Building the XQ-2C Drone

Building the XQ-2C Drone

In the early 1960s, the government needed an interim replacement for the U2 “spy plane”, one that would not carry a pilot. The new, still secret, Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” was not yet ready to replace the U2.

As it turned out, eight days after Captain Francis Gary powers was shot down on May 1, 1960 in his U2 over the Soviet Union, the Air Force approached Ryan Aeronautical Company, which in the early 1950s had designed a target drone called the Firebee, and offered the company $200,000 to turn the aerial targets into a series of speedy, stealthy unmanned reconnaissance vehicles. Thus our little project was born and we workers weren’t told a thing about all this behind the scenes activity. These new drones’ greatest achievement, according to the crews that operated them, was that they saved lives by taking pictures over high danger targets; rather than losing U.S. pilots in spy planes.  The drones outran Russian and Chinese MiGs during thousands of missions in Vietnam.

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Being loaded under the wing of a B-26.

The Story

Twelve employees and I were assigned the task of constructing a new, advanced version of Ryan’s mainstay “FireBee” target drone. Ryan made these by the hundreds for Air Force fighters to shoot at during air to air gunnery practice. Our version was to have longer glider wings, carry more fuel, have more electronics and fly much higher.

There was not enough time to “engineer” these drones and work from blueprints so we modified parts from the existing FireBee and designed as we went. (Ryan was always in a hurry as they did not have enough experienced employees to cover these little “hot” projects!) My job was to package the electronics in the fuselage and oversee final assembly. We built 13 of them.

Each drone was slightly different from the previous one and after we finished it, a draftsman came down and sketched our installations and turned the sketches into blueprints. We were located in the last hangar on the south end of the facility where we had few visitors.  It wasn’t really classified, just low key.

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The finished drones, designated XQ-2C’s, were covered with tarps and loaded on Air Force C-123s at Lindbergh Field. On one occasion this took place on a Sunday night around midnight. They were flown over China covertly for many months until one malfunctioned and was shot down by communist China. The ensuing photographs of the wreckage were shown around the world thus ending our “confidential” project. The SR-71 then took over and flew reconnaissance flights for years without the general public knowing about it or even that they existed. The XQ-2Cs went into production at the Torrance, California plant as advanced target drones. The first one of our “handmade” XQ-2Cs is now on display, hanging from the ceiling, at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

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XQ-2C controlled in flight by a pilot.

The last of our 13 re-configured drones was scheduled to be finished by the end of the week so when the superintendent walked into our hangar on Monday we all knew what he wanted. He announced that he was unable to find new jobs for us elsewhere in Ryan and that Friday would be our last day. Hearing this news most of the men stopped working and did very little the rest of the week; but I continued to give Ryan a full day’s work. The superintendent noticed this and on our last day, Friday, he pulled me aside and said that if I would accept a small cut in pay, he found a place for me and to come to work on Monday. He said, in fact, the new project was working on Saturday. So instead of getting laid off, I was working overtime on a new job, making even more money. There must be a moral in this story someplace!

While we were busy making these drones, a couple of our mechanics, Ted Owens and Lloyd Morrison, disappeared from the shop along with 10 field representatives and supervisors who were rarely in the plant. The program was renamed Red Wagon and made top secret and these men were sent to a leased warehouse on Frontier Street in San Diego where more drones were manufactured on a small assembly line. These men were later sent to Holloman AF Base in New Mexico for flight testing of the drones and then on to Kadena, Okinawa and finally to Bien Hoa, South Vietnam.

For the remainder of my time at Ryan, I never knew what happened to them. It was not until many years later while reading a book by William Wagner named, “Lightning Bugs and other Reconnaissance Drones” that I found out. This 222-page book chronicles in great detail what I have touched on in this narrative. On page 27 in that book is a photo documenting one of our clandestine deliveries as I mentioned earlier.

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Being recovered after a water landing via parachute.

The model numbers of Ryan’s drones is confusing and the Q-2Cs seem to have morphed into the model 147 and 136.

Ryan was one of the leading forerunners of the drone industry but gets very little recognition. The history of drones actually started in 1918 when a Sperry-Curtiss “pilotless flying bomb” was made but the project went nowhere.  Also in 1918 in Dayton, Ohio, the famous inventor Charles F. Kettering (the automobile self starter) made the first successful drone that went into production. It too had many problems as there were still problems with state-of-art radio control electronics. Ryan’s earlier Q-2A “Firebee” was the first reliable drone used by all three services in the mid 1950s.

Northrop Grumman purchased the burgeoning aviation division from Ryan in the 1960s, inheriting all this drone history and expertise. They poured a lot more money into the division and developed the famous RQ-4 Global Hawk. They never give credit to Ryan being the pioneering drone company that saved Northrop Grumman many years and millions of dollars since they simply bought this experience.


Updated: April 1, 2021 — 1:05 PM
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