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Snarky Behaviour with the Northrop SM-62

13 July 2012

Snarky Behaviour with the Northrop SM-62

The Northrop SM-62 Snark is a strategic bridge in Cold War history since it had a potential to deliver nuclear warheads as a compliment to manned bomber missions in the late 1950s — at least until ICBMs could be developed and deployed.

Snark was a large and capable cruise missile though hardly accurate by today’s standards and its problem plagued electronics (typical of the day). It was the size of a fighter at nearly 68 feet in length (20.5m) powered by the same engine used in the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and North American F-100 Super Sabre. Navigation was complex using Doppler radar at launch but using celestial navigation for most of the mission which could be as long as 11 hours covering 5500 nautical miles (10,200km) at 650 mph (1046kph). Ironically, the celestial navigation was likely too accurate as maps of the time did not have the same precision — the Snark would simply fall on the proper coordinates but the targets would have been improperly positioned on the map. Those were the early confusing days of the Cold War as opposed to the later confusing days of the Cold War. The CEP was given as 8000 feet (2400m) but was more than likely to be easily four times that figure.

Northrop SM-62 Snark in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force — photo by Joseph May

A Snark’s profile — photo by Joseph May

Schematic of the Snark — U.S. Air Force photo

Booster rockets hurled the Snark into the air and up to flight speed — U.S. Air Force photo

Still, the Snark was a remarkable machine of its time, 1958–1961, and it produced doubt in the minds of the USSR’s strategic planners until ICBMs replaced the Snark’s mission. Launched by solid rocket boosters initially, the air-breathing turbojet would take the Snark flying in a nose high attitude over continental distances. If it was a training mission the Snark could be guided back to its base and land on its ventral surface, sliding to a stop. The airstrip on Cape Kennedy that was used for this purpose achieved its name of “Skid Strip” due to these Snark return missions.

Snarks flew in a characteristic nose-high attitude — U.S. Air Force photo

A combat mission would see the Snark enter the target area and detach the warhead to fall ballistically while the aircraft portion would cleanly separate by pitching up due to the rearward shift of the CG. Since the Snark could not detect or evade threats many would have been needed to ensure elimination of a target, though.

Separation sequence of the Snark’s warhead — U.S. Air Force photo

Most training missions failed, giving the patch of the Atlantic Ocean between Florida and Puerto Rico the description of “Snark infested waters” and one such mission saw a Snark simply fly on and on — unresponsive to commands including those to self-destruct — until presumably crashing into Brazil’s northern wildereness, undiscovered to this day, after last being positively reported approaching Venezuela.  See the article by J.P. Anderson entitled The Day They Lost a Snark for the complete story.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. RogerW permalink
    13 July 2012 17:18

    I have read the Day They Lost a Snark and I have the following comments. Right out of college, I was working at Northrop when the infamous Brazil flight ocurred. It was my understanding that initially, only the trackkeeper failed, thus the Snark was flying on its flight control system alone. Normally, when the missile went outside its programmed flight path, the Flux Valve Compass was supposed to automatically initiate the self desruct sequence, however this did not happen, either through range safety blocking the self destruct or a malfunction in the destruct circuitry. It is obvious from the fact that the Snark flew on and on that the flight control system had adequate power, otherwise it would have crashed early on.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      14 July 2012 03:02

      Your experience and thinking have added much depth to the post — my thanks, Joe

      PS It would likely be interesting to find the wayward Snark. If it crashed onto land I’d think natives would have used the material. Perhaps it sunk in a lake, always a good place to hide something large?

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