Navy Jets and Cruise Missiles:
Testing the Regulus at Muroc and Point Mugu, 1950-52
by Nick T. Spark
(Originally published in “Wings” Magazine, and reprinted with permission).
In February of 1950, a group of engineers, test pilots and U.S. Navy officers assembled at Muroc, later known as Edwards Air Force Base, for what appeared to be tests of a new aircraft. The presence of Navy men on the Air Force’s premiere test facility was, in and of itself, somewhat extraordinary. The fact that they were at Muroc one of the most remote and therefore secure installations in existence meant that whatever they were testing was something very special. In February, the first test vehicle arrived on a Chance Vought Aircraft Company flatbed truck, which had driven out from Dallas, Texas. Wrapped in a loose tarpaulin that concealed its exact shape and size, the test article appeared to be a small, fighter-type aircraft. When it was unloaded and unwrapped, however, the natives were in for a shock. The “fighter aircraft” had tricycle landing gear, was painted a dull cherry red and, most notably, had no cockpit. In fact, it was not a manned aircraft at all, but the Navy’s new Regulus missile.
The Regulus was the product of a mad scramble within the Navy following WWII. In 1946, with the smoke barely settled over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Navy found itself losing prestige and advantage to the Air Force. Despite the triumph of the Navy in the Pacific, many strategists now regarded the Air Force as the nation’s most important military arm. Only Air Force bombers were capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and massed fleets of naval vessels appeared extremely vulnerable perhaps even useless in a nuclear war. The question of how to change this equation loomed large in Navy circles; and there did not appear to be a ready answer. One person who volunteered an opinion, however, was Commander Thomas Klakring. A submarine commander and WWII hero, Klakring argued that the Navy should attempt to build a missile large enough to carry a nuclear weapon, and small enough to be launched from a ship or, still better, a submarine. When the brass protested that there were few, if any, resources available to develop such a device from scratch, Klakring made an ingenious suggestion: why not use the German V-1 “buzz bomb” as a test platform? Tests could be conducted on a shoestring, because the United States military already owned well over a hundred V-1s. During the closing days of the war they’d begun manufacturing them, intending to lob them at Japan off of aircraft carriers. Now Klakring proposed that the Navy put them to an entirely different use.
Tests with the V-1 or, as the U.S. Navy’s version came to be known, the “Loon”, commenced at the new Naval Missile Test Center, Pt. Mugu, California in 1946. Progress was slow but steady. The German missile turned out to be an excellent test platform, allowing several major hurdles which were crucial to having any kind of submarine or ship-launched cruise missile to be overcome. First, engineers faced the question of how to launch the missile. The Germans had hurtled the V-1 to flying speed using long catapult ramps, something that would be impractical aboard a warship and impossible off of a submarine. The solution was a jet assisted takeoff (JATO) rocket sled, which sat on a short, inclined launcher. Designed in part by émigré scientist Willie Fiedler, who had helped develop the V-1 at Peenemunde, the launcher could get the missile airborne in as little as eighteen inches and could easily fit on a submarine’s after deck. The next major hurdle was developing a guidance system for the missile. As originally designed, the V-1 had no guidance system whatsoever, but was launched in the direction of its target. It would dive in after an on-board odometer reached a preset number of miles. For the Loon, the Naval Electronics Laboratory developed a radio control system known as TROUNCE. TROUNCE used an already-existing air search radar (commonly found on submarines) to send commands to make the missile go right, left, up or down, or dive in. To aid in tracking the missile in flight, the Loon was equipped with a transponder which the air search radar could easily locate. In addition to the transponder and TROUNCE, the Loon was equipped with radio command control. This system, which had been developed during the war for remotely flying aircraft, effectively replicated the functions of TROUNCE. Radio command control required a minimum of hardware the control boxes could fit into a standard-sized cockpit, thus allowing chase aircraft to control missiles in flight but was susceptible to interference.
On March 7, 1947 the USS CUSK, a diesel-powered fleet submarine, cruised out to sea off Pt. Mugu and successfully launched a Loon off its deck. It was an eye-opening experience for the Navy. Two of the most frightful and devastating weapons of WWII had been brought together: the guided missile submarine was a reality. When CUSK gained a hangar a few months later, it demonstrated its ability to submerge, travel to a target San Diego for instance in complete stealth and launch a surprise attack which, if it involved a nuclear weapon, would have been far more calamitous than Pearl Harbor. Yet the Loon was not a practical weapon. It’s range was too short, its speed too slow, and its payload far too small to carry a nuke. And so, in June of ’47, the Navy put out a request for proposals for the Regulus: a subsonic, JATO rocket launched, air breathing cruise missile, to be capable of carrying a 3,000 pound warhead.
Even with the success with the Loon, the Navy’s budget was still extremely tight, and only a relatively small amount of money could be spared for the Regulus. Few believed it would be enough. But the skeptics reckoned without Chance Vought Aircraft. Vought proposed a missile which would meet all the Navy’s requirements and had an innovation which promised to hold costs down: landing gear. Instead of being expended after a flight, the missile could land on a runway and be flown again, and again, and again. “That was the reason Vought won the contract,” says historian David Stumpf, author of Regulus: The Forgotten Weapon. Vought had almost no experience in the missile business prior to winning the Regulus contract, but “the idea of a recoverable flight test vehicle, ” says Stumpf, “was something no one else had proposed. The Navy could save upwards of four to five hundred thousand dollars per missile by being able to reuse them.”
