The Last Scramble
The Last Scramble of Avenger Red: F-89C Scorpion, 51-5853A
Many people do not realize it today, but in the early 1950s Americans believed a surprise attack by the Soviet Union was imminent. The threat of nuclear annihilation ensured that military planes on routine missions in the northern states were always packing “hot” guns. Planes known as “interceptors” were always ready to defend against anticipated bombers that might fly south over the frozen wastes of northern Canada. But in 1953, a plane based out of Wisconsin was involved in a different kind of engagement, which would later become known as the Kinross Incident.
Wisconsin Air National Guard units were federalized during those early years of the Cold War. Truax Field ANG Base in Madison, was reactivated by the USAF on February 1, 1951. By 1953, two Air Defense Command fighter interceptor squadrons were based there under the command of Lt. Col. Harry W. Shoup. While most ADC units at the time flew older Republic F-84 Thunderjets, F-84F Thunderstreaks, and Lockheed F-94s, Truax received the most modern interceptors in the USAF inventory because of its proximity to Canada. The 432nd FIS flew single seat North American F-86D Sabre Dogs, armed with air-to-air rockets, while the 433rd FIS operated cannon-armed Northrup F-89C Scorpions. Both squadrons were part of the 4706th Air Defense Wing.
Madison’s Interceptors Temporary Assignment to Kinross
Kinross Air Force Base was at the eastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 20 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Like Truax, it had been deactivated at the end of WWII. With the start of the Cold War in 1948, and the Korean War in June 1950, Kinross was reopened on July 1, 1952. Kinross was a vital ADC alert-status base. It was tasked with providing air defense for Sault Ste. Marie and the Upper Great Lakes, and was the home base of the 438th FIS.
The squadron’s Rapid Deployment missions were initiated by USAF Ground Control Intercept (GCI) teams. Kinross interceptors were ready to scramble 24/7, whenever GCI ADC surveillance radars picked up unknown aircraft. When scrambled, GCI stations directed the interceptors to the targets. Two radar stations directed Kinross in November 1953: GCI station Naples P-66 and GCI station Pillow P-16. Radar from each isolated station covered 994 square miles.
In November 1953, the Lockheed F-94B interceptors usually based at Kinross, were sent to Arizona for aerial gunnery practice. Kinross needed jets ready to respond to threats so the 433rd FIS stepped in. Four F-89C Scorpion interceptors and their eight crewmen flew to Kinross. Scorpions almost always operated in pairs. Two pairs of Scorpions with their four crewmen waited ready in hangers. They took 12-hour shifts, standing on 5 minute alert.
The F-89C Scorpion Interceptor
The Northrop F-89 Scorpion first flew on August 16, 1948, and became operational in 1952. It was the USAF’s second all-weather jet powered interceptor. Its only mission was to defend the desolate arctic area of North America from Soviet bomber formations. It was a large jet with a wingspan of 56 feet and a length of 53 feet 5 inches. The improved Northrop F-89C Scorpion first flew on September 18, 1951, and among other refinements, had a fuel purging system to alleviate the danger of fuel vapor explosions. The F-89C Scorpion also received a strengthened horizontal tail and forged steel wing attachment points. There were a total of 164 of these C-version planes. In the last production, 19 of these planes were fitted with two Allison J35-A-33A turbojets rated at 7,400 pounds of thrust by its Solar afterburners. With the new engine, these Scorpions could hit 650 mph at sea level and 562 mph at 40,000 feet. It possessed an initial climb rate of 12,300 feet per minute and had a ceiling of 50,500 feet, impressive for the time.
In the Scorpion, the pilot sat in the front seat, and the radar operator sat in the rear of the pressurized cockpit. The C-version Scorpion used Hughes Aircraft x-band AN/APG-33 fire control radar. The air intercept radar incorporated the E-1 fire control system, and had a 20-mile range. Six M-24 Hispano-Suiza gas operated, 20mm auto cannons, were located in the nose with 200 rounds for each gun. The cannons had a cyclic rate of 850 rpm and a range of 7,000 yards. The F-89C Scorpion was very stable and reliable, capable of flying home on one engine. But with a combat weight of 33,100 pounds it was sluggish and disliked by day-fighter pilots.
The plane also had decelerons mounted on the trailing edge of the wings. These acted as both ailerons and split-air brakes. Brakes were deployed when diving or closing on a target. Extremely effective, these brakes once caused an F-89 Scorpion plane to fall from the sky when it was accidentally deployed.
