Gloster Meteor U Mk.15

Gloster Meteor U Mk.15

The Gloster Meteor U Mk.15 was an unmanned target drone created from converted surplus Meteor F Mk.4 fighters. These target drones were used to help develop ground and air launched guided missiles, which needed expendable targets that could be tested to destruction. This role had been being filled by Fairey Firefly U Mk.8s and U Mk.9s, but these aircraft were no longer fast enough to adequately represent the real targets the missiles were being designed to hit – fast Soviet jet fighters and bombers.

The development of the Meteor F Mk.8 meant that a large number of F Mk.4s were no longer needed by the RAF. Autopilot and equipment trials were conducted at RAE Farnborough, using a T Mk.7 as the test bed. A contract was then placed with Flight Refuelling Limited, based at Tarrant Rushton, to convert the first batch of F.4s to the new role. Somewhere between 90 and 94 aircraft were converted to the U Mk.15 standard, starting in 1955. The first of the modified aircraft made its maiden flight on 11 March 1955 and its first remote landing in the next month. The conversion involved fitting additional radio equipment, a fully automatic pilot, a remote control system that could be used to control the aircraft from the ground and wingtip camera pods that could be ejected automatically or by radio command just before the missile impact.

Most of these aircraft were delivered to the Woomera Weapons Research Establishment in Australia, arriving from 1955. The first unmanned flight at Woomera was made on 7 May 1957, and saw the drone destroyed by a Fireflash missile. Twenty of the aircraft were delivered to RAF Llanbedr in North Wales, making their first flight over Cardigan Bay on 17 July 1958. Finally a small number of drones went to No.728B Squadron, Royal Navy, at Hal Far (Malta). Over time the number of U.15s remaining began to dwindle, and a similar number of F Mk.8s would be converted to the U Mk.16 standard.

Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle is a mythical section of the Atlantic Ocean roughly bounded by Miami, Bermuda and Puerto Rico where dozens of ships and airplanes have disappeared. Unexplained circumstances surround some of these accidents, including one in which the pilots of a squadron of U.S. Navy bombers became disoriented while flying over the area the planes were never found. Other boats and planes have seemingly vanished from the area in good weather without even radioing distress messages. But although myriad fanciful theories have been proposed regarding the Bermuda Triangle, none of them prove that mysterious disappearances occur more frequently there than in other well-traveled sections of the ocean. In fact, people navigate the area every day without incident.

Rods from God

This technology is very far out–in miles and years. A pair of satellites orbiting several hundred miles above the Earth would serve as a weapons system. One functions as the targeting and communications platform while the other carries numerous tungsten rods–up to 20 feet in length and a foot in diameter–that it can drop on targets with less than 15 minutes’ notice. When instructed from the ground, the targeting satellite commands its partner to drop one of its darts. The guided rods enter the atmosphere, protected by a thermal coating, traveling at 36,000 feet per second–comparable to the speed of a meteor. The result: complete devastation of the target, even if it’s buried deep underground. (The two-platform configuration permits the weapon to be “reloaded” by just launching a new set of rods, rather than replacing the entire system.)

The concept of kinetic-energy weapons has been around ever since the RAND Corporation proposed placing rods on the tips of ICBMs in the 1950s the satellite twist was popularized by sci-fi writer Jerry Pournelle. Though the Pentagon won’t say how far along the research is, or even confirm that any efforts are underway, the concept persists. The “U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan,” published by the Air Force in November 2003, references “hypervelocity rod bundles” in its outline of future space-based weapons, and in 2002, another report from RAND, “Space Weapons, Earth Wars,” dedicated entire sections to the technology’s usefulness.

If so-called “Rods from God”–an informal nickname of untraceable origin–ever do materialize, it won’t be for at least 15 years. Launching heavy tungsten rods into space will require substantially cheaper rocket technology than we have today. But there are numerous other obstacles to making such a system work. Pike, of, argues that the rods’ speed would be so high that they would vaporize on impact, before the rods could penetrate the surface. Furthermore, the “absentee ratio”–the fact that orbiting satellites circle the Earth every 100 minutes and so at any given time might be far from the desired target–would be prohibitive. A better solution, Pike argues, is to pursue the original concept: Place the rods atop intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would slow down enough during the downward part of their trajectory to avoid vaporizing on impact. ICBMs would also be less expensive and, since they’re stationed on Earth, would take less time to reach their targets. “The space-basing people seem to understand the downside of space weapons,” Pike says–among them, high costs and the difficulty of maintaining weapon platforms in orbit. “But I’ll still bet you there’s a lot of classified work on this going on right now.”

The Rods are just one of the world’s spookiest weapons. Launch the entire gallery of terrifying weapons here.

The Atomic Bomb

The first weapon on the list is arguably both the spookiest and the most terrifying from beginning to end. Whether you side with those who say its use in WWII prevented an invasion of Japan and casualties on a much larger scale, or those who denounce its use as a war crime, it is arguably the only weapon whose effects have so vividly solidified in the popular consciousness after such little use (twice). The bomb’s devastating reach extended well beyond the immediate blast radii nearly half of the total number who died in 1945 as a direct resulting of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagaski died from burns, radiation poisoning, and cancers.

Project X-Ray

In the early years of American involvement in WWII, a plan was conceived by a Pennsylvanian dental surgeon to strap tiny incendiary devices to bats and drop them by the thousands over Japanese cities. The bats—able to carry nearly three times their own body weight—would fly under the cover of night and take roost in traditional, highly-flammable wood and paper Japanese houses. As dawn approached, timers on the devices would ignite the “bat bombs” and entire cities would burn to the ground without the loss of life accompanied by, say, an atomic attack. The project was slowed by many complications and was ultimately shut down in 1944 because the bats would not be ready for combat until 1945.


Begun in the 1950s by the CIA as a response to Korean techniques used on American POWs during the Korean War, MK-ULTRA became the code name for an extensive and covert program investigating the possibilities of mind-control through psychotropic and other mood-altering drugs. It was most notorious for dosing unwitting subjects with LSD [left] and following their behavior while under its influence. Another experiment involved injecting barbiturates followed by amphetamines, causing the subject to doze off and then be shocked awake into a trance-like state during which questioning would result in animated responses. In 1973, Richard Helms, CIA Director at the time, ordered all MK-ULTRA files destroyed, which effectively curtailed any meaningful investigation the Congress attempted to pursue two years later, in 1975.

The Stargate Project

We move from spooky to kooky with an operation begun under the Army’s military intelligence in the 1970s called the Stargate Project. While its aims may have had a scientific underpinning—it was an attempt to bring quantifiable measurements to clairvoyance—it was largely a last ditch effort to generate intelligence about a situation when there was no other avenue to pursue. The project used a small group of “remote viewers” who were people claiming to possess a variety of extra sensory abilities, from reading tarot cards to predicting the future, to divining the nature of covered or hidden objects in aerial photographs. While the results of any given viewing were kept highly secret so as not to damage the confidence of the clairvoyants, we can likely conclude the outcomes were not terribly accurate, as in 1995 the project was transferred to and subsequently shut down by the CIA.

The CornerShot

William Prescott readied his men at the Battle of Bunker Hill with the now famous words, “do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Fortunately, his men were fighting in the American Revolution and not on the modern battlefield against the CornerShot, a weapon designed specifically so that the enemy will never see your eyes. A miniature camera and LCD screen sub in for the gunner’s “eyes” as the front half of the rifle bends around corners in order to shoot targets without the operator having to come into the open. It works by mounting a semi-automatic pistol to the hinged front half with remote linkage to the trigger at the rear and can swivel through a 120-degree range.

Cetacean Intelligence Mission

The Navy has been training bottlenose dolphins since at least the late 1980s to patrol and protect warships, hunt for mines, and even to carry darts and target divers for attack. Once word of the program got out, animal rights activists raised public awareness causing the Navy to turn the details highly classified today, little is known about the extent of the operations. We do know that the animals were fitted with electronic harnesses, which ostensibly relayed signal commands, and that they were trained to recognize divers in wetsuits like prowlers in the night. How the mechanism of firing the darts was accomplished is anyone’s guess.

