♫♬…When the Drone is Called Up Yonder I’ll be There…♬♫ (with apologies to James M. Black)  😀

First the news and a congratulatory note to the Navy-Industry team behind today’s launch of the X-47B off the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77):

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). George H.W. Bush is the first aircraft carrier to successfully catapult launch an unmanned aircraft from its flight deck. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian Read Castillo (Released) 130514-N-XE109-532

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). George H.W. Bush is the first aircraft carrier to successfully catapult launch an unmanned aircraft from its flight deck. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian Read Castillo (Released) 130514-N-XE109-532

Of course, as any end-of-deployment flyoff crew knows, it is a heck of a lot easier throwing things off the bow than it is trying to get them back on (ask Gene Ely). The “getting back on” part is obviously coming later.

I must confess as one who no longer has a dog in this fight, it has been with a certain degree of bemusement that I’ve watched/listened to the back-and-forth between the acolytes of drones and manned aircraft, and striven to keep the eye rolls over some of the more breathless, over the top exhortations in check. Still, as all the chest thumping, victory lapping in the wake of today’s event fades (somewhat) with the setting sun, it is the historian in the ol’ Scribe that scratches his head and sez, “Historic?, well, yeah but…” and offers the following for perspective.
Of Aphrodite and ANVIL

Pilotless aircraft, drones and UCAV’s: In two theaters during WWII, Navy was experimenting with unmanned aircraft – to varying degrees of success. In Europe, tired, battleworn B-17’s and PB4Y’s were being converted into explosives packed (18,000lbs-worth of TORPEX, pretty nasty stuff), armed drones to be thrown against hardened sites supporting Germany’s latest “Vergeltungswaffe” The concept was elegantly simple (on paper – no PPT then) if not in reality:

…a minimal crew launched the aircraft, set the fuses then bailed out – the armed drone would then be remotely piloted into the impact area by another B-17 flying in trail and using an Azon radio control system coupled with television cameras in the nose and cockpits to steer the drone B-17.”

Except that the results didn’t match the expectations:

On 6 Aug 1944, a mission using 5 modified B-17′s was launched at the V-3 site. Two went out of control as soon as the crews bailed out and crashed into the sea. Another one went into an orbit around the industrial center at Ipswich where it circled for sometime before it too crashed into the sea. The remainder made it into France where one was brought down flak and a second and final drone missed the target by a wide margin.”

What should have served as a forewarning was nonetheless passed on, and Navy’s contribution under Project Anvil came to very real tragic consequences for one noted American family.

Wood and Glue…and TV


Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, as early as 1941 the Navy had tested a wood-and-glue creation named the TDR and envisioned as an unmanned aircraft for carrying out torpedo attacks on heavily defended targets. Like those with the Kido Butai. Experience from Midway was pointing to the vulnerability of large, slow (OK, lumbering) torpedo aircraft with VT-8 (TORPEDO EIGHT) being savaged in both the TBD’s and new TBF’s used in the recent battle. The idea of an unmanned aircraft, being guided by an operator well out of range of hostile fighters and AAA, using a TV camera (yes Virginia, TV cameras really did exist back in the 40’s) driving into torpedo attack range did hold a certain appeal. Indeed, under Project Option, a TDR-1 conducted a successful (unarmed) torpedo attack against the USS Aron Ward. Unfortunately, the low priority of the program and ongoing technical issues with experimental equipment added enough delays to the program that the Navy eventually killed it after acquiring some 300 aircraft. Still, one unit, Special Task Air Group ONE (STAG-1) deployed to the Pacific theater with a single TBF accompanying as control. 46 drones were eventually expended in a series of attacks, mostly against shore facilities, with roughly 50% judged to be successful.