On the afternoon of November 23, F-89C Scorpion, serial number 51-5853A, call sign “Avenger Red”, was on five-minute alert status. Earlier in the day, the plane had been given a thorough pre-flight inspection (at 07:30 EST). Avenger Red was scrambled at 11:45 EST and returned to base at 12:45 EST. Upon her return, the ground crew immediately serviced and spot-checked her. She was towed back to the alert hanger and filled with an hour and 45 minutes of fuel.
By late afternoon, a low front centered over Northern Minnesota, was moving east with ceilings as low as 500 feet. Scattered light snow showers limited visibility in some areas to 1-2 miles.
Horsefly Orders the Scramble
At the northeast corner of Detroit, Michigan, GCI station Horsefly P-20 operated a pair of powerful General Electric AN/CPS-6 medium range search/height finder radar sets. The units had a maximum range of 240 miles. Unexpectedly, at 18:00 EST, just as the sun had set, a blip appeared on Horsefly’s scopes. A bogey had materialized, and was possibly stationary over the locks at the east end of Lake Superior, near Sault Ste. Marie. The area was restricted air space because the locks connected Lake Superior with the other Great Lakes. The controller was alarmed. Later, the USAF would claim the bogey was over 500 miles away at the west end of Lake Superior. But the fact that Horsefly picked up the bogey tends to support that it was near the locks.
Horsefly notified Naples that it wanted a check on the unknown target, and assigned the bogey the designation A-27-A. Neither station received radio replies from target A-27-A. Naples called Kinross at 18:17 EST to scramble one interceptor. There was a 4,000 foot overcast, with a visibility of eight miles, when Avenger Red went airborne at 18:22 EST on the active air defense mission. Pilot Dave Eby watched the Scorpion scramble on afterburners, and climb into the night sky without incident.
Avenger Red’s Crew
Avenger Red was piloted by 26-year-old First Lt. Felix Eugene Moncla Jr. Always calm and collected, he possessed a slow distinctive drawl. He had received a BS at Southwest Louisiana Institute before enlisting in the US Army in WWII. After the war, he attended the school of medicine at University of New Orleans and applied for a commission in the USAF. He was called to active duty at the start of the Korean War as an officer pilot trainee and received basic pilot training at Connally AFB at Waco, Texas. Moncla went through advanced pilot training at Reese AFB in Lubbock, Texas and Scorpion F-89 training at Tyndall AFB in Panama City, Florida. He moved with his wife and son from Moreauville, Louisiana to Madison, Wisconsin in July 1952. His daughter was born there the following year in June.
Lt. Moncla’s radar operator was Second Lt. Robert L. Wilson from Ponca City, Oklahoma. Wilson was born on November 16, 1931 and had just turned 22. He was single and had been assigned to the unit in June 1952.
Both officers were relatively experienced. Lt. Moncla had logged 811:10 flight hours: 121:40 in Scorpion F-89s; 101:00 on instruments; and 91:50 at night. He had also flown T-33 and F-94B aircraft. Lt. Wilson had 206:45 hours of flight time, 11:30 at night.
Streaking Out to Intercept Bogey Target A-27-A
After Avenger Red became airborne, Lt. Moncla called Naples on channel 10 (UHF-2). The station was three miles southwest of Sault Ste. Marie and was operating GE AN/FPS-3 and AN/FPS-5 radar. Avenger Red was given a vector of 300 degrees magnetic at angels 30, or 30,000 feet.
As Avenger Red streaked out at 500 mph, several other GCI stations were monitoring the event as it unfolded. Pillow, Horsefly, P-67, and RCAF Station Pagwa C-14 and Armstrong CFS C-15 on the Pine Tree Line in Ontario, run jointly by the RCAF and USAF were all watching. GCI station P-34, was using AN/CPS-6B radar just southeast of Empire, Michigan and also had the power to monitor the situation. Twenty or more men were observing, or actively participating, in what would become known as the Kinross Incident. Several, off-record and contrary to the official USAF, reports stated that target A-27-A headed northwest, out over the lake.
GCI station Pillow was near the isolated tip of Keweenaw Peninsula, just 5 miles southeast of Phoenix, Michigan. The station had opened on May 1, 1951 and used GE AN/FPS-3 and AN/FPS-5 search radar. They had a range of 60 miles at 40,000 feet but under the right conditions could track to 210 miles. At Pillow, Second Lt. Douglas A. Stuart was monitoring the intercept. Pillow was reading Avenger Red faintly. The station’s radar was painting the Scorpion intermittently, on every other sweep, and Lt. Moncla’s radio transmissions were filled with static. Equipment checks showed no malfunctions at Pillow.
