As usual, nobody liked a smart robot

Monday, December 4th, 2023

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingIn contrast to the DASH, which started out as a combat aircraft and ended as a target, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), the Teledyne Ryan Firebee started out as a target and ended as much more:

The Firebee was a sleek, jet-powered machine, twenty-three feet long and with a top speed of over 700 mph. It could fly at any height from the treetops to fifty thousand feet. It could be launched from an aircraft and remotely controlled from two hundred miles away. The Firebee would return to the ground on a parachute, an easy feat for a small plane with no human inside risking broken bones.

There was little interest from the Air Force’s mainstream, but the highly unconventional BIG SAFARI team liked the idea. BIG SAFARI was set up to circumvent the usual complexities of Air Force procurement, to provide quick solutions to urgent problems. They funded development of a version of the Firebee called Fire Fly or Model 147, and it went through their streamlined channels without the interference it might have otherwise endured.


In the first trials the F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart pilots never even saw the drones they were trying to shoot down, and only caught brief glimpses of them on radar. Further tests followed. In one, a Delta Dagger fired a burst of cannon fire at the drone, but the rounds missed. Before the pilot could line up for another shot, his jet engine flamed out because of the high altitude. He dropped to lower altitude to reignite the engine, at which point other planes mistook his aircraft for the target. Fortunately, they did not shoot, but the Fire Fly had escaped. Later on two Delta Darts achieved a radar lock on the Fire Fly, but not for long enough to fire a missile.


The military was unhappy with the results. Many felt the test was intended to make them look bad. Robert Schwanhausser of Teledyne Ryan says the results were classified Top Secret, and he was ordered to burn every piece of information on them.


They were sent on virtual suicide missions, to test Vietnamese radar and missile defenses.

When losses mounted, the developers at BIG SAFARI started equipping their drones with electronic bags of tricks. One device, known as High Altitude Threat Reaction and Countermeasure (HAT-RAC) responded to being lit up by radar by throwing the drone into a series of sharp turns.


When the Chinese downed their first Fire Fly in 1964, it was only after some sixteen MiGs had made over thirty passes trying to hit the little drone.


A decoy version of the Fire Fly was produced. This was known as the 147N and was fitted with radar reflectors to make it look like a bigger aircraft. The 147Ns were originally purely intended to distract defenders away from the real Fire Flies equipped with cameras, but they survived and managed to return so frequently that they were later fitted with cameras of their own.


On one mission, the pictures from a Fire Fly captured the subject’s faces from close range: “You could see features on the guy’s face. If it would have been in color, you could have seen the color of his eyes.”

This was at a time when the U-2 spy planes were taking pictures from fifty thousand feet or higher, with resolution only good enough to recognize objects two feet across. The low-level Fire Fly pictures were a revelation in the art of the possible.


The basic drone could only handle acceleration of about 3G, but a modified Firebee equipped with “Maneuverability Augmentation System for Tactical Air Combat Simulation” or MASTACS could pull 6G for several seconds at a time. This put it pretty much on a par with manned fighters. In 1971, the MASTACS developers challenged Commander John C. Smith, head of the Navy’s Top Gun combat training school – the “Top Gun” of the 1982 movie – to try and shoot MASTACS down.

Smith and his wingman, both flying F-4 Phantoms, made repeated attacks on the remotely controlled Firebee. It was far too agile for them. They fired two Sparrow radar-guided missiles and two Sidewinder heat-seekers without scoring a hit. Meanwhile, the Firebee kept circling around and lining itself up in firing position behind the Phantoms. Had it been armed, the Firebee would have had easy shots.

As usual, nobody liked a smart robot. MASTACS was deemed “too sophisticated” for training purposes.


Even the memory of the Fire Fly seems to have been lost. In 2014 the US Navy proudly announced in a press release that, “Truman will be the first aircraft carrier in naval aviation history to host test operations for an unmanned aircraft.” It seems that amnesia buried the 1969-70 Fire Fly operations from the USS Ranger, not to mention the TDR-1s flown from the USS Sable in 1943.


  1. McChuck says:

    In 1986, I saw a 60 Minutes episode about an anti-tank missile guided by a television camera. It had a five mile range, and could also shoot down helicopters. Problem was, the Army didn’t ask for it, it wasn’t made by the big defense contractors, and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. It was made by two Soldiers in their off time, using spare parts that were readily available. Congress ordered the Army to adopt it, but they slow rolled acquisitions for the next 20 years and ignored it.

    Fast forward to just a few years ago. Several Soldiers added inexpensive, off-the-shelf laser seekers to the cheap rockets used by helicopters. This increased their accuracy and utility tremendously, at little expense. Again, the Pentagon killed the project and chastised the Soldiers who made them look bad.

    You could procure several thousand drones at $1,000 apiece for the cost of a single new tank. This is why the Army won’t buy modern combat drones.

  2. Alex J. says:

    If those drones had a TV feed (as opposed to film cameras) they would’ve been useful for visually identifying BVR targets for F-14s as often required by ROE.

    Per McChuck:
    MGM-157 EFOGM
    AGR-20 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS)

    There was a laser guided Zuni rocket that got cancelled as well.

  3. Jim says:

    “When the Chinese downed their first Fire Fly in 1964…”

    To bury the lede…

  4. Jim says:

    The real answer is that manned airplanes are show horses in the age of Jeeps, and the nuclear umbrella means that combat efficacy doesn’t matter very much. This was less clear when they were still developing new airplanes but is more clear now that they are literally flying flying relics.

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