Articles

The Air Force had giant robots in the 1960s

The Air Force has been holding out on us. Over 50 years ago they developed a functional robot that stood over 26 feet high, could carry 2,000 pound loads, and punched right through concrete walls.


So why, 50 years later, does warfare not look like this?

GIF: Youtube/GerritE82

Besides the obvious answer (the Air Force hates fun), it's because the "Beetle" was designed for just a few missions, all of which were eliminated before it was completed.

The 85-ton robot was ordered by the Air Force to provide a maintenance capability for their nuclear-powered bombers. The Beetle would have been used to change out nuclear materials, payloads, and irradiated parts on the bombers in situations where a normal mechanic or ordnance worker would be irradiated.

The cab of the Beetle housed a single driver behind one-foot-thick walls of lead lined with 1/2-inch steel plates. The materials cut the radioactive exposure of the driver to a 3,000th of ambient levels.

The bomber program was canceled. But the Beetle was undergoing its final stages of construction, so the Air Force finished and tested it.

Historians agree the tests looked nothing like this. GIF: Youtube/Cellidor .

It did alright in testing, accomplishing all of its major goals despite throwing a track during a pivot test and suffering problems with the air conditioner/filtration system.

The test report also notes the high level of maintenance required to keep the robot working, something a 1962 Popular Mechanics article also highlighted. The system was prone to leaks and short circuits, among other issues.

After testing, the Air Force allowed the Beetle and one of its support vehicles to be transferred to the Atomic Energy Commission and NASA to aid with a nuclear rocket program. But, that program was also canceled as scientists found better ways of creating chemical propellants for rockets and missiles.

So the Beetle found itself without a job and just disappeared. The Air Force has never said what happened to the giant robot. So while no one can prove they started a robot fighting league in the desert, no one can prove they didn't.

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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