Naples was controlling the intercept and vectored Avenger Red for 19 minutes. Avenger Red had to make an additional, undocumented starboard turn early in the flight. Lt. Moncla’s flight time and the airspeed also indicated that there was more maneuvering unreported by USAF documents. At 18:41 EST, Naples turned over the control of Avenger Red to Pillow, although they continued to have poor reception with the fighter. Lt. Moncla had no such problem and radioed that he was reading them clearly. He was directed to switch to channel 12 (UHF-1) but when his reception remained the same Pillow instructed Moncla to switch back to channel 10. Lt. Moncla contacted Pillow at 18:45 EST and asked if the intercept mission should be discontinued due to the station’s weak signal reception. Lt. Stuart advised him that continuance of the mission was up to his discretion. Lt. Moncla continued to pursue still unidentified target A-27-A, informing Pillow that pilot discretion was approved.
Apparently, the target changed course and accelerated as Avenger Red approached. Moncla was instructed at 18:46 EST to make a port turn to 270 degrees magnetic and to descend to 7,000 feet. The air was stable with no turbulence, and visibility at 10 to 12 miles. Avenger Red was still above a broken layer of altostratus clouds running 10,000 to 15,000 feet, and a solid deck of stratocumulus clouds running from 2,000 feet up to 6 or 7,000 feet. There was moderate to heavy icing in all the clouds, but Avenger Red had deicing equipment. Lt. Moncla replied, “Steady on 270 degrees.” He now came in loud and clear, and Pillow told him so.
Pillow radioed a clock and range report to Lt. Moncla, along with the unidentified flying target’s track and altitude. Lt. Moncla acknowledged the message. Radar operator Lt. Wilson was unable to read the target and GCI continued to direct them. At 18:49 EST, Lt. Moncla radioed that he was descending through 25,000 feet. A westerly wind was blowing 35 knots at that elevation. Pillow relayed that Horsefly warned he might encounter icing conditions at the target’s altitude. Lt. Moncla acknowledged and then asked for “pigeons to home plate” asking for a vector and range back to his home base, in case of trouble. Pillow radioed 150 degrees, 125 miles and Lt. Moncla acknowledged.
Avenger Red Vanishes
Lt. Moncla entered Canadian airspace and Lt. Stuart instructed him to turn starboard (right) to 020 degrees magnetic, his cut-off vector. Normally, Scorpions approached targets from the rear. This was no game, the Scorpion was armed and ready to engage if its target proved unfriendly. Lt. Wilson continued to have problems locking on the target. GCI radioed at 18:52 EST that the unknown was at Lt. Moncla’s 11:00 position at 10 miles.
Lt. Moncla acknowledged and added that he did not see the target. Pillow relayed another clock and range report, and stated the target was moving from port to starboard. Station P-67, monitoring the interception, watched the Scorpion close in on bogey target A-27-A.
Through slight static, Lt. Moncla stated, “I have an eyeball on the target, am going in for a closer look.” With each transmission, the static grew and each message became increasingly unintelligible. They were 70 miles northeast of Keweena point, 40 miles southwest of the Canadian shoreline, and 150 miles northwest of Kinross at 48:00 north, 86:49 west. Pillow radioed that they would set up another intercept of the target if needed, but received no reply.
To the GCI stations, it suddenly appeared that the unidentified moving target either stopped, or unexpectedly turned 180 degrees accelerating toward the Scorpion. It is possible, but highly unlikely that Lt. Moncla accelerated greatly during the final intercept. Unexpectedly, the radar images merged at 8,000 feet.
At first, Pillow believed that Lt. Moncla was flying formation with the target, but his IFF signal (Identification Friend Foe) disappeared off the screen. Pillow frantically attempted to contact Lt. Moncla every few seconds.
A lone radar signal began to head north, and then vanished. Unofficially, radar operators claimed that it appeared as if the unidentified bogey target A-27-A had swallowed Lt. Moncla’s plane.
Naples was contacted and asked to radio Lt. Moncla while Horsefly ordered Kinross to scramble another interceptor. Another Scorpion, Avenger Purple, piloted by Second Lt. Howard R. Nordeck, scrambled at 19:42 EST. Avenger Black, piloted by Second Lt. Mingenbach, had already been airborne since 19:15 EST, on an unrelated Civil Aviation Patrol mission. Avenger Black raced toward the last coordinates of Avenger Red, as its radar operator attempted to make contact on UHF channels 1, 9, 10, 11, I (NATO), and the ANG channel.
