supports in the wing tips which were extended before launching. The armament in the F-89H was fired automatically by means of a totally integrated attack system, an aiming radar and a fire control computer.

American night fighters 1945-55

Northrop F-89D Scorpion, assigned to the 75th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 23rd Fighter Interceptor Wing based at Presque Isle Air Force Base, Maine, in 1958. Propulsion plant: two Allison J33-A-35 with a thrust of 3260 kilograms each (with afterburner); maximum speed: 1022 kilometers/hour; wingspan: 18.20 meters; length: 16.40 meters; height: 5.33 meters; weight (empty): 11428 kilograms; weight (full load): 19161 kilograms.

The F-94 Starfire was deployed in small numbers in Korea during the last months of the conflict, cooperating in nocturnal missions with the F3D Skynight and achieveing some victories. The Starfire was developed from the T-33 trainer, which had been an unusually fortunate development of the F-80 Shooting Star. The earlier versions F-94A and F-94B had installed the afterburning version of the Allison J33 turbojet installed in the T-33; all-weather capability was provided by the APG-32 radar and the Hughes E-1 fire control system, installed in the nose; as well in the nose was installed the armament, consisting of four 12.7-millimeter machine guns. The more advanced version F-94C had installed the more powerful turbojet Pratt & Wittney J48, which required an enlarged fuselage to accommodate the bigger engine. Electronic equipment was upgraded as well, mounting the systems APG-40 and E-5. A radical change was made on the armament: machine guns were supressed and an annular rocket launcher was installed around the nose, just after the radome containing the radar antenna. There were four snap-action doors hiding six Mighty Mouse 70 mm rockets each. Wing-mounted rocket pods containing 12 rockets each were later introduced and also retrofitted to earlier machines, which effectively doubled the firepower of the F-94C.

American night fighters 1945-55

Lockheed F-94B Starfire, propelled by one Allison J33-A-33 with a thrust of 2700 kilograms with afterburner, reaching a speed of 975 kilometers/hour at sea level, armed with four Browning 12.7 -millimeter machine guns. Wingspan: 11.81 meters; length: 12.22 meters; height: 3.89 meters; weight: 6944 kilograms.

In 1950 the USAAF formulated a requirement for a night/all-weather interceptor fitted with the best in fire control systems. The plan was concreted on the Convair F-102, whose design was based on the experience achieved during the flight tests of the delta-winged Convair XF-92. Two prototypes YF-102 were built; the first one flew the 24th October 1953 but a week later it suffered an irreparable breakdown, while the second one flew in January 1954. Another eight YF-102 were built for evaluation but the results in the tests were disappointing, so the entire program was put into revision; the YF-102 would not fly again until December 1954, with the designation YF-102A, being ordered then its serial production. In June 1955 the first F-102A was delivered to the Air Defense Command, one year before the model were delivered to the squadrons. To fill the gap during this period, the Air Defense Command acquired, as a provisional measure, a modified version of the formidable fighter F-86 Sabre, the YF-95A, equipped with radar and armed with 24 Mighty Mouse 70-millimeter rockets installed under the fuselage in a retractable tray. The innovative weapons system installed in the YF-95A posed some initial problems and delayed the production program of the definitive version F-86D.

Once the problems were eliminated, in a typical air defense mission started with a cold engine, the F-86D could heat the engine and take off in about four minutes; after another 11 minutes with the engine at full power, it could climb to an altitude of 13700 meters. Then the pilot could start the search phase: the antenna of the radar AN/APG-36 - or AN/APG-37 in later models - would sweep a zone of 68.5 degrees left and right from the centerline in a cycle of 3.5 seconds; also, if required, 33.5 degrees upwards and 13.5 degrees downwards. When a target was acquired at a range greater than 48 kilometers, the radar would lock it and the computer AN/APA-84 would find a collision course, which the pilot would follow by keeping the signal or pip in the radar screen, inside a circle that was about one inch in size. When the automatic tracking system indicated that 20 seconds remained, the system instructed the pilot to turn 90 degrees from the collision course, in whose moment he would choose to fire a salvo of 6, 12 or 24 rockets. The computer directed the launching, deploying the stack of rockets in half a second, starting the firing sequence when the target was about 450 meters far. It would take only the fifth part of a second to launch the entire rocket salvo, scattering the rockets like pellets fired by a shotgun, to ensure greater hit chance. The rocket launcher would retract in matter of three seconds while a symbol in the radar screen would warn the pilot to break contact at a distance of 230 meters from the target.

Firing a full salvo posed little trouble; these used to appear when the pilot choose to fire smaller salvos. The system was perfectionated, but when the problems were solved, the program had been delayed two years, and the F-86D did not start to enter service with the Air Defense Command until April 1953. Subsequently units were quickly delivered, so in the late 1953 already 600 exemplars were active - and eighteen months later, the F-86D would represent the 73 percent of the 1405 interceptors serving with the Air Defense Command-. In that time, some were assigned to the 5th Air Force in Korea, but the "Sabre-Dog" was much heavier than the original fighter, which difficulted the operations in the still rather primitive airfields in South Korea. After a brief service in the Korean Peninsula, the F-86D were retired. Still, they would equip the 199th Fighter Interceptor Wing of the 154th Fighter Wing of the Hawaii Air National Guard, until being replaced by the Convair F-102A Delta Dagger, in the early 1960s.

American night fighters 1945-55

The North American YF-95A - later F-86D -, projected as night fighter, was an all-weather version of the original Sabre and the first United States interceptor armed only with rockets. It was required to redesign the fuselage to allocate a more powerful engine, fitted with afterburner, and the radome for the radar antenna changed the nose profile. In the version F-86K intended for exportation and for arming the NATO, the sophisticated radar and fire control systems were simplified and the armament consisting of 24 Mighty Mouse 70 mm rockets was replaced by four 20 millimeters cannons.



Article updated: 2014-12-05

Categories: Aviation - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]

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Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-11-20


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