October 1946 Radio News
[Table of Contents]
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early
electronics. See articles from
Radio & Television News, published 1919-1959. All copyrights hereby
The term "drone" is relatively
new to being common parlance throughout society. Prior to the early 2000s, a
drone was thought of as either the mate to a queen bee or a special remotely
controlled aircraft used by the military for target practice or for carrying out
special missions not deemed safe for human pilots. When this article appeared in
a 1952 issue of Radio & Television News magazine, drones were the exclusive
purview of the military and research institutions because of high procurement and
operational costs. With the advent of inexpensive, highly advanced spread spectrum
radio control systems by the hobby community, lightweight and powerful brushless
motors and lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries, sophisticated miniature stability and
guidance integrated circuits (processors and sensors), and advanced computer simulation,
incredibly capable and relatively inexpensive
multirotor drones are widely available. From simple toys for erstwhile non-pilots
to serious R/C flyers to professional operators, drones are everywhere. A couple
days ago I saw a utility company worker using one to inspect power lines along a
country road. At the same time, military uses have grown significantly as well,
serving as surveillance platforms, for supply delivery, and as weapons launching
Atomic bombs "on the wing," guided swiftly and surely by radio
to their target threaten mankind in war.
The first "mother" control plane approaches the catapult on the
By Oliver Read, Editor, Radio News
It takes no crystal gazer to foresee wholesale destruction of cities by A-Bombs
in future warfare.
Those of us who witnessed the detonations at Bikini are quite in agreement that
any future war will be fought with "guided missiles."
When a man combines two sciences, such as electronics and nuclear physics and
perfects means for controlling their destructive powers he becomes a dangerous guy
to have around.
The sterling performance of the radio-controlled planes at Operation-Crossroads
is very convincing evidence that we have at our fingertips a basically simple media
for conducting highly successful airborne A-Bomb attacks on an enemy.
I spent a great deal of time studying both Army and Navy drones while attending
the Bikini tests. In fact, I had the thrilling experience of flying from Eniwetok
to Kwajalein, a distance of over 300 miles, in one of the Army's B−17 drones.
Crew connects launching mechanism for F6F Hellcat. Takeoff "control
chair" operator (foreground) stands by.
Its 90·foot run completed, the "mother" ship takes to the air
at full throttle into the wind. She will stand by to take over control of her drone.
Drone aircraft missions in the Pacific Ocean.
Ready to go - the first drone waits for its "mother" to pass
overhead and "take control" after it has left the flight deck.
I was stationed aboard the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Shangri−La on and before
A-Day and had a ringside seat to observe and record the operation of the Navy drones
(see front cover). As mentioned in my article last month, Navy drones were catapulted
from the flight deck of the Shangri−La as we headed into the wind and in the direction
of the target. It was part of Admiral Blandy's plan to send these Navy fighters
into the cloud at various altitudes in order to obtain samples of the radioactive
particles and to record other vital information needed by the scientists.
Map indicates route of Army (shown in blue) and Navy planes and ships that were
active during the first atomic bomb test. Army drones took off and returned to Eniwetok
Island. while Navy drone planes took off from the ship Shangri−La and returned to
their land base on Roi Island. Navy F6F Hellcats catapulted from the Shangri−La,
streaked into the cloud first, followed by the Army B−17 drones. All but one of
the drones were returned safely to their base after completing their historic atom
The Navy employed a total of twenty F6F Hellcats. Sixteen of them were "mother"
or control ships and the other four were the participating drones. The Navy system
was to have two of the "mother" ships send the drone into the cloud while two more,
assigned to each drone, circled on the far side of the cloud to pick up the drone
as it came through and to guide it by radio to the island of Roi, located approximately
178 miles distant.