Vought had a few other cost saving measures up its sleeve. The Regulus shared many parts with jet fighters already in service. The engine, for example, was a J-33, the same type used in Lockheed’s F-80 Shooting Star. The use of proven off the shelf components would minimize costs while hopefully ensuring a reliable weapon. “The first thing that went through my mind when I saw it,” says Chance Vought test pilot C.O. Miller, ” was like everyone else’s, ‘Where the heck’s the cockpit?’ It had basically a cylinder for a fuselage and a couple of things sticking out as wings and a fin. It was a very simplified design.” Bill Albrecht, a Chance Vought flight engineer, remembers several striking features of the missile. “First, although it had a conventional rudder at the back end, other than that there was no horizontal tail for stability. It had partially swept wings — not as steep as we have now in many fighter airplanes — and the wing was fitted with surfaces that operated as both elevators for pitch control and aerilons for roll control. Nowadays most airplanes call these elevons. Vought I think called them ailavators.” One thing which struck him as particularly ingenious about the Regulus was the placement of the missile’s electronics in the path of the engine’s air flow. “The inlet duct was right on dead center in the nose,” says Albrecht, “and it opened up into what they called a plenum chamber inside the fuselage. And all the electronic equipment was in there, and the front face of the engine was just behind that, and it sucked the air across the equipment. So you had cooling for the equipment just from the inlet air for the engine.”
Chance Vought began construction of 10 flight test vehicles at their Dallas factory in December, 1948. To aid in the assembly process, the Regulus featured a modular air frame built out of a composite material called Metalite. It was, essentially, a thin skin of aluminum covering a balsa wood core. Within the body of the missile sat TROUNCE and radio command control receivers, autopilot and stabilization gyros and fuel cells. Upon assembly the missile was 34 and a half feet long with a wingspan of 21 feet and weighed close to 11,000 pounds. The J 33 engine, coupled with the missile’s extremely light weight air frame, promised to make the Regulus one of the most high-performance machines of its day, capable of reaching speeds near the speed of sound in level flight and beyond Mach One in a terminal dive to target.
When deployed, the missile would reach flying speed through the use of a pair of gigantic JATO bottles. But Chance Vought’s flight test team proposed that the bottles should be tested separately from the missile. Since the Regulus already had landing gear, they argued, a unique opportunity existed to have the missile not only land, but take off from a runway during tests. Once any bugs with the missile had been worked out, tests could commence with the JATO system. It was a plan which while unorthodox would potentially save some grief, and the Navy quickly agreed to it.
The logical place to conduct tests would have been Point Mugu, but its close proximity to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles meant that secrecy was not easy to maintain. Plus, Mugu was often shrouded in fog, something which would certainly affect a flight test schedule. The deciding factor, however, was that Mugu simply did not have sufficiently long runways for the test program. The obvious alternative was Muroc, just a few minutes flying time or a several hour drive over dusty back roads — to the east. The Navy swallowed its pride and put in a request, and thus the Navy’s most critical, most secret weapons program since the war moved to North Base.
“It was a bit primitive in those days,” says Bill Albrecht, who was sent to Muroc to service aircraft for the Regulus test team. Having driven up to dusty Mojave from sunny Los Angeles, Albrecht checked himself into a dilapidated motor inn called White’s Motel. “I walked into my cabin — it was one of these places that had little bungalows — and almost fell into a large hole in the floor. I looked into this hole and could see the sand blowing around underneath the cabin. I remember thinking, what am I doing in this country? ”
The reason Albrecht and so many other top aviation experts were there, of course, was the gigantic dry lake bed which dominated the approach to the base. Nearly 20 miles on a side, the lake bed was nearly perfectly flat and could be used as a runway. Time and time again the lake bed had saved men and aircraft, allowing emergency landings and facilitating tricky takeoffs. It was not without its flaws. For one thing, before it had become an air base, the Union Pacific Railroad had seen fit to run its right of way through the heart of the lake bed. Until it was removed, the railroad tracks were a dangerous dividing line, which threatened to rip the landing gear off of any planes which happened to stumble across them. Another problem was that the flat, monotonous lakebed could deceive even the most veteran of pilots. The clay surface looked the same from 500 feet as it did from 50. Until runway markings were painted onto the surface, pilots had no way to judge their altitude by sight, but had to watch their altimeter lest they plow in. Finally, the desert heat — the ground temperature might reach a hundred and 20 degrees at midday — made flight operations difficult. For the most part, the time between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. was so scorching that tests were impossible. Engineers and test pilots learned to arrange their schedules accordingly, and often began their flight preparations before the sun came up. “We would all stay up all night long and play shuffleboard or what have you, ” recalls Commander William Sims, the Navy supervisor for the Regulus project, “And then begin work at about 4:00 a.m.”
