The 6555th, Chapter II, Section 3

MATADOR and the Era of Winged Missiles

LARK, BOMARC and SNARK Operations

Another thread winding through the 6555th's history was the unit's involvement with the LARK and BOMARC programs in the 1950s. As we noted in the previous chapter, the 3rd Guided Missiles Squadron launched three LARK surface-to-air missiles at Cape Canaveral in October and November 1950, and the 4803rd Guided Missile Squadron and the 6556th Guided Missile Squadron launched six more LARKs during the first half of 1951. LARK operations reached the operational suitability stage by the last half of 1951, but the "targets" were often nothing more than corner reflectors born aloft on balloons. Support requirements remained modest because the LARK was being used as a training foundation for the BOMARC program -- it was not a tactical missile program in its own right. By January 1952, the 6556th had 30 officers and 208 airmen, and it organized two missile teams to accelerate LARK training for its newly assigned personnel in February. Eight LARKs were launched during the first half of 1952 with mixed results, and the 6556th fired eight more LARKs before the Squadron was absorbed by the 6555th Guided Missile Squadron on 1 March 1953. The 6555th Guided Missile Squadron's LARK Branch launched seven missiles before terminating the training program on 8 July 1953.25

As the LARK program ended, attention shifted to the BOMARC, which was being developed as a tactical surface-to-air weapon system by the Boeing Aircraft Company and its sub-contractors (e.g., the University of Michigan, Westinghouse, Marquart Aviation Corporation and the Aerojet Corporation).** BOMARC operations began at AFMTC toward the end of June 1952, but the first missile arrived later than anticipated, and equipment shortages conspired to delay the first launch until 10 September 1952. Other launches were also slow in coming, due to the contractor's insistence that only one missile be tested at AFMTC at any one time. In effect, all flight data reduction and analysis had be completed at the Boeing plant in Seattle, Washington before the next missile was fired at Cape Canaveral. The second BOMARC was launched from Cape Canaveral on 23 January 1953, and the third BOMARC flight followed nearly five months later, on June 10th. Two more missiles were launched in the summer of 1953, but only three BOMARCs were launched from the Cape in 1954.26

Unlike the LARK program, the BOMARC test program at the Cape was essentially a contractor-led operation. The 6555th's people were not responsible for any BOMARC launches, but six airmen from the 6555th's 20-man BOMARC Section were assigned to help Boeing with electronic equipment maintenance tasks in late March 1953, and nine other airmen assisted the University of Michigan with its BOMARC activities at the Cape. The Air Force Missile Test Center provided range support and test facilities at the Cape, and AFMTC's safety agencies were responsible for insuring that safety requirements for the 15,000-pound, 47-foot-long missile were "stringently enforced." In relation to other aerodynamic missile programs at the Cape, the BOMARC continued to move ahead slowly: by the middle of 1956, only eight propulsion test vehicles, nine ramjet test vehicles and five guidance test vehicles had been launched. Two tactical prototype BOMARCs were launched against a QB-17 target drone in October and November 1956, but the 6555th's people only played a supporting role in those tests and later contractor-led operations.27


September 1952

[Photo]BOMARC - August 1952



Twenty-five more BOMARCs were launched from the Cape before ARDC announced plans in September 1958 to transfer the BOMARC program from Cape Canaveral to the Air Proving Ground Center's test site at Santa Rosa Island near Fort Walton Beach, Florida. This move was designed to focus AFMTC's efforts on ballistic missile test programs, but it also confirmed the fact that the Range had been selected for the BOMARC primarily because of its instrumentation capabilities, not because the 6555th had established a blue suit launch capability in other aerodynamic missiles at the Cape. In any event, one officer and 27 airmen were released from the 6555th Guided Missile Squadron and transferred to Hurlburt Field, Florida to support the BOMARC program in the fall of 1958. Boeing conducted its last Cape Canaveral launch of the BOMARC on 15 April 1960.28

[Photo]BOMARC LAUNCH - 21 August 1958

Two more aerodynamic missile programs -- SNARK and NAVAHO -- need to be reviewed before we move on to the 6555th's involvement in ballistic missile programs at the Cape. Though neither program was particularly successful, the subsonic SNARK and the supersonic NAVAHO were a serious reflection of their times and an important part of the Cape's history: they were undertaken to give the United States an intercontinental cruise missile capability when confidence in an intercontinental ballistic missile capability remained slim.

