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Scorpion: Northrop’s F-89 Was Air Defense During the 1950s

All This Pioneering Jet Did Was Defend Our Airspace Effectively for Nearly 20 Years

Image via USAF

Northrop’s F-89 Scorpion all-weather interceptor was the first of its kind. Developed as a replacement for the company’s P-61 Black Widow, the Scorpion was the one of the first American jets to be armed with guided missiles, and the first combat aircraft to be armed with an air-to-air nuclear weapon- the unguided but still deadly Douglas AIR-2 Genie rocket. Northrop built a total of 1,050 Scorpions, but they weren’t all created equal.

Image via USAF

The US Army Air Forces (USAAF) first issued a specification for a new all-weather interceptor in late August of 1945. The specification was revised a few months later with a top speed requirement of 520 miles per hour- the kind of speed only possible using jet propulsion. The specification also called for radar-controlled guns mounted turrets. The competition to build the new interceptor was between Northrop and Bell Aircraft, Consolidated-Vultee, Douglas Aircraft, Goodyear, and Curtiss-Wright, all of whom submitted at least one design proposal. By March of 1946 there were two designs left in the running- the Curtiss-Wright XP-87 one of four designs submitted by Northrop- the N-24.

Image via USAF

The N-24 was powered by a pair of Allison J35 axial-flow turbojets mounted under its swept wings in a straight-through arrangement- intakes and exhausts both direct into and out of the engines. Eventually wind tunnel testing dictated a change to a thin straight wing with split ailerons capable of acting as conventional control surfaces, flaps, speed brakes as needed.  The empennage went through some design changes but ended up mounted high to avoid any effects from the engine exhaust. The design evolved to seat both pilot and radar operator in tandem under a single canopy and the removal of the turret-mounted guns.

Image via USAF

First flown on 16 August 1948 Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), the prototype designation changed to XF-89 soon thereafter. Painted black with that high-mounted tail, the nickname Scorpion for the jet was probably inevitable. But to the surprise of very few, the J35 engines were found to be inadequate as power plants for the jet. In fact, after talking it over with the pilots who had flown the three designs in development at the time (including the Douglas XF3D Skyknight) the decision to build the Lockheed F-94 Starfire as an interim measure was made. Eventually the Scorpion won out thanks to its higher speed and development potential.

Image via USAF

Continued development of the F-89 resulted in the engines being upgraded to the more powerful J35-A-33 turbojet engine with afterburner. Excess weight was removed from the aircraft and the forward gun turret was replaced by a Hughes Aircraft-designed six-gun nose housing the AN/ARG-33 radar with E-1 fire-control system. The Scorpion also picked up permanent wingtip fuel tanks and ease of maintenance improvements. The crash of the prototype following an appearance in the John Wayne movie Jet Pilot resulted in a revised lower aft fuselage fairing and engine exhausts along with a revised empennage with elevator balancing weights.

Image via USAF

Once production of the F-89B began in 1950, the jets entered service with the 84th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS) Black Panthers in June of 1951. The Bravos had a revised nose with the AN/APG-33 radar and six 20 millimeter T-31 cannons with 200 rounds each. Underwing pylons were capable of carrying up to 16 5 inch rockets or 3,200 pounds of ordnance. The problem with the Bravo was, inevitably, those J35 engines. The F-89C was an incremental improvement of the breed with internal elevator balancing weights, but structural issues with the wings grounded all Scorpions until 194 of the F-89A, Bs, and Cs were refit. It wasn’t until the F-89D variant that Northrop got the Scorpion moving. Sort of.

Image via USAF

The Scorpion Delta saw a major change up front. First flown on 23 October 1951, the F-89D lost the guns in its nose and picked up a new radar- the AN/APG-40 with the Hughes E-6 fire control system and an AN/APA-84 computer. The jets were armed with 52 2.75 inch Mighty Mouse Folding Fin Aerial Rockets (FFARs) mounted in the forward portion of each wingtip tank and could carry drop tanks on underwing pylons. 682 Deltas were built, achieving a kill ratio of 1-0 thanks to the successful engagement (but not destruction by arms) of a runaway Grumman F6F-5K Hellcat drone. Drone controller Scorpions were designated DF-89 and came mostly in DF-89A, DF-89B, and DF-89D flavors.

Image via USAF

As the F-89 continued to suffer from thrust deficiencies in service, proposed F-89E and F-89F variants were proposed and rejected. The F-89G would also have incorporated yet another improved radar and fire control system but paired with the new Hughes radar guided GAR-1 and infrared guided GAR-2 (AIM-4) Falcon air-to-air missiles. When the F-89H entered service in 1954 it was equipped with the Hughes E-9 fire control system (similar to that used in the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger) and sported even larger wingtip fairings housing three Falcons and 21 FFARs on each wing. But development of the fire control system lagged and the Hotel was phased out of service quickly.

Image via USAF

The F-89J was the final Scorpion variant to enter service. It was not a new-build Scorpion. Rather, the F-89Js were rebuilt F-89Ds. The F-89J was equipped with 600 gallon wingtip fuel tanks and underwing pylons for carriage of one unguided Douglas MB-1 (AIR-2) Genie rocket. Up to four Falcon missiles could be carried in addition to the Genies. The first Air National Guard (ANG) unit to fly F-89s was the 176th FIS of the 128th Fighter Interceptor Wing (FIW) Wisconsin ANG. F-89Js served with Air Defense Command (ADC) until 1960 and ANG squadrons until 1969. During Operation Plumbbob in 1957 at the Nevada Test Site, an F-89J fired the only live AIR-2A Genie rocket with a W-25 warhead for the John Shot.

Image via USAF

The F-89 Scorpion was this country’s air defense interceptor during a large part of the 1950s. Though no F-89 ever fired a shot in anger, Scorpions did a vitally important job few ever even knew was being done. A total of 36 USAF and 17 ANG squadrons flew the Scorpion. Thanks to the jet engine development pace of the time, the jets were always underpowered and slow to respond- resulting in accident rates entirely unacceptable in this day and age. Those low-mounted engines picked up debris constantly, but retractable screens were added to cut down on that issue. More reliable and powerful Allison J35-A-47 engines eventually powered the Scorpions that remained in service through the 1960s. Most Scorpions ended their service lives after being replaced by McDonnell F-101B Voodoos or Convair F-102s.

Image via USAF

This video featuring the F-89 Scorpion was uploaded to YouTube by PeriscopeFilm

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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