Early Drone Tales
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