The earlier of the two programs, SNARK, was initiated by the Northrop Aircraft Company in March 1946 to provide the Air Force with a turbojet-powered, subsonic, guided missile capable of carrying a 7,000-pound warhead up to 5,500 nautical miles. Northrop planned to meet a 600 mile-per-hour speed requirement initially, but the Air Force concluded that a faster missile with a supersonic dash capability would be needed by the time the SNARK was expected to go into production (i.e., around 1954). By 1950, Northrop was hard at work on an improved SNARK that could cruise at approximately .94 Mach. A dummy version of the missile was released from a track launcher at Holloman Air Force Base for the first time on 21 December 1950. Over the next eight months, Northrop conducted nine N-25 research vehicle flights at Holloman to test aerodynamic and guidance characteristics that would be incorporated in the longer, heavier N-69 test missile. The contractor planned to transfer the SNARK test program to AFMTC by the end of 1951, but the Cape lacked adequate missile assembly and hangar space, and additional facilities had to be built before the program moved to AFMTC in the spring of 1952. Ten SNARKs were launched at Holloman between the end of August 1951 and the end of March 1952, and Northrop continued work on the missile and its guidance systems at the company's plant in Hawthorne, California.29


June 1952

As an intercontinental weapon system, the SNARK would ultimately fall to the Strategic Air Command (SAC), but, in accordance with its mission, the 6555th Guided Missile Wing was directed to develop its own blue suit launch capability well in advance of SAC's units. Toward that end, the Wing received its first SNARK training missile (e.g., an N-25 research vehicle) in late May 1952, and the 6556th Guided Missile Squadron activated a SNARK cadre at AFMTC on June 16th. Under the command of Major Richard E. Eliason, the SNARK cadre had eight officers and 48 airmen at Northrop's plant for factory training by the end of June 1952. Over the next six months, the Wing hoped to have 11 officers and 64 airmen qualified to do unit training in guidance control, tape preparation and missile inspections.30

As the program stood at the beginning of 1953, the SNARK (B-62) production missile would be five feet in diameter and approximately 74 feet long. Its sharply-swept wings, projecting straight out from the fuselage, would span 42.5 feet. The missile's YJ71-A-3 Allison turbojet engine was expected to provide main power up to Mach .94, but an afterburner was under development to give the SNARK a supersonic dash capability. Two solid rocket boosters -- each rated at 105,000 pounds of thrust -- would launch the SNARK from its zero-length launcher and accelerate the missile to about 365 miles per hour. Though the SNARK was expected to weigh over 58,000 pounds on the ground, the rocket boosters would be released once the missile was airborne, and the SNARK's cruising weight would be less than 47,000 pounds.31

[Photo]EARLY SNARK MISSILE - December 1952

After Northrop moved the SNARK program to Cape Canaveral, it boosted three dummy SNARK missiles from the SNARK's new zero-length launcher on 29 August, 1 October, and 30 October 1952. The results were satisfactory, and four radio-controlled N-25 SNARK launches followed on 26 November and 12 December 1952, and 6 February and 10 March 1953. All four N-25 flights were successful, and preparations got underway to launch the first N-69 SNARK test missile on 6 August 1953. Based on the SNARK's successes at Holloman and Cape Canaveral in 1952 and the first half of 1953, SAC planned to activate a 105-man cadre for its 1st Pilotless Bomber Squadron (Strategic) in January 1955. The 6555th's SNARK B-62 Operations Section (formerly the SNARK cadre) already had 76 officers and airmen in training to form the nucleus of a blue suit launch organization, and there was every indication in the spring of 1953 that those men would be involved in SNARK launch operations in the not-too-distant future.32


