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Headless Fighters: USAF Recconnaissance-UAVs over Vietnam
By Tom Cooper
Nov 13, 2003, 02:20

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The story about the use of drones and specially equipped C-130 Hercules aircraft for their carriage during the Vietnam War is one full of contradictions and unbelievable details.

It started already with the first drones developed before, during and after the WWII. The US Army Air Corps, and later the US Air Force, considered themselves always as „Air Forces for pilots“, thus anything that had something to do with aircraft without pilots was simply despised. Many programs for development of pilot-less aircraft were shut down almost as soon as they were started, before the correct terminology for drones was found: „Remotely Piloted Vehicle“. This actually didn’t helped drones to be more accepted by the USAF, however they were at least tolerated and the continuous development of drones for the USAF became a go-ahead during the 1950s. The final break-trough came only during the early 1960s, when several losses of U-2 reconnaissance planes over the USSR, China and Cuba forced Americans to find the ways of learning more about Soviet S-172/SA-2 SAM systems.

The first two new programs for introducing drones to USAF were named „Lightning Bug“ and „Compass Cookie“. Both used Ryan Model 124 Firebee I for reconnaissance tasks and were initially planed for operations over Cuba. However, the situation there stabilized, thus the first unit equipped with Q-2C Firebee (later developed into AQM-34) namely the 4025th „Black Knights“ Reconnaissance Squadron (RS) of the 4080th SW (Strategic Wing), flew its operational missions over North Korea and China, in 1964, spying local SAM-sites.

In August 1964, the 4025th RS moved from Kadena AB, on Okinawa to Bien Hoa AB, in South Vietnam, and changed its name to „Red Falcons“. Although not very popular with the base commander and other locally based units, the 4025th RS soon started first operations, foremost monitoring the work of North Vietnamese air defences and - especially - the SA-2 sites. Each mission was regularly escorted by either USAF or - in most cases - USN fighters, as well as other specialized (manned) reconnaissance aircraft, like RB-47Hs of 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW), and - later - highly classified EB-57Ds or C-130A-IIs of the 6091st RS, mainly based at Don Muang AB, in Thailand. In 1966 this unit became the 556th RS, which took part in some of the famous projects, like "Igloo White“, „Combat Dawn“, „Senior Dawn“ and „Compass Bright".

Regardless of place, time and art of the mission, all the drones of the AQM-34 series deployed during the Vietnam War were carried and started from specially modified GC-130As, MC-130AS and - finally - DC-130A and DC-130E control aircraft, each of them being equipped with systems for carriage, start, control and guidance of drones. The drones were always pre-programmed, but after release their progress was monitored and the „pilot“ could override the programme manually if necessary. The carrier aircraft had a console for two „pilots“, equipped with all the usual flight-instruments, which read the data sent to them from the drone. All the data about the navigation, planed route, the actual flight pad and position of the drone and the carrier aircraft were feed into a single system, which showed them on one display. On their return the drones deployed a parachute and were snared by specially modified CH-3 recovery helicopters.

Immediately drones showed immense capabilities and adaptability. The simplest AQM-34H variant - of the project „Litter Bug“ - was used for dropping leaflets. However, advanced models, foremost AQM-34L/Ms (project „Buffalo Hunter“) were equipped with Doppler-radars, precise LORAN-nav-systems and recce cameras, including a TV-camera capable of transmitting pictures to carrier aircraft in „real-time“. The AQM-34Q and AQM-34Rs were designed for operations at high altitudes, but - generally - all versions could relatively simply be equipped with modules for a very wide range of missions, including ELINT, SIGINT, jamming, photo-reconnaissance (especially at low level), real-time televised reconnaissance and leaflet-dropping. The guidance system automatically controlled the height, course, power setting of the engine and the recovery systems. Usual AQM-34 for use at low levels had a span between 3.96 and 4.57mm. For missions at high altitude, however, wings of between 8.23m and 9.14m span could be attached. Early drones had a length of 7.92m, but this grew to 9.75m on later versions. Initial engines were not very powerful at only 771 or 871kg thrust, but later better - with up to 1.27 tonnes - were added. Several models were also capable of carrying drop tanks under the fuselage or wings.

The Mission Profile

As already mentioned, the initial task of the drones was to find out more about the SA-2 sites. Of course, there was no other way for any poor drone to record the radar-frequencies of SA-2 radars shortly before, during and after firing, but to left itself been detected and fired on! For such operations, AQM-34s were equipped with the River Bounder ECM system, capable of jamming SA-2 radar-guidance signals, but also of emitting the radar echo of an U-2 or even larger aircraft! Initial missions were described as „very successful“, however, North Vietnamese seem to have declined to swallow this bait too often, thus, very soon a system for prevention of condense strips was built in. Later, AQM-34s were further modified with a HIDE-system, capable of lowering their radar echoes, as well as the HEMP-RWR-system, used to recognize an attack by (manned) Vietnamese interceptors.