The Gay Bomb

We return to the subject of spooky bombs with a device that never got any further than a three-page report [excerpt at left]. In the document, issued by a U.S. Air Force research laboratory in Ohio in 1994, the proposal was to develop a variety of bombs of uncommon ordinance (at a cost of $7.5 million), including: a flatulence bomb, which would stink so badly as to drive the enemy out of its hiding places a bomb which would make the enemy sweat profusely and a “halitosis bomb,” which would plague soldiers with bad breath. But the coup de grâce was the bomb now colloquially referred to as the “gay bomb.” Using a hypothetical aphrodisiac of remarkable potency, the bomb would spray the enemy with a substance that would quite literally turn them gay, causing the soldiers to become “irresistibly attracted to one another” and, we can only assume, forget that they were in the process of being bombed.

The Trophy Active Defense System

Tanks are frightening machines on their own without any need for upping the scare ante. So what could make these already heavily armored vehicles any more unstoppable? An invisible force field. Fine, so the Trophy Active Defense System isn’t literally a force field, but it’s as close as any countermeasure has yet come. Using a highly sophisticated network of radar units placed around the tank, the ADS can detect rocket propelled grenades and other low-tech munitions in time to target them and return pinpointed fire, destroying the munitions in mid-air. The ADS is capable of tracking multiple targets in nearly any direction, rendering tanks with the equipment nearly bulletproof.

Metal Storm

Metal Storm is an Australian-based company that has been developing a line of weapons which use stacked projectiles. Stacked projectile weapons are different from traditional guns in that they have no moving parts. Instead of loading a bullet into a chamber and having a mechanism such as a hammer initiate its firing, the Metal Storm weapons use electronics to manage the firing sequence. Bullets are tightly lined up within the gun and each is packed between an explosive propellant the result of which is a weapon that can fire at a much higher rate than a traditional automatic. One bullet enters the barrel before the last has left, which creates a torrent of ammunition with firepower not unlike a high-powered, comic book-style laser.

Cyborg Moths

As if most people weren’t already creeped out enough by insects, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has been working to develop cyborg spy moths. Darpa, the research arm of the Department of Defense, has already successfully implanted chips in cockroaches and rats, allowing humans to “drive” the animals with joysticks. In the case of the moths, the chip will be implanted at the pupal stage so that the animal grows around it and develops a “reliable tissue-machine interface.” The spy moth will then be released at the front lines and remotely piloted into enemy territory, potentially beaming back video and audio feeds along the way.

The Navy’s Railgun

The Navy is exploring the possibilities of trading the explosive energy of conventional warheads for kinetic energy using simple projectiles. On its face, it sounds like a step backward. But when you see the prototype railgun in action, firing a seven pound shell at seven times the speed of sound, you start to understand the power generated by tremendous acceleration: That non-explosive hunk of metal carries as much destructive force as a Tomahawk missile. The railgun works by storing a massive amount of electricity—the Navy is aiming for a 64 megajoule model—that is then sent through parallel rails. The current generates a strong magnetic field which then accelerates the projectile to mind-bending speeds. With the finished product, a 5-meter target can be hit from 200 nautical miles away.

The Puke Flashlight

No, it’s not a rave toy gone horribly wrong, it’s another spooky tool making its way into the hands of law enforcement and the military. Designed as one of a growing body of non-lethal incapacitating devices, the flashlight uses ultra bright, rapidly pulsating LEDs to first temporarily blind and then induce nausea and sometimes vomiting. The pulses quickly change color and duration, which can cause psychophysical effects in many people (although to what extent varies significantly). The same effect is sometimes inadvertently seen by helicopter pilots when sunlight rapidly flashes through their rotors, disorienting them in mid-flight. The flashlight has obvious downsides—the victim must be in front of the light and must not think quickly enough to look away—but is a promising tool for non-violent enforcement.

Mobility Denial System

We now move from the spooky into the somewhat goofy with the Marine’s Mobility Denial System a fancy name for what is essentially cartoon slime. It’s actually less Inspector Gadget and more a potentially effective and valuable idea. It works like this: two polymers are mixed together—a liquid and a powder—to make a slurry, which is then pumped into a nozzle where it meets a stream of water. On contact with the water, the slurry turns into a viscous, sticky, and slippery gel, which can be sprayed on nearly any surface. It remains gooey for many hours, and when it dries can be swept away or reactivated with more water. It’s target uses are in crowd control and protecting building entrances or checkpoints. The only real danger comes from slips and falls people reportedly have less control on the slime than they do on ice.

A Military-Grade Stink Bomb

The Air Force lab responsible for the gay bomb and the fart bomb have nothing on what the DOD has in the works today. Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia are working with the Department of Defense to develop the baddest smell you ever smelled. We’re talking a mixture of vomit, excrement, B.O., burnt hair, and rotting flesh and garbage. Just thinking about it is making me queasy. The important thing to note is the need for a combination of many sources of stench—just vomit or just burnt hair won’t do it because our brains can too readily adjust to accommodating one stink. But throw a half dozen at us and we’re at the mercy of our gag reflex. Ultimately, the potent cocktail could be used in a “bomb” of sorts for crowd dispersal. It’s also being considered for helping soldiers become accustomed to unpleasant environments.

The Scream

The Israeli Army has developed a device they’re calling “The Scream,” which issues short bursts of highly tuned sound designed to get in someone’s head and stay there most uncomfortably until they leave the device’s range. The noise isn’t particularly loud and the effect is nothing like standing too close to the speakers at a rock show. Instead, it’s tuned to a specific frequency that targets the inner ear and disrupts a person’s equilibrium. The result is nausea and dizziness even after the sound is no longer broadcast. It is an unbearable sensation, and covering your ears is no defense.

Active Denial System

The U.S. Air Force has borrowed a page out of the Marine’s naming conventions book (see: Mobility Denial System) with a device more commonly known as the “heat ray.” The heat ray looks like a nondescript satellite dish, mounted on the back of a military-grade news truck. But instead of gathering and focusing radio waves coming in, the weapon focuses millimeter waves (similar to microwaves, but shorter) and sends them out. The effect of those waves against human skin produces a sensation of intense burning which people are reportedly only able to stand for a few seconds. The military claims the waves penetrate the skin by only one sixty-fourth of an inch and cause no lasting damage, but the system is still in the early stages and is as yet unproven in the field.

The Rods from God

This one would be the hands down winner for spookiest name if the award weren’t just a consolation prize—the Rods from God will do just fine competing for the spookiest weapon, regardless of name, thank you very much. They are a kinetic energy device like the railgun, but instead of using electricity to achieve destructive velocities, they use gravity. The still-hypothetical system would be comprised of two satellites in orbit around the Earth. One would house the communications and targeting hardware, while the other would house the rods themselves, each up to a foot in diameter and twenty feet long. To fire, they would simply be released and allowed to fall back to Earth (with a bit of remote guidance). By the time they reached the surface, they’d be traveling at a speed of 36,000 feet per second and carry the destructive force of a nuclear warhead, only with none of the radioactive fallout.

Modular Disc-Wing Urban Cruise Munition

Again, we’re fans of the colloquial name: robotic frisbees of death. Currently in development under the auspices of the Air Force, the frisbees of death are robotic drones in the shape of flying discs and are designed for short flights into difficult to reach areas, like the upper stories of tall buildings or behind unnavigable obstacles. Sent airborne from a modified skeet launcher, the drones can either fly automatically or be piloted remotely from the ground. They’ll be packed with armor-piercing explosives and can be set to detonate all at once or to disperse their payload over a range.

Airborne Laser

While the Pentagon continues to fund a woefully unsuccessful Star Wars project dedicated to shooting down missiles from space, the Air Force is on its way to having a modified 747 ready as early as 2009 to shoot down missiles from the sky with—you guessed it—a massive laser. Known as the Airborne Laser, the craft will house a multi-megawatt chemical oxygen iodine laser capable of hitting a target many hundreds of miles away. At its core, it’s the same basic technology as found in a drugstore laser pointer, only a billion times more powerful. While the craft is scheduled for its first live target test in 2009, the laser and the airplane have yet to be tested together.

Meteor captured on doorbell cameras in England

It was spotted shortly before 22:00 GMT, with some initially thinking it was simply a large firework.

But some lucky homeowners were delighted to discover they had captured the mesmerising event on their doorbell video cameras.

Scientists say the fireball was likely to have been a small piece of asteroid.

It was visible for around seven seconds.

Ivor Lafford, 52, has a Nest doorbell, which doubles as a security camera, fitted to the front door of his home in Milton Keynes.

He told the BBC he was sitting in his living room watching television on Sunday when he saw what he believed to be a "big firework".

"I just thought. what's that, and then I asked my wife to check the camera footage to see if it had picked it up," he said.

