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Flying Aircraft Carriers of the USAF:
Project Tom-Tom



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The same GRB-36F 49-2707 that was used for the early tests of the FICON program also served as the mothership for the Tom-Tom program. Its designation changed to JRB-36F. Two RF-84F Thunderflashes 51-1848 and 51-1849 were carried on the wing tips of the Peacemaker. The increased wingspan to wing ratio was aerodynamically more efficient, so the reduction in induced drag almost made up for the weight of the fighters. Realistically, it was a dangerous feat to hook the fighter to the wing tip of the Peacemaker by flying the fighters' wing tips through the vortices streaming from the bombers wing tips. Then the fighter pilots would have no alternative but to sit in the cockpits of the fighters for the duration of the B-36 mission.

Project Tom-Tom flight tests began in 1955. They were intended to evaluate the difficulty of approaching the wing tip of the JRB-36F. RF-84F 51-1848 was fitted with a jaw capture mechanism on its right wing tip. The JRB-36F was equppped with a retractable scissors unit on its left wign tip. These light weight mechanisms were not intended to support the load of towing the Thunderflash.

Convair test pilots in the project included "Doc" Witchell, Raymond Fitzgerald, and Beryl Ericson.

Project Tom Tom Close-up of the left wing tip coupling on the JRB-36F. (Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems negative 26-1807)

Project Tom Tom Jaw capture mechanism on the right wing of RF-84F 51-1848. (LMTAS negative 26-1804)

Project Tom Tom RF-84F 51-1848 approaches the left wing tip of the JRB-36F as a Lockheed T-33A flies chase over the Texas countryside in 1955. (LMTAS negative 26-1817)

Project Tom-Tom flight tests continued in 1956 with more substantial wing tip coupling mechnisms. RF-84F 51-1849 received a jaw capture mechanism on its left wing tip. The JRB-36F received a pair of wing tip coupling mechanisms that incorporated adjustable rear pitch locks. All contacts in this phase of Project Tom-Tom were to the right wing tip of the JRB-36F.

Project Tom Tom Close-up of the left wing tip coupling on the GRB-36F. (LMTAS negative 26-2294)

Project Tom Tom RF-84F 51-1849 suspended from a ground test rig to evaluate the functioning of the capture mechanism. Note the man under the Thunderflash holding the cables that are used to control its yawing. (LMTAS negative 26-2152)

Project Tom Tom Detail of the capture mechanism on RF-84F 51-1849 about to grab the right wing tip coupling of the GRB-36F during a ground test. (LMTAS negative 26-2160)

Project Tom Tom Overhead view of the wing tip coupling mechanism. Project Tom-Tom relied on a "skewed" hinge that was set at an angle. As the Thunderflash rolled around the wing tip, changes in its angle of attack generated restoring forces to keep it flying level with the wing of the JRB-36F. This eliminated the need for an electronic autopilot system. (LMTAS negative 26-2154)

JRB-36F, 49-2707 with RF-84F, 51-1849 over Texas in 1956 RF-84F 51-1849 approaching the wing tip of the JRB-36F, 49-2707 late in the summer of 1956. (LMTAS negative 90-3082).

Project Tom TomThe JRB-36F tows RF-84F 51-1849. (General Dynamics negative 26-2290)

On Septemver 23, 1956, Beryl Ericson made contact with the wing tip of the JRB-36F with a small angle of yaw. Immediately, his Thunderflash started to flap up and down with increasing violence. There were no explosive squibs to break the connection between the airplanes, so the RF-84F escaped from the wing tip when the coupling mechanism failed. Part of the JRB-36F scissors mechanism remained stuck in the jaws on the Thunderflash wing tip. The incident ended Project Tom-Tom flight tests.

Project Tom Tom Damage to the Thunderflash was limited to some dents and scraping on the coupling mechanism.(LMTAS negative 26-2295)

Project Tom Tom Ver little damage is visible on the inboard side of the jaws.(LMTAS negative 26-2316)

Project Tom Tom The JRB-36F lost part of its wing tip couplilng mechanism. (LMTAS negative 26-2325)

Lift distribution of wing tip coupled B-36 and two B-47s Six turning and sixteen burning. Illustration from a NACA Research Memorandum written at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory entitled, Calculated Lift Distributions of a Consolidated Vultee B-36 and two Boeing B-47 Airplanes Coupled at the Wing Tips. The memorandum is dated November 30, 1950. If the feat had ever been attempted, the wingspan of that monster would have exceeded 460 feet.


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Flying Aircraft Carriers of the USAF videos on DVD

Flying Aircraft Carriers of the USAF videos

Five vintage films produced by the Wright Air Development Center that feature Air Force efforts to carry, launch, and retrieve airplanes from giant propeller driven bombers in the early cold war era. These videos were digitized directly from 35mm films in the National Archives. The subjects include the McDonnell XF-85 Goblin in 1948-49, wing tip coupling a Culver Q-14 Cadet and Douglas C-47 Skytrain in 1949, wing tip coupling a pair of Republic F-84D Thunderjets and a Boeing B-29 Superfortress in 1950, and Project FICON, in which a GRB-36F carried an F-84E Thunderjet in 1952.

AMC Pictorial Review Number 8 (10:42)
McDonnell XF-85 Goblin, Northrop XF-89 Scorpion

XF-85 Initial Flight (Silent) (26:59)
McDonnell XF-85 Goblin

Investigation of Aircraft in Coupled Flight (8:11)
Culver Q-14 Cadet and Douglas C-47 Skytrain

Range Extension of Bomber Escort (11:54)
Republic F-84D Thunderjets and Boeing B-29 Superfortress

Reconnaissance Parasite Aircraft (16:29)
Project FICON, Republic F-84E Thunderjet and Convair GRB-36F

Total Running Time: 74:15

You can preview Reconnaissance Parasite Aircraft:

Part 1.

Part 2.

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