US post-war tow target designations


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25 June 2009
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The recent discovery of an old tow target wreck near Eglin by fellow forum member SgtX has raised many questions about the identity and designations of a whole series of little-documented USAF and US Navy tow targets of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Contrary to the powered targets (Ryan, Radioplane, Beechcraft, etc.), which are all fairly well documented, the tow targets have sadly been overlooked by enthusiasts and historians, to the point that there is practically no literature on the subject. The internet itself is of very little help on the subject.

From various tidbits I have been able to painstakingly reconstruct an entry from Air Controlman 3 & 2 (1959 edition) which describes in detail the types of tow targets used by the U.S. Navy (bold type is mine):

There are two basic classes of tow targets currently in use in the Navy, textile tow targets and rigid tow targets. (See figs. 6-20 and 6-21.) The selection of a target depends upon the types of firing to be conducted (air-to-air or surface-to-air) and additional factors such as speed of tow aircraft and firing aircraft, the type of weapon to be used against the target, and the radar fire control system in the firing aircraft or ship.

TEXTILE TOW TARGETS.—These are flexible targets woven from a synthetic fiber, such as rayon, nylon or polyethylene. Metallic film or metal ribbon materials are added to the basic fabrics for radar reflectivity. There are two major types of textile tow targets: banner targets which may be either radar- reflective or nonreflective, and sleeve targets, which are always radar-reflective. Banner targets are large, relatively slow-speed targets used chiefly in air-to-air gunnery. The principle disadvantage of banner targets is the high turbulence it creates; the tail of the banner whips violently during flight, and since this whipping action increases with speed, the target will rip or disintegrate if towed too fast. Even if the target is built strong enough to withstand the most violent turbulence, it still creates a high drag, which restricts the towing aircraft's performance and speed. The Important features of the banner target are shown in figure 6-20. Its rectangular shape is approximately 6 by 30 feet. I has a steel tow bar on one end to which is attached a towing bridle with safety webbing from the tow bar to a device for attaching the tow-line. A counterweight on the target is adjusted before launching to stabilize the target in either the horizontal or vertical plane while it is being towed.

Sleeve targets are radar-reflective targets used in surface-to-air gunnery exercises. When towed, the sleeve itself has roughly the shape of a cone with its apex lopped off (See fig. 6-20). The smaller end, or throat of the sleeve is the towing end; a bridle is attached to this end, and the towline is attached to the eye of the bridle. The throat is open. The broad trailing end of the sleeve is closed, causing it to inflate after the target is launched.

The sleeve being about 20 feet long is made of red, black or white fabric. When the sleeve is inflated in flight, it assumes an aerodynamic shape that enables it to be towed at speeds up to about 260 knots. Wire-bearing cloth panels inside the sleeve make it radar-reflective. Sleeve targets are also equipped with flotation pads, which cause them to float so they can be recovered if they are dropped at sea, and they can be equipped with battery-powered lights for night firing.

RIGID TOW TARGETS.—These targets are used primarily for advanced training in high-speed and high- altitude gunnery exercises. Rigid targets have the advantage that they simulate combat conditions much more realistically than other types insofar as speed and altitude are concerned. However, they are difficult to carry in or on the aircraft, and therefore require special launching methods. Figure 6-21 shows two of the rigid-type targets, the Aero 27A and the Aero 33A.

WINGED TARGETS.—As the name implies, resemble an aircraft in appearance. It not only resembles an aircraft but actually flies as it is being towed through the air, simulating the maneuvers of the towing aircraft including banked turns. The latest type of winged target is the Aero 27A, a modified swept-wing version, shown in Figure 6-21 ( A ). This is an all-metal target of high-speed, low-drag design, and suitable for both air-to-air and antiaircraft gunnery exercises. It is towed from the runway by the towing aircraft and upon completion of firing is landed behind the towing aircraft. The target has an automatic release mechanism which releases it from the aircraft as soon as the target contacts the ground. At the same time an 8-foot parachute is released from the upper aft fuselage to shorten the landing run and to prevent target damage.

Plane shape targets are made of rigid material such as plywood. The type known as the Aero 33A Twin-Delta consists of thin wings and fins intersecting without a fuselage section. They are shaped and constructed so that they will offer little drag and withstand severe air loads when towed at high speeds. This advanced model has a steel, sheet metal, radar reflector assembly mounted in the tail. The Aero 33A (fig. 6-21 ( B ) is used primarily in air-to-air gunnery with radar fire control systems. Pilots who use these targets for practice generally have been previously trained in firing at banner targets.