Lt. Mingenbach of Avenger Black called Naples on channel 10 at 19:18 EST and was told to vector 330 degrees, angels 20. They were reading Naples clearly. Encountering cloud layers, Lt. Mingenbach radioed GCI and requested an altitude change to angels 30, which Naples granted.
At 19:35 EST both Lt. Mingenbach and his radar operator heard a brief, five-second transmission on channel 10 at 25,000 feet. Both men distinctly heard Lt. Moncla say, “I think we better…” followed by several garbled words. They felt that it was a communication from Lt. Moncla to Lt. Wilson. Unable to contact Lt. Moncla, Avenger Black broke through the clouds at 29,000 feet without icing and leveled at angels 30. Naples vectored Avenger Black to 270 degrees and then control passed to Pillow. They were 150 miles from home plate, over Lt. Moncla’s last known position, when Horsefly requested Pillow to instruct Avenger Black to letdown to investigate. Kinross warned that there could be severe icing in the clouds. However, Lt. Mingenbach’s plane, unlike Lt. Moncla’s, did not have retractable engine screens and he was not sure that his anti-icing system was operating. He hesitated to descend. Pillow and Naples could not override Horsefly, and they let Lt. Mingenbach circle the area at angels 30. Meanwhile, Avenger Black could clearly hear Naples vectoring Avenger Purple on their radio.
Capt. William Bridges, the Officer in Charge of Detachment 1, notified Kinross that they had an overdue aircraft at 20:07 EST. Capt. Bridges took off in the last Scorpion F-89C at 20:30 EST. When Avenger Purple was 30 miles from Avenger Black, Horsefly requested that all three interceptors return to home plate and land. Avenger Black was the last to return and had a normal letdown at 20:55 EST.
The 49th Air Rescue Squadron at Selfridge AFB was alerted that a Scorpion F-89 was down at 22:00 EST. Avenger Red had two rubber life rafts and its crew wore life vests, but the weather was frigid. Fourteen aircraft, a helicopter, and the USCG cutter Woodrush were hampered by snow and poor visibility. No trace of the missing plane was found.
Rumors soon spread at Selfridge AFB that a Scorpion F-89 from Kinross had been struck by a flying saucer, and the pilots at Kinross believed that Avenger Red was captured by the UFO.
A Mystery Explained
Initially, Truax Field released a press-statement that the missing F-89 Scorpion had struck an unknown target over Lake Superior. Appalled, the USAF offered a scant explanation for what happened to the plane, and erased any mention of the mission and the chasing of an unknown target from the records. Norton AF Flying Safety Division suggested that Lt. Moncla suffered from vertigo and crashed despite the fact he was flying on instruments. An AF officer told Bobbie Jean Moncla that her husband had undershot a Canadian airliner while identifying it and had hit the lake. A second officer solemnly told her that no bodies could be recovered as the jet had exploded at high altitude. The USAF eventually stuck with the explosion theory. The focus of the investigation quickly shifted from the cause of the disappearance, to the identity of A-27-A.
USAF officers soon began to state that the GCI radar operators had read their scopes wrong and that the UFO was merely a commercial Canadian DC-3. Officially, the USAF claimed that the target was a RCAF Douglas C-47 Dakota, a military version of the DC-3, assigned identification number VC-912. The C-47 had departed from CFB Rockcliffe on November 21 bound for Sudbury, Canada. Flying east, it had entered over the west end of the lake and wandered 30 miles to the north off its intended course.
The USAF stated the stray C-47 had been detected at the west end of the lake by Horsefly, even though that was well beyond the range of Horsefly. The crew of the C-47 included Flight Officer Lt. Gerald Fosberg, of the 412th Squadron. Lt. Fosberg stated that he had been flying in a straight line from Fort William airport, to Sault Ste. Marie at 7,000 feet. They had been flying at 170 mph above a solid deck. There were clear skies above and unlimited visibility. Lt. Fosberg was adamant that he was flying with radio directional equipment and was not 30 miles off course, nor was he ever contacted by GCI for identification purposes. Rather, Lt. Fosberg stated he was contacted by GCI after the loss of Moncla’s signal, and asked if they had seen the missing plane. Lt. Fosberg replied that they had not seen anything.
Ghost images were blamed for creating the target image on radar, implying that Avenger Red was scrambled to intercept its own radar echo or shadow, and had finally intercepted it over the lake. This incredulous theory was Project Blue Book’s explanation for the loss. Dr. Donald H. Menzel, UFO debunker and Harvard University astronomer, suggested that GCI had seen a phantom echo of the Scorpion F-89, due to atmospheric conditions.
It must be noted that the USAF did not include this theory in their accident investigation.