Monster Machines: The Secret US Drone Program That Killed JFK’s Brother

The Ryan Firebee is widely considered the first true UAV developed by the US military, however, it was far from their first attempt. Take Operation Aphrodite, which loaded B-17s with high explosives and remotely crashed them into enemy targets, for instance. This early UAV program wasn’t just an abject failure, it may well have changed the course of 20th century politics.

There’s only so much you can fly and repair a warplane before it begins to break down structurally, loses its operational effectiveness, and becomes “War Weary”. This condition was especially prevalent among the fleets of B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators that the military once relied on heavily. Since so many were no longer fit for combat but could still fly, the pentagon hatched a seemingly brilliant plan to send these aircraft out with a bang.

That plan was to take a B-17, strip it of everything salvageable from guns and bomb racks to radios and seats, leaving just enough equipment to get the plane in the air — about 5670kg of weight savings altogether. Then, load the plane with 13,600kg of Torpex, a British-made high explosive with 50 per cent more kick than dynamite. Next, install an Azon radio remote-control system (as well as two video cameras streaming views of the instrument cluster and ground) so that the plane could be remotely piloted from a trailing mothership. And, finally, chop off the canopy so that the pilot and flight engineer could bail out as soon as soon as the “drone” was airborne.

Because of the archaic state of UAV technology in 1943, these remote piloting systems were incapable of getting a plane off the ground. This necessitated that a pilot and flight engineer take off in the explosive laden plane, fly it to a height of 2000 feet, then parachute out after handing control over to the trailing CQ-17 “mothership”. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything it seems. Over the course of 15 mission flown between August 4, 1944, and January 1, 1945, Operation Aphrodite managed to kill four American crewmen, including Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr — eldest son of the politically powerful Kennedy family and older brother to the future-35th president — while failing to damage any of their intended targets and, in most cases failing to even reach their target. Most were shot down, ran out of fuel, or just randomly fell out of the sky in a fiery ball of wreckage.

On August 12 1944, Lt Kennedy and his flight engineer, Lt Wilford J. Willy took off in a converted B-24 carrying 9525kg en route to the Nazis operating the V-3 battery at La Forteresse de Mimoyecques, in what would have been the first official attack using the newfangled UAV system. Unfortunately, the plane never got there as the explosives detonated prematurely, just before it crossed the English Channel, killing the crewmen instantly.

“I vividly remember seeing burning wreckage falling earthwards while engines with propellers still turning, and leaving comet-like trails of smoke, continued along the direction of flight before plummeting down,” Mick Muttitt, local resident who saw Kennedy’s plane ignite, recalled in 1995.

“A Ventura broke high to starboard and a Lightning spun away to port eventually to regain control at tree-top height over Blythburgh Hospital. While I watched spellbound, a terrific explosion reached Dresser’s Cottage in the form of a loud double thunderclap. Then all was quiet except for the drone of the circling Venturas’ engines, as they remained for a few more minutes in the vicinity.”

For his valor in volunteering for such an obviously perilous mission, Lt. Kennedy was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. More importantly, however, the loss of his eldest brother — the one originally intended to carry on Joe Kennedy Sr.’s political legacy — spurred John F. to step in and fill his big brother’s shoes, transforming himself from a weak, sickly, and pale child into an unstoppable political force. Who knows what America would have been like had Lt Kennedy not gotten into that plane. [UAS VisionWikiHistoric Wings352nd]