America’s fleet of surveillance and attack drones are far older than most people realise. While the unmanned platforms have certainly come into the spotlight since the start of the War on Terror, they’ve actually been dutifully getting shot out of the sky on behalf of our national interests since World War I. And one of the most impressive — and impressively named — of their ranks was the Ryan Firebee.
After the close of the World War II, the US Navy found itself in need of a jet-powered aerial target for gunnery practice and air-to-air combat training. The Navy contacted Teledyne-Ryan Aeronautical, a pilot school-turned-aircraft manufacturer located in San Diego, CA, and contracted the company to design and build a craft suitable for simulating tactical enemy threats — mimicking both piloted aeroplanes and missiles. The Ryan Firebee that the DoD received in 1951 would prove to the most revolutionary tool in its armada, more valuable than cruise missiles and integrated electric propulsion combined, and one that would eventually change the very nature of how wars are fought.
The first Firebee prototype delivered in 1951 was known as the XQ-2. These 7m long pilotless drones were powered by a 475Nm Continental J69-T-19B turbojet engine providing a top speed well in excess of 800km/h. These prototypes could either be launched from the under-wing of a modified Douglas A-26 Invader while in midair or from the ground using a solid fuel RATO booster.
Content with the results of the prototype’s test flights, Navy ordered the XQ-2 into production, renaming it the Q-2A. The Navy also ordered a slightly smaller variation, the Q-2B, which had a more powerful engine and could operate at higher service ceiling, as well as one powered by a 4448Nm Fairchild J44-R-20B turbojet dubbed the KDA-1. The KDA line, specifically the KDA-4 variant, went on to be the most popular of the first generation Firebees and the only version produced in significant quantities.
By the end of the decade, the US Navy realised that the Firebee could be used for so much more than target practice and, as such, contracted Ryan to build a bigger, better second generation UAV. Known around the Teledyne-Ryan campus as the Model 124, this new aircraft debuted in 1963 and was designated the Q-2C by the Navy — later renamed the BQM-34A.
The BQM-34A was the premier aerial target system throughout the 1960s. It measures nearly 7m long with a 4m wingspan and was powered by a single 7562Nm Continental J69-T-29A engine. It was capable of topping 1126km/h (that’s mach .97), flying as low as 3m above the water and as high as 18,000m for over an hour on a single tank. 7G turns while evading simulated fire were no problem thanks to an advanced microprocessor flight control system.
And instead of an Invader, the BQM-34A launched instead from the under-wing pylon of a DC-130 Hercules drone controller aircraft, which could carry and command up to four drones. From the ground the Firebee employed a Aerojet General X102F solid-fuelled rocket booster. The BQM-34A also came equipped with scoring and countermeasure systems, radar enhancements to help mimic the signatures of larger aircraft, and thermal flares on its wingtips so that heat-seekers would lock-on and destroy the wing, not the engine. After the drone was blown out of the sky it would deploy a parachute and wait to be plucked from the air by a specially equipped catcher helicopter or float on the ocean’s surface until a recovery crew arrived to collect it.
During the 1960s, the Firebee evolved again into potent unmanned surveillance platform, swapping its conventional air intake screen with one specially designed to reduce its radar signature and donning radar-absorbing blankets and pain along its fuselage. These detection countermeasures helped significantly improve the drone’s survival rates to over 80 per cent. This iteration, known as the AQM-34, also launched from DC-130s and landed with the aid of a helicopter. Over the decade between 1964 and 1975, the AQM-34 flew more than 34,000 ISR sorties over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War — from Japan and China to Vietnam and Thailand.
One specific variant, the AQM-34Q, alone flew some 268 missions around North Korea between 1970 and 1973 monitoring radio transmissions. It was developed for super-high altitude reconnaissance — its Continental 12,455Nm J100 turbojet engine allowed it to loiter at 23,000m for up to eight hours — in response to the destruction of an EC-121 and the loss of its 31 crew members at the hands of North Korean MiG fighters. It too launched from under a C-130 and could either follow a pre-programmed route or be commanded directly by a pilot from up to 480km away.
There were still plenty of BQM-34A drones not converted to reconnaissance duty, mind you. In the early 1980s, many 34As were updated with more powerful 8452Nm J69-T-41A engines and improved avionics. The Navy cancelled production of the BQM-34A between 1982 and 1986, however brought the platform back as the BQM-34S target drone. And, since then, both the US Navy and US Army (which purchased its own versions of the BQM-34A throughout the 1960s and ’70s as practice targets for its new-fangled Stinger missiles) have been updating them with better engines, avionics, GPS, and chaff-dispensing capabilities (which were put to use in the 2003 Iraq invasion when the Firebees laid anti-SAM chaff corridors for following, piloted planes).
More than 7000 Firebees have been built since the start of the program and many are still serving militaries around the world — including the US, Canada, Japan and other NATO member nations — more than 50 years after their invention. [National Air Force Museum – Wikipedia, Combat Air Museum, Designation Systems, PBS, Sino Defence]