Monday, December 2, 2013

F-89 Scorpion

F-89 Scorpion

F-89 Scorpion

First Flight:                 1948, August 16
Type:                           Two-seat all-weather interceptor fighter
                                    Radar Operator
Allison J-35-A-35 turbojet engines (2)
3266kg / 7200lb afterburning thrust
                                    Mighty Mouse 70mm / 2.75in unguided rockets (104) in wingtip pods
                                    Falcon missiles (3) and rockets (27) – alternative
                Wingspan:           18.18m / 59ft 8in
                Wing area:          52.21m2 / 562ft2
                Length:                 16.41m / 53ft 10in
                Height:                 5.36m / 17ft 7in
                Empty:                  11,428kg / 25,194lb
                Max take-off:        19,160kg / 42,241lb
                Max Speed:        1024kph / 636mph
                Ceiling:                 14,995m / 49,200ft
                Range:                  4184km / 2600 miles
                Climb:                   1600m / 5250ft per minute

Two Man Crew

During the Cold War of the early 1950s the United States developed jet interceptors designed to counter a perceived bomber threat from the Soviet Union.  Possibly the best of these fighters was the F-89 Scorpion because of its rugged performance and its sophisticated weapons control system that utilized one of the best airborne radar systems of its time in conjunction with a computerized fire-control system that could launch its rocket payload automatically once the target was within range. 

Snowy Flight Line

The Scorpion was designed to replace the P-61 Black Widow, a World War II propeller-driven night fighter.  The mission-goal of these Cold War fighters was to intercept nuclear-armed Soviet bombers as far from American cities as possible.  This required exceptional speed and the thrust of the Scorpion’s two Allison turbojet engines gave it nearly twice the speed of the vintage Black Widow.  Propeller planes just don’t make it in the nuclear age of jets.  The P-61 would have been no match for the jet-powered Soviet M-4 Bison or the Tupolev Tu-16 Badger.  Two other American jets of the time, the F-86 Sabre and the F-94 Starfire, were also employed as interceptors but they lacked the range of the Scorpion and the F-89 exceeded their abilities as a weapons platform.

Early version armed with machine guns
Nearly 700 F-89D’s were built and most of them served with Air Force squadrons stationed near the Arctic Circle in an arc stretching from Iceland to Alaska.  The harsh polar weather challenged both the planes and the men that flew them.  Although these jets were called all-weather interceptors the fact was they were often grounded by the most severe weather conditions.  After all, we’re talking about an aircraft being developed shortly after World War II and the avionics for blind flying wasn’t all that sophisticated.  It’s remarkable enough that the Scorpion had a computerized fire-control system, rudimentary as it was by today’s standards. 

Nuclear-tipped Genie missiles
Armament on the F-89 began with six .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the nose.  This approach was quickly recognized as inadequate for the mission and the guns were soon replaced by radar in the nose and a flurry of 104 70-mm rockets that would be launched from very large pods mounted on the plane’s wingtips.  This resulted in an aircraft heavily weighted down by weapons and the fuel needed for it to range almost 1,400 miles from its base.  Performance was sluggish.  Its rate of climb was agonizingly slow and, were it to fall behind its intended target, it would take too long to close the distance needed to come within firing range.  The aircraft’s weight problem was evidenced by its overly-large main wheels of its landing gear.  In fact, the plane was sometimes referred to as the Stanley Steamer because the monster wheels seemed so unlikely for a jet.

70 mm rockets in wing pods

Later versions of the F-89 attempted to solve its performance problems by substituting fuel for rockets in its wing pods and relying on a single nuclear-tipped missile, call the Genie, to knock a formation of enemy bombers from the sky.  The resulting 1.5 kiloton blast would not only immediately destroy or disable most of the bombers but it was problematic for the survival of the Scorpion and its crew, as well. 

Falcon missiles attached to outer pods

By 1959 the supersonic F-102 Delta Dagger was replacing the aging F-89 Scorpion as America’s frontline interceptor.  The F-102 would, in turn, be replaced with the F-106 Delta Dart.  By now, though, the primary strategic threat to North America was the rapid deployment of nuclear-tipped ICBMs – the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile – for which there was no defense.  War between the globe’s two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, was averted by the concept of MAD – Mass Assured Destruction; the annihilation of one nation would result in the complete destruction of the other.  So was the governing logic that prevented the Cold War from becoming unacceptably hot.

Crew of F-89H


  1. Wasn't the acronym "MAD" , "Mutually Assured Destruction"? (As in we can both destroy each other no matter who fires first)?

  2. Yes. It was hoped everyone involved was rational enough to avoid self-destruction and not launch a nuclear attack on the opposing power.