By 11 February 1966, the designation of 4025th RS was changed to 350th SRS, and the unit had already immense experience in use of the drones during Operations „Blue Springs“, „Bumble Bug“, „Buffalo Hunter“, „Litter Bug“, „Compass Cookie“, „Lightning Bug“ and others. During most of these missions, drones - started from an DC-130 which cruised over the Gulf of Tonking, Laos or Cambodia - were equipped with recce- and TV-cameras and flew very low in order to evade early detection. Depending on their tasks, drones could then either continue their mission at the same level, or climb to heights between 12.190 and 19.810 meters in order to acquire their „targets“ with concrete sensors. The most dangerous tasks were those of recording SAM-signals, as these usually managed to provoke a fierce response from North Vietnamese defences. The equipment of the drones was not only able to record these, but also to transmit them to the carrier aircraft. Once out of the „danger-zone“, drones usually dropped to lower level, until closing the area where recovery helicopter - then CH-3s - waited. A breaking parachute would be deployed which could be caught by a special winch of the helicopter.

In the manuals there was instruction that that the helicopter should winch the drone up, however, as their operational weight was steadily increased, in most cases the drones were rather pulling the helicopter down. Because of this, heavier and more powerful CH-53s were introduced for the recovery tasks. On 31 January 1968 however, a Viet Cong sapper attack at the Bien Hoa AB destroyed a part of equipment and killed one of squadron’s technicians, and thus the unit was moved to U-Tapao. After the stop of the offensive US operations against North Vietnam in early 1969, drones of the 350th SRS, now a part of the 100th SRW, became one of the most important systems for reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam. At the same time, the now increasingly modernized SRVAF (Socialist Republic of Vietnam Air Force) finally had the time and resources to start combat missions against drones and so some of the most interesting stories came into being.

How to Fool a MiG

Due to their excellent capabilities in low-level missions, highly upgraded AQM-34L became the most successful of all Firebee variants. Drones of this version flew no less than 1.600 missions over North Vietnam. Several examples of AQM-34L, namely, „Tomcat“ (68 missions, shot down by Vietnamese AAA), „Budweiser“ (63 missions), „Rayan’s Daughter“ (52 missions) and „Baby Buck“ (46 missions) became unbelievably successful and survived some of most fascinating adventures of this war. All their missions were properly marked by „mission-signs“ on the right side of the fuselage. This is the story of some of their missions.

Actually, several of the „most exciting“ drone-flights became so exciting because of simple mistakes done during the flight programming: very often technicians mistakenly programmed their flight level for the photo run at six - instead of 60 meters. No wonder, the results of such flights would sometimes be rather interesting for botanists, than for radar- and photographic experts of the USAF as several poor drones came back from their missions enveloped in branches and other parts of trees, telephone wires, fences and similar items, which can only be found VERY close to the ground. One of the drones programmed in the similar way brought back an especially interesting video, as it flew THROUGH several trees and under high-power lines. Reaching the Kep Air Base, the drone turned straight over the runway and flew along its full length almost colliding with one MiG-17 in landing pattern in the process!

From 1969, first serious encounters with North Vietnamese (manned) interceptors followed. In his excellent book „Air War Over North Viet Nam“, Dr. Istvan Toperczer published some data about Vietnamese efforts to intercept US recce drones, he was able to find in SRVAF records. According to these, in 1969 alone, Vietnamese fighters - mostly MiG-21s - were scrambled no less than 540 times in order to intercept drones, claiming to have shot down ten Firebees. According to Toperczer, the 921st Fighter Regiment (FR), claimed eight, and the 923rd FR (equipped with MiG-17s and stationed at Kep AB), claimed two drones.

This unique photograph is showing the control console aboard one of the specially-equipped C-130s, used to control AQM-34-operations over North Vietnam - just in the moment as a North Vietnamese MiG-21 was buzzing the drone! Parts of MiG's fuselage and wings - together with the SRVAF markings - can be clearly seen on the display of the main camera of the drone, which was used as navigation-aid. Sadly, the exact date of this incident, which occurred sometimes in 1970, remains unknown. (Tom Cooper collection)

On the other side the general public opinion is that the first American „ace“ (means: pilot that shot down five enemy aircraft in air combat) of the Vietnam War, was USN Lt. Randy Cunningham (and his RIO, Lt. William Driscol), who scored his fifth kill in May 1972. However, if drones would „count“, this would be VERY far from the truth! Namely, during 1970, AQM-34Ls were equipped with the HATRAC-system, which could not only recognize a SAM- or airborne interception, but also steer the drone into deception or evasive manoeuvring (HATRAC supposedly also had a very small picture of one not very popular officer mounted somewhere on it, who then „took over the responsibility“ if anything went wrong). Suddenly, the rate of scrambles, as well as successful interceptions by North Vietnamese MiGs fell, as SRVAF records showed only six encounters and not a single kill during that whole year!

