Targeted for More
Hitchhiker: Ryan Firebee drone
Mothership: Lockheed DC-130 Hercules
United States, 1960s
“As it got more dangerous up in North Vietnam for the U-2, we took over, but because our missions were classified, they got all the credit,” explains then-Captain Robert McBratney, a retired Lockheed DC-130 navigator. His crew, part of the U.S. Air Force 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, flew highly classified missions that laid the groundwork for the panoply of unmanned spy aircraft the military relies on today.
Eight days after Captain Francis Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2 over the Soviet Union in 1960, the Air Force approached Ryan Aeronautical Company, which in the early 1950s had designed a target drone called the Firebee, and offered the company $200,000 to turn the aerial target into a series of speedy, stealthy unmanned reconnaissance vehicles.
The Special Purpose Aircraft (SPA), as the Air Force called them then, flew approximately 3,500 missions over Vietnam to photograph high-priority targets, from airfields to secret prisons, with powerful cameras. The DC-130 Hercules was their mothership, modified with pylons underneath each wing to launch multiple Ryan SPAs. Powerful turbojet engines blasted the drones to their targets at near-supersonic speeds.
Ryan designed wire screens to cover the jet intakes, and added radar jammers, anti-radar paint, and blankets on the fuselage to further hide the small vehicle. This pre-stealth precaution was especially important to the drones, since not only were they flying behind enemy lines, they were flying solo.
“They had no cover,” remembers Major John Dale, a DC-130 pilot stationed in Bien Hoa. “No one else was flying up there, nobody—no fighters, no bombers, just drones. That’s why we had 19 MiGs after us at one time. People don’t understand the magnitude of that. Manned aircraft were getting shot down all over the place, while the tiny drones were flying successful missions one after another.”
If the drone was spotted, operators aboard the DC-130 could take over and guide it by hand. For instance, on January 6, 1973, a DC-130 crew launched a Ryan Buffalo Hunter drone over the Gulf of Tonkin; within five minutes, multiple MiG-21s were positioned to attack. Dale found a previously classified report that recounted: “During the repeated attacks which took place, the drone was hand flown to cover its assigned targets in the Hanoi area…employing recently developed drone evasive tactics”—all while the mothership was safely flying in a pattern over the gulf. The MiGs aggressively pursued the drone all the way to Laos, but didn’t get a single shot in; meanwhile, the drone gathered intelligence from all nine of its targets, including two airfields and three surface-to-air missile sites.
The success of the Firebee family was due to its simplicity and reliability, says aerospace historian Richard Hallion. “Firebee was a critically important step towards introducing practical, high-performance, remotely piloted aircraft into operational service,” he says.
Their greatest achievement, according to the crews that operated them, was that they “saved lives by taking pictures over high-danger targets, rather than losing” U.S. pilots in spyplanes, says McBratney. Dale sums up his experience as a drone crew member: “Here I am getting recon of an enemy airfield and drinking a cup of coffee.” Sound familiar, Predator pilots?