Although it shares a name with Batman’s flying gunship in the film “The Dark Knight Rises,” the Bat with a connection to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was never part of the Caped Crusader’s arsenal. A forerunner of today’s “smart weapons,” the Bat was the first fully automated guided missile used in combat and saw action in the waning months of World War II when the U.S. Navy put it to work destroying Japanese naval targets.
Like its namesake in nature, which uses sonar (sound waves) for locating objects, the Bat emitted radar (radio waves) pulses that reflected off an enemy ship or structure to guide its path. Bell Telephone Laboratories and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology collaborated to build the Bat’s guidance mechanism while the National Bureau of Standards (NBS, the predecessor to NIST) developed the missile’s aerodynamic and gyroscopic stabilization systems. The Bat was built at NBS headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The nearly 4-meter (12-foot) long, 3-meter (10-foot) wide, plywood-frame Bat packed a 454-kilogram (1,000-pound) explosive charge. It was carried aloft by a Navy PB4Y-2 Privateer patrol bomber and released from a height of between 4,600 and 7,600 meters (15,000 and 25,000 feet). From there, the Bat would glide silently down some 24 to 32 kilometers (15 to 20 miles), relentlessly homing in on ships, bridges and other enemy targets with deadly precision. In all, some 2,600 Bat missiles were deployed.
During the summer of 2000, the remains of a Bat missile were discovered in a warehouse near NIST’s Gaithersburg, Maryland, headquarters. It was tattered and worn after more than 50 years in storage, yet its fuselage, wings and tail assembly were still intact (the interior mechanisms, including the warhead, had been removed many years earlier). The NIST Office of Information Services, curator of the agency’s history museum, decided to add the Bat to its collection. But first, a renovation of the missile was in order.
Fortunately for NIST, a local academic institution, Frederick Community College (FCC), ran an aviation maintenance program that provided the needed expertise and talent for the job. Students from FCC worked from January to March 2001 repairing, cleaning, painting and reassembling the Bat. Today, the missile greets visitors to the NIST Museum looking almost exactly as it did when it was built in 1945.
– Michael E. Newman