They were able to look back over the most recent camera footage and found the moment the meteor flew above their street, with the video showing a giant ball of light descending over their neighbour's property.

He said that other people with doorbell cameras might have unwittingly captured the same images.

"I could have looked away and wouldn't have known to check the footage," he added.

Mr Lafford said he found events like this "fascinating", although he added that he's not usually one for stargazing.

"My little boy is eight and was very excited about it," he said. "He's quite poorly at the moment going through chemotherapy, so it was quite nice for him to be excited about something."

Mr Lafford was not the only one who discovered they had recorded the event.

A woman known as Nikki on Twitter shared a clip from her doorstep in Appley Bridge, near Wigan in Greater Manchester.

In the footage the light can be seen soaring across the clear night sky.

New footage of the #fireball tonight. Sent by Katie Parr

&mdash UK Meteor Network (@UKMeteorNetwork) February 28, 2021

There was also a vivid clip of the fireball captured by Katie Parr, which was shared on Twitter by the UK Meteor Network.

She later said it was taken on her Nest doorbell camera at 21:54 on Sunday over Monkspath, Solihull.

Meanwhile, Lee Moran tweeted a short clip showing the meteor, seen between two hanging plants on the front porch.

The meteor was likely to have been a small piece of an asteroid entering the Earth's atmosphere, according to scientists from the UK Fireball Alliance (UKFAll), which is led by staff at the Natural History Museum.

The organisation said it sent a sonic boom across southern England and its bright light could be seen from Ireland to the Netherlands.

They added that the meteor was set to break the world record as the most-reported ever - with 758 reports on the International Meteor Organisation's website so far.

Jim Rowe, of UKFall, said doorbell cameras have "an increasingly huge role to play" in the study of such events, "alongside specialised meteor and fireball cameras".

"That's because they are always pointed in the same direction and pretty-much always have the same field of view, so we can work out exactly where the meteor was," he said.

"That's a huge advantage over dash-cams in cars, which used to be the main source of videos."

He added: "The professional cameras are extremely well calibrated and can measure the location of a meteor trail to within 10 metres or so. But Nest cameras increasingly are everywhere, so we're trading accuracy for frequency of captures."

UKFAll has more than 30 cameras in the UK continually monitoring the sky for meteors and fireballs, and the event was picked up on six of them - at Cardiff, Manchester, Honiton, Lincoln, Cambridge and Welwyn Garden City.

The organisation said that although the meteor fragmented in the atmosphere it was likely that "a few fragments" reached the ground.

"If you do find a meteorite on the ground, ideally photograph it in place, note the location using your phone GPS, don't touch it with a magnet, and, if you can, avoid touching it with your hands," said Dr Katherine Joy of the University of Manchester.

Gloster Meteor U Mk.15 - History

Gloster Meteor- RAF Jet Fighter Aircraft of World War II

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The Gloster Meteor was the RAF's first jet fighter aircraft.
Development began in November 1940 following the appearance of the turbojet designed by Frank Whittle. Designed by George Carter of the Gloster Aircraft Company, eight prototypes were produced in the beginning the craft was named the Thunderbolt, but confusion with the American Republic P-47 led to a name change to Meteor.

The Gloster Meteor made its first test flight on March 5, 1943, the fifth prototype, piloted by Michael Daunt, making it into the air powered by two de Havilland Halfors H.1 turbojets. This was not the first flight by a jet-powered aircraft in Britain: that had taken place almost two years earlier on May 15, 1941 That flight was made by an experimental Gloster E. 28/39 powered by a single Whittle W.1 engine with 390 kg of thrust. The initial production Mk. I had a maximum speed of 417 mph at 3000m and had a range of 1610 km, powered by two Rolls-Royce W.2B/23C turbojet engines providing 771 kg of thrust each (the Halfors engines had been reserved by de Havilland for that company's own Vampire jet aircraft). It was 12.60 m long with a span of 13.10 m, an empty weight of 3695 kg, and a maximum take-off weight of 6255 kg. The construction was all-metal with conventional low straight wings, the turbojets were mid-mounted in the wings, and the tailplane was high-mounted to keep it clear of the jet exhaust. It was armed with four 20 mm Hispano cannons. Late versions, beginning with the F.8 in 1948 were the first British production aircraft to be equipped with ejector seats

The first aircraft were delivered to the Royal Air Force on July 12, 1944 and one was also sent to the US in exchange for a Bell YP-59A Airacomet for comparative evaluation. The Meteor Mk. I saw action for the first time on July 27, 1944 against the V1 Flying Bomb. The Meteor never saw aerial combat against the Luftwaffe despite flying missions over Germany from January 1945, using the Mk. III variant from bases in Belgium.

Production of the aircraft continued until 1954 and almost 3,900 were made, mainly the Mk. 8. The Meteor was also operated by the airforces of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, France, Egypt, Israel, Syria and Sweden.

Although many Gloster Meteors survive in Museums and collections only five remain airworthy, four in the United Kingdom and a F8 fighter which was exported to Australia in 2002.

What’s the Difference Between a Meteoroid, a Meteor, and a Meteorite?

It’s a cool night, and you look up at the stars twinkling and serene in the dark sky. Then a light streaks across the sky and is gone. “Wow, a shooting star,” you think. “A meteor. Wait. or is it a meteorite? Or a meteoroid?”

It is a meteor. A meteor is the streak of light that you see in the sky when a small piece of cometary or asteroidal material enters the atmosphere at high speed and burns up because of the frictional heating from the piece’s collision with the atoms and molecules in the atmosphere. Before the small bit of comet or asteroid enters Earth’s atmosphere, it floats through interplanetary space and is called a meteoroid.

Most meteoroids that enter the atmosphere burn up completely as meteors. In some cases, however, the meteoroid does not completely burn up, and the object actually makes it to Earth’s surface. The chunk that has survived its fiery journey is called a meteorite. A small body starts its life as a meteoroid floating through space between the planets until it makes a bright streak of light in Earth’s atmosphere as a meteor and then, if it isn’t consumed by frictional heating, finally lands on the ground as a meteorite.

Frank Whittle and the Race for the Jet

The engine that today powers most commercial airliners and military aircraft traces its origins to a 1930 patent filed by a young RAF officer

C aptain Monty Burton shut down the engines of British Airways Concorde G-BOAD at Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, D.C., and addressed the passengers: “We have covered the 3,900 miles from London to Washington in 3 hours 37 minutes, an average speed of well over 1,000 miles per hour and a maximum of 1,340. Today we had the great honor of carrying Sir Frank Whittle, who made all this possible.”

Whittle can justifiably be called the “father of the jet.” He was the first to build and run a turbojet aero engine. His 1930 patent application set down the fundamental design for a true turbojet light enough and with sufficient thrust to power an aircraft, and he pioneered features found in engines built 80 years later.

From a working-class family, he entered the Royal Air Force in 1923 the hard way, as an apprentice in a program that trained mechanics to service and repair airplanes. Except for a tiny few it promised a Spartan life under rigid discipline. But by virtue of his outstanding ability and hard work, in 1926 Whittle was one of only five apprentices, out of more than 600 in his class, selected to train as an officer at the RAF College in Cranwell.

Cadet training emphasized aeronautical engineering, and Whittle’s 1928 term thesis, “Future Developments in Aircraft Design,” predicted a rapid increase in speed, but noted that to achieve this aircraft would need to travel at high altitude to take advantage of reduced air resistance. However, piston en gines and propellers lose efficiency with increasing height, and there would inevi tably be a limit to both speed and altitude without a totally new kind of propulsive power.

Only one-fifth of the fuel energy in a piston engine propels the aircraft, the rest going to cooling and mechanical losses. In contrast, wrote Whittle, “the turbine is the most efficient prime mover known, so it is possible that it will be developed for aircraft….” It would convert most of the heat energy into propulsive force in the same way as a rocket, by the kinetic energy of hot gases escaping at high speed from the tailpipe.

The engine would essentially be a duct containing a single moving part: a shaft with a compressor at one end driven by a turbine at the other, itself powered by the energy from fuel burned in a combustion chamber between them. With none of the piston engine’s reciprocating parts, rotational speed and power output could be increased exponentially, and so long as there was even rarified air for the engine to breathe, altitude and speed would increase in quantum leaps. The faster and higher the aircraft went, the better a jet engine would work. “At the time I was working on this thesis the maximum speed of RAF fighters was less than 150 mph and the service ceiling about 20,000 feet,” Whittle said. “I was thinking in terms of a speed of 500 mph in the stratosphere.” And that would just be the beginning.

