Manned fighter vs. UAV – who would win? Lots of conjecture in the open and closed press at the moment as we move ever hesitatingly towards more autonomous operations. Still, in one sense, the debate took upon itself flesh and blood (and aluminum and hydraulic fluid) in the skies over Southern California in the summer of 1956.

Hellcat-drone 079863 F6F-5K 01JAN60 CLK LHL-246189It all began with an F6F drone that was operating autonomously, just not by design. Following the war, F6Fs were plentiful and being replaced by newer versions of the F4U Corsair and F8F Bearcat (briefly) and in short order, by the first generation of carrier-based jet fighters like the FH Phantom and the FJ Fury. During the war and afterwards, the Navy was very much involved with development of drones and unmanned aircraft in its pursuit of long-range cruise missiles. As such, considerable expertise was gained in unmanned aircraft command and control, which was readily applied to the spare F6Fs, which themselves, became a plentiful source of unmanned drones for gunnery and missile practice.

Except the command and control part sometimes didn’t quite synch. . .we pick up the story via BoB Wilson, on the staff of the Antelope Valley Press:

“Following World War II, a number of Grumman F6F Hellcats were converted to target drones,” Merlin said. “On Aug. 16, 1956, one of these radio-controlled Hellcats was launched by the Navy from Point Mugu as a target for a missile test.

“The Hellcat took off at 11:34 a.m., climbing out over the Pacific. As controllers attempted to maneuver the drone toward the target area over the ocean, they realized it was not responding to radio commands,” Merlin said. The drone had thousands of square miles of ocean in which to crash, but instead, “it made a graceful climbing left-hand turn to the southeast, toward Los Angeles,” he said.

Naturally… (having worked my fair share of drone shoots, that doesn’t surprise me in the least. Every E-2C CICO knows about the super-secret stealth dirt/city seeker built into every target drone that randomly comes to life in the middle of a shot)

With the runaway aircraft headed for a major metropolitan area, the Navy called the Air Force for assistance. At the time, Oxnard Air Force Base was five miles from the Navy’s Point Mugu facility. “It must have sorely tested Navy pride to ask the Air Force to bail them out of an embarrassing situation,” Merlin opined. “No doubt the Air Force’s alert crews were aching for a little action and a chance to show the Navy boys their stuff.”

1956 and the living was large on the coasts for fighter buds. Air Force fighter buds that is under the OPCON of NORAD and part of the Air Force’s Air Defense Command. It wouldn’t be until 1958 that the Navy would officially participate in shore-based operations under NORAD when it chopped VF(AW)-3 to NORAD for continental defense. So, if you wanted a “strip alert” fighter now, right now, you had to go with the Air Force. And in the Southern California region, not exactly the heart of the expected flyways from the Soviet Union for bombers with the red star, the fighter was the F-89 Scorpion…

9709iThe Air Force scrambled a pair of Northrop F-89 Scorpions from the 437th Fighter Interceptor Squadron to shoot down the Hellcat, which had been painted bright red for high visibility. The Scorpions had no cannons, but they had wingtip-mounted rocket pods, and each pod contained 52 small unguided rockets to be used in salvos against enemy aircraft. “Instead of facing planes representing the ‘Red Menace’ of the Communists, the Scorpions were facing a different kind of red menace that day,” Merlin said, smiling.

060829-f-1234s-052Northrop’s F-89, a contemporary of the Douglas F3D Skynight, first flew in 1950. The F-89D’s, launching in pursuit of the wayward drone, were equipped with a new Hughes E-6 fire control system incorporating the AN/APG-40 radar and an AN/APA-84 computer. Armament was two pods of 52 2.75 in (70 mm) “Mighty Mouse” folding fin rockets, for a total of 104 on board. Folding fin, unguided rockets? Yep – thinking then was that the mass formations of Soviet bombers would be more effectively attacked by massed waves of rockets, rather than bullets, because of the speeds involved. The efficacy of that kind of thinking would soon be displayed in the skies over LA . . . the story continues:

The interceptors caught up with the left-circling drone northeast of Los Angeles at an altitude of 30,000 feet, he said. The jets tailed the Hellcat as it turned southwest and made another pass over Los Angeles before heading northwest toward Santa Paula. The jet crews, which consisted of a pilot and a radar observer, waited for the drone to reach an area that was relatively unpopulated. But when the crews attempted to fire, a design glitch in the automatic fire-control system for the Mighty Mouse rockets repeatedly prevented launches while the attack planes were turning, Merlin said.

The jets continued tailing the bright-red, prop-driven drone as it continued to circle, eventually leading them toward Fillmore and Frazier Park, he said. “It appeared to be heading toward the sparsely populated western end of the Antelope Valley, but suddenly, it turned southeast toward Los Angeles again, and time seemed to be running out,” Merlin said.

The Air Force fliers opted to abandon their planes’ automatic system and fire their rockets manually in an attempt to bring the drone down. “Although the interceptors were delivered with gun sights, the sights were considered unnecessary and removed because the pilots were supposed to be firing their unguided rockets with an automatic system,” Merlin said.

The interceptors made their first attack run as the Hellcat crossed over the mountains near Castaic. Firing salvos of 42 rockets each, both planes missed the target, bw-photo-22he said. “Rockets blazed through the sky and plunged earthward to spark brush fires north of Castaic and near the town of Newhall.

According to one witness, one rocket skipped through Placerita Canyon, leaving a string of fires near Oak of the Golden Dream Park,” Merlin said. Placerita Canyon also was the location of the Indian Oil Co., and several of its oil sumps were ignited. The blazes in the canyon also at one point threatened to reach the Bermite Powder Co. explosives plant, he said.

