[Editor’s Note: We ran across this story over the weekend and I was pretty amazed. I’d heard the Hellcat was a particularly robust and stubborn aircraft, and this story certainly seems to validate that statement. This is definitely one of those instances where the truth is stranger than fiction!]
In August 1956, a drone went rogue over Southern California, threatening cities, including Los Angeles. In its aftermath, over 1,000 acres were destroyed, forests and scrubland were set ablaze while homes and property were damaged. But it wasn’t because of the drone.
On 16 August 1956, a Grumman F6F-5K drone (also known as the WWII Hellcat) sat on one of their runways, painted bright red for extra visibility. At 11:34 AM, radio controllers launched it into the air, then sent it south toward the Pacific Ocean so the navy could shoot it down.
But the drone had other ideas. It veered to the left and continued to climb, heading southeast toward Los Angeles. The operators had lost control.
Enter Oxnard Air Force Base. The 437th Fighter-Interceptor responded by sending out two of its Northrop F-89D Scorpion twin-jet interceptors. The first jet-powered planes that could handle all types of weather, they were the most advanced aircraft of their time. They were also the first with computer-guided missiles, so what could possibly go wrong?
Manning the first Scorpion were First Lieutenant Hans Einstein, the pilot, and First Lt. CD Murray, the radar observer. Following them were First Lt. Richard Hurliman and First Lt. Walter Hale. Their orders were simple: take down the drone before it crashed into a populated area.
They reached the Hellcat to the northeast of Los Angeles at 30,000 feet. In response, it veered southwest, flying directly over the city before banking northwest toward the Santa Clara River Valley. It continued on till Santa Paula, the “Citrus Capital of the World,” and slowly circled above the city.
The pilots waited, praying it wouldn’t crash into the buildings below, hoping it would veer off again toward the countryside. Their prayers were answered. The drone headed northeast, zoomed over the city of Fillmore, then over the suburb of Frazier Park, and made a beeline toward Antelope Valley.
The pilots heaved a sigh of relief. They could finally take the thing down with their Mk 4 Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR), also called the Mighty Mouse Rockets. The Scorpions were not equipped with machine guns or cannons. They had two options by which to fire them with: use their computers or fire them manually. Because the drone was so erratic, they chose the former.
The Scorpions had the new Hughes E-6 fire control system and AN/APG-40 radar, which were guided by an attack-plotting computer. All the pilots had to do was get the drone in their sights and fire. However the Hellcat chose to zig or zag, the computer would take care of it. So they fired.
And nothing happened. So they tried again. Nada. A design flaw in the fire control system wouldn’t launch the rockets.
No problem. Switch to Plan B and fire their rockets manually. So they looked into their gunsights to aim… and discovered that they had a problem. No gunsights. To put in the new state-of-the-art Hughes E-6 system, the installers had to remove the gunsights….-
The original article at War History Online can be found here, and trust me, you’re going to want to finish all of this one!
(All images courtesy of War History Online)