Muroc was also infamously primitive. Most of the buildings at the base dated from the War, and were built out of wood. The desert heat and the blasting wind had had their way with most of them. “It was a shock, ” says C.O. Miller, and ex military pilot who had been hired by Vought as a test pilot, “They had what they called a bachelor officers’ quarters which was really no more than a tar paper shack. But so what? You weren’t there to mess around, you are there to do a job. ” Miller, for one, was excited to be there. Why? “Well, this was the glory days of flight test,” says Miller. “Chuck Yeager had just broken the speed of sound, there were several research aircraft projects — one of which I had been assigned to before Chance-Vought when I was with the Douglas Company. Across the street what was called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics — today it’s called NASA. Anyhow, it was an area where people worked very hard, played hard, and we all just supported one another. It was an exciting atmosphere.”
Sims, Albrecht and Miller joined a small cadre which Chance Vought had assembled to conduct the flight tests. Among them was Roy Pearson, Chance Vought’s Chief Test Pilot, Paul Baker, the Chief of Flight Testing, Sam Perry, the Assistant Chief Engineer, test pilot Billy Sunday, and the Regulus Project Manager, I. Nevin Palley. Palley was a courageous, driven personality who inspired a great deal of loyalty among his peers. Methodical yet capable of dramatic license, Palley was the rare type of engineer who could handle the challenges inherent in directing flight tests while managing company and Navy politics. One of the ways that he did this was to lead by example. “One time some people started complaining to him about the number of hours they’d worked preparing for the flights. And as they did that they came to realize that he’d worked even more, ” recalls Simms, “They quit complaining after that. ” Palley was also famous for his ability to sleep under any conditions, a skill necessitated by the demands of his job. “He would stay up for twenty hours,” says Simms,”Take a brief nap and wake up completely refreshed and ready to go.”
The Regulus test program certainly seemed the type of program which would keep Palley up at night. Chance Vought’s ingenious solution to the Navy’s tight budget – the addition of the landing gear — would pose all sorts of challenges. In a normal test of a missile system, dozens if not hundreds of airframes would be expended to perfect a final product. In the case of the Regulus, Chance Vought had only been allowed to build 10 FTVs, or flight test vehicles. Each one was precious.
For C.O. Miller, the Regulus program would be his introduction to flying jet aircraft. During the war Miller had been a Marine night fighter pilot, perhaps the toughest, most demanding job a pilot could have in those days. Now Miller was given just a week to learn how to fly a jet. “In 1950, there weren’t that many jet fighters available, ” he remembers. “So it was pretty nice. The thing that shocks a lot of people is that I only had about 20 hours of jet time before we began testing. So I was up their flying around barely a student pilot in jet aircraft. ”
Years later, Miller would learn that he had been hired as a replacement for a pilot who had been killed in an accident at Point Mugu. It was the kind of thing that happened frequently. “Flying in those days was dangerous, and jets responded differently than the propeller aircraft which most people had cut their teeth in, ” he says matter-of-factly. “You better have a sense of humor in flight tests. Among other things, you find yourself losing some pretty good friends. ”
Even before the first of the Regulus FTVs arrived at Muroc, Palley’s team began practicing flight operations using several radio command control equipped Navy TV-1 and TV-2 aircraft. (TV was the Naval designation for the T-33 or F-80; TV-1s were single seat, and TV-2s double seat.) In the case of the TV-2, the radio command controls sat in the front seat. Bill Albrecht remembers how it worked: “The TV-2 aircraft were fitted with a control console that sat above the glare shield right in front of the forward pilot, and he could look out the windshield and fly the Regulus.” The rear seat pilot would fly a loose parade formation on the missile. Similar things had been done before with the Loon, and with propeller driven drone aircraft, but now pilots would be called upon to control a much faster, jet powered missile and perform takeoffs and landings.
To practice control of the Regulus in flight and iron out any communications difficulties, test pilots came up with the idea of using a TV-1 in place of the missile as a drone. To avoid loss of a TV-1, a pilot would fly in the drone, although he wouldn’t touch the controls unless something went seriously wrong. It worked well, and on several occasions pilots landed their own aircraft and the drone simultaneously, something likely never tried before or since! “It gave a whole new meaning to the word: Trust,” laughs Miller, remembering the unprecedented moment when Roy Pearson landed the TV-1 Miller was sitting in while his own TV-2 flew just a few feet above and behind. Miller also witnessed Bill Sundae land a TV-1 on the dry lake bed at the same moment that his own jet made touchdown. “In other words, he was driving his own airplane, the TV-2, and he was tweaking his controls for the drone and getting them to land at the same time in formation,” says Miller. “I don’t know how many people have had that opportunity. I did it a couple, three times. It was one of the things we did for fun and games.”
Things went well, perhaps too well, up until the day the new guy C.O. Miller — nearly had a fatal incident. “I was packed up and happy, flying slow, relatively low altitude, and the next thing I knew the airplane was on its back,” Miller recalls. “I shut everything off and fortunately had enough altitude to recover. We came back down and tried to find out what was going on. There was evidence on the recordings of an interfering signal. The closest frequency that could have produced it was a television station in Los Angeles. So it might have been I Love Lucy.” Arrangements were made to monitor the times of television broadcasts which at that time were limited to several hours a day so that the problem didn’t recur.
