A Brief History of Unmanned Aircraft

From bomb-bearing balloons to the Global Hawk

An MQ-1 Predator over a mountain range in Nevada. (MSgt Scott Reed)

V-1 Buzz Bomb

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(NASM)

Perhaps the best-known unmanned vehicle of World War II was the German Fieseler Fi 103, also called the V-1 “Buzz Bomb” (“V-1” stood for Vergeltungswaffe Eins, or “vengeance weapon one”). Meant to kill British civilians—per Adolf Hitler’s order for a weapon to be used against “non-military targets”—the V-1 was powered by a pulsejet engine that made a distinctive buzz. It carried a 2,000-pound warhead approximately 150 miles, and had a sophisticated guidance system consisting of gyroscopes, barometers, and an anemometer, which was used to calculate distance flown. Once over the target, the guidance system put the V-1 into a steep dive. The Germans launched roughly 20,000 V-1s at Allied targets, primarily in London and Antwerp, Belgium. The Buzz Bombs proved devastating, killing more than 10,000 civilians and injuring nearly 28,000.

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About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Flight of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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