Ryan Aeronautical Firebee Drones I

First steps

Another important development was taking place at the time. In 1959 Ryan Aeronautical (later Teledyne Ryan) carried out a study to look at how it might extend the range of its Firebee drones and convert them into a reconnaissance platform. The launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite had come as a complete surprise to the Americans and although its capabilities were little more than acting as a radio beacon, it heralded developments that would surely follow. Space-based sensor systems are now a routine part of the daily intelligence collection apparatus operated by the Americans, French, Russians, Israelis and Chinese. Even Iran has launched a satellite equipped with a simple imaging capability.

What was urgently needed at the time was a capability to overfly Soviet territory and collect data on their military capabilities. The launch of Sputnik 1 also showed just how far Soviet ballistic missile technology had developed. Assessments emerging from the Pentagon painted a bleak picture. The lack of intelligence led to some huge mistakes in the analysis of the Soviet missile and bomber capabilities. The so-called ‘missile gap’ and the ‘bomber gap’ became the talk of all Washington. These concerns, of course, were underlined when Yuri Gagarin made his brief entry into space on 12 April 1961.

Arguably in this climate of fear decisions that were taken led to the arms race. Neither side could be sure of what the others were doing. Intelligence collection assets such as the U-2 were still in their infancy. The sheer scale of the intelligence collection problem was beyond even their emerging capabilities. In that febrile atmosphere it was inevitable that a safety-first approach would be taken. Build weapons first, ask questions of the intelligence analysts later.

This is the background against which Ryan Aeronautical looked into the development of the Firebee. The first mission profile involved flying south from a launch point in the Barents Sea over the Soviet Union to a recovery in Turkey. In April 1960 Ryan Aeronautical presented their findings to the United States Air Force. The timing was impeccable. A U-2 spy plane carrying Gary Powers had just been shot down over the Soviet Union. Two months later a Boeing RB-47 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by a MiG-19 fighter in international airspace on the border of the Soviet Union near Murmansk. Two of the crew survived and were held in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison.

This event was one of many that occurred during the Cold War. In the decade of the 1950s seventy-five US navy and Air Force crews lost their lives in ten reconnaissance missions. For the Americans, the cost of flying manned missions of this type was becoming increasingly high. The first recorded events involving the shooting down of United States Air Force planes by Soviet air defence systems occurred over Yugoslavia on 9 August 1946. Ten days later an almost identical situation occurred. In both cases, transport aircraft had been the target.

In 1952 the United States Air Force lost two RB-29 reconnaissance aircraft near the disputed Kuril Islands north of Hokkaido in Japan. This was to become an area that was in the front line of intelligence collection efforts in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Over the next four years a further four United States Air Force aircraft on reconnaissance duties were also lost in the same area.

In one of the most notorious incidents a Lockheed EC-121 Super Constellation SIGINT aircraft was shot down by North Korean fighters in April 1969. The incident occurred in international airspace and was roundly condemned. Thirty-one crew members aboard the aircraft were killed in the incident. It was a small but significant moment. It was to lead a number of teams in the United States to start thinking about how UMA could perform such difficult missions. It also eliminated the potential for embarrassing show trials of captured airmen being trailed on the media.

The United States was not the only country to lose manned aircraft on reconnaissance missions. The Taiwanese were given a number of U-2 platforms in the 1960s to monitor military activities on mainland China. Between 1962 and 1969 they lost six of these aircraft. Clearly the trends all showed that conducting manned reconnaissance missions over areas protected by the first post-Second World War generation of air defence systems was an increasingly risky occupation. This gave impetus to those seeking to find a role for unmanned platforms. One such organization was Ryan Aeronautical.

Their first proposal had envisaged the development of the Model 136 (Red Wagon). Early on, the design team made a decision to forgo the use of an undercarriage. This saved weight and freed up volume for different payloads. Another important initial step that was to give the later Model 147 a great deal of flexibility involved fitting the payload in the nose-cone. Film footage at the time shows how mission-specific equipment was loaded into the front of the platform. This simple idea was to provide a very early form of the kind of modular approach to systems development that is a feature of contemporary approaches to systems. The designers also had to be mindful of issues such as the point where the centre of gravity of the platform would be located. The engine at the back provided a cantilever around the centre of gravity to the payload at the front.