The drone flights yielded some important experience. Pilots quickly developed a feel for the remote control units and the protocol required to use them. They also learned to deal with bugs. The remote control boxes were filled with vacuum tubes and electronic failures turned out to be common. In anticipation of this, a system was developed so that if control of the missile was lost by one chase aircraft, a signal would be given so that another chase aircraft could try to regain control. The pilots designated the man flying the missile in the TV-2 as the Able pilot, and the pilot flying the TV-2 the Baker pilot. Charlie was the designation given to a back up control pilot in another aircraft (usually a TV-1 or F2HP “Banshee”). “If you wanted to transfer control, or you had an emergency, we came up with a method for doing that which turned out to be quite foolproof,” says Miller. “Let’s say Able wanted to transfer his control to Charlie. He would say, ‘Charlie, this is Able, take…control.’ And there was a second or two between the ‘take’ and the ‘control’. And what it would mean is that on the ‘take’ he, Able, would shut his switch off that sent signals to the drone, ‘control’, Charlie in this case, would turn his on.”
“We were writing the rule book as we went along, ” says Miller, “It isn’t like to day where you step into a weapon system and they can do a bunch of books or videos or what have you. ” Flight testing in 1950 was still an art in its infancy, and combined with the now infamous seat of your pants approach of many of the Muroc test pilots, made for some fun. When the first Regulus missile arrived at the North Base, pilots and engineers gathered around the “the jet plane without a cockpit.” Hardly any time had elapsed before someone appropriated a saddle from Poncho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club and placed it atop the missile’s cylindrical frame. The pilots took turns posing at top the jet powered bucking bronco they were being paid to break in.
The first series of tests for the missile would be taxi tests. Beginning in March, the missile was towed out on to the lake bed. It was then attached to a truck by a forty foot rope. By starting and stopping the truck at slow speeds, and allowing the missile to roll freely, the alignment of the Regulus’ wheels was checked. Once the wheels were properly fixed and the brakes installed, a whole range of tests could begin, all of them taking place on the ground, designed to check the missile’s ability to respond to the radio controls, and to test the landing gear, brakes, parabrake, and engine.
During one of the first taxi tests to reach any real speed, engineers became concerned that if the missile’s brakes failed to respond to the radio commands that the missile might hit the towing truck, or even ground loop. Normally this type of thing was not a problem, since with a manned aircraft the pilot could easily stop his plane, but with an unmanned missile under radio control it seemed a real possibility. After some discussion, Roy Pearson agreed to hop on board the wing of the missile as it was towed across the lake bed. While his left hand held on to the missile’s wing, his right hand would hold a lever which could actuate the brakes. After someone pointed out that having Pearson riding on a wing would cause the missile to be unbalanced, Nevin Palley volunteered to ride on the other wing. Thus the Regulus, with the Chief Test Pilot and the Project Manager — swathed in leather jackets, wearing crash helmets and holding on for dear life — made its first and only manned flight. As luck would have it, the radio control signal was lost during the test, and Pearson ended up having to use his control lever to stop the bird. It was a wild ride, one which would have given Chance Vought’s Chairman of the Board fits.
By August, the ground test program was proceeding apace, although the Regulus still had not left the ground. By now the missile was “flying” down the lakebed under its own power. Cruising overhead, pilots in chase aircraft controlled the missile as it rocketed across the ground at speeds up over 150 knots. Aside from a series of tire failures which culminated in one ground loop, things were going well. The tire failures were due to the extremely high speeds of the tests and the desert heat. B.F. Goodrich eventually delivered tires made of the same rubber used on Indianapolis 500 race cars and the problems went away.
When ground tests approached 190 knots a new issue appeared: pilots were having trouble keeping the missile on the ground. During one flight test the missile shot right off the lake bed and into the sky. Roy Pearson, startled at the sight of the missile flying well before the test schedule and especially Nevin Palley said it should, promptly guided the missile back to earth. The landing gear crunched into the dirt and then the bird shot right back into the air like a beach ball. When Pearson pushed it back down again, the tail of the FTV scraped along the ground for a couple seconds before the nose of the missile dropped and pulled it clear. The damage to the missile was minor, but it was clear to everyone that full blown flight tests were imminent. The missile had traveled farther in the air than Orville Wright had at Kill Devil Hill.
The first official test flight of the Regulus missile would take place on November 22nd. By now almost every aspect of the missile’s flight had been rehearsed. The unknown of course, was the missile itself. At 0500 the test team assembled on the lake bed, and FTV-1, which had been used exclusively during the taxi tests, was towed into position and fueled. After a series of routine checks, a TV2 piloted by C.O. Miller, with Roy Pearson seated up front at the missile remote controls, circled the lake bed. After Pearson ascertained that the missile was receiving his radio signal, the wheel chocks were removed and the engine slowly revved to full power. The missile sped down the lake bed with Miller and Pearson in hot pursuit. At about 200 knots the missile rose gently into the morning air.
