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AQM-81 Firebolt

The XAQM-81A was essentially an AQM-37 target with a rocket engine that used safer fuels. Developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the XAQM-81A Firebolt was a high-altitude, high-speed aerial target based on the earlier liquid-fueled AQM-37A. The Firebolt set two world records for unmanned sustained flight, reaching a speed of Mach 4.3 and an altitude of 103,000 feet.

Launched from a carrier aircraft, the Firebolt was powered by a highly-advanced "hybrid" rocket motor featuring a liquid oxidizer and a solid fuel compound. The motors thrust could be varied in flight to alter speed and altitude, providing a more flexible and realistic target for USAF interceptor pilots.

Supersonic subscale aerial targets are required for employment in weapons systpm development, test and evaluation, and training to simulate high performance aircraft and missiles. Due to lower procurement and operational costs, subscale targets are employed 'in missions where large quantities of targets are required and/or a fine degree of simulation of threat signature characteristics is not cost effective.

The inherent signature characteristics of the subscale target may be augmented by Target Auxiliary System (TAS) devices to provide signature characteristics consistent with the test objectives. For threat cruise missile simulation, the subscale target signature characteristics provide a relatively fine degree of simulation without augmentation.

As a result of extensive studies by the Air Force and Navy and successful completion of advanced development, the AQM-81A Firebolt was selected as the most cost effective solution to satisfy projected high altitude supersonic requirements. Armament Division signed a contract with Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical (TRA) for development, support, and delivery of 9 vehicles and 21 refurbishment kits. Contract run is approximately 48 months with delivery and support spread over 40 moths.

DT&E was conducted by the Target SPO (AD/YIQ) with program transfer for IOT&E to AFOTEC scheduled for December 1983. The purpose of the AQM-81A IOT&E is to evaluate the military utility of the Firebolt system in simulating representative threat targets for weapon system evaluation and training. The objective of this support project is to provide test support to AFOTEC as defined in AFOTEC Test Plan Outline (TPO) AFOTEC-0127, IOT&E for the AQM-81A Firebolt, and the AQM-81A Firebolt Test Plan.

The AQM-81A Firebolt vehicle is 216 inches long and 13 inches in diameter. The propulsion system uses a solid propellant with a liquid oxidizer catalyst. The vehicle contains a parachute recovery system to allow midair retrieval as the primary recovery procedure and a flotation system to allow water recovery. A Programmable Radar Augmentation System (PRAS) provides a selectable radar cross-section presentation (ground adjustable from 2 through 60 square meters in the forward hemisphere - +10 to -60 degrees in elevation). The Scalar Scoring System (SSS) provides missile miss distance information throughout 90 percent of the scoring volume described by a 1-foot sphere centered on the target. The postulated scoring accuracies were 3 feet at miss distance of 100 feet or less and 5 feet at miss distances greater than 100 feet.

In the early 1960s, United Technology Center and Beech Aircraft, under an Air Force contract, began work on a target drone vehicle based on a storable propellant combination composed of IRFNA as an oxidizer and Plexiglas based fuel. Originally called the Sandpiper and later the HAST (High Altitude Supersonic Target), the vehicle experienced a series of successful propulsion flights. It was designed to be aircraft launched and to fly horizontally at several altitudes and Mach nurnbers (up to 5) for ranges in excess of 100 miles. Its thrust duration was 300 seconds and was throttlable on demand over an 8:l range. The vehicle itself was a modified 180-inch-long version of the Navy AQM-37A liquid bi-propellant rocket powered target missile, with slight modifications.

This work later became the Firebolt target missile system which was under development by Teledyne Ryan. It used the hybrid propulsion system as originally demonstrated in the Sandpiper program. The engine, built by the Chemical Systems Division (CSD) of United Technology, was throttleable between 0.53 kN (120 lb) and 5.3 kN (1200 lb). A ram air turbine compressor, with an inlet below the center fuselage, pressurized the IRFNA (Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid) oxidizer before it was delivered to the thrust chamber, and also provided electrical power for the missile.

After air launch at about Mach 1.5 fiom an F-4 aircraft, the hybrid rocket could propel the XAQM-81A to speeds of more than Mach 4 at altitudes of 30000 m (100000 ft). The Firebolt could fly a pre-programmed course and/or respond to guidance commands from the ground. The parachute recovery system allowed either a soft landing or a mid-air retrieval. The propulsion system was also tested at AFFWL, with different fuel oxidizer combinations. The Firebolt was air-launched from an F-4 aircraft during full-scale development (FSD) testing; however, the F-15 was the designated primary launch aircraft for operational use.

The Firebolt completed it's evaluation period in 1984, however no production contract was ever given. The Firebolt performed well during testing, but it did not enter production because less expensive alternatives were available.

Engine 1,200 lbs. maximum thrust United Technology hybrid rocket motor (could be throttled down to 120 lbs. thrust)
Maximum speed Mach 4.3 (Approximately 2,600 mph)
Endurance at Mach 3 5 minutes
Service ceiling 100,000 feet
Maximum weight 1,231 lbs.

AQM-81A AQM-81A AQM-81 AQM-81 AQM-81 AQM-81 AQM-81



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