His thesis was the product of five grueling years in the workshops and study halls as an apprentice and flight cadet, while simultaneously training as a pilot. His tutor at Cranwell, O.S. Sinatt, said, “I couldn’t quite follow everything you have written, Whittle, but I can’t find anything wrong with it,” and awarded him the maximum grade.

Whittle graduated in 1928, just missing the Sword of Honor as top cadet but receiving the Memorial Prize for Aeronautical Sciences, having excelled in every area except contact sports, due to his diminutive size—he was barely 5 feet tall. The only negative note in his evaluation: “Over confidence. He gives aerobatics too much value. Inclined to perform to the gallery and flies too low.”

Wearing his new pilot’s wings, Whittle set out on his motorcycle to report to No. 111 (Fighter) Squadron at Hornchurch. “An ancient car driven by an ancient and deaf man shot out of a side road and I struck him amidships,” he related. “I shot over the car bonnet and landed in the road several yards beyond.” It was the first of several times he would cheat death. A few weeks later another crash ended his two-wheeled career, as his insurance company canceled his policy.

At Hornchurch Whittle demonstrated exceptional skill and performed feats that left his fellow pilots in awe. Soon he was selected to represent his squadron in formation flying and aerobatics. But a misjudged flick-roll at low altitude that came within inches of putting a wingtip into the Thames, and a later midair collision that wrote off his aircraft, sobered him somewhat. His superiors thought they might cool the young daredevil’s ardor by making him an instructor, so they posted him to the training station at RAF Wittering.

Intrigued by Whittle’s ideas, the commanding officer at Wittering arranged for him to report to A.A. Griffith at the Air Ministry research laboratory, who, unknown to Whittle, was working on the turbine as a better way to drive a propeller. It was a daunting experience for a newly commissioned officer of 22, but he felt reasonably confident of mak ing a convincing case for his concept of a potentially revolutionary power plant that could put Britain years ahead of its likely enemies.

He was to be bitterly disappointed. Griffith dismissed Whittle’s estimate of the propulsive power potential in the hot gas exiting the engine as foolishly optimistic and based on faulty calculations. Whittle later received an Air Ministry letter (probably written by Griffith) saying that they had no interest in pursuing his proposals, with the condescending “any suggestion submitted by people in the Service is always welcome,” and, “you may rest assured the criticisms of your scheme were made with the full knowledge of the results made by actual experiment.” This was untrue no experiments had been conducted, or planned, on jet propulsion.

Despite having the door slammed in his face, Whittle was urged by RAF colleagues to apply for a patent, which he filed on January 16, 1930. Among its proposals: “The emission of gas may perhaps be directionally controlled for maneuvering purposes.” He also suggested spraying fuel into the gas flow before it exited the tail pipe to increase thrust, the concept behind today’s afterburner. Thus 82 years ago Frank Whittle had laid down the basis for modern fighters, bombers, helicopters and airliners vectored-thrust aircraft such as the VTOL Harrier and F-35 and supersonic flight. As a serving officer he notified the Air Ministry, which expressed no interest in his patent and did not even put his invention on the secret list. So when the patent was granted, in October 1932, full specifications were published around the world.

Whittle was by then fully occupied with his RAF duties. To advance in rank and pursue a career, pilots were required to fly—in his case as a test pilot and at air displays—as well as perform the other duties of an officer, study for promotion examinations and be available at any time for overseas posting. While practicing for the 1930 airshow at Hendon, Whittle managed to wreck two airplanes, earning a rebuke from a furious flight commander: “Why don’t you take all my bloody aeroplanes, make a heap of them in the middle of the aerodrome and set fire to them—it’s quicker!”

Whittle’s patent expired in 1935 because the Air Ministry refused to pay for its renewal, and he couldn’t afford to do so, but some ex-RAF friends obtained sufficient funding from investment bankers for the formation, in March 1936, of a tiny company called Power Jets. Whittle began work on a prototype engine, the WU (Whittle Unit), in an old, disused foundry building near Coventry. The RAF made a rare exception to the rule forbidding serving officers from involvement in commercial enterprises, provided it did not take him away from his regular duties for more than six hours per week, regarding it essentially as a spare-time hobby.

T he same year, Hans von Ohain, a young physics and aerodynamics student at Germany’s University of Göttingen, applied for a patent for a “Process and Apparatus for Producing airstreams for Propelling Airplanes.” In contrast to Whittle’s humble origins, von Ohain’s family was of the Prussian military aristocracy. His design was not a true turbojet—a self-contained engine using the energy from its own power turbine to turn the intake air compressor. It used an electric motor to power the compressor, a technological dead end that was tried in several other countries, including Japan and Italy. When he attempted to run a prototype, he could not control the combustion process. Flame shot out in the reverse direction and destroyed the electric motor.

Richard Pohl, director of the university’s Physics Institute, discussed von Ohain’s idea with his friend Ernst Heinkel, whose company was designing aircraft for the reemergent Luftwaffe but had no experience with engine building. Heinkel was obsessed with fast aircraft, and the jet might afford him both an entry into the aero engine industry and put his firm well ahead of its competitors in performance. He arranged for von Ohain to present his ideas to the company’s engineers, who determined that, while his design would never work, the concept itself was interesting. On that basis, von Ohain was given Heinkel’s full backing.

The race was on to develop the first practical turbojet aero engine, though the odds were stacked. One contestant was operating on a shoestring in a decrepit foundry, without either government or industrial backing, in whatever time he could spare from his air force commitments. The other had the resources of a giant industrial concern, with its engineers and scientists, and could devote full time to the project. And while Whittle had no inkling of what was going on in Germany, Heinkel would soon be monitoring his progress.

Whittle’s original funding, plus another £100 from a lady who ran a corner shop near his parents, was almost gone by this time. The Air Ministry’s response to his request for a research grant came from D.R. Pye, deputy director of scientific research: “It is hardly likely you will be successful where so many better-equipped people have failed”—a bureaucratic Catch-22: Because of your lack of equipment you won’t succeed, but we won’t give you money to buy any.

One of the early combustion test rigs, using a barrel of "white spirit at the BTH facility at Ladywood.

There was just sufficient cash for apprentices at British Thomson-Houston (BTH), a large engineering firm in Rugby, to assemble a prototype engine. It was revolutionary, unlike anything previously seen. Whittle calculated that each minute the 19-inch compressor would deliver 13,000 cubic feet of air to the combustion chamber while burning four gallons of fuel, with the power turbine supplying more than 3,000 hp to the compressor. Stanley Hooker, the genius largely responsible for doubling the power of the Rolls-Royce Merlin piston engine, wrote: “For the preceding 30 years the performance of piston engines in flight was only known to a very rough approximation based on inaccurate formulae, yet Whittle predicted what a jet engine would do before he had ever made one….40 years later, his formulae [were] used unchanged.”

On April 12, 1937, the engine was started. It was notable both historically and for what happened next. Whittle recorded: “I opened the control valve which admitted fuel….For a second or two the speed increased slowly. Then, with a rising shriek like an air-raid siren, the speed began to rise rapidly and large patches of red heat became visible on the combustion chamber casing. The engine was obviously out of control.” Sheets of flame shot out the tail pipe and escaped from joints in the casing, soon encasing the whole rig in flames. As the others took to their heels, “I remained rooted to the spot, not because I was particularly brave but because I seemed to be paralyzed with fright. I screwed down the control valve immediately, but this had no effect and speed continued to rise. Fortunately the acceleration stopped at about 8,000 rpm, and slowly the revs dropped again.”

The same thing happened on the second run. Fuel was pooling in the combustion chamber when the fuel pump was tested prior to start-up, and continued to power the turbine even with the fuel supply turned off. A simple drain cock solved the problem. The jet age had begun.

T hat same month Heinkel built a completely new design with many changes from von Ohain’s, called the HeS2. In September von Ohain had the satisfaction of seeing his first turbojet run, unaware that Whittle had beaten him by five months.

After the runaway engine experience, BTH forbade any more test runs inside their factory, so subsequent tests were conducted in the yard or back at Power Jets’ old foundry building. Luckily for the future of British jet engines, the Air Ministry placed Whittle on the Special Duty List, allowing him to work on the engine full time. And Sir Henry Tizard, chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee, arranged for a government contract worth £10,000, the original merchant bankers contributed another £3,000 and even BTH, seeing possible future manufacturing potential, added £2,500.