The test team’s excitement at seeing the missile airborne quickly turned to horror as the missile, which by now had gained several hundred feet of altitude, unexpectedly and violently rolled right. It rapidly lost altitude and plunged completely out of control towards some buildings near the edge of the lake bed. Flying in formation a little above and on the left wing of the missile, C.O. Miller had felt a moment of terror as the missile threatened to collide with his aircraft — it almost certainly would have if it had rolled to the left — and then disappeared under his wing and augured into the ground. “The thought crossed my mind immediately, is this thing going to go and clobber some of the base installations?” Miller remembers. “It all happened so fast that at the time I couldn’t say exactly what happened… The thing riveted in my mind was the concern for the missile going into a populated area. But it did not, fortunately.”he black smoke cloud which towered over the crash site on the lakebed foreshadowed disaster. Chance Vought had staked its reputation on building a recoverable missile, and now that missile had failed catastrophically on its maiden flight. It was clear to Nevin Palley and his team that another failure would likely doom the Regulus, and delay a submarine-missile system for years, if not forever. “With the failure of FTV-1,” says historian David Stumpf, “Things got a little scary for Chance Vought. They now had to prove that there wasn’t a basic problem with the missile and that this was something that they could identify and fix.” Determined to make things right, Palley ordered a thorough crash investigation. Pieces of the shattered missile were gathered together in an attempt to determine exactly what had gone wrong. The most likely culprit, at first blush, appeared to be the radio control system. Fortunately, all of the telemetry data from the flight had been recorded and preserved, and now flight engineers looked into the paper trail in hopes of finding answers.
A careful review of the data indicated that the missile’s left elevator had deployed during the flight despite the fact that Pearson clearly did not order the missile to turn. Attention was then quickly focused on the hydraulic motor and pump system which controlled the elevator. Working in Dallas, Chance Vought engineer Palmer Randsdale tried to reproduce similar data using a spare motor and pump set. He observed that the motor and pump were connected with a series of brass pins. If the pins were removed the motor would gradually separate from the pump, and reproduce telemetry data identical to that recorded during the FTV-1 accident. A quick search at Muroc was made of the crash debris, and sure enough a fractured brass pin was discovered in the left elevator pump assembly.
It was not difficult to discern the cause of the broken pin. During the weeks of high-speed taxi tests the elevators had been deployed to keep the missile from becoming airborne. The brass pin had been weakened as the pump was repeatedly activated, and during the first flight it had finally broken in two. “Basically it just snapped from overuse,” says Stumpf. “And they realized they couldn’t use a brass spline pin, they had to use a steel one. And interestingly enough that problem never developed again during the flight test program.”
Following the completion of the accident investigation, Nevin Palley considered how to resume the tests and limit the possibilities of another failure. “Like any flight test program, you take a deep breath, figure out what took place, correct it, and see if there are any fundamental problems you need to attack besides the obvious ones,” Miller says reflectively. “The obvious one in this case was the hydraulic system component, but beyond that the failure of that spline shaft was a fatigue failure — it failed because it had too many cycles over a period time. Well that raised a fundamental question beyond the pump itself, i.e. are there other things in the missile that could fail if you ran it more than one or two times? So Nevin Palley made the decision to do twenty ramp runs, where you would cycle this thing and let it break then. Don’t let it break in flight.”
Palley committed his team to do something which, in 1950, was nearly unprecedented: to conduct simulated flights of the missile. The Regulus was placed on a trailer which allowed the landing gear to be cycled, control surfaces moved, and even allowed the engine to be operated under power. The missile’s gyroscopes were removed and placed on a stand which could move through 360 degrees, which allowed telemetry data to be fed to pilots who sat at a control station a few feet from the trailer. “We did the whole thing, start up, shut down, the whole bit, for twenty times before the bird was released for flight. And if for some reason a significant failure appeared, you started over. In other words, if it occurred on number 18, you made 20 more. Until you had that degree of confidence that the bird was going to perform as you wanted it to,” remembers Miller. The ground test program and the delays it produced raised questions within the Navy and Vought about Palley’s judgement and the health of the Regulus program, but Palley held his ground. Miller still admires his patience. “That was a major breakthrough for the Regulus program,” he says. “And not only for this program. He showed the world how to do it,” Miller continues. People in aircraft design and testing at Muroc saw what was happening at the Chance Vought hangar, and they paid attention. Maybe Palley was on to something.
Palley’s persistence, and the fact that the cause of the accident had been identified, bore fruit in February, 1951, when the Navy announced it would fund construction of fourteen additional test airframes. A month later, on March 29, 1951, Palley finally gave the go-ahead for another flight of the missile. It had been nearly five months since the crash of FTV-1. Despite the new airframe order, there was a lot on the line. A second unsuccessful flight could still have major, if not terminal, consequences for the program. Palley took every precaution he could, even going so far as to order Miller and Pearson to fly a practice flight with the TV-1 drone before attempting a flight with the Regulus. That done, they proceeded to conduct radio control tests with FTV-2, which sat on the lake fully fueled, engine running. Finally Palley was satisfied, and Miller and Pearson were cleared to take control of the bird. They taxied it down the runway, faster and faster, until it became a blurred red speck on the silver mirage that formed the lake’s horizon. Behind the missile trailed an enormous plume of dust, perhaps half a mile long.
