Continental Air Defense- The Interceptors (and their weapons)-Part 1

The interceptors of the Air Defense Command can be broken down into three rough groupings:

  1. Early subsonic jets
  2. The Century Series interceptors
  3. Tactical Fighters pressed into service

The mission of air defense called for different characteristics than those of a tactical fighter. Air defense jets had to posses great rate of climb, to reach high flying bombers. Turning capability wasn’t nearly as important as speed. But to cover the vast reaches of the north, speed sometimes wasn’t as critical as range. And because an attack could come at any time, interceptors had to be able to fight at night and adverse weather. Finally, the interceptor had to be equipped to work in the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment. 

Some of the first subsonic jets were adaptations of existing jets. The F-86D Saber Dog  was outwardly quite similar to the famous F-86A/E jets used in Korea to great effect. But while the external profile was quite similar, the jet itself was quite radically different. It was longer, to accommodate an afterburning engine (for increased rate of climb) and it had a prominent radome above the engine inlet. Finally, instead of being armed with six .50cal machine guns, the Saber Dog had a retractable tray under the fuselage that carried twenty-four 2.75” Mighty Mouse unguided rockets.

F-86D

F-86D formerly of the Norwegian Air Force. Ventral tray for 2.75” rockets is just behind nose wheel door. Not also the prominent radome housing the APG-36 radar.

So why did the Dog carry rockets instead of guns? Most US fighters carried six .50cal machine guns, or four 20mm cannon. Experience in World War II had shown however that it took a lot of hits to bring down a large bomber. Given the closing speeds of the jet era, interceptors were unlikely to have the time to put enough rounds into the target. The Mighty Mouse rocket, on the other hand, promised a longer engagement range, and its warhead was large enough that almost any hit would likely prove fatal. It became the standard air-to-air weapon of almost all early interceptors.

Another early interceptor was the F-94 Starfire, developed from the ubiquitous T-33, which itself was developed from the first operational jet fighter, the F-80 Shooting Star. The Starfire had a two man crew, one pilot, and one radar operator.  Early models were machine gun armed, but the definitive F-94C had an all rocket armament.

F-94

F-94C showing it’s rocket bays.

If rockets were good, lots of rockets were better.  The F-89 Scorpion carried a huge number of rockets. An all new design, the twin engine, two man Scorpion was a big jet. Not particularly fast, she did have good range for the early days of jet aviation. And like we said, a lot of rockets.

F-89D

The “D” model of the Scorpion carried a whopping 104 Mighty Mouse rockets housed in the massive pods on its wingtips.

The only real problem with the Mighty Mouse rocket armament was… they didn’t work. That is, the motors fired, the rockets flew, the warheads would explode. But they were so inaccurate, they were almost useless. While developments of them continue to serve to this day (primarily on attack helicopters), in the air-to-air arena, something better was needed. Later models of the Scorpion, and the interceptors of the Century Series would be armed with two weapons that replaced the Mighty Mouse- the Falcon and the Genie.

We’ll look at the Century Series, as well as the Falcon and the Genie in Part 2.

Earlier entries in this series include The DEW Line and the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment.

4 thoughts on “Continental Air Defense- The Interceptors (and their weapons)-Part 1”

  1. When I was a kid growing up in Waco, TX, home of James Connally AFB, we lived down the street from the Fairgrounds. The same place I passed every day on my way to school, where there was displayed an F-86D, F-89, F-94 and a T-33. Unfortunately they were hauled off for scrap sometime during the mid to late 70’s…too bad they were so cool, to this kid anyway.

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