Seventy years ago, on August 12, 1944, Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. perished in one of the first American fatalities associated with a pilotless aircraft, which we usually know today as a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The older brother of future president, John F. Kennedy, was taking part in an extraordinary secret war being waged across the English Channel with new generations of exotic weapons. Only a week after D-Day, the German Army began launching V-1 “buzz-bombs” from the French coast toward London and was preparing for a barrage of even more fantastical weapons, including the V-2 rocket and a super-cannon – the Hochdruckpumpe that constituted the third of their “V-weapons.”
The Nazi leadership initially believed that V-2s and the Hochdruckpumpe could be made resistant to allied bombers by placing their infrastructure in vast fortified complexes of steel-reinforced concrete located in the Pas de Calais at Siracourt (V-1), Watten (V-2), Wizernes (V-2), and Mimoyecques (V-3). Allied aerial reconnaissance revealed these massive efforts of military engineering for what they were and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force headquarters ordered extensive bombing campaigns against the structures. These raids were highly disruptive to their construction, but they could not guarantee the effective destruction of the bunker complexes. The fortified sites were also surrounded by extremely heavy concentrations of anti-aircraft defenses and by the time of Kennedy’s death, hundreds of Allied aircraft had been lost attacking these and other V-weapon sites.
By the spring of 1944, Lt. Gen. James Doolittle, commander of the Eighth Air Force had ordered development of a joint Army Air Forces and Navy program to use pilotless “war-weary” bombers to carry vast quantities of high explosive that could unseat the foundations of the V-weapon complexes that were impervious to conventional bombs. The Army Air Forces contributed tired B-17s and the Navy offered up some of its own fatigued PB4Y-1s (the Navy version of the B-24D). Once modified with drone equipment, the B-17 drone (designated BQ-7) and the PB4Y-1 (designated BQ-8) were to be flown by remote control to the target using a mother ship, which had an operator who would use a television scope to monitor the controls.
Though run by the Army Air Forces, the Navy was essential to this program as it had far more experience with droning full-scale aircraft. The word “drone” in connection with pilotless aircraft originated with the U.S. Navy when it borrowed the British concept of using full-scale remotely piloted aircraft to teach the increasingly complex task of naval anti-aircraft gunnery. “Drone” was an acknowledgement of the program’s British “Queen Bee” origin. By the start of World War II, the Navy had begun regular training operations with full-scale target drones. The Army also pursued drone technology, but had gone a different route by focusing on small, low-cost types developed by the Hollywood actor, Reginald Denny.
Doolittle’s Project Aphrodite (Army) and Anvil (Navy) represented the marriage of the Navy’s pilotless aircraft experience with RCA’s advances in television. This marriage was an uneasy one with control and autopilot technology sufficiently immature to make the top secret program incredibly risky, but the perceived benefits justified the potential costs. Nonetheless, a human crew had to manually fly the aircraft off the ground to ensure that it did not go out of control on an Allied base or devastate a British population center. The two-man crew would then engage the autopilot, verify its functionality and bail out as the aircraft approached the British coast. It was for this incredibly hazardous undertaking that Kennedy volunteered.
The Aphrodite and Anvil operations against the four major V-weapon complexes began on August 4, 1944. Only the raid against the Wizernes site came even close to a success with the aircraft detonating near the construction. The Germans were suitably mystified as to what caused the aircraft to detonate with such force and why there were no traces of guns or a crew in the remnants. Unfortunately, one pilot was lost when one of the BQ-7s went out of control over the English countryside.
Kennedy, who volunteered for special duty with the newly formed Special Attack Unit One (SAU-1) from his regular anti-submarine patrol squadron, VPB-110 (which also provided the PB4Y-1s), was assigned to make the Navy’s first raid under Anvil. On August 12, Kennedy boarded PB4Y-1 #32771 with his copilot, Lt. Wilford J. Willy, to fly it to the coast where PV-1 mother ships would take over control to guide the drone to its target at Mimoyecques. Once airborne, Kennedy joined what was perhaps the most unusual American combat formation of World War II. It consisted of four P-51 Mustangs to provide top cover, two P-38s and two Mosquitos as weather and observation aircraft, a B-17 to act as a navigational pathfinder, a B-17 to act as a radio relay platform, and two PV-1s, one serving as the mother ship and another in reserve as a spare.
Around 6:20 pm, the formation passed eight miles southeast of Halesworth at an altitude of 610 meters (2,000 feet). Suddenly, 32771 and its nearly 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of the revolutionary Torpex high explosive detonated nearly destroying other aircraft in the formation. Kennedy and Willy had no chance of survival. Fortunately, their flight path had largely avoided populated areas and there were no casualties on the ground. The engines were the only pieces of the aircraft that survived in a recognizable form. A definitive cause was never found, though speculation has centered on inadequate electrical shielding that allowed premature activation of one of the Torpex detonators.
Navy enthusiasm soon evaporated for the mission and though one droned PB4Y-1 made it to its target, the service’s interest in continuing the program evaporated. The Army Air Forces continued Aphrodite missions with its B-17s until the beginning of 1945. None were successful. By that time, Allied forces had liberated all of the large V-weapon bunker complexes. None had become operational and in fact, the Germans appeared to realize that there was no chance that the sites could become operational once Allied intelligence appreciated their significance, so they used them as decoys and traps to draw bombing raids from the real infrastructure of the V-weapon campaigns. Even if this was not the case, conventional bombing had prevented their completion and a new generation of British heavy bombs – the Tallboys – proved to be capable of doing the damage that the drones could not. Sadly, Tallboys were already in operation a little over a month before Kennedy’s death and the Aphrodite drone program gained a legacy of being a tragic waste of resources.