Seconds ticked by, and finally the red speck separated from the silver mirage and floated up into the blue sky. The Regulus was airborne. It responded to Pearson’s commands like a dream, performing a series of wide turns and climbing to nearly 2,500 feet. “It responded quickly, smoothly,” says Miller, who recalls Pearson having to hold the missile’s throttle back lest the missile outrun them. “The performance of the Regulus from a flyability standpoint was at least as good as any of the airplanes that were flying in those days. It had performance capabilities that at full thrust could outrun anything except the supersonic airplanes which were then just being developed. So it was a very responsive machine.”
The flight so far was a complete success, but the most dangerous task still lay ahead: landing the missile under remote control. Flying just a dozen feet from the missile’s wing tip, Miller and Pearson brought the missile and their aircraft down towards the lake bed at a blistering 200 knots, nearly twice the normal landing speed for the TV-2. At this velocity and altitude there was no room for error. As Miller held the jet steady, Pearson expertly brought the missile down for a perfect landing. The engine shut down, the parabrake deployed, and the project team was triumphant as the Regulus rolled down the lake bed to a stop.
“It was a real vindication,” says Miller, remembering the emotions of that day. “Because there were a lot of people around who said this would never work, you can’t fly this from another plane, it’s too complicated. And so when we did get it back around and the landing was unremarkable, there was nothing to it, there was a huge sigh of relief.”
The next few months would see a host of firsts for the Regulus test team. In June 1951, Lt. Dewitt Freeman became the first Navy pilot to control the missile in flight. Later that same month, the first flight to utilize the automatic stabilization system and airspeed control systems was undertaken, although it proved far from successful. The missile’s small wing booms, which provided information to the stabilization system, vibrated wildly causing the Regulus to wander through the sky! Shortening the boom helped somewhat but the final solution was to place the sensor in a nose boom. In July, a Regulus reached 10,000 feet at 400 knots, both new and impressive records. And in October, the test team took a bold new step, flying the missile from “out of sight control” booths located in buildings at Muroc. The out of sight controls were identical to those planned for installation aboard the Regulus submarines. “Various (telemetry) signals were communicated to me at the control panel,” remembers Miller, “and to a radar tracker who plotted the course of the missile on a vertical screen. As I look back on it, the out of sight control is in a word primitive because of the displays that we used. The most important thing I had as an out of sight controller was a grease pencil. Reason being that if you got information from an airborne station that what you were reading on this meter, which just had a pointer and a bunch of numbers, if he said that the missile was going 220 knots and you thought it was making 200, you’d make a mark to show where 220 was!” Despite the shortcomings of the system, it worked fairly well. Later in the program, a portable out of sight control unit was built, and on several occasions pilots took it out on the Muroc lakebed and landed the missile with a little help from guidance aircraft. (Takeoffs were possible with the out of sight control system, but were apparently never attempted!)
During out of sight control tests, chase aircraft always accompanied the missile just in case the control signal was lost. As an aide to pilots and tracking stations, a visual “tell tale” was built into the missile. When flying under radio control, the missile would emit an intermittent stream of white smoke. When that stream became steady, it meant that control had been lost. If the Regulus failed to respond to the control aircraft, pilots would have to call Muroc for assistance. “The Air Force required that we have a shoot down airplane,” Miller says. Los Angeles was just a short hop away, and one of only many places where a runaway might end up. “So if something went wrong there were people authorized to shoot it down,” Miller continues. “We had a bunch of Air Force chase pilots, Yeager being one of them I might add, ready to do just that.”
While tests proceeded with the out of sight control system, engineers took time to track down and solve remaining bugs. Bill Albrecht remembers a prolonged struggle ironing out the operation of the missile’s parabrake, which wouldn’t blossom properly. Another problem, more of an annoyance than anything else, was that the landing gear doors sometimes wouldn’t close properly, adding drag to the missile and preventing tests above a certain airspeed. “Paul Wandell, our systems guy, got into business with that,” recalls Albrecht. “He acquired a long cylinder from a surplus company down in the valley and installed it and used it to pull a supplementary cable that was tied to the doors. And that seemed to do the trick. One little incident was that during some ground tests one of the cables broke and the cylinder went to full bottom. The piston rod shot out the nose of the airplane. That was a kind of hairy event.” Another scary moment occurred the day engineers realized one of the fuel filter bowls inside an FTV had fractured, leaking jet fuel into the engine. “That caused considerable consternation because of course it was a big fire hazard, ” says Albrecht. “We did not have a fire and that problem was fixed with the replacement of the filter bowls.”
