Douglas A/B-26 Invader

Target towing - Staff Sergeant Robert ( Bob ) O'Connell, USAF retired

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The 3596th Combat Crew Training squadron had 2 B-26's which had been modified to tow target aircraft. The squadron was formed at the beginning of the Korean War, June 1950, at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
They towed 6x9 flag (banner) targets for aerial gunnery at 12000, or 20000 ft.

The squadron started with F-51's, converted to F-80's, and then to F-86's. During the course of gunnery trials series of canard winged gliders, were used without not much success. Ground armaments crews often flew cross country to retrieve any live ammunition from some of their aircraft which didn't make it back from cross-country trips.

The average day for a towman was one of routine.

  • Check flight schedule
  • Perform scheduled maintenance on regular assigned aircraft
  • Draw gear from the loft
  • Suit up at scheduled time
  • Complete preflight check, then it was outbound to Unit exercises. 
    In earlier days, braided cable was used, which required splicing a loop through the target eye. A poor splice would surely lose a target. Armored cable introduced in late '57 offered greater ease and more efficient operations. A lead feral was slipped onto the cable, fed through the target eye and back through the lead and crimped.
         The targets were red 18-foot tubes about 18 inches at the throat and approx. 30 inches at the closed bag end.
         A fine metallic thread ran the length of the target
     spaced a few inches apart, which was a feature that Radar could detect. 
         The two hydraulic cable rewind reels each contained greater that 7000 feet of cable. Disengaging the clutch while holding a break band lever, cable could be run out. The target being already attached and held in the after station was pitched down and out the hatch while holding the brake handle. Cable was run out to approx. 6500 feet and air speed was increased from 120 kts to the towing norm. of 240 kts.


The above photo shows one of the B-26's used to tow aerial targets at Nellis AFB, Las Vegas Nevada, during the time period that I was associated with them, 1950 - 1952.

Our aircraft did not have any of the guards installed on the horizontal tail surfaces that are seen in the photos you sent but as I recall, some of the tow aircraft in other squadrons did have very small guard attached to the horizontal tail surfaces. 
You can see the air deflector on the bottom of the aircraft which was just forward of the open hole out of which we launched the targets.  We used mostly banner targets made of woven plastic line (similar to the type used in fishing, but much larger).  The targets were attached to a steel pipe, which had a 16 lb. weight attached at the bottom end.  The targets were 30 ft. long and 6 ft. high.


Above, our squadron started using F-51 Mustangs when it was formed after the Korean War started, I didn't get any pictures of them on air to air missions, but we quickly converted to F-80's, and I did get a few pictures of them on an air-air mission.  This was at a 20000 ft mission, and the F-80's took position above and left  to the rear of the target, which was about 600 ft. to the rear of the tow aircraft, and then then made a diving run at the target and ended up to the rear of the tow aircraft and to the right. the Left and Right we according to my left and right looking toward the tail of the aircraft.


Above, If you can get on to any of the map sources available, you can get on the the area north of Las Vegas, NV, and find this dry lake (Dogbone Lake) which is between two mountain ranges.  Our gunnery missions were flown from more or less east to west with the lake off the left wing to the tow aircraft, east to beyond the end of the lake, make a left turn, and then fly back with the lake off our left wing again as we flew west.  This photo shows us making our final left turn and heading back to Nellis AFB to drop the target. 
Our missions usually lasted about an hour, that meant the F-80's were able to have plenty of time to complete the missions without running out of gas.  As the NCO in charge of our tow-target section I had an opportunity to fly in a T-33 with an instructor and have a different view of a air to air mission.


Above, the arrow points to the launching hole in aircraft.
When the operator was lying belly down at the cable exit point, it wasn't the nicest place to be when flying at 20,000 ft, especially when it was not a heated and pressure controlled cabin.


Above, as the title indicates this target was landed after a gunnery mission, the landing was a little rough, since the target could not be dropped as were the banner targets, it was necessary for the tow aircraft to come in for a low level run over the runway, and allow the towed target to land on the runway while it was still attached to the tow cable, and then when the target hit the runway an automatic release mechanism in the nose of the target released the cable.  Of course the pilot could not see the target, so as the tow target operator it was necessary for the operator, who could see the target, to hang out the launching hole in the aircraft, an tell the pilot over the intercom when the target hit the runway.  In most cases the landing were at shown above.
That is myself, and another tow operator in the picture, with other interested armament NCO's looking at the target.


Above, a towed metal target which our squadron tested in order to determine if they could be used with success when our squadron converted to F-86 aircraft. 
The F-86 aircraft had a radar ranging gunsight so it was critical that a metal target was available.  We had some success a few of these targets but only with our F-80 aircraft shooting at them. The gunsights of the F-86 were more interested on locating the largest metal aircraft in the vicinity, and since that was the B-26 tow ship, the system was not tested with an F-86 shooting at the target. 
At least while I was involved in the testing, I was discharged in March 1952.



