The Ryan Firebee Remote Control Vehicle, first developed in the 1950s, is an incredibly versatile unmanned drone mainly used as weapon targets or for surveillance. Widely regarded as a trailblazer in pilotless aerial technology, the Firebee remains a staple of the modern military arsenal and over 7000 of them have been assembled since they were introduced.
In 1946 the United States Air Force (USAF) issued a request for a jet-powered gunnery target to which 31 companies responded. But having reviewed all the designs, USAF took the surprising step of declaring none of them to be suitable, prompting them to reopen submissions.
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By January 1948, fourteen of the most illustrious American manufacturers had handed in revised proposals, including the Ryan Aeronautical Company which had presented the XQ-2 Firebee, an unmanned jet-propelled target drone.
Impressed by its innovative design and its potential training capabilities, the panel of judges awarded Ryan a contract in August 1948 requiring the assembly of several Firebee prototypes.
In a concerted effort to master such a new technology, during the developmental phase, Ryan created at least 32 XQ-2 drones, but it would only be a handful that actually flew. Strapped to the underwing of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, the XQ-2 took to the skies in 1951 for its first unpowered flight.
Later on, after briefly using the Boeing B-29 Fortress for recovery parachute tests, the standard launch vehicle would be changed to the B-26C Invader.
Moreover, the Firebee could also be launched from the ground via a catapult and was initially flung 30 meters into the air by a 15-centimetre naval gun, which was later replaced by a standard guided take-off launcher with a Rocket Assisted Take-Off (RATO).
Alternatively, it could also be set off from a moving platform such as a car, and after much trial and error, it could even take off using only 2.4 meters of rails.
The XQ-2 was subject to a gauntlet of other assessments, such as ground experiments which used a 1,219-metre-long set of rails to examine the rate of acceleration during and after it was launched.
In a typical test run the Firebee, fastened to a railway trolley, used rocket and engine power to propel itself down the tracks and was slowed down by a scoop attached to the trolley that was dragged through a series of water-filled reservoirs.
Following a formal demonstration of the XQ-2 at the Holloman Air Development Centre in New Mexico in 1952, the United States Research and Development Board Panel for Target Drones authorized Ryan to construct a batch of 35 Q-2A Firebees, which were designated XM-21 by the US Army.
This first generation of Firebee drones would go on to have many variants including the Q-2A, Q-2B, and Q-2C used primarily by the Air Force and the KDA-1, XKDA-2, XKDA-3, and KDA-4 which mainly served the US Navy, all of which, apart from a couple of minor tweaks and engine changes, were pretty much identical.
In its Q-2 form, the Firebee was 22.9 feet long, 6.7 feet high, had a gross weight of 2060 pounds, and its 45-degree sweptback wings, replete with a leading-edge droop to reduce drag, detachable wingtips to reduce landing damage, and horizontal and vertical stabilizers, were 12.9 feet in span.
Its fuselage was of metal monocoque construction but its nose and antenna, which jutted out above the vertical stabilizer and was used for radio control, were made out of fibreglass.
The Q-2 was fitted with a Continental J-69-T-29 turbojet engine fed by standard JP-4 or JP-5 fuel which gave it a top speed of Mach 0.96 and an altitude ceiling of over 60,000 feet, while at the other end of the scale, it could skim as low as 50 feet.
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In addition, the Firebee could operate for 115 minutes and 30 seconds in total and for more than 77 minutes above 50,000 feet, meaning it had a combat radius of around 200 miles.
Controlled from either a manned aircraft or surface station via radio link the Firebee, connected to a mothership via a cord, was disconnected and jettisoned mid-air after the completion of a full control check by a crew member.
For safety, a chaser plane usually flew alongside to observe the launch process and was authorized to shoot if the drone spiralled out of control, but this was a rare occurrence since a recovery parachute would automatically activate in the event that ground control was lost.
Once in free flight, the drone was entirely radio-controlled, performing a set of pre-planned manoeuvres until it ran out of fuel, upon which a two-stage parachute recovery procedure was initiated to float the Q-2 safely down to the ground.
The performance of the Firebee was augmented by a flight control system that stabilized the craft and which could schedule bank angles, dive, climb, and glide speeds, as well as a low altitude system which provided automatic altitude control between 4,000 to 150 feet.
If used militarily, the Firebee was able to lock onto a target and pulse towards it by detecting its infrared energy via electronic pods mounted on the wingtips, and for reconnaissance, it was possible to install cameras which could photograph incoming missiles.
Perhaps the most unique Firebee function was its ability to manipulate its radar signature so that it simulated the size of large and small aircraft.
The Q-2 was able to do this because of a component called a travelling wave tube which amplified microwaves to provide a controllable radar echo, making it incredibly useful for weapons testing and pilot training.
In fact, the Firebee was also equipped with an in-flight scoring system which, through a triangulation process that calculated the exact position of aerial projectiles and planes, could evaluate the effectiveness of weapons systems, defence crews, and fighter pilots.
Resultantly, the Firebee has been heavily used by the US Army for its annual ‘Project William Tell’ interceptor weapons program, which over 10 days typically launches 80 to 120 Firebees between 14,000 to 50,000 feet to act as supersonic targets for competing RCAF North American Air Defense interceptor crews.
Similarly, one of its first operators was the Royal Canadian Air Force, which from 1957 to 1961 utilized 30 KDA-4 variants to help train CF-100 interceptor teams.
In 1958, the more advanced BQM-34A Firebee drone flew for the first time before going into production in 1960. Dimensionally this variant was different to its predecessor, possessing a larger airframe, longer wings, and a chin-type inlet underneath a pointed nose, and would go on to become Ryan’s best-selling and most-operated Firebee unit.
Next in line was the Firebee II, or BGM-34E/F/ T, a supersonic version that was first contracted in 1965 and principally meant to assist the US Army and Navy in the training and testing of new weapons systems.
Like previous iterations, the rocket-boosted Firebee II could be fired from a short rail ground launcher or dropped from an aircraft such as the Lockheed DC-130E, which could carry up to 4 units.
Bedecked with a superior Continental YJ69-406 turbojet with 1920 pounds of thrust, the Firebee II was a lot faster than its precursors, being able to travel at a maximum velocity of Mach 1.5 which it could maintain for 4 minutes at altitudes as high as 60,000 feet.
The Firebee II also included a pioneering Mid-Air Retrieval System (MARS), which deployed a specially equipped helicopter to catch the drone as it parachuted to Earth.
In the event that it landed in the water, the Firebee II was aided by styrofoam flotation devices, which meant it could ride the sea indefinitely while waiting to be picked up by boat or helicopter.
One particularly impressive example of this was when a lost unit survived in the Pacific Ocean for 24 months before it was retrieved.
Another edition of the Firebee is the Ryan Model 147, nicknamed ‘Lightning Bug’ or ‘Firefly’, which most famously conducted over 30 low-level reconnaissance missions during the Vietnam War, and was propelled by a single Teledyne Continental J-69 engine packed with 1920 pounds of thrust.
Elsewhere, between February 1970 and June 1973 an AQM-34N variant, which could intercept radio signals from as 300 miles away and relay them in real-time, flew 268 missions near North Korea where it was tasked with monitoring voice communications.
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Interestingly, between March 1967 and July 1971, the Lightning Bug undertook similar reconnaissance missions over China, where many of them crash-landed onto Chinese territory. Consequently, the Firebee unwittingly became a talisman of Communist propaganda when it was displayed in many anti-American posters and photographs.
Nowadays, the most modern Firebees are made by Northrop Grumman, with 5 highly advanced BQM-34s deployed to the Middle East as surveillance tools in 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.