While the skies are set to be alive with un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles this Christ­mas, this plague of drones might in the end ac­tu­ally be to light avi­a­tion’s ben­e­fit

Pilot - - REGULARS -

to de­velop a mi­cro-transpon­der that will al­low a drone to emit a squawk, show­ing its po­si­tion on air traf­fic radar sys­tems.

Aside from its im­me­di­ate UAV safety as­pect, this new tech­nol­ogy could be a very good thing for those of us who fly small or old air­craft. One of the big­gest chal­lenges fac­ing light air­craft users has been the ab­sence of a low-cost, low-power transpon­der; as many older air­craft, glid­ers and mi­cro­lights sim­ply don’t have the power sys­tems to sup­port the cur­rently avail­able equip­ment. Al­ready the LAA and oth­ers are look­ing at the new Uav-led tech­nol­ogy, to see whether it can be de­vel­oped into some­thing of ben­e­fit to ‘oc­cu­pied air­craft’ users. It might be that drones could turn out to be our bud­dies af­ter all!

As ‘Open Cock­pit’ is also sup­posed to look at our avi­a­tion her­itage, per­haps I should con­tinue by re­call­ing some of the ear­li­est ground con­trolled UAVS. The DH82B Queen Bee was prime among them. De­signed in the 1930s as a ra­dio­con­trolled pi­lot­less drone to act as a gun­nery tar­get for war­ships, the Queen Bee was ef­fec­tively a Tiger Moth with an all-wooden fuse­lage (to min­imise ra­dio in­ter­fer­ence) and was guided by a ra­dio re­ceiver in the rear cock­pit.

It could be flown with ei­ther a con­ven­tional un­der­car­riage from suit­able cliff-top lo­ca­tions or fit­ted with floats to al­low it to be cat­a­pulted, us­ing cordite charges, from a plat­form above a war­ship’s gun tur­ret, then re­trieved from the sea at the end of a gun­nery ex­er­cise. The ra­dio con­trol sys­tem it­self was a mas­ter­piece of in­ge­nu­ity, us­ing the best tech­nol­ogy avail­able at the time; pulsed sig­nals from a GPO tele­phone dial.

The dial was placed atop a tall op­er­at­ing con­sole, with the ‘pi­lot’ stand­ing be­hind. Di­alling ‘3’ ini­ti­ated a turn to the left. ‘4’ lev­elled the wings and ‘5’ ini­ti­ated a turn to the right. To land the aero­plane, the op­er­a­tor guided the Queen Bee into wind and when the trail­ing aerial touched the sur­face, a ‘land­ing valve’ si­mul­ta­ne­ously se­lected ‘up’ el­e­va­tor to put the aero­plane into the land­ing at­ti­tude and earthed the ig­ni­tion to stop the en­gine.

Some­times things didn’t quite go to plan. One lovely story tells of a ‘Bee’ which suf­fered ra­dio in­ter­fer­ence, ap­par­ently from a BBC dance band broad­cast be­ing played on a wire­less in the ward­room of one of His Majesty’s bat­tle­ships. The air­craft re­fused to re­spond to in­struc­tions and re­peat­edly buzzed the ship’s bridge be­fore crash­ing into the sea. The cap­tain, in true Nel­so­nian tra­di­tion stood his ground, merely rais­ing the col­lar of his duf­fle coat slightly each time the air­craft at­tacked!

An­other early drone boasted Hol­ly­wood con­nec­tions. On the eve of World War Two, Bri­tish ex-royal Fly­ing Corps pi­lot, keen aero­mod­eller and some­time movie ac­tor, Regi­nald Denny helped es­tab­lish a com­pany called Ra­dio­plane at Met­ro­pol­i­tan Air­port, close to the fa­mous stu­dios. They pro­duced the first ra­dio­con­trolled tar­get drones for train­ing Army and Navy gun­ners, and in June 1945, the army mag­a­zine Yank sought to boost morale by pre­sent­ing a suit­able de­fence worker as pinup girl.

Head­ing the ed­i­to­rial team was one Cap­tain Ron­ald Rea­gan, an act­ing buddy of Regi­nald Denny, so it was log­i­cal he fo­cussed (ahem) on one of Ra­dio­plane’s fe­male staff. Rea­gan se­lected a sec­tion of pic­tures fea­tur­ing a young pro­pel­ler tech­ni­cian; nine­teen-year-old Norma Jean Baker Dougherty. The pin-up shots led to a Hol­ly­wood screen test, a change of name and a ca­reer very dif­fer­ent from assem­bling drones. The girl’s new name was Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe and the rest, as they say, is history.

Drones could turn out to be our bud­dies af­ter all...

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