However, the impetus behind the project stalled when President Kennedy arrived in the White House. Ryan Aeronautical received a similar rebuff when it tried to offer another configuration of the Firebee as a SIGINT collection platform under the name Lucy Lee. At this point funding was being directed towards satellite and high-flying manned systems like the Lockheed A-12.

That was to change, however, when the United States National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) awarded a contract to modify four Firebees to convert them into photoreconnaissance platforms. Three months later the Model 147A code-named Fire Fly was delivered. Test flights took place in April 1962 over New Mexico. A camera taken from the U-2 spy plane was installed to provide the sensor system component.

Tests also showed that the Fire Fly had a low radar cross-section that would make it difficult for Soviet radar systems to detect its presence. It did, however, have a problem with the exhaust systems of the engine, leaving a tell-tale contrail in its wake. As the photoreconnaissance Spitfires had shown in the Second World War, this could be just enough to give clues to air defence pilots. When all the guns and ammunition had been stripped from the aircraft to increase its range, anything that compromised its presence was simply bad. Modifications to the Fire Fly ensured that the contrail problem was removed.

Cuban catalyst

The Cuban Missile Crisis was to provide a catalyst for the further development of the Unmanned Aircraft (UMA) in general. The vulnerability of the U-2 to the SA-2 had already been shown in the incident involving Gary Powers. This was the point at which the Soviet SA-2 ground-to-air missile system had quite literally shot to fame. The SA-2 is also attributed with the title of achieving the first combat kill of an aircraft by a missile when it shot down Taiwanese Martin RB-57D Canberra over China in 1959.

During the crisis two other U-2s came under attack. In one, Major David Anderson was shot down and killed while overflying Cuba. To avoid a repeat incident the Model 147As were authorized to be used to maintain the ability to watch the Soviet build-up on the island. This decision was overturned by the enigmatic General Curtis LeMay. He had other plans for the Model 147As. U-2 overflights were quickly resumed.

This was the period just before the dawn of the digital age. Semiconductor technology with all the benefits it promised was still in the earliest stage of development. Those first attempts at creating integrated circuits also had serious power problems. Many would run at very high temperatures, requiring specific cooling measures to dissipate the heat they generated. Power consumption was also a major problem. In the 1970s these issues began to be resolved and the first generation of integrated circuits was produced. They provided the basis of the first generation of digital communications systems. Developments in radar systems technologies quickly followed.

In parallel with these developments another major military capability was also making rapid advances. The surface-to-air missile system started to show just how dangerous it could be during the Vietnam War. The Soviet S-75 Dvina missile (NATO Code Name SA-2 Guideline) was a weapon that was particularly feared. With the United States developing its long-range bomber forces in the 1950s, it was inevitable that the Soviets would look to SAM technologies as a component of an improved air defence system.

Their development, however, was also to be a catalyst for a new form of mission for UMA. This was where UMA would be flown in a configuration to disrupt the operation of air defence systems. The mission was called defence suppression and was to herald the onset of a new and more aggressive form of electronic warfare.

Accelerating rapidly to a speed of Mach 3.5, the SA-2 initially had a range of 30 kilometres (19 miles). In 1959 an improved variant of the missile (SA-2B) started to appear that could engage targets out to 34 kilometres (21 miles) and up to an altitude of 30,000 metres (98,000 feet). Further upgrades of the missile system occurred as lessons emerged from the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War between the Arab nations and Israel in 1967.

The Ryan AQM-34 Firebee was air-launched and controlled from a DC-130 director aircraft. After a mission, the Firebee UAV was directed to a safe recovery area, where it deployed its parachute and was picked up by a helicopter. From October 1964 to April 1975, AQM-34 Ryan Firebee UAVs flew in excess of 3,400 operational surveillance missions over Southeast Asia.


The first SA-2 sites started to appear in North Vietnam in 1965 around the North Vietnamese capital and its major port Haiphong. Permission to bomb the targets was not forthcoming from the United States Secretary of Defense over concerns that Russian operators might be killed. On 24 July 1965 the first American combat loss to an SA-2 occurred when a United States Air Force F-4C Phantom was shot down. It was the first of 110 aircraft that were to be lost to SAM engagements in South-East Asia. Urgent action to counter the threat saw the introduction into service of the F-100F Wild Weasel aircraft. It carried radar homing and warning equipment capable of detecting the emissions from the SA-2 fire control radar (NATO Code Name Fan Song).