Above, an aircraft armament technician loading cal 50 rounds into the ammo cans to be installed in the F-80. Each of the guns was supplied with enough ammunition for about 15 seconds of fire, at about 500 rounds per minute for the M-2 cal 50 mg, 12 to 15 seconds.
On an air to air mission that worked out to be about four firing runs during the time the tow aircraft and target were flying over the gunnery range.
The white and blue stripes on the tail were the colors of our squadron, 3596th Combat Crew Training squadron.


Above, this squadron was next to my new squadron when a was reassigned to Nellis AFB in July 1950, to become involved in training pilots for air combat in Korea.
Typical time at Nellis during all daylite hours in 1951.  If you look closely you might see T-33, F-80, F-86, F-84, and even two  Navy F-9F's waiting for takeoff.
The F-80's had to stop before takeoff and have their machine guns charged, that is a live round put into the chamber.  The aircraft armament technician had to run out, open the gun hatch, and charge the guns just before takeoff.  A safety procedure to prevent unwanted live rounds being fired at head height while the aircraft was on the ground, some pilots had a tendency to press the wrong button on the joystick, the trim tab control as right next to the gun trigger.  The F-84's gun  were high enough to reduce the danger, and the F-86 pilot was able to charge his guns from the cockpit.
Take note of the mountain in the background.


Above, early in 1950, when I was an Instructor at the Armament Technicians School, located at Lowry Field in Denver Colorado, I was sent on a TDY short assignment to Nellis AFB, and was attached to this Squadron for duty as an armament technician during the Air Force Gunnery meet in April of 1980.
I was assigned to this F-80 as an armament technician to get some on line training to prepare for our job as sort of instructors and technical supervisors for the armament personnel that we assigned to all of the squadron which were assigned to the Gunnery Meet.
If you ever read any history of Nellis AFB and the cost of training in terms of people and aircraft you might be aware of the loss of life and aircraft. 
During one of the air to ground gunnery missions this particular aircraft and pilot flew into the ground, with loss of both pilot and plane.
You can notice the checkerboard tail, and the gunnery squadron insignia on the nose of the aircraft.


Martin, You don't know how great this is to be able to share some of my old photos and memories.
It isn't often that an 82 year old man is able to relive some of his great times of 60 years ago.
Yours truly, and one of the T-33's in our squadron, there were 4, caliber 50's in the nose for the instructors to fire at the targets
Our squadron was responsible for gunnery and rocket firing training for pilots on their way to Korea and the air combat going on there.  In the air to air gunnery the student pilots had to achieve a minimum score in order to graduate, and be sent to Korea.  The 50 cal bullets were dipped in different colors so that when the bullets passed through the targets a small smear of the color would be left on the target.  The armorer assigned to each aircraft would list on the flight log the color of the bullets that were loaded in the six cal 50 aircraft in each of the F-80's.  After the targets were flown, and then dropped out in a special dropping area the tow target operators who were not flying would pick up the targets and return them to the squadron area when the bullet holes could be examined, and each of the pilots scored.

Some of the student pilots were either bad shots or intentionally missed the target, didn't relish the idea of going to Korea, so a solution was found so that everyone graduated with good scores. 
If a student was having difficulty reaching the minimum score, the solution was that the instructors aircraft, either another F-80 or a T-33 were loading with at least one of the cal 50's with the same color as the students load.  And usually the results were good enough for the student to graduate.


Looking toward Area 51 - 51
A photo from the gunner;s compartment on a B-26 while on the eastward leg of a tow target air to air mission.


Richard E Fulwiler, a regular and major contributor to this site and answering a request to find out more about the below set of photos, put his feelers out to a few guys he knows on his side of the pond and got this response back
Richard wrote:
I sent out some information requests on our elevator guard curiosity. I got an almost immediate response from Staff Sergeant Robert ( Bob ) O’Connell, USAF, retired.
Like I was over a year ago with you, he has openly communicated to me because of the interest I took in his past. I have been wonderfully overwhelmed by his enthusiastic response. Though Bob had not had direct application of these guards on the Invaders he had service experience with, he recalls that other squadrons flying target tow duty did have them.
Bob has been kind enough to allow usage of his memories and photos.
I think that there is enough in the collection of his mails to base an article on target towing operations utilizing the Invader. There is so much insight from his words that enlarge on a relatively unstated phase of target towing, and the specifics involved.

Finally Bob wrote to Rick,
Thank you again for your request, and finding me from the B-26 source.
I am enjoying my years of retirement.  Spent 37 years as a teacher, the time spent as a teacher at the Air Force Technical School was my inspiration.  Went to work for Department of Agriculture for three years until that began to interfere with my golf game.
I am still happily married after 56+ years, have 6 children, all working.  12 very intelligent grandchildren, 5 are college graduates, 3 are still in college,  and 2 in high school, and 2 only in pre-school.
Also one great-grandaughter of about 1 year. Guess the exposure to those nuclear tests just north of the gunnery range didn't affect me.  At least we got a day off from flying the day a nuclear test took place.
Healthy as I can be at 82, manage to beat cancer twice, once prostate, and also  lost a left kidney, but still feel great. Played a lot of golf up to a few years ago, now only once in a while.  Managed to travel to the 48 nearby states, and got to do a lot of great trout fishing all over.