By April 1938, the modified engine was ready. Ironically, the previously uninterested government now put the project under the Official Secrets Act. The September Munich crisis added urgency, but funding was again drying up and tests on new designs at Power Jets resulted in a series of breakdowns. The strain was affecting Whittle’s health. While the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) in Germany had more than 2,000 engineers working on 12 jet projects, he—with a running engine—was still finding it difficult to get proper backing.

Then, he noted, “on the 26th June 1939 we ran up to 16,000 [rpm]. We did several runs up to this speed.” After observing a 20-minute run at full power, the same D.R. Pye who had been so dismissive three years earlier asked Whittle if he was willing to proceed, at the risk of damaging his RAF career. The Air Ministry would buy the experimental engine but leave it with Power Jets for further development, and arrange for an airplane to be built for it.

On August 27, as Adolf Hitler’s troops moved up to the Polish border, the HeS3B, in the Heinkel He-178 V1, made the world’s first jet flight, and Whittle’s first production engine, the W1, ran successfully at 94 percent of full design speed. One week later the panzers crashed into Poland, igniting a second world conflagration. The race now developed into which country could produce the first combat jet aircraft.

The He-178 V1’s historic flight proved little beyond the feasibility of jet aircraft. Its engine design was abandoned and, luckily for Britain, Heinkel encountered his own share of official indifference. Luftwaffe and RLM officials who witnessed the plane flying told him: “Your turbojet is not needed. We will win the war on piston engines.” Helmut Schelp, the RLM’s director of jet development, gave full details of the latest research to BMW and Junkers, who began developing their own engines. By now von Ohain was becoming increasingly sidelined. Heinkel’s turbojets retained little of his original concept, and none of his designs went into production.

Frank Whittle was still testing his W1 in the same derelict foundry, achieving 1,240 pounds of thrust, although several failures were caused by fine foundry sand falling from the ceiling when the engine was run. Nevertheless, design progressed to the W2, with a projected 30-percent power increase.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, commander in chief of Fighter Command, was a keen advocate of technical development (he was mainly responsible for the chain of radar stations that would be crucial in the Battle of Britain). He was interested in this new invention by one of his junior officers, and in 1940 paid Whittle a visit. It was a near disaster.

“I was sure something was bound to go wrong,” Whittle wrote. “It did….While the experimental engine was running, I pointed to the nozzle, meaning to imply ‘that’s the business end of the engine.’ Misunderstanding my gesture, he walked rapidly in the direction indicated. Suddenly a mighty invisible force sent him staggering across the concrete.” The unflappable Dowding, recovering his hat, jokingly asked the horrified Whittle “if I wasn’t going to show him something.”

On a mission to Britain in March 1941, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, U.S. Army Air Corps chief of staff, was amazed to learn that Whittle’s engine would soon fly. On May 15, Gerry Sayer took off in the little W1-powered Gloster E.28/39 Pioneer—history’s second jet aircraft. With the W2 it would later hit 488 mph. Arnold arranged for a Whittle W.1X, engineering drawings and some Power Jets engineers to be flown to the U.S. to help jump-start America’s jet program.

The Air Ministry meanwhile told Whittle that the Rover car company would manufacture the W1, with Power Jets restricted to research. Incredibly, despite Britain being at war, almost two vital years were then lost because of bureaucratic inertia and professional jealousy. By late 1942, Rover had made fundamental changes to Whittle’s pioneering design, his suggestions were largely ignored and virtually no progress had been made on the W2.

Ernest Hives, head of Rolls-Royce’s aero engine division, saved Britain’s jet program from disaster. He took Rover’s chief engineer to dinner and did some horse-trading: “Give us this jet job and we’ll give you our tank-engine factory in Nottingham.” Rover had done only 24 hours of testing the next month Rolls logged nearly 400, armed with a letter in red ink from Sir Stafford Cripps, minister of aircraft production: “Nothing, repeat nothing, is to stand in the way of the jet engine.”

De Havilland also began to manu facture an engine similar to Whittle’s original 1930 patent, achieving a record 3,100 pounds of thrust. (A modified version, called the Ghost, would power the de Havilland Vam pire, Britain’s second jet fighter, and the later Comet airliner.)

In 1936 Whittle had also patented the turbo fan engine (used on almost every airliner today), promising quieter operation and greater fuel economy. In 1943 Power Jets was close to completing a prototype, the LR.1, when the company was nationalized and told that it must never build another engine.

In Germany, RLM Director Schelp refused further funding for Heinkel’s jet engine work, effectively ending that pioneer company’s involvement. When the Luftwaffe’s chief test pilot was killed flying the Messerschmitt Me-262 V3, official interest in jet aircraft again waned. The production version Junkers Jumo 004B-1 engine would not go into full-scale production, together with the Me-262, until mid-1944.

The Rolls-Royce Welland I, a development of the Whittle W2B, powered the new Gloster Meteor fighter. The first Meteors were delivered to No. 616 Squadron on July 12, 1944, and two weeks later it became the first Allied jet to enter operational service, the Me-262 having already flown combat missions. One Meteor was sent to the U.S. for evaluation. The Meteor and Me-262 were destined never to meet in combat. History’s first jet-versus-jet encounters involved Meteors shooting down the world’s first cruise missiles, the pulse-jet-powered V-1 flying bombs (see “Meatboxes versus Doodlebugs” in the March 2012 issue).

In October 1945, Frank Whittle piloted a jet for the first time, a Meteor F.4 powered by a later version of the Welland, the Derwent V. A few days later it set a world record at 606 mph. A modified version of the Derwent originally developed by General Electric, the Allison J33, would power the United States’ first production jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star.

I n the end, the jet engine played no significant role in the war. By the time jets were in operational use it was “too little, too late” for both nations. Hans von Ohain later said: “If the British experts had had the vision to back Whittle, World War II would probably never have happened. Hitler would have doubted the Luftwaffe’s ability to win.”

Toward the war’s end, a series of increasingly powerful engines emerged from Rolls-Royce, which went on to become arguably the preeminent manufacturer of turbojets. By 1944 the Rolls-Royce Nene was producing 5,000 pounds of thrust. Britain’s postwar socialist government sold 25 Nenes and 35 Derwents to the Soviets, who reverse-engineered them and made 39,000 without a license, passing the design to China, where they were still being produced in 1979. The Soviet version of the Nene, the Klimov VK-1, was used in the MiG-15 fighter in Korea, with the bizarre result that in 1950 jet aircraft of all the combatant nations were powered by developments of British designs.

Frank Whittle, who retired from the RAF as an air commodore, was knighted by the Queen and received many other honors. Emigrating to the U.S. in 1976, he accepted the position of NAVAIR research professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. Whittle died at his home in Columbia, Md., in August 1996.

Whittle’s 1928 thesis and 1930 patent had led to a true revolution in military and civilian air travel. Thirty years after fighters and bombers had been hard-pressed to exceed 200 mph, their successors were traveling at 10 times that speed, and long-distance travel times were halved. Whittle’s original WU produced about 800 pounds of thrust, while today the Rolls-Royce Trent, working on the same principle, achieves more than 100,000. WWII’s mightiest bomber, the B-29, was powered by piston engines totaling some 10,000 hp, while the Olympus engines on the Concorde that flew Whittle to Washington developed the equivalent of 144,000.

Nicholas O’Dell served with the RAF as a navigation and bombing radar equipment technician from 1958 to 1962, working on nuclear bombers powered by descendants of Whittle’s original engine. For further reading, he suggests: Whittle: The True Story, by John Golley The Development of Jet and Turbine Engines, by Bill Gunston and Hans von Ohain: Elegance in Flight, by Margaret Connor.

This feature originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!

In Pictures: A Potted History Of Ejection Seats

It was during the Second World War that aircraft designers began realizing that their higher-performing fighters needed a new escape mechanism, opening the cockpit, and leaping out over the side simply was not going to be possible at higher speeds particularly with the new generation of jets on the horizon. In Sweden Saab began experimenting with a gunpowder-ejection seat developed by gun manufacturer Bofors for the J-21 pusher-engine fighter. While in Germany, an ejection seat was developed for the experimental Dornier Do335 Pfeil twin-engined push-pull fighter. Aerospace Publishing’s Warplanes of the Luftwaffe describes the Do335’s escape system as “prompting some doubts.” Once initiated explosive bolts would jettison the upper vertical stabilizer and rear propeller. The pilot would also have to jettison the canopy manually, so the seat could be activated.