Flights of the test vehicles continued. In late November, 1951, FTV-2 made its third flight, this time in an attempt to ascertain how well the missile would perform in a high speed dive to target. The Navy specifications called for the missile to be capable of a supersonic dive, and Roy Pearson did all he could to simulate it, taking the missile up to 34,100 feet and diving it towards terra firma. Instead of expending the missile, however, Pearson pulled it out of the dive and conducted a second test from 31,000 feet. Both were successful, and reached velocities near the speed of sound. On the way back to Muroc, Pearson turned the missile so that he could begin a landing approach. The missile failed to respond, and suddenly snap rolled to the right, went into a spin and plowed into Mirage Lake next to the highway. After Pearson landed he and Nevin Palley rushed over to the crash site, Pearson still in his flight gear. Palley’s deputy, Sam Perry, brought a paper mache cockpit canopy which had been made just in case such an accident occurred. He placed it amidst the wreckage, and just in time: a rancher had seen the smoke and driven over to see what had happened. Perry pointed to Pearson, the remnants of the parabrake and the canopy, and explained to the rancher that thankfully the “pilot” had ejected and parachuted to safety.
By the end of September 1951, the Regulus had flown successfully in 11 of 12 flight tests, and while everyone was pleased with the progress a major hurdle still remained. Like the Loon, the Regulus was designed to be launched off the deck of a submarine using JATO rockets. Regulus would use two massive solid fuel Aerojet General bottles, each capable of producing 33,000 pounds of thrust in 2.2 seconds. In May of 1950 the bottles and zero length launcher had undergone preliminary tests using a steel and concrete sled in place of the Regulus. “It was what we might call a dummy missile, ” remembers Bill Albrecht. “It was a pig iron sort of vehicle that represented the weight and center of gravity of the Regulus and it was used to test the launcher itself and the ability of the rocket to power the vehicle to an acceptable speed for continued flight. And to check the ejection system for the rockets.” The bottles and ejection system performed perfectly but the telemetry data indicated that the JATOs produced high g-shock loads which would almost certainly damage the Regulus’ vacuum tube guidance system. A series of changes were made, and new tests began in October. These produced better results, although one of them was a partial failure since the booster rockets failed to separate properly from the dummy sled.
In January 1952, Aerojet proposed a final test of the booster system before trying for a full-blown launch. FTV-3, equipped with accelerometers to measure the shock effects of booster ignition, was rolled out onto a runway at Point Mugu (rain at Edwards had temporarily spoiled the lakebed). There it was mated to a pair of special JATOs which would fire for only one half second but produce the same initial thrust characteristics as the actual Regulus bottles. Standing at the other end of the runway with an out of sight control box was Roy Pearson. His job was to run the missile’s engine up to full power. At the proper moment, a shear pin which held the missile in place would be released and the JATOs fired, and then Pearson would guide the missile down the runway to a stop. The test went perfectly, although Pearson almost lost his nerve: from his vantage point it looked like FTV-3 was going to run him over before it decelerated! Fortunately it proved to be an optical illusion. Pearson and the missile survived, and the data suggested the JATO shock loads were within tolerances.
Preparations for a boosted launch could now begin. Experience during the Loon era had shown that the most critical factor in ensuring the success of a JATO launch was proper alignment of the nozzles of the rockets through the center of gravity of the missile. When the nozzles were out of alignment, the missile would roll right, left, perform a loop or dive straight into the beach. (The shallows at Mugu were known as the “Loon infested waters” to base residents, since literally dozens of missiles had crashed in over the years.) Flight engineers knew that a process would have to be developed to determine the center of gravity of the Regulus, but it was not as easy a customer as its smaller cousin. Eventually, Bill Michelli, the Chance Vought engineer in charge of field work for the Regulus, decided that the only way to see where its center of gravity lay would be to dangle FTV-3 which was the obvious candidate for the first boosted launch — by its nose from a crane. Finding a crane at Muroc capable of hauling the 13,000 pound missile forty feet into the air was no easy task. Disturbed by the condition of the crane that Muroc personnel delivered for the test, Michelli insisted a dummy load be lifted before he would allow the fully fueled FTV to be hooked up. The candidate crane promptly failed, and so two new cranes were brought in to do the job. The center of gravity was identified, and the Regulus was returned to the ground. Then, using an optical boresight system developed especially for the job, the JATO bottle nozzles were aligned. Once they were tightened into place, they were “off limits.” Even a minor repositioning of a nozzle, say by someone who inadvertently walked into them, could potentially cause a launch failure.
Now, the coast was clear to launch FTV-3. But Palley had one more trick up his sleeve. By now nearly the entirely flight envelope of the missile had been demonstrated with the exception of JATO rocket launch, control by a submarine, and terminal dive to a target. So Palley proposed “Operation Splash”, which would feature all three. “Operation Splash was to be the first tactical launch profile for the missile,” says David Stumpf. “The program was going fairly well in 1951, but Nevin Palley, never one to be a shrinking violet, knew that you needed to have something else to capture the Navy’s imagination and reestablish it as the preeminent program. It was the whole ball of wax.”
The USS CUSK, which had been used during the Loon program, would now become the first submarine to control the Regulus. In January, Miller had successfully piloted Pearson’s TV-1 drone around the sky from CUSK. At that time, they had discovered that the range of the control system was only effective to a distance of about 125 miles, and that the submarine’s radar system did not recognize the jet’s transponder. There were also some problems with the carrier signal strength, which dropped to as little as 20% of normal during the test. It was clear that more work would be needed to perfect a deployable radio control system for the Regulus. For “Splash”, chase aircraft would be available to guide the missile should Miller lose contact with it.
