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Giving New Wings to an Old Bat

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. 

Photo of a Bat missile mounted underneath the wing of a U.S. Navy aircraft
Credit: U.S. Navy
A Bat missile mounted underneath a U.S. Navy aircraft in 1945.

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.

Diagram of a Bat missile that shows placement of the lead balancing weights, batteries, servo, suspension bar, electronic power supply, elevon, inverter, umbilical connector, radar transmitter and receiver, antenna, autopilot, fuze and 1000 lb. bomb.
Credit: U.S. Navy
Cutaway drawing showing the internal mechanism of the Bat missile.

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.

Photo of the restored Bat missile behind stanchions and ropes in the NIST library
Credit: F. Webber/NIST
The restored Bat missile on display at the NIST Library in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Did You Know...?

  • The Bat’s official name was the Special Weapons Ordinance Device (SWOD) Mark 9 and its U.S. Navy designation was ASM-N-2. The nickname, Bat, was suggested by Capt. Dundas Tucker, chief of the Radar and Guided Missile Subsection of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordinance.
  • The Rudolph Wurlitzer Organ Co., famous for making organs and jukeboxes, manufactured the body of the Bat because of its expertise in bending plywood.
  • The leader of the NBS development team for the glide bomb was aerodynamics expert Hugh L. Dryden, who would become better known as the first deputy director of NASA from 1958 until his death in 1965.

– Michael E. Newman

    Created June 20, 2017, Updated February 13, 2019