“German pilots told of how, during the test program two aircraft crashed and the pilots were found still in the cockpit but with their arms missing, supposedly due to too firm a grip being taken on the handles,” the book states.

Unfortunate Inspiration

According to Martin-Baker, the company’s interest in pilot safety grew, when during the test flight of the company’s MB3 prototype fighter the aircraft’s engine seized and test pilot Captain Valentine Baker was killed. Company founder, James Martin was invited by the then Ministry of Aircraft Production to investigate the practicalities of providing fighters with a safe escape system for pilots. All this at a time when concerns about the inability to safely escape from the new generation high-performance fighters was impacting on crew morale, at a time when crashes were happening on an almost weekly basis.

First of Many

On July 24, 1946, Martin-Baker employee and volunteer Bernard Lynch became the first ejectee to put Martin-Baker’s new seat to the test in the air. Lynch had already been strapped into the seat for several ground tests since January. For the July test, Lynch ejected himself from the rear cockpit of a specially modified Gloster Meteor 3 at 320 mph from 8,000 ft. Lynch made a perfect landing and subsequently made a further 30 ejections. Andrew Martin, the company’s marketing and business development director says Lynch has a legendary status within the company, and is said to have never had to buy a drink at the local pub ever again.

Human Testing

Martin Baker’s used the idea that the pilot be launched out of the aircraft with the seat at 60 feet per second using an explosive cartridge guided by rails attached to the aircraft structure. A drogue stabilized the seat so that the pilot could then separate from the seat. Here Lynch is seen in the modified rear cockpit of the Meteor 3. Later the U.S. Navy, who had been watching Martin-Baker’s test with great interest performed their own tests with the ejection of Lt. Adolph Furtek from a modified A-26 Invader over Lakehurst, New Jersey in November 1946.

First Live Ejection

The live operational ejection of Martin-Baker seat took place in May 1949 when test pilot Jo Lancaster punched out of an experimental Armstrong Whitworth AW52 flying wing and laminar flow demonstrator aircraft over Warwickshire, England. The extraordinary AW52, was being used for research for a new generation of flying-wing-based aircraft. Lancaster is said to be fortunate he was alone for the flight the second crewman’s position was not fitted with an ejection seat.

Meteoric Tests

The testing of Martin-Baker’s ejection seats falls to two of the earliest jet aircraft still in operational use. A pair of Gloster Meteor Mk.7s one built in 1949, the other from 1952 are used in the ejection seat trials for the most modern fighter types including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It is the Meteor’s wing-mounted twin-engine configuration with air intakes ahead of the rear test cockpit that makes it so-suitable for ejection seat testing, as the engines are not impacted by debris or hot air resulting from the ejection seat launch. Here the JSF’s Mk.16 seat is launched from the back from Meteor WA638 during testing in France, where many of the higher altitude testing is performed.

Extraordinary Milestone

Since the 1940s, Martin-Baker can claim saving the lives of just over 7,500 pilots and crew, some of them more than once, and while the company is not the only ejection seat manufacturer, Zvedza seats dominate the fleets of Russian-built types, while Zlin-seats featured in the thousands of Aero Vodochody’s L-29 and L-39 jet trainers and in the U.S. many manufacturers built their own seats, but Martin-Baker’s work is the most prominent. And Aviation Week will be looking in more detail about the evolution and development of the ejection seat and how it may evolve in the coming years.

While the idea of the ejection seat can be dated back to 1920s and even as early as 1910, it was the Second World War when the first rudimentary ejection seats were developed by the Swedes and Germans for a new generation of high-performance piston-engined fighters, while spring-driven downward firing seats were even tested by the U.S. Army Air Force. But it was British firm, Martin Baker which has perhaps made some of the most significant contributions to ejection seat technology. Now 70 years since the first mid-flight ejections by flight test volunteer Bernard Lynch, the ejection seat has evolved to cope with higher-speeds, altitudes and attitudes and the huge variation on pilots from across the world. Tony Osborne looks at a potted early history of ejection seats.

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.

U.S. Torpedo Troubles During World War II

On the morning of July 24, 1943, Lieutenant Commander L.R. Daspit and the submarine Tinosa launched what may have been the most frustrating attack of the United States’ World War II submarine campaign against Japan. Alerted by cryptanalysts in Hawaii that the 19,000-ton Tonan Maru No.3 was cruising on an easterly course from Palau to Truk, Daspit set a course to intercept the enemy vessel. She and her sister ship, Tonan Maru No.2, were originally built as whale factory ships but had been converted to oil tankers for wartime use. They were two of the largest vessels in Japan’s precious merchant marine fleet.

As he manuevered his submarine into a favorable attack position, Daspit calculated Tonan Maru No.3‘s speed to be 13 knots. Curiously, the heavily loaded tanker had no surface or air escort and was not zigzagging as an anti-submarine measure. After taking up a position from which her torpedo tracks would be nearly perpendicular to the target’s course, Tinosa launched a spread of four torpedoes. Only two small geysers of water erupted alongside the vessel, however. To Daspit’s dismay, the tanker did not explode or begin to list, but rather turned away and put on speed. Tonan Maru No.3‘s abrupt course change left the submarine in a poor firing position, but Daspit fired the remaining two torpedoes from his forward tubes by instinct. Both weapons struck the ship aft at obtuse angles and exploded, causing the ship to stop and begin to settle slightly by the stern. Although dead in the water, the well-compartmented tanker was in no immediate danger of sinking. Although fire from Tonan Maru No.3‘s deck guns forced Tinosa to remain submerged, the Japanese could do nothing to prevent the next salvo of torpedoes.

Repositioning to correct the poor firing angle, Daspit placed Tinosa in a textbook attack position, approximately 875 yards off the tanker’s beam, and launched one torpedo. The soundman reported a straight and normal run. At impact, the skipper saw only a disappointing splash alongside the vessel. The torpedo was a dud.

Undaunted, the skipper ordered that every remaining torpedo be inspected before he continued. Each weapon was found to be in perfect working condition. Another torpedo was fired with great precision, yet the submariners were rewarded with only a deafening silence.

After seven more torpedoes were launched at the stationary target without success, Daspit wisely decided to save his 16th and final torpedo and take it back to Pearl Harbor for a complete overhaul. By methodically eliminating all possible factors except the ordnance, Daspit refocused attention on the Mark XIV torpedo, and he even returned with the perfect specimen to illustrate what had been the bane of the submariner’s existence for the past year and a half.

For 18 months, several flaws had combined to render the Mark XIV torpedo, upon which submariners’ lives and success depended, virtually impotent. From the onset of Mark XIV production, inherent defects had existed within the design of the torpedo and the Mark VI magnetic influence exploder mechanism. Each flaw that was discovered and corrected exposed another malfunction. As Theodore Roscoe, author of the official naval history of submarine operations, put it, ‘The only reliable feature of the torpedo was its unreliability.’

After the initial Japanese naval onslaught in late 1941, the U.S. Southwest Pacific Command was established. Rear Admiral Charles Lockwood assumed command of all former Asiatic fleet submarines and divided the flotilla between the Australian harbors of Brisbane and Perth/Fremantle. Unlike a number of flag officers who held a wide variety of posts during their careers, Lockwood considered himself a true submariner. He proved to be an extremely pragmatic commander and a widely respected leader, which served him and his country well during the dark months after Pearl Harbor.

As yet unaware of their torpedoes’ faults, submarine skippers reported an alarming number of prematures, duds and inexplicable misses during the first full year of the war. Frustrated captains watched helplessly as their torpedo wakes passed under sterns or just aft of targets. In response to repeated requests by field commanders, the Bureau of Ordnance conducted check firings to evaluate the depth control of the Mark XIV. By February 1942, the bureau reported a variance of four feet in depth control during the initial 880 yards of a run. Since four feet of depth would make little difference when engaging a capital ship, and most attacks took place at the 1000-yard range, the bureau concluded that the torpedoes were not at fault rather, it must have been the crews’ inexperience and errors that were causing failures. The bureau further argued that even if a torpedo did slip under a shallow-draft target, the magnetic detonator would activate the warhead. Faced with such apparently sound arguments, the submariners could only redouble their fruitless efforts. After five months of desperate action, little tonnage to show for their sacrifice and continued pleas from his skippers for reliable torpedoes, Lockwood decided to conduct his own tests.