Actually, there were kills, but they were scored by Americans - and indirectly. In May 1970, an AQM-34L was on a mission over Hanoi area, acting as a manned reconnaissance aircraft. Finishing its photo-run, the drone turned toward the Tonking Gulf, where it was to ditch after spending its remaining fuel. Almost everything was going according to plan - down to one detail: the drone was intercepted by an MiG-21 of the 921st FR. The fighter closed and tried to shot it down by two K-13/AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missiles. Both malfunctioned however, and the Vietnamese continued the pursuit, trying to down the drone by tackling its wing. By doing so, the SRVAF-pilot forgot to control his fuel reserves: after the drone fell harmlessly into the sea, he found out that he had not enough fuel to return to base. The Vietnamese ejected while flying back toward the coast. This was the first air-to-air kill scored by an unmanned aircraft in the history of air warfare.

This drone was salvaged and it continued its interesting carrier. On 9 March 1971 it was on a photo-run, most probably over the SRVAF’s Tho Xuan AB, when intercepted by two MiG-21s. Manoeuvring behind the drone, one of Vietnamese pilots „finally“ acquired the target and fired an K-13/AA-2 missile. A direct hit was scored - however, not on the drone but on the leader of the Vietnamese section, flown by pilot Luong Duc Truong, who was killed. Only several weeks later the same drone flew straight into fierce Vietnamese air defence fire and was simultaneously intercepted by an MiG-21 of the SRVAF. While the drone came away the unlucky MiG-pilot experienced the excellent marksmanship of his colleagues on the ground: he was shot down. By the end of 1971, the same drone „scored“ two further „kills“, becoming the actual first US air-combat „ace“ of the Vietnam War!

How To Full Your Owner

The life of AQM-34s was not always that easy, however. Dozens were shot down during operations over the Hainan Island and Chinese mainland in 1964, 1965 and 1966 dozens were shot down by Chinese interceptors, while even more went lost to other means of air defence. According to Chinese records, the first AQM-34 was downed by an J-5 on 15 November 1964, followed by at least five others each in 1965 and 1966, two in 1967 and further five in 1968. As mentioned, Vietnamese claimed ten in 1969, none in 1970. This changed in 1971, when Vietnamese MiGs managed to intercept four other drones and claimed the downing of one of them. Other of these small but loyal and dependable aircraft were exceptionally heavy damaged by Vietnamese AAA and SAM. Some of them so extensively, that hardly the construction number could be read after the recovery. Not only this, in late 1971 one drone was lost, when it was falsely recognized by crews of two USN F-4 Phantoms - that escorted the guiding DC-130A - during its return flight toward Da Nang. Phantoms fired and shot down the unlucky drone by a long-range Sparrow shot believing that a North Vietnamese MiGs was closing to attack the Hercules.

But the drones themselves developed also some very unique capabilities and particular predilections. The AQM-34L, c/n 28, for example, seems to have loved both flying and water very much. During five of its six operational flights, it „disobeyed“ the order to initiate the recovery sequence and close on the waiting CH-3 helicopter, instead flying out of the recovery zone and landing in the water. During another mission, it landed in the water far away from the waiting CH-3: the recovery team took an UH-1D of the US Army and tried to salvage the drone, but the light helicopter crashed in the process. This drone was kind enough, however, to take all seven survivors on board and keep them safe until the help arrived. Nonetheless, it was christened „Super Stupid Waterbug“.

Some of the drones of the AQM-34 series finished the war packed with ALQ-51 „Shoehorn“ ECM-system and acting as baits for Vietnamese SAM-defences. One of them supposedly managed to drew - and avoid - no less but eleven SA-2 before being shot down. It’s log book was finished with words: „Success! The drone didn’t came back from the mission!“ In total, between August 1964 and late April 1975 squadrons of the 100th SRW flew 3.435 missions over North Vietnam, using 22 different variants of AQM-34s. No less than 578 drones were lost over China and North Vietnam: 251 were shot down, 80 were declared „missing in action“, 53 were lost during recovery, 30 during winching up and the rest to different reasons. Nonetheless, the history of their operations during this war can only be described as „happy end“.

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