Early Drone Tales

Flight Journal - - AIRDROP - Robert G. Scott, West Bloom­field, MI

I noted your Air­drop mes­sage in a re­cent is­sue about older drones, and it re­minded me of a con­ver­sa­tion I had years ago with a col­lege fra­ter­nity brother. Tom Levely grad­u­ated from Michi­gan State in 1963 and went right into naval avi­a­tion train­ing. Af­ter be­com­ing a Navy avi­a­tor, he was sta­tioned in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and served his en­tire stint there. Some time ago, he told me about be­ing in­volved with drones. I re­mem­bered that he con­trolled a drone from the plane that he flew. Also, he sent me the at­tached photo. The pic­ture shows the drone be­ing pre­pared for a mis­sion by the guy in the cock­pit. Tom is stand­ing in the rear, ob­serv­ing the setup. I asked him to tell me again what went on, and he sent me the fol­low­ing de­scrip­tion:

“The year was prob­a­bly around 1966 or ’67. The drone was a Grum­man Cougar QF-9, and I flew a DT-28 dur­ing the mis­sion. All train­ing was done in the squadron.

“We would have the setup pi­lot start, taxi, and run checks on the RC equip­ment be­fore lin­ing up the QF-9 on the run­way. Once com­plete, he closed the cock­pit canopy and turned con­trol over to the Fox truck that we had, which had a plat­form on top for the man con­trol­ling it on take­off and land­ing. It sat di­rectly in front of him on the cen­ter­line of the run­way. While he was ap­ply­ing full take­off power, I would be or­bit­ing about 1/2 mile be­hind at about 400 feet and let a set amount of sec­onds roll by be­fore rolling in and de­scend­ing to about 10 feet along the run­way with the hope of join­ing up on the QF-9 just as it was ap­proach­ing ro­ta­tion speed. I was sit­ting in the back seat, while the guy in front had a full set of RC con­trols.

“Once the air­craft was air­borne, we would take over. The front-seat guy would raise the gear and the flaps, and we would ac­cel­er­ate it to about

200 knots while climb­ing. Soon af­ter that, the

DF-8 driver would join up with us, take over con­trol with his RC equip­ment, and drive the QF-9 out to the weapons range. Once there, he turned it over to the out-of-sight con­troller back at the weapons range, who would fly it around the range.

“Once the fir­ing was over, we would re­verse the cy­cle. With the DF-8 turn­ing it over to us, we would then line it up with the run­way; lower the gear and the flaps; and once within range, turn it over to the Fox truck, which would make the land­ing. We would fly for­ma­tion on it un­til short fi­nal, giv­ing air­speed in­for­ma­tion, etc. Most op­er­a­tions were suc­cess­ful. We did have sev­eral that crashed dur­ing land­ing when RC con­trol was lost, how­ever.

“The head of the pro­gram for the squadron was Lt. Cmdr. Pat Pat­ter­son. He had been an en­listed pi­lot in WW II and then re­ceived his com­mis­sion. The man had done ev­ery­thing that is pos­si­ble in avi­a­tion—a real gen­tle­man.

“My main du­ties were to fly the P-2E and the DP-2E. The lat­ter car­ried two BQM (2,500-lb. drone) Fire­bees built by Ryan. We car­ried one un­der each wing. These drones would be launched out on the range. Re­cov­ery was via para­chute. They would land in the ocean, and one of our he­li­copters would pick it out of the wa­ter and fly it back to base, to be washed off and used again.

“I also flew the S-2 that was equipped to pull “rags” (long fab­ric tar­gets that would be towed be­hind us on a ca­ble about 15,000 feet long).

“It was fun duty and prob­a­bly the best three years of my life.”—Tom Thanks, Robert. That’s a part of drone op­er­a­tions we sel­dom hear about.—BD

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