The Battle of Palmdale

060829-f-1234s-052 079863-F6F-5K-01JAN60-CLK-LHL-246189

After the war there was, of course, a surplus of aircraft to be dealt with. Most were turned into scrap, but many were converted into drones for use in gunnery training and in the development of a new weapon – the surface-to-air missile (SAM). Now, anything and everything crafted by Man’s hands is subject to Murphy’s Law. Most times, when Murphy (and his minions, the Gremlins) come into play, the end result is frayed tempers and resort to bandages. Occasionally though, as the good residents of Palmdale, California found out one summer’s eve, the combination of Murphy and drones could leave spectacular, if expensive results. It also saw the drone casting down the gauntlet to manned fighters, with the end result being a positive in the drone’s favor:

The interceptors caught up with the left-circling drone northeast of Los Angeles at an altitude of 30,000 feet, he said. The jets tailed the Hellcat as it turned southwest and made another pass over Los Angeles before heading northwest toward Santa Paula. The jet crews, which consisted of a pilot and a radar observer, waited for the drone to reach an area that was relatively unpopulated. But when the crews attempted to fire, a design glitch in the automatic fire-control system for the Mighty Mouse rockets repeatedly prevented launches while the attack planes were turning, Merlin said.

The jets continued tailing the bright-red, prop-driven drone as it continued to circle, eventually leading them toward Fillmore and Frazier Park, he said. “It appeared to be heading toward the sparsely populated western end of the Antelope Valley, but suddenly, it turned southeast toward Los Angeles again, and time seemed to be running out,” Merlin said.

The Air Force fliers opted to abandon their planes’ automatic system and fire their rockets manually in an attempt to bring the drone down. “Although the interceptors were delivered with gun sights, the sights were considered unnecessary and removed because the pilots were supposed to be firing their unguided rockets with an automatic system,” Merlin said.

The interceptors made their first attack run as the Hellcat crossed over the mountains near Castaic. Firing salvos of 42 rockets each, both planes missed the target, he said. “Rockets blazed through the sky and plunged earthward to spark brush fires north of Castaic and near the town of Newhall.

According to one witness, one rocket skipped through Placerita Canyon, leaving a string of fires near Oak of the Golden Dream Park,” Merlin said. Placerita Canyon also was the location of the Indian Oil Co., and several of its oil sumps were ignited. The blazes in the canyon also at one point threatened to reach the Bermite Powder Co. explosives plant, he said.

While fires burned in its wake, the errant drone meandered northwest, toward Palmdale. As it did, the jets followed, expending the rest of their weapons in two more salvos of 32 and 30 rockets each as the two interceptors attempted to bring the Hellcat down, Merlin said. What happened was that the obsolete, unpiloted, unguided, unarmed, propeller-driven drone evaded the state-of-the-art jet interceptors. In all, 208 rockets were fired without scoring a single hit,” he said.

“As the drone passed over Palmdale’s downtown, Mighty Mouse rockets fell like hail,” Merlin continued. “Miraculously, no one was hurt, and the drone finally exhausted its fuel supply, sputtered and fell, crashing into an open field eight miles east of (the) Palmdale airport,” he said. Although the plane disintegrated and burned on impact, small pieces of debris — identifiable by part numbers and inspection stamps — were still at the site when Merlin visited it in July 1997.