Lockwood and his amateur scientists bought 500 feet of net from a local fisherman and moored it in deep water just outside Frenchman’s Bay near Albany, Australia. A Mark XIV was obtained from an incoming submarine, Skipjack, whose crew was more than willing to part company with it. Lockwood’s men modified the Mark XIV by replacing the warhead with an exercise head. This replacement head contained a calcium chloride solution that made its weight exactly the same as the warhead. The modified torpedo was loaded into a submarine, and Lockwood ordered a series of test firings.

Set to run at 10 feet, the torpedo was launched from a distance of approximately 900 yards. When divers inspected the net, they discovered the torpedo had cut the net 25 feet below the surface of the water. The next day, two additional torpedoes cut the net at eight and 11 feet deeper than set. Since he believed this extra depth had also kept the magnetic detonator from working, Lockwood ordered all of his skippers to adjust their torpedo depth settings accordingly. Most captains, not taking any chances, set their torpedoes for zero depth. Lockwood and his staff realized, however, that the malfunctioning torpedo needed to be corrected, not merely jury-rigged.

Later in July, the Bureau of Ordnance responded to Lockwood’s tests by announcing they were flawed and thus not conclusive. The Stateside bureau claimed improper trim conditions had been created when the field testers used an exercise head that was shorter than the warhead. Undaunted, Lockwood’s team lengthened their exercise head to warhead length and immediately produced the same incriminating evidence.

In response, Commander James King was brought out of retirement and made chief of the bureau’s Research and Development section to address the depth-control problem. King had earlier been responsible for adding the extra TNT to the Mark XIV warhead and for designing the torpedo’s turbine engine, the best in the world. He immediately began to conduct tests similar to Lockwood’s, launching torpedoes into nets from submarines, not barges, as had been the common practice. Not surprisingly, King achieved the same results as Lockwood. On August 1, 1942, he advised the fleet that the Mark XIV ran approximately 10 to 12 feet deeper than set.

The initial culprit was the depth-control mechanism. This intricate device sets the tension of the depth spring to correspond with the water pressure at the desired running depth. The two controlling elements within the depth mechanism are the hydrostatic valve, or diaphragm, and the pendulum. Ideally, when the torpedo reached the prescribed depth, the force exerted on the diaphragm by the water would equal the force exerted on the diaphragm by the spring. The setting was adjusted and indicated on a graduated dial called the depth index wheel.

On older torpedoe models and early Mark versions, the hydrostatic valve was located in the middle section of the weapon, just behind the warhead. To increase range and speed, this space eventually became filled with additional parts and fuel. As a result, the valve was moved farther aft. This revised layout was originally perceived as a benefit because the depth control mechanism would be closer to the rudders it controlled. Its final location was the tapered section of the torpedo near the tail. No one realized that by placing the valve at a slight angle to the weapon’s longitudinal axis, it would cause a corresponding change in how the valve reacted in determining depth control. This variance was minimal under what were considered to be normal testing conditions–shallow depths, weak currents and calm seas.

Further complicating the problem, it was later found that the depth-recording instrument used by the bureau to check the reliability of all hydrostatic valves was miscalibrated. Years later, technicians discovered that the recording instrument and the misplaced valves erred in the same direction and amount. The bureau had been cursed with pure bad luck. Two completely different devices, each responsible for checking the other, deviated identically for vastly different reasons. This unfortunate coincidence explains the bureau’s initial testing results and its rejection of Lockwood’s evidence. It was a very peculiar and costly twist of fate.

Adding insult to injury, earlier improvements by Commander King, although well-intentioned and initially successful, added to the depth-control riddle. When the additional 115 pounds of TNT were squeezed into the Mark XIV warhead, the exercise heads were not correspondingly altered to reflect the change. The extra explosive had been packed into the warhead by increasing density, so although the water-filled exercise head continued to occupy the same space as the warhead, it no longer had the same weight. Thus, the Bureau of Ordnance was using one version of the Mark XIV for testing and issuing quite a different Mark XIV.

The problem of designing identical torpedo heads was solved by using Lockwood’s calcium chloride solution, which correctly matched the warhead in size and density. The hydrostatic valve problem was alleviated when a new, calibrated depth-control valve was designed and installed on all Mark XIV torpedoes. Once these improvements brought the Mark XIV up to the correct depth, however, the Mark VI magnetic detonator presented additional problems. The ‘Silent Service’ was no closer to having a reliable torpedo than it had been eight months earlier.

During World War I, the Germans had developed a mine with a magnetic detonator. With continued improvement, it became a very effective weapon in World War II. The key to the secret detonator was a compass needle that moved when acted upon by the hull of a steel or iron vessel. When the magnetic needle swung, it activated an electrical contact that exploded the mine. Between the wars, every major navy attempted to duplicate the magnetic exploder in its standard submarine torpedoes. Conventional theory held that if a torpedo could be exploded under a ship, as opposed to alongside, the damage would be much greater. Ideally, one or two torpedoes detonated directly under a vessel would be enough to break the ship in half.

By 1925, the Bureau of Ordnance had completed a basic magnetic detonator. Unlike its distant German cousin, the American model was not activated by a compass. Instead, the bureau used induction coils that generated an electromotive force, which changed when the torpedo passed through or under a target’s magnetic field. Vacuum tubes magnified the change within the coils to release the firing pin. The design was extremely complex for its day, but that complexity compromised the detonator’s reliability–as did the secrecy imposed by the bureau.

The bureau felt that the Mark VI magnetic detonator constituted a secret weapon by the late 1930s. The detonator was cloistered from all but a select few until the spring of 1941, when war seemed imminent. The bureau feared that knowledge of its existence would influence the design and construction of a potential enemy’s fleet, primarily Japan’s. In April 1941, Mark XIV torpedoes with Mark VI detonators were finally issued to the fleet, although security restrictions continued. Only commanding officers and torpedo officers were allowed access to the secret weapon and its manual. Common sense, however, dictated that enlisted torpedomen should also be allowed access, because they were expected to maintain and service the ordnance. Yet when war struck seven short months later, few if any men in the Pacific theater understood the inner workings of the detonator, and since only a few knew what a Mark VI would do under perfect working conditions, even fewer could recognize a malfunction. As with the Mark XIV torpedo’s depth mechanism, it would take the rigors and sacrifices of combat to expose the detonator’s fatal defects.

During the opening months of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Germans discovered that their updated magnetic torpedo detonators were malfunctioning in waters near the Arctic Circle. They correctly theorized that the Earth is a large magnet whose magnetism varies by location. They understood that different magnetic fields would surround a ship depending on its longitude and latitude. By mid-1941, the Germans had deactivated their magnetic exploders and were relying solely on contact detonators. The British soon followed suit. In a struggle as paramount as the Battle of the Atlantic, neither side could afford unreliable or ineffectual ordnance. American submariners, on the other hand, were just beginning a similar naval conflict in which they would not have reliable torpedoes for 18 months.

By August 1942, the faulty depth mechanism had been isolated and corrected, and the Mark XIV was striking more targets. Curiously, however, skippers began to report a large percentage of duds and prematures. Frustrated captains and crews now suspected the mysterious Mark VI detonator.

The submariners attempted to make in-field adjustments, in the process trying to accumulate sufficient evidence to warrant deactivation. Admiral Lockwood, now in charge of all Central Pacific submarines from Pearl Harbor, would have ordered immediate deactivation had it not been for the possibilities and flexibilities the Mark VI theoretically offered. When dealing with shallow-draft escort vessels, the under-the-keel shot was a must, and it was accepted that such a detonation against any size vessel was most effective. Early in 1943, however, the Bureau of Ships released a study contradicting that assumption. The study, based on Atlantic convoy sinkings, concluded that broadside hits that created instability were the most effective attacks against merchantmen, which lacked the armor belt and compartmentation of warships.

Since Japan’s lifeline was her merchant marine fleet and because the Bureau of Ordnance would only suggest slight technical adjustments to the Mark VI, Admiral Lockwood determined that the magnetic feature was more a liability than an asset. On July 24, 1943, he ordered his submarines to deactivate the Mark VI magnetic influence detonators and fire for contact hits only.