On January 31, 1952, FTV-3 was prepared for JATO launch. Aside from being equipped with the rocket bottles, the missile had been modified in several minor but important ways. The parabrake and landing gear had been removed, and a new saddle fuel tank and radar beacon had been added. Terminal dive controller electronics were added and, for the first time, a lower vertical tail surface was attached to the missile. This had never flown on the Regulus before, since the missile could not take off from a runway with it attached. Engineers felt it might help with the missile’s stability in a terminal dive, since it would give it an exactly symmetrical, cruciform profile. (It was later found to have only a minimal impact and did not end up in the deployed version of the missile).
A full dress rehearsal of SPLASH using drone aircraft took place at 0850, with Miller controlling the drone from aboard the CUSK five miles out at sea. At noon, FTV-3’s engine was started. Roy Pearson, this time flying a TV-2 with Lt. Billy May as his Baker pilot, counted down from the two minute mark. At T minus 20 seconds the automatic launching timer started and at zero the JATOs ignited with a thunderous roar. The boosters had been aligned perfectly, and the missile climbed rapidly into the sky like a bullet. The launch slippers and bottles ejected a little over two seconds into what appeared to be a perfect flight. Pearson, however, quickly realized that the missile had a nose high attitude that was increasing with each passing second, and he immediately decreased the pitch of the bird, averting an almost certain stall. Full engine power was maintained and the vehicle quickly responded and vaulted towards the horizon.
Aboard the CUSK, Miller had listened to a blow-by-blow description of the launch provided by the captain, Lt. Commander Charles Momsen, Jr., who had been watching through his periscope. One minute after launch Pearson handed control over to Miller. Miller led the missile around the sky, although not without some difficulties. The missile’s autoclimb electronics malfunctioned, increasing the airspeed beyond norms. At 425 knots, Miller turned off the autoclimb system and struggled to regain proper rates of climb and velocity for the flight plan. Finally he did so, but not before the missile had reached an altitude of 34,000 feet. Engaging an altitude controller which held the missile in a level condition, Miller slowly increased the FTV’s airspeed to 480 knots. At Mach 0.85, an F-86 chase aircraft dove from a position above the missile to verify its speed. Moments later, Miller advanced the missile’s throttle to 100% power, and the missile blew past the F-86 at Mach 0.9. Just at that moment, the missile’s smoke stream, which had been a series of reassuring puffs, became a continuous line across the sky. Control had been lost: it was white knuckle time! Using the carefully rehearsed emergency procedures, Miller handed off control to Pearson. Pearson gained control, but owing to the fact that he had inadvertently left his missile throttle control at 100% power, the Regulus quickly sped away from his and May’s aircraft and then, out of sight.
The radar tracking stations at Point Mugu had a solid track on the missile, and relayed information to May which allowed him to keep his TV-2 within control range. Meantime, the F-86 chase aircraft cut across the missile’s track, and was able to confirm that FTV-3 was responding to Pearson’s signals. Pearson was then able to vector the missile towards the planned target, Begg Rock, which sat twenty miles off the coast, just to the north of San Nicolas Island. Three miles from the dump point, Pearson engaged the missile’s dive controller. The F-86 reported back that the missile had pushed over correctly and was now descending rapidly, straight down. No sonic boom was heard, but it was almost certain that the missile went supersonic. Twenty five minutes and thirty-three seconds after launch, FTV-3 slammed into the ocean about a mile from the center of the target. Given the fact that when deployed the Regulus would carry a W-5 (approx. 40 kiloton) atomic bomb or a W-27 (several megaton) thermonuclear warhead, a mile here or there would make little difference. Operational SPLASH had been a remarkable success. Despite the difficulties with the control system, the Regulus had performed as advertised, and the Navy now had it’s first operational nuclear cruise missile.
In the decade to come, the Regulus would be deployed aboard five submarines (USS TUNNY, USS BARBERO, USS GRAYBACK, USS GROWLER and USS HALIBUT) and four heavy cruisers (USS HELENA, USS LOS ANGELES, USS MACON and USS TOLEDO). It would also be tested and/or deployed aboard several aircraft carriers, including the USS HANCOCK which could launch them using its steam catapult. Ironically, the skill that test pilots had shown during the Regulus testing program convinced Navy planners to create a special division of “Regulus Assault Mission” pilots. Based on aircraft carriers like the Hancock, these pilots were trained to handle and fly the Regulus so that they could guide the missile towards an enemy fleet or installation, thus increasing its accuracy. Their training and procedures depended heavily on the lessons learned at Muroc and Mugu.
The Regulus would be one of the Navy’s most important weapons from the time it became operational in 1953 until 1964, when the last submarine to carry it was withdrawn from service. (The Polaris ballistic missile took its place.) Not only was it the first nuclear missile to be deployed aboard submarines and warships, but it inspired the modern Navy’s most versatile weapon: the cruise missile.
And, let’s not forget, it was the first missile to have landing gear!
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