Aerial drones are a big deal now, especially the idea of drones potentially getting out of control and causing all sorts of shenanigans, some possibly dangerous. While aerial drone issues feel like a very modern problem, the truth is that airbone drones have been causing mischief since at least 1956. It would be pretty hard to beat the drone cluster-fudge of 1956 known as the Battle of Palmdale.
Let’s start by talking about the key player in the Battle of Palmdale, a friendly, bright-red drone known as the F6F-5K Hellcat. The F6F-5K Hellcat was a radio-controlled unmanned drone variant of the F6F-3 Hellcat piston-powered fighter aircraft.
These were WWII-era fighters, and by the 1950s, a number of them were converted to radio control and used as target drones. The red color was for easy visibility, and anachronistically symbolic, as these redshirt drones were usually doomed, their lot in life to be the target for a missile that was in development.
The red Hellcat in our story began what would be its last mission on the morning of August 16, 1956, at Point Mugu Naval Air Station. The crew got the drone ready to go, and, responding to radio commands from the ground, the Hellcat took off into the sky, headed toward its doom at a missile test area over the Pacific Ocean.
Soon after takeoff, though, something happened. Perhaps it was during the switchover from ground-based control to aerial ‘mothership’ radio control, or perhaps the Hellcat felt that air coursing over its wings and thought, dammit, I want to live – it’s not clear what happened. What is clear is that the drone stopped responding to radio commands and started heading in a gentle curve and climb to the southeast.
To Los Angeles.
At this point, I can imagine very clearly a room of competent, wide-eyed men in uniforms with ties loosened and sleeves rolled up sitting around control panels, all momentarily frozen, one collective thought going through all their minds: oh, shit.
Clearly, the out-of-control drone buzzing its way towards one of America’s largest, most densely populated cities had to be stopped. Point Mugu was a naval base without any aircraft capable of intercepting the drone, so they put in what must have been a very panicked-sounding call to Oxnard Air Force Base, just five miles north of where the Hellcat took off.
Two Air Force F-89D Scorpions were scrambled to intercept the Hellcat. Now, before we go into what happened, it’s worth talking a bit about these Scorpions and the kinds of weapons they carried. These were very advanced jet fighters of the era, fast and lethal. They were equipped with wingtip-mounted Mighty Mouse unguided rockets. Between the two pods, each F-89D carried 104 rockets.
These planes also were equipped with a new Hughes E-6 fire control system, with an analog computer and radar-guidance. Since they had all this fancy new equipment, traditional gunsights were removed from the aircraft.
These air-to-air missile/rocket systems were primarily designed to defend against formations of Soviet bombers. They didn’t need to be guided or precise, because they were meant to fired in massive bursts into the flock of Commie bombers, where they’d cause all kinds of damage.
You can probably see where this is going; these weapons aren’t really ideal to take out one small, unpredictable drone.
The two Scorpions tracked the Hellcat, and, by flying on full afterburner, caught up with the crazed drone as it looped around over Santa Paula. The pilots cleverly decided to wait until the drone wandered over a less populated area, and while they followed it, they considered their options to take it out.
Essentially, the firing control system allowed two basic options: shoot rockets at it from behind, while chasing it, or shoot rockets into its side, as you approach perpendicularly. Since the drone was almost always turning, they decided on the side (or ‘beam’) attack.
Once it got over an area of desert empty enough to give it a go, they found that their fancy new Hughes fire control system wasn’t working. On either plane, because of a design flaw. Oops.
So they decided to shoot their rockets manually, using their gun sights– dammit. I’m sure at this point they were thinking how it sure would have been nice if they hadn’t taken off their goddamn gunsights, wouldn’t it?
So, they had to shoot the rockets manually, by just looking out the cockpit canopy. They set their rockets to fire in three bursts – 42 rockets, then 32, then 30. All they needed was one rocket to hit the target. They have 104 each. How hard could it be?
The first Scorpion made an attack, and sent 42 rockets in the general direction of the drone, which didn’t touch any of them. The second F-89D fired its first batch of 42, and while some grazed the drone’s red belly, no luck.
Then they fired 64 more rockets over the town of Newhall, and then 60 more over Palmdale. None hit their target. The drone kept on flying.
Soon, the Scorpions were running out of fuel, and needed to head back to base. As the planes headed back to base, the drone also ran out of fuel and began to lose altitude, and eventually began a spiral that would take it down into the desert east of Palmdale Regional Airport, but not before severing three CalEd power lines, because that’s how that drone rolls.
Now, it may sound like the two Scorpion pilots failed in their mission to take down the drone, but I’d argue they succeeding in their other, unplanned mission: to rain 208 rockets down on Castaic, Newhall, Palmdale, and the surrounding California desert.
Those rockets caused brush fires that burned 150 acres outside of Castaic, over 350 acres burned near Soledad Canyon, including one fire that came within 300 feet of an explosives plant.
The rockets set fire to oil sumps, a park, several houses, and one landed right in front of a car driven by Larry Kempton and his mom, Bernice. The fragments from the rocket blew out a tire, shattered the windshield, and punctured the radiator.
Luckily, no one was hurt, but fires ended up burning 1000 acres and took two days to put out. In the following weeks, the army had to send out crews to safely disarm and/or detonate the 175 rockets unaccounted for.
As far as clusterfucks go, this one has to be one of the greats. A single out-of control obsolete, self-flying, unarmed aircraft managed to elude two state-of-the-art jet fighters, 208 rockets, and in the process of this little drone’s aerial rumspringa, caused a crapload of damage to a whole swath of Southern California desert communities.
You’ve got to hand it to that little red drone; that’s a hell of a way to go out.