In the course of its involvement in the war the United States military flew over 5 million combat sorties and lost 2,251 aircraft. Of that total 1,737 were lost to hostile action with the F-4 Phantom taking a particularly heavy toll. This was a rate of four losses per 10,000 sorties. In the Korean War this was twenty and in the Second World War the figure was ninety-seven. The trend was, and remains, downward.

The Vietnam War was to prove a pivotal point in the development of UMA and their applications in conflict. In the coming years twenty-eight variants of the Model 147 Firebee would be developed and fly over Vietnam. Each would have its own subtle adaptations and mission drivers. One variant (Model 147NC) carried propaganda leaflets. It was a time when arguably UMA underwent a fundamental change in the nature of their missions. They were no longer ‘cannon fodder’ for missile tests.

The Model 147 UMA was to be the platform on which the fundamental developments in UMA technology would be made that would dramatically change its role. In 1999 when Ryan Aeronautical was purchased by the American aerospace company Northrop Grumman all the history of these developments would lay the foundation of contemporary UMA platforms such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk. It can trace its ancestry to the important work carried out on the development of the Model 147 in support of the military endeavours in Vietnam and ongoing monitoring of North Korea and China.

At a time when American intervention in Vietnam was only just beginning, President Johnson had concerns that the Chinese may be drawn into the war, mirroring their involvement in Korea. The president authorized Lightning Bugs to be based at the Kadena Air Force base in Okinawa to fly reconnaissance missions over Southern China. The classified operation for this was called BLUE SPRINGS. Five missions were flown over China until early September 1964. The success of Operation BLUE SPRINGS was mixed. The Lightning Bugs had reliability issues which created doubt over their effectiveness as a platform for intelligence collection.

Despite these reservations, operations were transferred to Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam in October 1964. In the coming three months a total of twenty missions was flown using the Model 147B. On 15 November 1964 one was destroyed by the Chinese. This was the first in what was to be a series of losses that would eventually provide the Chinese with sufficient material to reverse-engineer the Model 147B and help create their first indigenous target drone. Three of the Model 147B platforms were put on public display to embarrass the American government. Associated media cover also made the most of the opportunities, praising the success of the Chinese air defence systems. In the United States, in the absence of any captured air-crew being paraded in front of the cameras, the press virtually ignored the story.

Development of the Firebee continued. A Model 147G was produced. Its power plant could generate 8.5 kN of thrust, an improvement over the 7.56 kN of its predecessor. The fuselage was also extended. This was delivered to the United States Air Force in July 1965. A Model 147G flew the first mission for the type over Vietnam in July 1965. The Model 147B was phased out of operations in December of the same year. A low-altitude variant of the platform was called the Model 147J. It had operational issues around terrain avoidance and was also a more demanding environment for the airframe. The Model 147J was ready for operational service in March 1966 and had a new camera system installed.

Paradoxically the low-level missions also improved the survivability of the Firebee as the chances to engage them were limited. Recovery was carried out by a helicopter snagging the parachute from the Model 147 in mid-air. Despite sounding complicated, it was highly successful with 2,655 completed recoveries out of a total of 2,745 missions. In 1966 the Firebee platforms completed 105 missions over North Vietnam and China.

The Vietnam War also saw the first deployment of a UMA to collect SIGINT. Out of a total of seventy-seven missions flown in 1965, three flew with a special payload designed to listen to the electronic warfare environment. The UMA could fly into areas that were simply too hazardous to operate manned platforms. To collect SIGINT that could be exploited required some missions to go into areas where it was likely they would be successfully engaged.

The range of a number of the key radar systems involved meant that to get a good understanding of its operating parameters a SIGINT platform had to get up within line of sight of the radar. If those radar systems were normally deployed in a point defence role, it created a real problem for anyone wanting to gain intelligence on how they worked. Flying UMA into the areas where they would be tracked and possibly engaged by the radar system was essential, especially if the operation of the proximity-fusing arming signal was to be understood. In essence these were unmanned ‘kamikaze’ missions flown against specific radar systems in order to get up close and personal with the way all facets of the SAM system worked.