In the Museum: Predators and Dragons
Stops on a tour through america's hangar
- By Rebecca Maksel
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
Although Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are often touted as the future of air war, they’ve been around since 1917, when Ohio inventor Charles Kettering designed a flimsy unmanned biplane called the Liberty Eagle, better known as the Kettering Bug. Built on the cheap, the Bug was developed as a flying bomb, meant to carry explosives to targets 50 miles away. But the first world war ended before it could be used, and the Bug remained classified until World War II.
The first UAVs capable of returning after completing a mission were developed as the war in Vietnam began to escalate. That’s when radio-controlled drones evolved into reconnaissance vehicles, explains Dik Daso, a curator in the aeronautics division at the National Air and Space Museum, which has recently opened an exhibit dedicated to the type of airplane whose pilot stays on the ground.
“The star of the show is the Predator,” says Daso. “It was one of the first three airplanes that were authorized to deploy after [the terrorist attacks of] 9/11, and it might be one of the most significant combat airplanes we have in the collections” (see “Aircraft That Changed the World"). As significant as “Flak Bait,” the Martin
B-26B-25-MA that survived 207 combat sorties over Europe? That depends on how you define “significant,” but the Museum’s Predator was almost as busy. Built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., which sponsored the exhibit, the Predator flew nearly as many missions as “Flak Bait,” with 196 combat sorties in Afghanistan.
“The superstar weapon of Afghanistan and Iraq is a glider with an Austrian snowmobile engine, racing into combat at all of 70 miles per hour!” says James “Snake” Clark, director of Air Force Combat Support at the Pentagon and a former fighter pilot. “The Predator absolutely revolutionized warfare, and the one in the exhibition is the Elvis of Predators. It was the first rock-star Predator that we had. It was the first to deploy after 9/11, the first to test-fire a Hellfire missile, and the first to fire in combat in Afghanistan.”
But have pilots always been so enamored with UAVs?
“Would I have given up my F-16 to go fly a drone? No. But, that being said, flying a Predator is a little more challenging,” says Clark. “Once you put weapons on it, guys got really excited. Let’s say you were a former -130 pilot, a C-17 pilot, and now you’re shooting missiles at bad guys. Given a chance of an F-22 or an F-15, guys will always say they’d like to go to the real cockpit environment. But if you have to do a non-frontline flying job…the guys that are flying Predator are pretty happy. They know they’re popping bad guys and saving good guys, and that’s a lot of job satisfaction.”
In addition to the Predator, the exhibition features the equally famous RQ-2A Pioneer, which the U.S. Navy used to great effect during the 1991 Gulf War. Crew members aboard the USS Wisconsin launched the Pioneer toward Kuwait’s Faylaka Island to conduct bomb damage assessments after Iraqi defensive positions had been shelled. As the Pioneer swooped low over the island, a number of Iraqis waved makeshift white flags—the first soldiers to surrender in history to a UAV.