Jan 24

Improvisation in the Field: A-4 Bomb Racks, 1959

Monday, January 24, 2011 12:01 AM

It was the height of the Cold War and the Navy and Marine Corps new attack jet, the Douglas A-4 “Skyhawk” had a primary mission of dropping nukes. Marine and Navy pilots knew instinctively that conventional warfare was more important. Lieutenant General Bill Fitch, a Marine test pilot flying A-4s at VX-5 at NAS China Lake at that time recalled: “After doing hundreds of flights with loft maneuvers, high dive, cruise control and aerial refueling, I was convinced that we could go to that nuclear war and do a great job of defeating the enemy with nuclear weapons….most of us felt that use of nukes was improbable. We felt that conventional warfare was what we needed to be concerned with.”

The problem was how to make the A-4 better at supporting ground troops. The A-4 could only carry three bombs, one hung on each of its pylons. Fitch came up with an idea for a bomb rack that could carry multiple bombs. He had the enthusiastic support of fellow Marine test pilot, Major K.P. Rice. Fitch also had the support and protection of VX-5’s commanding officer, Commander Dale Cox (USN), who saw the bomb racks’ value. They decided it would be best to keep the knowledge of the project from the Navy’s Bureau of Naval Weapons (BuWeps). Fitch and Cox wanted to have “the momentum of fleet support, both Marine and Navy aviation, so that BuWeps couldn’t turn it over to bureaucrats and keep it on the shelf for years.”

With Fitch and Rice advising, and Cox providing top cover, VX-5 aircraft mechanics, metal smiths and avionics personnel built the MCBRs around bomb racks and wiring harnesses salvaged from junked AD-1 ‘Skyraiders’. The only new materials required was channel iron and steel tubing. They produced three MCBRs at a cost of less than $3000. In late September 1959, only three months later, Fitch made the first test flights of the MCBR and dropped bombs with it. “It worked great,” Fitch recalled.

Eventually Douglas Aircraft Company began mass producing these bomb racks and from them came the ubiquitous MERs (multiple ejector racks) and TERs (triple ejector racks) used extensively in Vietnam a few short years later on jets of all services, the F-4, A-4, A-6, even B-52s. In the close air support role the MERs and TERS no doubt saved thousands of American troops’ lives. The patent for the bomb racks is held by William Fitch, K.P. Rice and Dale Cox.