The Hellcat is a single-seater fighter type of aircraft. There is little room
available, therefore, for "extra equipment." Hence, the Navy had to utilize the
small area directly in back of the pilot's chair. As a matter of fact, there appeared
to be more than enough room for the necessary control equipment. The radio system
includes a receiver containing separate filters for 10 audio channels. These are
highly sensitive in their ability to discriminate between various audio frequencies.
A total of ten channels are employed for the control of the aircraft.
Selsyn motors are connected to the various controls such as the throttle, elevators,
etc. by means of relatively simple mechanical gadgets to simulate the efforts of
the pilot (if there were one). These planes have been controlled successfully within
a radius of better than 150 miles. The entire radio control equipment weighs barely
more than the average pilot so the normal maneuverability of the ship is not changed
in any way whatsoever.
Each drone carried a special installation consisting of a small air sample bag
and Geiger counters. Radioactive cloud material entered this, small bag through
a radio-controlled port that opened when an impulse was sent to the drone by the
"mother" ship. Geiger counters were also carried in each drone and "mother" craft
to record the amount of radioactivity present in the area and to warn control pilots.
In some cases this information was transmitted by radio to the observers and scientists
on various vessels within the Task Force.
On Able-Day minus one we witnessed the final checking of all control and mechanical
equipment of the entire drone group. Spare drones were kept in readiness should
they be needed.
Launching cable has been hooked on to this drone and the pilot
has "deserted" ship after checking all controls. Until the plane is airborne it
will be controlled from the carrier flight deck.
On the morning of "A" or "Able-Day" I arose bright and early in order that I
could have sufficient time to set up my portable wire recorder at a point of vantage
where I could see both fore and aft as well as to look directly down on the flight
deck. I finally selected a bridge high up on the superstructure, directly under
the several radar antennas. I was able to get well over an hour's recording of the
historical event. This tiny spool of wire has now become one of my most valued possessions.
While awaiting the takeoff of the first of the "mother" ships I learned that
the first Navy drones were used back in 1936. Later several B-24s were controlled
by radio. This was in 1944.
The Hellcats arrived with the Shangri−La and the first rehearsal took place on
June 10th, followed by two more on June. 24th. The first two tests were conducted
under the scrutiny of the pilots who stood by at the controls should it be necessary
for them to take over. The June 24th rehearsal however, was carried out minus the
pilots and the drones were airborne without personnel.
The first to take off on A-Day were the sixteen "mother" ships. They were thoroughly
warmed up prior to take-off and were catapulted at thirty second intervals from
the two ninety-foot catapults built into the flight deck.
Impulses from the radio truck have the drone under perfect control.
Crew rushes forward to "make ready" the next drone plane which will be launched.
Two "mothers" lag behind and send drone into cloud. Two other
"mother" planes on the far side of the atom cloud pick up drone and return it to
Landing at 20 second intervals, the first of ten "mother" planes
sets down after completing its mission of guiding the drone planes.
Mission completed. This pilot taxis his ship forward to park.
Another plane will follow in twenty seconds.
Ground control positions for the Army B−17 drones. Powerful binoculars
on top of the tripod permit the "ground pilot" to view the incoming plane which
he is controlling by means of the electronic "joy stick" housed in the small box
attached to the tripod. Radio transmitter which controls the plane is in jeep.
Cockpit of a B−17 drone. Selsyn motors operate controls by radio
signals sent by "mother" plane.
Shortly thereafter the first of the drones was secured in place on catapult No.1.
The pilot then left the ship which he had taxied to position. After closing the
cowling it was ready to go. Two of the "mother" ships which had been circling in
the area, came in over the flight deck and, at exactly the right moment, "took over"
control of the drone.