While fires burned in its wake, the errant drone meandered northwest, toward Palmdale. As it did, the jets followed, expending the rest of their weapons in two more salvos of 32 and 30 rockets each as the two interceptors attempted to bring the Hellcat down, Merlin said. What happened was that the obsolete, unpiloted, unguided, unarmed, propeller-driven drone evaded the state-of-the-art jet interceptors. In all, 208 rockets were fired without scoring a single hit,” he said.

“As the drone passed over Palmdale’s downtown, Mighty Mouse rockets fell like hail,” Merlin continued. “Miraculously, no one was hurt, and the drone finally exhausted its fuel supply, sputtered and fell, crashing into an open field eight miles east of (the) Palmdale airport,” he said. Although the plane disintegrated and burned on impact, small pieces of debris — identifiable by part numbers and inspection stamps — were still at the site when Merlin visited it in July 1997.

All in all it was quite the exercise in community relations, not to mention a stirring demonstration of modern jet interceptors (“modern” being somewhat – relative) and their superior abilities against a hapless drone:

According to the Aug. 23, 1956, edition of the Valley Press, one of the air-to-air rockets fell to earth and nearly hit a station wagon being driven by 17-year-old Larry Kempton of Leona Valley. Kempton, with his mother Bernice in the passenger seat, was driving west on Palmdale Boulevard just west of 10th Street West when a rocket exploded on the street in front of his car, the newspaper reported. Fragments from the explosion shredded Kempton’s left front tire and put 17 holes in his radiator, hood and windshield.

Shrapnel also damaged a home near Avenue Q-8 and Third Street East and a home near Avenue Q-6 and Fourth Street East, the Valley Press reported. Edna Carlson, who lived in the home on Third Street East, said a chunk of shrapnel from one Air Force rocket burst through the front window of her home, ricocheted off the ceiling, went through a wall and came to rest in a kitchen cupboard, according to a report in the Aug. 17, 1956, edition of a Los Angeles newspaper. J.R. Hingle told the L.A. newspaper that pieces of metal blasted into his garage and home on Fourth Street East, nearly striking a guest named Lilly Willingham. Both homes are still standing and in use, Merlin said.

The L.A. paper also noted that “three good-size fires and numerous smaller blazes” were ignited in Palmdale by the rockets, in addition to the fires near Santa Clarita. The Placerita Canyon fire burned 75 to 100 acres before being brought under control by a team more than 200 firefighters, who helped save the Bermite plant, the newspaper account showed. “Another (fire) was seven miles north of Castaic on the old Ridge Route and burned 50 to 75 acres before being brought under control late in the afternoon” by about
100 firefighters.

The third and largest blaze was in Soledad Canyon, west of Mt. Gleason. At sundown, it had burned over 300 acres of heavy brush and continued to burn the day after the disastrous drone debacle despite the best efforts of 350 Forest Service firefighters, the paper reported. Eventually, 500 firefighters were called to the Soledad Canyon blaze, which was brought under control only after 350 acres had burned, according to later news accounts. The Placerita Canyon fire was extinguished after burning 100 acres and coming within 100 yards of the Bermite plant, and the Ridge Route fire was put out after charring 150 acres.

According to the Valley Press, a cleanup effort was undertaken in Palmdale by the Air Force’s Air Defense Command in Oxnard. Military personnel scoured the area bounded by avenues Q and S, between Division Street and 10th Street West, in search of rockets or their remains, the newspaper reported. Flying in a helicopter, Capt. Sewell Griggers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Aero Detail spotted two of the 2 -inch rockets buried up to their tail fins in an empty field bounded by Division Street, Avenue Q-4, Second Street East and Avenue Q-7. The rockets were blown up by a sheriff’s demolition crew,the paper showed.

Thirteen more rockets were found between Santa Clarita and Palmdale, and demolition personnel from Edwards Air Force Base were summoned to recover them, the Los Angeles paper reported. The rockets were supposed to arm themselves after being fired and were supposed to disarm themselves as they slowed down if they missed their targets, the L.A. paper noted. “At the time it happened, there was no way for the Navy to know the plane wouldn’t fall into a home or a business in Los Angeles and kill people, so the Air Force did its best to bring the plane down with no injuries,” Merlin said. ” In the end, that’s what happened, but the plane did it without any help,” he said.

The Battle of Palmdale was won without a single shot striking the intended target.

Indeed – Navy Drone 1, USAF F-89’s 0

P.S. For the record – during its brief time with the Air Force and NORAD, VF(AW)-3 out-shined its Air Force cousins, twice taking the NORAD trophy for best performing unit. Not to mention looking better:


Posted by SteelJaw in Air Force, Aviation, Navy
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  • Bill

    An excellent bit of history that I had never heard of before. And I probably should have heard of it since I am (was) rather intimate with the ‘Mighty Mouse’ 2.75 rocket system as the lead engineer (motor) for its reincarnation as the MK66/Hydra 70, in the early 80s.

    Knowing the rather ‘erratic’ ballistic properties of the original FFAR, I always found their intended air-air role a bit ‘suspect’, but that article is the first example I’ve ever seen that proves I was correct in my suspicions. 😉

  • I’ve read about this before and thought of it when I was at the March Field Air Museum. Thanks for posting it here!

  • It’s a good thing the Russians didn’t think to go for it flying in circles, or we’d have been covered in “mushrooms”