Navy QF6F: 1
USAF F-89: 0

DASHing off into history
QH-50C_on_DASH pagefirescout

The Joy of Drones wasn’t merely the province of fixed wing aviators to enjoy. No indeed as the DASH was to provide some of its own entertainment in the early to mid-60’s. As the Soviets strove to put to sea a sub force that numbered in the hundreds, it became abundantly clear to Big Navy that something had to be done and in the process, avail itself of the multitude of small and big deck ships out there. ASROC was well underway in development, but initially would be handicapped by short range. An obvious answer was to use the relatively new helicopter which had demonstrated varying degrees of prowess over Korea during the war. The problem was, all those small decks were too small for the helos then deployed and envisioned in the near future. Enter the Gyrodyne company from stage left with a coaxial design they had been successfully developing and selling for over 10 years. Intrigued, the Navy awarded Gyrodyne a contract in April 1956 to make minimum modifications to its model RON-1 Rotorcycle in order to investigate the feasibility of its use not only to deliver ASW weapons (nuke and otherwise), but to do it as an unmanned drone. The requirement was to be able to launch from a destroyer in any sea state up to level 6 (13 to 20 ft swells), at any time of day, in any type of weather that would normally keep a manned helicopter on deck. And behold – the QH-50A DASH – Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter. DASH by far provided the Navy with years of experience attempting to operate drones in a shipboard environment (some attributes and lessons-learned would be repeated years later with the FIRE SCOUT V-UAV program. Stories abound of DASH sorties that once launched, took on a mind of their own and disappeared over the horizon – sometimes with live weapons. In 1970 the program was terminated and replaced by the manned LAMPS program using the SH-2 Seasprite. Still – it wasn’t without logging some green ink time along the way – mostly as SNOOPY naval gunfire spotters over the beach in exceptionally hostile environments. Of the 746 QH-50A’s built for the Navy, 411 were lost – how many over Vietnam though is unkown.

Everything New..

Never let it be said that in the pre-Goldwater-Nichols days that the competition for missions between the Army and Navy (and later Army-Navy-Air Force) lacked for entertainment or one-upmanship. In October 1943, Chance Vought signed a study contract for a 300-mile range pilotless missile that carried a 4,000-pound warhead. But little transpired until the soon-to-be-separated AAF provided the impetus for the Navy Program. In May 1947, the Army awarded Martin a contract for a turbojet-powered subsonic missile which became the Matador. The Navy saw this as a threat to its role in guided missiles and, within days, ordered BuAer to start a similar Navy missile that could be launched from a submarine, using the same engine as the Matador (J33) and components on hand. By August 1947, the project had gained both a name (Regulus) and performance requirements. The Navy wanted the missile to carry a 3,000-pound warhead to a maximum range of 500 nm at Mach .85 with a CEP of .5 percent of the range. The vehicle would be 30 feet in length, 10 feet in span, 4 feet in diameter, and would weigh between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds. Again, reflecting the challenge of cutting edge technology in guidance at the time (and the hairy eyeball from SECDEF who made Navy justify the program), the first Regulus I flew in March 1951 and was followed by the first launch from a submarine, the USS Tunny in July 1953. However, continued problems with the guidance section and radio controls, among other things, delayed the operational introduction of the Regulus until 1955. The Regulus would be flown from subs, cruisers and yes, aircraft carriers. Via (ahem) catapult:

So snark (Snark) aside, my purpose here is to add a little perspective. That our knuckle-dragging, beetle-browed forebears back in the Pleistocene 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s actually were blazing trails with what we today consider to be achingly obsolete gear, but which was truly cutting edge for the time. And that then, like now, the expectations-results equation rarely balanced out which should (but never seems to) temper our expectations going into this latest endeavor in unmanned aircraft.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9 (KJV)



  1. Some great historical examples here. What I think is different is that UAVs are rapidly becoming ubiquitous across not just the USN, but fleets around the world. It remains to be seen if X-47B is just a novelty, but ScanEagle and FireScout are doing great work around the globe.

  2. GIMP

    Very nice job putting things in context with some common sense and history. Drones are great for a soldier to look over a hill or pretty much anything else versus opponents with near cave man capability. For peacetime operations they will be great, but for anything beyond that I believe they will prove useless and any learned dependency upon them and the capabilities they provide will be punished brutally by a capable enemy.

    When you have to devote multiple manned aircraft to keep unmanned aircraft from getting shot down in a fairly benign environment, it doesn’t take a genius to see how rapidly UAS could become a liability in an escalating tension environment. They’re supposed to be disposable, but they’re really not, and if we have to dedicate effort to keep them safe they’re probably costing us more in diverted attention and effort than they’re worth.

    Drones, like all other tools are very useful for some things, but not for all things.

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