In 1946, Richard W. Benfer and a few engineers from bell labs and Douglas Aircraft, a sub-contractor, fired the first Nike missile at White Sands. It was labeled a “dummy” round and was simply a machined wooden pole with a motor attached. Benfer’s chief engineer, Bill Mraz, used to joke that the missile was probably a Bell telephone pole whittle down for the test.
The first Nike system, the Ajax, was developed by the Army to defend the United States against a bomber attack from the Soviet Union, especially against those planes carrying nuclear warheads. It was the first time anyone had ever attempted to build such a complex system so every development and test by Benfer and his team was ground breaking.
And the system was complex. There was an acquisition radar that found the target airplane, a tracking radar to follow the target and third radar was used to track the Ajax missile once it was launched. A computer system calculated where the target was going, where the missile was, and sent signals to the missile to direct it to the target. Also, the missile was directed to explode once it was close enough so the shrapnel would destroy the plane. This was in addition to the missile itself with its solid-propellant booster motor, liquid-propellant sustainer motor, warhead and associated electronics.
Most of these technologies were immature and required a great deal of trial and error testing. At first, Benfer lived in New Jersey and traveled back and forth to White Sands for the testing. In 1953, Bell established a permanent laboratory at White Sands and Benfer permanently moved to New Mexico as its director.
Eventually the system matured with all the pieces working together as designed. On Nov. 27, 1951, a Nike missile brought down a radio controlled B-17 bomber flying at 33,000 feet above White Sands. It was a spectacular demonstration of what a guided missile could accomplish – one shot, one kill.
As most program managers know, there are always unforeseen circumstances that must be dealt with before almost any system is complete. For Nike Ajax system deployment, one last minute detail was the real estate issue.
Initially, each site was supposed to occupy 119 acres. In urban areas like Brooklyn, N.Y. and Chicago, Ill., this was simply impossible. Designers came up with the idea of storing missiles and warheads underground, in magazines, and taking them to the surface using an elevator system for actual launches. This reduced the safety area and, thus, the land required for each site was reduced to just 40 acres – a number much more acceptable to community leaders.
To test this new design, an underground magazine and elevator system had to constructed and tested at White Sands in 1953. This addition to the testing schedule must have been trying for Benfer and his team. However, successful testing allowed the Army to start deploying the Nike defensive system in 1954 with the first site located at Fort Meade, Md. Eventually several hundred sites were established.
Almost immediately Benfer’s people were working on the next generation in the Nike family – the Hercules. This missile was almost a thousand miles per hour faster than Ajax, could fly out to 75 miles and could carry either a conventional or nuclear warhead. The idea with Hercules was to destroy a whole formation of bombers with one missile. Thanks again to Benfer’s leadership, Hercules testing was very successful and it replaced the Ajax in 1958.
As the threat to the United States shifted from bombers to ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) with nuclear warheads, Bell Labs was asked to look into shooting down missiles with missiles. This led to the third generation Nike missile – the Zeus.
The first version was a big two-stage missile, standing almost 45 feet in length, which could carry a nuclear warhead. Benfer led testing again as firings of this “A” model took place in 1959 and 1960 at White Sands. A 200-mile limit on Nike Zeus was soon lifted and a “B” model was developed. This version was three stages and stood almost 50 feet. It had a range of 250 miles and a ceiling of over 150 miles. Full up testing could not be done at White Sands so the program was moved to Kwajalein in the Pacific. Benfer left White Sands for three years to manage the testing out over open water.
When Benfer returned to White Sands he led the effort on the Nike-X, which eventually became the Spartan missile and part of the Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile System.
Benfer retired in 1969 and lived in Las Cruces until his death in 2002 at age 95. While living in Las Cruces he was a strong supporter of NMSU and left an endowment for scholarships at the school.
Benfer was born on April 21, 1907, in Wolf Lake, Ind. He attended Tilden Technical High School in Chicago and earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1929.
His initial job upon graduating from college was with a subsidiary of Western Electric that installed sound systems in movie theaters.