Unfortunately, the SNARK suffered almost continuous set-backs after the N-69 made its debut at the Cape in the summer of 1953. Part of the trouble centered on the new missile's engine: though the N-25s had been powered by reliable J33A-31 or J35-A-23 Allison engines, the N-69's YJ-71 power plant malfunctioned repeatedly. Quality control became a problem at the Hawthorne plant, as evidenced by the incidence of missing parts and damaged components. In the last half of 1953, rework orders were posted against almost every SNARK sent to AFMTC for testing. New radio control equipment was unavailable, forcing further delays. The Northrop Field Test Crew managed to launch two SNARKs on 6 August and 15 October 1953, but the first SNARK crashed 15 seconds into the flight after its drag parachute deployed prematurely, and the second missile was destroyed after it became uncontrollable about five minutes into the flight. Modification orders continued to pour back to Northrop as a result of those failures, and the 6555th's SNARK section provided the contractor with more than 32,000 man-hours of direct support during the last half of 1953. In 1954, Northrop decided to drop the Allison engine in favor of the Pratt Whitney J-57 engine. The company also had the solid rocket boosters upgraded to 130,000 pounds of thrust each. Though the SNARK's diameter and wing span remained virtually unchanged, its length was eventually shortened to 67.2 feet. The SNARK's gross weight, minus boosters, increased to 49,000 pounds.33

[Photo]SNARK PRE-LAUNCH - Cape Canaveral, 1954


The Northrop Field Test Crew launched 11 "recoverable" N-69A and N-69B model SNARKs in 1954 and 1955. None of those missiles were recovered successfully, but the Crew acquired considerable data from the flights. Northrop also gathered aerodynamic data from Model N-69C missiles used in terminal dive testing, which started in February 1955. Unfortunately, not all of this information was good news: though the N-69C's first flight on February 10th was excellent, data gathered on later flights of the N-69C and the first two flights of the N-69D forced Northrop to suspend all SNARK launches in February 1956 to correct "the unreliability of certain system components." Following about four months of trouble-shooting, the ban on SNARK flights was lifted. N-69C flights resumed in July, and they continued until delivery system tests were completed in October 1956.34

SNARK guidance test flights were halted as part of the overall suspension in February 1956, but they resumed with the launch of a third N-69D missile on 13 September 1956. Fourteen more N-69D missiles were launched over the next 11 months to evaluate the MARK I inertial guidance system, and most of those flights met all of their test objectives. Encouraged by the results, Northrop pushed ahead with the military demonstration phase of the program in June 1957. After a failed debut on June 20th, the N-69E operational prototype responded well during most of its flight on 16 August 1957. Another N-69E made a routine flight on September 19th, and two N-69Es made the first two SNARK flights to Ascension on 31 October and 5 December 1957. Those missiles were launched by the Northrop Field Test Crew, but two N-69Ds were launched by all-military crews on October 1st and November 20th. Blue suit launches of the N-69E were just around the corner. After launching five more operational prototypes between January 25th and May 6th, the Northrop Field Test Crew launched its last N-69E missile on 28 May 1958. On June 27th, SAC's 556th Strategic Missile Squadron launched its first SNARK (an N-69E) under the supervision of the 6555th Guided Missiles Squadron. The launch was also the first in a series of flights for the SNARK Employment and Suitability Test (E and ST) program.35