As later tests illustrated, the failure of the Mark VI design was twofold. In broad terms, the magnetic theory advanced by the Germans months earlier was correct. Depending on location, the magnetic field around a ship varies, and there were definate variances between the waters around New England where the Mark VI was tested and the southern Pacific. Additionally, internal construction flaws increased the chances of unreliable performance. Brush riggings, located on the generator that supplied power to operate the magnetic exploder, were discovered to be inadequate, and leaky base-plate castings allowed water into the exploder cavity. Having endured two major malfunctions in their primary weapon over a year and a half of disheartening combat, U.S. submariners eagerly abandoned the Mark VI detonator in favor of the contact mechanism. Fate, however, was to test their mettle one more time.

The contact device’s name alone suggested reliability and consistency. Although less advanced than the magnetic feature, however, the contact exploder was still a complex device with numerous parts capable of perplexing malfunctions. In fact, a malignant flaw in the contact mechanism had been hidden while other malfunctions were slowly and painstakingly resolved.

When Tinosa arrived in Pearl Harbor, her 16th torpedo was given a complete inspection. After an all too familiar examination, the torpedo was declared to be in perfect working order. Commander Daspit had received the same report from his chief torpedo man prior to launching more than 10 torpedoes on 90-degree tracks at a stationary target, yet each torpedo had failed to detonate. Was the 16th torpedo an exception? Admiral Lockwood sought to answer this question with the type of common sense test that identified the depth control problem.

Captain C.B. Momsen suggested loading inspected torpedoes, including Tinosa‘s 16th, into a submarine, then firing them against the vertical cliffs off the island of Kahoolawe. The first torpedo that failed to detonate would be recovered and carefully dissected for clues. Lockwood agreed and assigned the submarine Muskellunge to the task.

Maneuvering as close to a 90-degree track as possible, the submarine fired three torpedoes against the rock cliffs. The first two exploded, but the third threw up the familiar geyser of compressed air and water. Divers carefully retrieved the activated yet unexploded torpedo. The valuable dud was then hauled back to Pearl Harbor for examination.

The technicians removed the contact mechanism and discovered that the device had correctly released the firing pin, but the pin had not struck the fulminate caps with sufficient force to set them off. Curiously, the stud guides that directed the firing pin into the primer caps were severely bent and deformed. With the weak link apparent, experiments began to focus on the malfunction.

Lockwood’s men replaced the TNT in several warheads with cinder concrete and attached the normal contact mechanism. Test torpedoes were then dropped 90 feet along a wire suspended from a crane into an empty drydock where they landed squarely on steel plates. A direct, 90-degree hit produced a dud seven out of 10 times–a 70 percent failure rate almost two years into the war. By adjusting the target plates to a 45-degree angle, the failure rate was cut in half. At a still greater angle, the exploders worked without fail. Lockwood immediately directed his boats at sea to launch their torpedoes from large, obtuse angles. They were ordered to improvise, to use anything but the textbook 90-degree track.

The internal failures of the contact mechanism can best be understood through the forces at work in a live torpedo. When a 3,000-pound torpedo traveling at 46 knots struck the hull of a ship, incredible forces were unleashed. The initial force of deceleration equaled approximately 500 times the force of gravity. Transferred to the firing pin, this force appeared as friction between the pin and the guides along which it traveled for accuracy. These stud guides were exposed to nearly 190 pounds of pressure from the contact and resulting deceleration. The firing spring was unable to overcome this tremendous friction and pressure with enough force to drive the firing pin successfully into the primer caps. When a torpedo struck a glancing, angled blow, the force of impact was lessened enough to allow the spring to push the pin into the caps, causing detonation.

The solution turned out to be relatively simple. The Pearl Harbor workshops designed and mass-produced modified firing pins from the propeller blades of Japanese aircraft downed in the December 7, 1941, attack. The new pins were made as light as possible in order to reduce the friction on the stud guides. Testing this handiwork, Lockwood ordered the submarine Halibut, armed with modified exploders, to repeat the Kahoolawe tests. Each torpedo was again set to run as close to 90-degrees as possible to fully test the new pins. Six out of seven torpedoes exploded. Although one still failed, it was a significant improvement from a 70 percent failure rate.

During the 1930s, the Bureau of Ordnance had conducted similar tests designed to ensure a reliable contact mechanism in time of war. The Newport Torpedo Station flung torpedoes against steel plates over sand and discovered then that the firing pins failed to strike the caps with sufficient force. Their solution was to increase the strength of the firing spring. The tighter spring seemed to solve the problem, but it did so at the speed of 1930s torpedoes. Torpedo speeds had increased to 46 knots by World War II, and this increase created greater impact forces. The increased speed essentially negated the strengthened spring. If Tinosa‘s torpedoes had been set for slower speeds or obtuse angles, Tonan Maru No. 3 would not have escaped. It took almost two years of wartime trials and tribulations, but American submariners were finally equipped with reliable and effective torpedoes.

The Bureau of Ordnance and the Newport Torpedo Station were guilty of designing and issuing an entire generation of faulty torpedoes. Peacetime budget constraints and a preservationist attitude toward ordnance combined to create an interwar regimen under which the vast majority of scientists and submariners who rotated through Newport never heard or saw a torpedo explosion. To compound this error, both organizations proved incapable of making the transition from peacetime apathy to wartime demand and accepting incriminating combat evidence suggesting major ordnance flaws. Their blind faith and anemic testing may have saved money and material before the war, but it certainly cost lives during the war. Because of this logistics fiasco, veteran submariner and historian Paul Schratz said he ‘was only one of many frustrated submariners who thought it a violation of New Mexico scenery to test the A-bomb at Alamagordo when the naval torpedo station was available.’ Legitimate fault for this debacle must be assigned for the sake of those survivors and their fallen comrades who endured the struggle and won the war.

Perhaps Admiral Lockwood encapsulated the submariners’ long frustration best when he suggested at a wartime conference in Washington that, ‘If the Bureau of Ordnance can’t provide us with torpedoes that will hit and explode… then for God’s sake, get the Bureau of Ships to design a boat hook with which we can rip the plates off a target’s side.’ Although his submarines never had to resort to such measures, history has tended to overlook their early months of struggle, focusing instead on the final two years of their campaign.

What must never be forgotten is the fact that just over 50 years ago, submariners were forced to engage the enemy for 18 months with ordnance that proved to be at least 70 percent unreliable. Often, Japanese merchantmen would enter port with unexploded Mark XIV torpedoes thrust into their hulls. Despite the problems with ordnance, American submariners, a mere two percent of U.S. naval personnel, sank more than 1,178 merchant vessels and 214 warships, totalling more than 5,600,000 tons. They sacrificed 52 submarines, 374 officers and 3,131 enlisted men from their close-knit ranks. The Silent Service suffered 40 percent of all naval casualties in the Pacific, yet managed to destroy 55 percent of all Japanese ships. American submarines succeeded where the Germans had twice failed–in the systematic and complete blockade of an island nation.

One can only speculate as to the war’s outcome had there been reliable torpedoes available from the onset. As for the American submarine campaign against Japan, we must always honor its sacrifices, take pride in its accomplishments and continue to learn from its mistakes–mistakes that fostered a scandal described by Clay Blair, Jr., as ‘the worst in the history of any kind of warfare.’

This article was written by Douglas A Shireman and originally appeared in the February 1998 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!

Gloster Meteor U Mk.15 - History

Boats of the United States Navy, NAVSHIPS 250-452, 1967, is a Navy catalog of boats and small craft. These range in size from as small as a 9 foot dinghy to as large as a 135 foot Landing Craft Utility.

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Richard Pekelney

The widespread interest in the previous editions of "Boats of the United States Navy, " by numerous agencies and individuals as well as branches of the Department of Defense, has prompted the publication of this revised edition. Catalogued herein are the principal characteristics of most of the boats and small craft presently in use by the Navy.

Prepared by NAVSEC, Norfolk Division, SEC 6660, U.S. Naval Station, Building AP13, Norfolk, Virginia 23511

This book is arranged by length. A cross index by boat types follows this page.

A Navy boat is defined as an uncommissioned waterborne unit of the Fleet, not designated as a service craft, and capable of limited independent operation. It may be assigned to and carried on a ship as a ship's boat or assigned to a shore station or a fleet operating unit.

The term "hoisting weight" as used herein is defined as the weight of the boat completely fitted out and ready for service with machinery and electrical installation in operating condition. All outfit, navigational, lifesaving equipment and crew are on board. The fuel tanks are full, except in special bases as noted.

The weight of personnel is estimated to be 165 pounds per man and 225 pounds per man for a combat equipped marine.