A “Red Bird” — an unarmed Fleet Training Missile — sits near Bonham
Field Hawaii in 1961. Photo Courtesy Al Thayer.
The Regulus Assault Missile Program
by Nick T. Spark
The Regulus Assault Missile, or R.A.M., was a concept which grew out of the success of the Regulus flight test program. Test pilots had demonstrated that the missile could be controlled, and even recovered, from chase aircraft. In 1955, the Navy sought to capitalize on their accomplishments by training carrier-based pilots to escort the missile to targets. Aircraft control of the Regulus would effectively extend its range and, potentially, its accuracy. It would also allow the vessel which had launched the missile, which otherwise would have to remain on station and guide the missile to target, to escape the combat zone.
The carrier aircraft selected for the R.A.M. mission included the F-2H “Banshee”, the F9F-2/5 “Panther”, F9F-6 “Cougar” and FJ-3 “Fury”. George Monthan, Capt. USN, Ret., who served as a R.A.M. pilot, initially flew in an F2H. “They used a photo version of that airplane,” George remembers. “The reason they picked the photo planes is that the camera equipment sat in a framework that could be removed from the nose section. It made an ideal set-up for the Regulus black boxes. It could be a photo airplane on one mission and with about an hour’s turnaround you could convert it to a control airplane.”
While during the flight test program the control aircraft were primarily two seat TV-2s, which allowed one pilot to fly the Regulus while the other flew the aircraft, the carrier based pilots would have to perform both functions. It placed a tremendous load on the shoulders of Navy pilots. “Just to operate a high speed, high performance single engine jet off an aircraft carrier is a fairly demanding job,” says Al Thayer, CDR USN, Ret., who served as a R.A.M. pilot aboard the USS Lexington. “When you add flying a Regulus at the same time and being prepared to cope with any eventualities that might occur, then you just doubled the tasks required. So it was dangerous.” During a R.A.M. training flight in 1956, Thayer witnessed an accident in which a TV-2 Baker pilot crashed while his Able pilot attempted to land a Regulus. Obviously, the complex and demanding task left very little room for error.
R.A.M. detachments would serve aboard five aircraft carriers from 1956 through 1960. Missiles for the pilots to control might originate from any one of four Regulus submarines, four Regulus-equipped cruisers, or even an aircraft carrier. While the submarines and cruisers relied on JATO rockets to launch the missile, modern carriers could launch the missile from their steam catapults using a special “Steam Assisted Takeoff for Regulus” STAR cart. “The steam catapult launches were as spectacular as the JATO bottle launches,” says George Monthan. ” (The Regulus) is sitting on the cart on an angle that is quite high, because of its zero lift wing. When it is fired it goes right off the end of the catapult straight as an arrow. The STAR cart falls away into the ocean and is not recovered, and the missile goes straight ahead. Just a beautiful launch.”
The nuclear armed Regulus was a key part of the Navy’s capabilities in the 50’s, and R.A.M. pilots spent a great deal of time practicing their delivery duty and exercising the Navy’s missile crews. Practice missiles, equipped with landing gear, were often recovered and flown again, and again, and again. Occasionally, a Regulus with a conventional warhead would be detonated as part of an exercise.
“The idea,” George Monthan says, recalling a typical launch profile, ” was to be astern of the missile, roughly a quarter of a mile away at about 220 knots, as the missile launched. The missile has to accelerate from zero to its flying speed and that allowed us to slide right in there, and take control and stay with it.” Pilots were trained to fly the Regulus from a point just above the missile on the right side, a technique pioneered during the test program. “We flew a tight parade on the missile,” says Thayer. “You had some fear and trepidation about being too close in case there was some sort of failure, but by the same token you had to be reasonably close. So we flew pretty tight on it.”
War plans called for the missile and control jet to fly at about 35,000 feet until within radar range of the target presumably an enemy fleet or shore installation and then descend under the radar envelope. Then the pilot would fly the missile in. “It’s a visual maneuver,” says Thayer. “You have to pick up an i.p. (initial point), or the target — say it’s a runway — so you pick it up ten or fifteen miles away. You line up the missile with that target, and then about six miles from the target, you break, take a 45-degree break to the right, and then level off and eyeball the missile all the way until literally you’re watching it. When it is over the target, you detonate it.”
R.A.M. pilots were under few illusions about the survivability of their mission. For one thing, while they were flying towards a target, the aircraft carrier on which they were based would likely be attempting to sail as fast as possible in the opposite direction. For another, their aircraft would have to survive the proximity effects and shock wave of the Regulus’ thermonuclear warhead. “We had a fairly good chance of surviving a nuclear explosion, because when it detonated we would have five or six miles of separation,” says Thayer. “And just before detonation our plan was to roll the belly of the aircraft in towards the missile and leave as fast as possible. That’s the maneuver I was trained to do.” Monthan remains more suspect about how it would have worked. “I just didn’t see how I could detonate the missile and go into a 50-60 degree bank, pull a lot of g’s, without being hindered by the flash let alone the shock waves,” he says. “But, I would have done it. We would have done what we had to do.