The drones are controlled on take-off from the radio control truck parked and
tied securely down to the flight deck. Long cables extend from the truck to the
controlling chair, as shown in the illustrations. The chair operator has a control
box at his fingertips which functions in much the same manner as does the control
mechanism on the plane. He is able to maneuver the ship during its take-off and
while it is airborne as long as he can observe the behavior of the craft while in
The rest of the drones were soon on their way to the target area and things quieted
down considerably. We had now reached point Tare and our drones were on their way
to sections V and S where they were to circle in readiness for the run into the
cloud. The four drones had attained altitudes of 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 and 28,000
We were listening to the communications channels including the direct commentary
(140 mc.) from the bomber. I was able to hear and to record many transmissions from
the command ship, from Kwajalein, from various aircraft in flight, and from other
units engaged in the test.
The drone flying at 20,000 feet got away from its control ships after passing
through the cloud and streaked toward Tokyo at approximately 400 m.p.h. It was tracked
by radar as its "mother" ships took up the chase and was finally brought under control
53 minutes later and returned to Roi.
The automatic pilot on the 28,000 ft. drone failed before the drone was able
to enter the cloud and went down to Davey Jones locker. This was the only drone
lost in the operation. The other drones, having passed safely through the cloud,
were picked up by their "mother" ships and returned safely to Roi. One of them was
so radioactive that it was parked well out in the clear and all personnel were kept
away. As a matter of fact, it was not possible to examine the ship for many days
It is interesting to note that the drones could have all been returned to the
Shangri−La if there had been no danger of radioactivity. Under the circumstances
however, this would have been disastrous to the personnel aboard.
Close-up view of control position as plane is landed by radio
control from the ground.
Major D.H. Whittaker and Col. Harvey T. Alness examine the control
box which is used to guide B−17 drones in landing.
Tail section of B−17 showing some of the radio control equipment
I mentioned earlier that I had flown in one of the Army drones. The B−17s gave
an excellent account of themselves during the test. Their job was to gather similar
material to that of the Navy drone only on a large scale. Having more space, heavy
equipment and larger air sample bag could be installed. The latter was built into
the right bomb bay while the air port was built into the belly of the ship and operated
in a manner similar to that on the Hellcats. The Army, too, uses a 10 channel system.
The Army Drone Unit was organized on March 15, 1946 at Clovis, New Mexico, and
consisted of ten drones and six "mothers," The drone unit arrived at Eniwetok April
29th and immediately began its rehearsals for the Bikini operations. There were
a total of four drones and four "mothers." Operation is as follows: A "mother" ship
takes off with manual control and circles the airstrip while its drone is taxied
to position. The No. 1 control operator is positioned on a platform on the leeward
end of the strip. The radio control equipment is installed in a small Army truck
parked on the platform. The operator looks directly down the runway through a transit
similar to a surveyor's instrument. His job is to control the rudder, brakes and.
throttle during take-off.
A second control position, known as No.2, is situated on the side of the strip
approximately 200 yards ahead of the No. 1 position. The ground radio equipment
is installed in two vehicles. The No.2 operator controls the elevators of the drone
during take-off as he is in a better position to observe the climb of the ship.
(When landing, the No. 2 operator controls both elevators and throttle.)
Two television cameras are installed in each B−17 drone plane. One of them is
mounted in the nose of the ship and the other is located in a wood box enclosing
the instruments of the ship. Within this box are several automotive type headlamp
bulbs used for illumination of the instruments. Operators at the No. 2 control have
at their disposal two television receivers. They are able to observe the airspeed,
pressure, altitude, manifold pressure, oil pressure, and the flux gate compass of
the drone while it is airborne. The other televiser gives "eyes" to the drone. The
operators on the· ground can observe the target or whatever is ahead of the plane.
The television system worked extremely well. In fact, I was able to see myself
looking into the nose television receiver on the ground, while one of the drones
which was televising the area, came in for its landing.
The B−17 "mother" ships were also equipped with radar.
After witnessing the sensational performance of both the Army and Navy drones,
it becomes quite obvious that the perfected A-Bomb of the future would be carried
and directed to its target entirely by radio controlled drones. Yes, a "push-button"
war is possible. The most important job now is to develop counter-control equipment.
Posted April 25, 2022