First-Hand:The Loon and the Lark


The Loon and the Lark

50 year members.jpg

Submitted by Howard Wilson,

On June 4th, 1950 I received my BSEE from Michigan State College. On the previous day I received my ROTC commission as a 2nd LT in the US Army Artillery (Reserve). I was designated as a "Distinguished Military Student" and offered a Regular Army commission, which I "respectfully declined". On June 25th, 1950 the Korean Police Action began.

When I entered Upper School in the Fall of 1948 the faculty told all of we budding engineers that the demand for engineers resulting from WW II would never be satisfied. Well, they were wrong. In 1950 I submitted only three resumes and had zero offers. It wasn't until August that I received a letter from Dr. Ira Baccus, Chairman EE, that a fellow classmate had resigned a position with an electrical contractor, for whom he had worked all four years of College. I immediately applied and was granted an interview. This resulted in my employment with Hatzel & Buehler on the installation of Unit #3 at the Ottawa Street Station of the Board of Water & Light in Lansing, Michigan.

On April 19, 1951 I received my notice that I had been activated for military service. On May 25th 1951 came the orders to report for duty at Fort Bliss, Texas on July 1st. On reporting for duty I was told that I had to see a "Mr. Smith". My first thoughts were, Here I am in the Army and having to see a civilian. These thoughts were quickly dispelled when I met Chief Warrant Officer (W4) Smith. He was in charge of all personnel at Fort Bliss. After a brief chat, he placed a call to the 1st Guided Missile Group to see if they had any need for an Electrical Engineer. Turns out they did and I was off to my new unit.

There I was assigned to the Electrical Modification Shop for workday duty and to the Hq and Hq Battery Unit for military matters. The shop was under the command of Major Edwin Hagerman and the Battery Captain William Coonly. Major Hagerman was also from Michigan, so we hit it off right away. Captain and Mrs. Coonly would soon become God Parents to our daughter, Susan, born December 28, 1951.

The Shop was assigned the duty of modifying German V-1 buzz bombs into the Army "Loon" missile. The V-1 was a very simple device. A pulse jet engine mount on an airframe and launched from an inclined ramp. Its only control was a "right" or "left". This was accomplished by a compass setting and a compressed air tank that supply to force to move the rudder. There was also a "JATO" (jet assisted take off unit) attached to the launch sled. It was a solid propellant unit activated on take off for boost.

The Army unit was a little more sophisticated Radio signals from a central control could send commands to both turn right and left along with up and down. There were also commands for safety destruction of the missile. The warhead was a concrete cylinder between the mainframe and the nose cone. It was held in place by explosive bolts. These could be detonated by a command or by a signal from a Veeder Root counter attached to the nose cone. It had a propeller that could be set for any given number of revolutions. An addition a safety was the amount of fuel for the engine. All of these were set for a maximum flight of 20 miles.

My job in these launches was to determine the acceleration of the sled along the launch rails. This was accomplished by attaching wires along the rails at predetermined distances. The slide would sever the wires as it passed by. The wires were connected to a timer. So acceleration could be calculated by time and distance ratios.

Most attempted flights resulted in the missile rolling over and crashing shortly after the launch. However, one launch resulted in a successful flight. The only problem was that none of the safety devices worked. The range was located north of El Paso and east of Hwy 54. The missile was located the next day just south of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, a flight of about 70 miles.

The 1st Guide Missile Unit then received the "LARK" missile. Fairchild had been charged in 1945 with the development of a surface to air missile to deal with Japanese kamikaze planes. This was now 1952.

The "Lark" had a solid propellant fuel system and its guidance was a beam rider. That is, the missile when launched would follow a radar signal being bounced off of the target. For the GM unit purposes this required the coordinated effort of several sources. The target was a RCAT (radio controlled aerial target). This was a small plane, about 20 feet in length and launched from a fixed frame on a circular track. Once in the air it was controlled just as model planes of today. The controller could make it move as desired. At the end of a flight a parachute was activated and the plane was returned to the ground for reuse. It had a flight time of about one hour.

To simulate a real target a beacon was installed in the RCAT. It was a battery-powered transponder that would be activated by a SCR 584 radar signal. This signal would then be enhanced by the beacon and sent back as signal that would look like a B-29 to the Lark guidance system. The launch of the missile was then tracked by a T33 radar unit. The beacon's wet cell batteries also had a life of one hour. The two radar units were more reliable, but subject to failure at any time.

My assignment was the beacon. Over time I became known as "Beacon Wilson."

It was quite a task to keep all of these components running at the same time, as frequently in this area daytime temperatures would be in the neighborhood of 100 degrees (F). All components were very heat sensitive. The failure of one or more of these components was a regular occurrence.

We finally achieved a successful launch and a separate plotting system recorded a near miss.

In September of 1952 the Personnel Office notified me that I was eligible to request "early release." This was accomplished post haste and I was reassigned to an administrative unit until separation in January 1953.

Then it was back to work for Hatzel and Buehler. Of an historical IEEE note, John Hatzel and Joseph Buehler were both Master Electricians who worked for Thomas Edison on the Pearl Street Power Station in 1882. They formed their company in 1884 and it is still in existence in 2011.

I went on to work for the Physical Plant Departments at Michigan State and the University of Texas at Austin, retiring as Director in 1994. I am also registered as a Professional Engineer in Michigan and Texas. I am also a life Member of IEEE and NSPE.