It should come as no surprise that the SNARK's operational suitability flights were interwoven with its R&D flights. This policy was first established at AFMTC for the MATADOR program in the mid-1950s, and it was reiterated by the AFMTC Commander in February 1957. It was also supported by the Air Proving Ground Command, SAC and ARDC in a test requirement conference held at Patrick on 5 and 6 March 1957. All agencies agreed that approximately 95 percent of the SNARK's E and ST requirements could be met by observing N-69E R&D tests and reviewing the data obtained on those flights -- as long as blue suit launch crews were involved in the operations. Northrop planned its first N-69E launch for June, so the 6555th quickly dispatched one officer and 21 airmen to Northrop's Hawthorne plant to receive additional specialized training in the spring of 1957. After that contingent returned to the Cape in June, it passed its knowledge on to other personnel in the 6555th. Plans for SNARK crew training and squadron-level operational testing were completed a few weeks later, and the 6555th accomplished its first blue suit SNARK launches on 1 October and 20 November 1957.36

The 556th Strategic Missile Squadron was activated under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Richard W. Beck at Patrick on 15 December 1957. The 556th was assigned to SAC, but it started its on-the-job training under the direction of the 6555th Guided Missiles Squadron in January 1958. Some of the 556th's men participated in an "over-the-shoulder" training exercise with the Northrop Field Test Crew in March, and the Squadron's first simulated launch training was conducted on April 4th. The Air Force Missile Test Center picked up responsibility for SNARK operational evaluation testing on 14 May 1958 (i.e., two weeks before the Northrop Field Test Crew's last launch), and the 6555th supervised the 556th's first launch on 27 June 1958. The 556th also launched two N-69Ds in November and December 1958.37

Five more SNARKs were launched by the 6555th in the last half of 1958, but the 556th's crew training program was shortened dramatically after the Air Force decided to limit the SNARK's deployment to just one operational squadron. On 1 January 1959, SAC activated the 702nd Strategic Missile Wing (ICM-SNARK) at Presque Isle, Maine, and it assigned the 556th to the 702nd in April. Eighty SAC personnel were sent to AFMTC in the spring of 1959 for crew training, and the 556th participated in three production model (SM-62) SNARK launches before it departed for Maine on 7 July 1959. Though the 556th was inactivated on 15 July 1959 and absorbed by the 702nd, 188 additional SNARK missilemen were trained under the 6555th Guided Missiles Squadron's supervision by the end of December 1959.38

Five SNARKs were launched in the last half of 1959, bringing the number of flights to 86 since the program's inception. Unfortunately, the SNARK continued to display performance problems. An overall review of the R&D effort toward the end of 1959 concluded that, once airborne, the SNARK only had one chance in six of hitting the target area. The Air Force Missile Test Center recommended cancellation of the program, but Air Force Headquarters decided to continue the R&D program at the rate of about one launch per month through 1960. In addition to normal range support, AFMTC agreed to provide airmen from the 6555th to support blockhouse telemetry operations and provide engineering evaluation on the next three SNARK flights. Though Northrop's Field Test Crew was gone, the contractor still had a considerable number of technical personnel at the Cape. Northrop was directed to maintain 125 employees to meet its technical responsibilities as missile contractor on the final test flights. Eleven more SNARKs were launched in 1960 before the test program was closed out.39

[Photo]SNARK LAUNCH - 1960

The 702nd Strategic Missile Wing placed its first SNARK on alert at Presque Isle on 18 March 1960, and three more missiles were added to the Wing's alert force within a few months. Despite those encouraging signs, the 702nd was not declared "operational" until 28 February 1961. One month later, President John F. Kennedy declared the SNARK "obsolete and of marginal military value," and SAC inactivated the 702nd on 25 June 1961. In retrospect, the SNARK was an abysmal failure as a weapon system, but it gave SAC considerable experience in preparing, training and deploying other strategic guided missile cadres in later years. The same could be said for the missile's value to the 6555th, in the context of that unit's mission at Cape Canaveral.40

The 6555th: Missile and Space Launches Through 1970
by Mark C. Cleary, Chief Historian
45 Space Wing Office of History
1201 Minuteman Ave, Patrick AFB, FL 32925