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)

Assembly Worker Marilyn Monroe

(U.S. Army/David Conover for Yank, the Army Weekly)

British-born actor Reginald Denny, who had served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, developed a fascination with radio-controlled aircraft in the 1930s. He and his partners formed the Radioplane Company and created the “Radioplane OQ-2,” the first mass-produced UAV, at their southern California-based facility. Eventually the company rolled out nearly 15,000 airplanes for the U.S. Army and Navy, who used the Radioplanes as targets for antiaircraft training.

While Denny enjoyed a long Hollywood career, appearing in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, one of Radioplane’s humble employees went on to greater stardom. An actor friend of Denny’s, U.S. Army Air Forces Captain Ronald Reagan, sent a photographer to Radioplane in June 1945 to shoot female assembly workers for Yank, the Army Weekly magazine. The photographer, David Conover, focused on one worker in particular, Norma Jeane Dougherty, and asked her to pose for other shoots, which led to a modeling contract, a film career, and a name change—to Marilyn Monroe.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission 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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