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Missiles and mishapsPosted Thursday, February 21, 2008, at 4:40 PM
I anxiously awaited word last night on whether or not the surface to air missile would hit that dead spy satellite.
There was no doubt in my mind the missile was capable of hitting the satellite if fired for the right reason, to demolish the satellite and destroy the fuel tank containing toxic hydrazine fuel.
But, if fired to impress other nations or world leaders, there was some doubt in my tiny little mind.
While in the U.S. Navy I was once stationed at China Lake, CA, also known then as Naval Ordnance Test Station, on the Mojave Desert.
Don't get this wrong. I knew practically nothing about rockets then or now. I was a corpsman (medic) assigned to the area where the test firing took place. My assignment at the location was simply because they didn't want to send a doctor out there.
This was during the early development of surface to air heat-seeking missiles.
I witnessed some firings while assigned there and believe me it was certainly different for someone who a couple of years earlier had spent his share of time standing on Fly's Corner with an occasional trip to the popcorn stand.
They would fly a plane they referred to as a NOLO (no live operator) over the long stretch of desert near the firing range and fire a Terrier missile at that plane, usually an old B-17 bomber and less often a smaller plane.
Sometimes those Terriers went in some strange directions. As I recall now it was a fairly good bet the Terrier would go in a strange direction if the firing was taking place before some visiting dignitaries.
The routine called for the launcher to be armed with a live Terrier missile. The plane, containing a designated amount of fuel in case it should go toward unintended areas, made its take-off by remote control from an air base and once in the air a mother plane took over the controls and guided it to the firing area.
Just as was the case with last night's missile, the Terrier didn't have an explosive warhead. In fact, it had only a smoke puff warhead, pink as i recall, to show the contact with the target plane. The plane was knocked down.
The missile contained only a certain amout of fuel to determine how far it could go in case it missed the target and that range wasn't too far, only a few miles, short of any habitated areas and not even remotely close to the amount of rocket fuel used in last night's firing.
That is what was supposed to happen and usually what did happen.
And then there were other times.
Once ground control and the mother plane each thought the other had control of the target plane. Meanwhile that old B-17 was well on its way in the general direction of Bakersfield. A chase plane went after the errant target plane and spotted the remains of it. I heard later, in either a lettuce or cabbage field. I never saw any mention of that incident in the media. I imagine the government bought some very expensive lattuce or cabbage.
Another time, with dignitaries present for a Terrier firing, the target plane flew over the area on schedule, the missile was fired and didn't go toward the plane. It took a low level path out across the desert, struck but not on the warhead, flipped and came back over the firing area. By that time it was going much higher and on its own way. I heard later the missile traveled 64 miles before striking a hill and that was well beyond what was supposed to be the rocket's fuel range,
All in all, the people involved way back then did a marvelous job. They did their share to set the stage for last night's successful firing.
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Bo Melson is a retired sports and police beat editor of the Times-Gazette.