Sunday, October 4, 2009

F-106A #59-142

During the Cold War, as I've written, there were, in a few places in Washington, Air Bases with interceptor squadrons assigned. A standard thing to do in the military is to train until an action becomes automatic. These interceptor squadrons were here for a few reasons. One was the presence of several War-Making industries (i.e., Hanford, Boeing, a few large naval bases, and any number of raw materials, like aluminum, wood products, and so on), the other was Washington's geographical placement. Washington is the first state on a route from the Soviet Union to other points in the USA (We don't claim singular status there, but you would get to us before you got to, say, Nevada on a flight from the Soviet Union).

Early training for interceptors usually involved a friendly bomber training for their own mission and the interceptor training for his and the two meeting up at some point. Ground control would vector the interceptor to a point where either the interceptor pilot (F-51s) or his on-board radar (F-94s,F-86s, F-89s, and finally F-106s) could track the incoming bomber on his own. Well, sometime in the late 1950s someone in the USAF decided to begin using the Martin B-57 Canberra to test the air defenses of the US. They decided to use the B-57 because of its size, range, speed, and altitude capability.

The B-57 did this, at first, without any special additions. No electronic gadgets or anything. But, as the interceptors got better at their jobs, the USAF decided to modify several RB-57As (R standing for reconnaissance)to do the job better. They added several black boxes and chaff dispensers and viola! they had a good target. These became part of Defense System Evaluation Squadrons. Eventually, though, B-57Bs and B-57Es were also modified accordingly. The EB-57s were used for many years to test the air defenses of the US. In fact, the last of the type to operate for the USAF were EB-57s, the last of which were retired in 1982.

The F-106 was basically an F-102 up-engined and integrated with a fire control system. The external differences between the two are easy for most to discern. The F-106's air intakes were moved behind the cockpit and the vertical stabilizer was chopped off compared to the F-102's. The first F-106 rolled off the assembly line in 1956. The last one was retired in 1988! Relatively unheard of, as compared to siblings like the F-104 and F-105, it stood guard at home while the others went off to war in Vietnam. Though, it did deploy to forward bases like Korea and Labrador (Though, one wonders how a TDY to Labrador, Canada compared to one to Korea).

Sometime during the afternoon of August 27, 1963, First Lieutenant Roger C. Axlund of the 498th FIS, began his flight planning routine for a night ECM/ECCM intercept training mission against an EB-57E (According to the accident report, it was a TB-57E, though the B-57 did not have a training variant. The B-57E had dual controls and was sometimes used for training and was hence designated a TB-57 in those instances. And some referred to it as a TB-57 at all times. Because it was being used as a defense system evaluator, it will be referred to as an EB-57 here.) temporarily deployed to McChord AFB, Washington from Hill AFB, Utah.

Lieutenant Axlund would likely have been taken out to his aircraft about an hour before launch. He was assigned to F-106A #59-142 and took off at 0005 on August 28, 1963, with two+ hours worth of fuel. The EB-57 had departed McChord AFB at five minutes before midnight with 4+ hours of fuel.

SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, a kind of Air Defense Ground Control) conducted the approach. Both the B-57 and the F-106 (Six) were in contact with the SAGE controller. The B-57 was communicating with voice comm, while the six was using a data-link (only mandatory safety and intercept calls were made by voice). Weather was clear, visibility was six miles in smoke.

The mission had been fully briefed between the crews of the Sixes and the B-57, since the ECM equipment in the EB-57 was new to the ADC training inventory. The B-57 turned on all of its jammers (four in number) until one of the generators failed, so the crew turned off the forward two jammers. This would be no problem since all of the attacks were expected to be from the aft quarters. There were two F-106s up conducting intercepts, alternating attacks. The B-57 maintained 250 KIAS (Knots Indicated Air Speed) and headings as directed by the SAGE controller.

Axlund called two successful attacks to the SAGE controller, even though there was non-standard language used. Axlund had reported no malfunctions or deficiencies. He made another visual contact on the B-57 and called separation on and visual contact with the other F-106. He then called a lock-on to the ECM jamming source. He en continued to attack the ECM Jamming source and collided with the B-57. The six's vertical stabilizer hit the B-57's number one engine (Left) and the six continued on from under the B-57's wing. The top 52 inches of the vetical stabilizer separated from the F-106.

The B-57 reported the collision to the SAGE controller and turned back toward McChord, about 95 miles East. The collision occurred at 0109 local, at 47 degrees 43 minutes N. , 124 degrees 45 minutes West. This was approximately 15 miles off shore, due West of Destruction Island, Washington.

Axlund was observed flying straight and level for about a mile, when he began a gentle left turn. He did not transmit after he reported the ECM lock-on. About three minutes prior to the collision. The UHF antenna was destroyed in the collision. The other F-106 had Axlund in sight and watched him begin and accelerated descent, seemingly stabilized on a heading toward shore. Axlund's aircraft began to pitch down and increased speed, in the opinion of the Six observing him, into the trans-sonic region. Somewhere under 20,000 feet, the observer saw a flash from Axlund's aircraft, which he took to be an ejection. Immediately after that, he lost radar an visual contact with Axlund's plane.

The B-57 returned to McChord safely. The crew was uninjured, though the pilot had to shut down his number one engine due to fire/overheat indications.

It appears, from this partial report, that Axlund was never located. One suspects wreckage from the aircraft was picked up, since the exact measurements of the lost vertical stabilizer appears to be known.

The track on the map that came with this partial report shows that the intercepts were conducted from the North Western tip of Washington down to about even with the Kalaloch area, where the collision occurred. The left and right elevons appear to have drifted quite a ways, having been located somewhere in the vicinity of Grays Harbor. The hand drawn map appears to have been copied several times and is of poor condition.

As ever, there seems to be very little information here. I know there is more out there. I would like to search newspapers from the era and area to see what they say, but my time and money are always in demand elsewhere. If ANY of you reader have something to add, PLEASE feel free to do so! Do it in a comment or e-mail me. I will do my best to publish it if you request it!

There are a few questions that rise here: What caused Axlund to misjudge the distance between him and the B-57? His aircraft was armed with training missiles. The F-106 had no guns, so getting THAT close to another aircraft when not refueling or flying formation seems unwise at best. Did Axlund suffer oxygen deprivation? Why else would he have gotten that close and not avoided a collision? There are several cases that support the stability of the Six in un-piloted flight, which would seem to support his not being conscious just prior to the collision.

You can see a picture and history of #59-0142 here.

Accident report, electronic document, for #59-142.
B-57 Canberra In Action, Squadron Signal Publications. by Jim Mesko.

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