The U.S. Navy after years of dithering finally has paid for its first fixed-wing drones for aircraft-carrier air wings. Boeing’s BA MQ-25 is an aerial-refueling tanker that the fleet hopes will extend the range of the carrier air wings’ F/A-18 and F-35 manned fighters.
Boeing and the Navy has stated that the stealthy MQ-25 in the future could evolve into a reconnaissance drone and even a light bomber.
As futuristic as it might seem, when the MQ-25 embarks for its first front-line cruise as early as 2024, it will duplicate a feat that a much older drone type achieved … way back in 1969.
In the fall of that year, a special variant of Ryan Aeronautical’s Model 147 Lightning Bug reconnaissance drone flew 28 missions from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ranger.
The jet-powered drone would photograph targets in North Vietnam then steer itself back toward the flattop, where it would pop a recovery parachute and float down to the sea. One of Ranger’s helicopters would snatch it up.
Ranger’s career as a drone-carrier didn’t last long.
The U.S. Air Force’s hundreds of Model 147s all launched in mid-air from a C-130 mothership. But the Navy’s carrier air wings didn’t operate aircraft large enough to haul the Lightning Bug.
The Navy drones instead launched via a special catapult. But that catapult took up space. It was difficult for Ranger’s crew to harmonize drone launches with the regular daily pulse of flight operations.
But for all its brevity, Ranger’s drone experiment at least proved the basic concept. Aircraft carriers can carry, launch and recover high-performance drones. If and when the MQ-25 succeeds in service, the type will owe much to its 1969 forebear.
William Wagner’s book Lightning Bugs and other Reconnaissance Drones is the major source for this story.
The Navy for years had observed, and benefited from, the Air Force’s recce drone ops over Southeast Asia. Navy strike-planners could count on Air Force Lightning Bugs to take high-resolution photographs of North Vietnamese targets. At short notice.
The Navy in 1969 asked Ryan Aeronautical to modify 10 low-altitude Model 147SCs for deck-launch, adding a 15-feet-span wing and strapping a small rocket booster to the drone to help get it up to speed.
A test launch in San Diego ended in embarrassment for Ryan Aeronautical when the drone flipped over and exploded not far from a watching admiral.
Trials moved to the carrier USS Bennington sailing off of Southern California. The World War II-vintage flattop was an anti-submarine vessel. Its air wing included helicopters and slow-flying, propeller-driven sub-hunters. The pace of launches and landings was slow compared to the hectic activity aboard the attack carriers on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin.
The Navy laid down an extra steel plate on one of Bennington’s elevators in order to deflect the blast from the drone’s rocket booster. The first at-sea test was only slightly less embarrassing than was the ground test. The booster fired but the drone’s engine never fully spun up. The drone lobbed itself into the ocean off Bennington’s starboard side.
Subsequent tests went better. A Ryan Aeronautical team on Oct. 14, 1969, embarked on the newer and larger Ranger with three Model 147SKs. The carrier set sail for Yankee Station, pausing near Hawaii and again off the Philippines for training. The stop-overs also afforded the contractors an opportunity to bring aboard additional drones.
The plan was for a drone to launch from Ranger’s deck and recover by popping a ‘chute and descending into the sea near the carrier, which would dispatch a helicopter to fish the drone out of the water. There was no time to train the Navy ‘copter crews on the Air Force’s method of snatching the drone in mid-descent.
Operators aboard one of the carrier’s E-2 radar early-warning planes would send commands via radio to steer the Lightning Bug to a checkpoint where the drone’s internal navigation system would take over.
Problems abounded. The carrier was too crowded and too busy for the sudden addition of a new and complex system. The E-2 crews were unfamiliar with the Model 147. The carrier tended to drift a few miles from its target station, skewing the drone’s navigational programming. The Lightning Bug crew had to launch its drone after Ranger launched a strike package and recover the drone before the package returned, leaving no room for error.
Of the first five front-line sorties in November 1969, just one was successful. The success rate picked up as 1969 turned to 1970. Model-147SK-5 in particular proved reliable and lucky. Until it wasn’t.
On Feb. 10, 1970 the drone launched from Ranger on its ninth and final mission. The E-2 crew sent command signals to the Lightning Bug, apparently without realizing that, in fact, it didn’t even have the drone on its radar scopes.
The admiral aboard Ranger grew frustrated. “Recover it!” he commanded. The operators pressed the button commanding the drone to pop its recovery parachute. As far as anyone knew, SK-5 was floating down to Earth. But no one knew where.
A few days later the Honolulu Star-Bulletin broke the news. The Chinese government had “shot down” an American drone over Hainan Island. In fact, the Chinese had simply snatched up the drone after it gently parachuted to the ground on Ranger’s command. The Lightning Bug enjoyed a period of notoriety as a major subject of Chinese propaganda.
Missions in April 1970 by and large were successful. The Lightning Bugs returned to Ranger with clear photos of surface-to-air missile sites, anti-aircraft-artillery batteries, railways, highways and bridges.
Ranger flew her 28th and last Lightning Bug mission on May 10, 1970. The drone survived its run over North Vietnam but its recovery parachute failed to deploy. It disappeared beneath the Pacific waves. Ryan Aeronautical later concluded that saltwater corrosion had damaged the ‘chute mechanism.
And with that, all the Model-147SKs had been shot down, crashed, sank or delivered themselves into Chinese hands. The Navy declined to order more.
The consensus at Ryan Aeronautical was that the Model 147SKs would have worked better if the Navy had invested the time and money to develop a carrier-compatible mothership plane and a mid-air recovery method that worked with fleet helicopters.
But “the Navy got what it paid for,” according to one Ryan Aeronautical contractor. With the Model 147, the Navy proved that carriers and drones could work together.
It’s not the Lightning Bug’s fault that the fleet waited 50 years to make a serious effort at making that integration permanent.