The 1965 edition of Naval Airborne Ordnance reuses most of the above entry but updates some of the data, mostly the last paragraph as follows:

The plane shaped targets currently used by the Navy are the Aero 40 and 40A dart (fig. 18-3). They are constructed of sheet aluminum and employ a honeycomb-like material between the layers of the aluminum for increased strength and rigidity. A kit is also supplied to make repairs when direct hits are made on the target. The target may be launched by using the snatch pickup technique or may be air launched from the Aero 44 reel-launcher. The Aero 44 provides a means of launching the target, but the target and tow cable is cut free to be parachuted to the ground prior to landing.

The entry goes on about the various launching methods: from the ground (drag takeoff, snap takeoff, or air pickup) or from the tow aircraft after it is in the air. Sadly the corresponding pictures mentioned in the article are not available on the web!

Several military documents of the 1950s and a couple more only sources reference the Navy's tow targets within an "Aero" series as follows:
  • Aero 10A, Aero 10B — messengers, target release
  • Aero 25B — banner target
  • Aero 26C — banner target, radar reflective
  • Aero 27A Red Bird — swept-wing rigid aerial tow target (Winger) (East Coast Aeronautics- and Schweizer-related) (1953)
  • Aero 31A — aerial tow target, dart configuration, collapsible (Bellanca-related) (1954)
  • Aero 33A Twin-Delta — plywood plane-shaped rigid tow target (circa 1955)
  • Aero 35A — banner target
  • Aero 36 — no details (placed in a basket mounted on wing of an F8U Crusader)
  • Aero 40A — dart, plane-shaped type target
We can see from this list that both the textile/banner/flexible targets and rigid/winged/plane-shaped targets received designations in the same sequence. My assumption is that the "Aero" list may correspond to designs drafted by the Navy's BuOrd and then subcontracted to various manufacturers, as was the case with most weapons and targets.

These "Aero" designations may or may not be related to the Navy's later "Aero" designations used for various trailers, skids, launchers and other land-based equipments.

Some other designations also exist for tow targets of the same era, but they seem to correspond to separate Navy, Army and Air Force designation systems. I still don't know what to make of most of these... The E- and X- designations seem to fit in within the "Aero" series:
  • E-15 — aerial gunnery trainer
  • E-26B — flexible aerial gunnery trainer
  • X-27 — U.S. Navy tow target developed by Vought (circa 1947)
  • X-27A — improved version by Vought
  • XB-27 — alternate designation found, no details
  • X-28A — High Speed (550 mph) Target by Vought (1948)
  • X-28B — improved version by Vought
  • Mark 22 — practice weapon/antiaircraft target (perhaps Army designation)
  • Mark 23 — aerial towed sleeve/tow target, aerial sleeve (perhaps Army designation)
  • A-1 — tow target, lead
  • MA-1 — tow target, banner style
  • MB-3 Red Bird — USAF version of the Navy's Aero 27A
  • MC-3 — aerial tow target, radar reflective, frangible
  • MC-5A — aerial tow target, radar reflective, bistatic
  • D-1 — tow target, release, mechanically operated (USAF)
  • XM-24US Army Tow Target (1953)

Finally, others fit in the better-known TDU- series:
  • TDU-1/B — Tow Target, Aerial, Banner Style
  • TDU-4/B — Tow Target, Aerial, Radar Reflective
  • TDU-9/B — Tow Target, Aerial, Missile-Rocket
  • TDU-10/B, TDU-10B/B — Tow Target, Aerial Dart, Gunnery Type
  • TDU-15/B — Tow Target, Aerial, Radar Reflective, Bistatic, Infrared
  • TDU-17/B — Tow Target, Aerial, Infrared
  • TDU-22/B — standard supersonic tow target used by US Forces for simulating threat (Jane's, 1979)
  • TDU-32A/B, TDU-32B/B — aerial banner tow targets, non-reflective nylon fabric (TDU-32 series)
  • TDU-34/A, TDU-34A/A, TDU-34A/B — aerial tow target

I admit that it is all still pretty sketchy for now and I apologize for this, but hopefully we'll be able to make more sense of it all with the knowledge and research skills of other dedicated forum members with an interest in this little-known subject!


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As for the TDU series, I have a few additional TDUs listed as "tow target" in my TDU Listing . But please don't ask me for specific reference sources - it's too long ago ;) . But the numbers and descriptions are typically from a random internet search at that time (trying to use only "reliable" sources) and a few old "Jane's" volumes.
Andreas Parsch said:
As for the TDU series, I have a few additional TDUs listed as "tow target" in my TDU Listing . But please don't ask me for specific reference sources - it's too long ago ;) . But the numbers and descriptions are typically from a random internet search at that time (trying to use only "reliable" sources) and a few old "Jane's" volumes.

Thanks Andreas! I know that the TDU list was very sketchy... I didn't take the time to make it more complete as I thought the TDU system was better known and much easier to reconstruct if I set my mind to it (which I haven't). But be sure of course that when I do, your site will be the first source I'll turn to (as usual... ;) )

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