While Aphrodite and Anvil marked the end of the Eighth Air Force’s drone campaign against German V-weapon complexes and U-boat pens, the Navy did use the technology in the Pacific for its TDR-1 drones – a World War II antecedent to the MQ-1 Predator. The TDR-1s carried television cameras for guidance and carried bombs or torpedoes that were dropped remotely. Unlike the BQ-7 and -8s, human pilots did not need to bail out of them on operational missions. Unfortunately, the results of the TDR-1 operations were less than spectacular and World War II ended with drone technology being used almost exclusively for anti-aircraft training. A few years later, the Army Air Forces and Navy put the technology to the test when they flew B-17s and F6Fs through the radioactive clouds at Bikini during the first postwar nuclear detonations. Germany also used drone airplanes as guided missiles. By the time of the first Aphrodite missions, they had already been in use for over a month against shipping in the English channel that was supporting the Normandy beachhead.
Kennedy’s commanders recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but it was ultimately downgraded to a Navy Cross, which was also awarded to Lt. Willy. The Kennedy family was devastated. Many who knew him had been certain that Joe Kennedy, Jr. was destined for high public office before his tragic death. Such a high-profile loss threw the Aphrodite program into chaos and morale suffered. The program might well have been almost entirely forgotten, but the tragedy helped ensure that records and reminiscences of this pioneering operation were preserved. Kennedy’s death is a potent reminder of the many others who perished in testing or employing new technologies and whose memories were shrouded in the curtain of wartime secrecy.
Roger Connor is a museum specialist in the Aeronautics Department of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
When I was twelve, I had the opportunity to sit left seat on a Bell 206 JetRanger at Lunken Field in Cincinnati, Ohio. The pilot had me follow his movements on the cyclic while he hovered around the ramp. It was a transformative moment. I was hooked on helicopters and flying from that moment on. I started flying lessons when I was thirteen, soloed on my sixteenth birthday and earned my Private on my seventeenth.
- Roger Connor, curator, National Air and Space Museum
I was at the old Page general aviation terminal at Dulles Airport (IAD), Virginia, to greet my brother-in-law who was flying into IAD from Trenton-Robbinsville Airport (N87) in New Jersey. He had recently joined a flying club up there and was eager to start building cross country time and share the fun with his brother Curt and me. Though I was working at the National Air and Space Museum, I had never flown in a general aviation aircraft. Peter arrived in the club’s four-seat Piper Cherokee Arrow making his first of many flights in it and later a T-tail Arrow to Dulles and even National Airport (DCA). Yes, those were the days when small general aviation aircraft could show up in the pattern at either airport and be merged into the arrivals. Still, it was best to consider the timing of your flight vis-a-vis airline traffic.
The next day Peter took Curt and me up for a beautiful flight over the Virginia countryside which began right at takeoff since Dulles was then still out in the middle of nowhere. Few buildings existed near the airport as the closest houses were in the little town of Herndon and the planned community of Reston which sat to the east along the only major road around, the Dulles Access Road. Dulles Airport had been carved out of farmland and one little community named Willard. It was our first low level (between 305 and 914 meters/1,000 and 3,000 feet) flight and we turned west to fly over Bull Run Mountain (378 meters/1,240 feet), Middleburg horse country, and up through the Thoroughfare Gap of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Front Royal into the Shenandoah Valley. The first airborne view of the Shenandoah River was amazing as it wound its way north to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in lazy S-turns between the north-south mountain ridges. It was a gorgeous afternoon. On our return flight east, we watched the stunning concave roof of the Dulles terminal, designed by Eero Saarinen, come into view. Air Traffic Control (ATC) instructed Peter to plan to intercept the approach to Runway 19R and encouraged him several times to keep up his speed but the Arrow only cruised at 130 knots. As we approached the turn to final for 19R, ATC suddenly directed us to quickly continue east and turn onto the approach to 19L on the other side of the airport. We figured we might be in the way of airline traffic and indeed were. As we touched down in our little Piper Arrow on 19L, a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar airliner (which cruised at 500+ knots) touched down on 19R–simultaneous landings, thankfully on parallel runways. Being squashed on landing by the L-1011 would have certainly ruined our fine day of flying.
- Dorothy Cochrane, curator, National Air and Space Museum
While it might come as a bit of a shock, the topics of aviation and sharks rarely intersect here at the National Air and Space Museum. (Sure we have some nifty nose art, but admit it; connecting these two subjects in any way, shape, or form is really quite a stretch!) Luckily, just in time for Shark Week, the NASM Archives accessioned a new item into its collection: The Harry Bingham Brown Scrapbook (Acc. No. 2014-0038)!
While rehousing this new accession I came across a newspaper article dated September 23, 1913, (unconfirmed, but possibly from the The Island Patriot of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island) in which Harry Bingham Brown gives his account of a harrowing solo flight he completed while giving an aviation exhibition at the Puerto Rico Insular Fair:
Last February, for instance, he was down at Porto Rico [sic], giving an exhibition of flying for the Porto Rico Insular Fair. This was the first flight ever made there. He started to fly from the city of San Juan and out around Moro Castle [sic]. This castle is situated on a precipitous height and there is a sheer drop of one thousand feet from the top of the tower to the water. When several thousand feet in the air, he got caught in a whirlpool or eddy of air, caused by the great height of this castle. Although the machine was going at top speed, he tried to send it higher, but it was impossible. He found himself dropping, dropping, dropping. He felt, as it were, the seat on which he was sitting leaving him, and as if he was sitting on air for a short time. He thought that he was high enough to dodge the eddy, but he had mis-calculated his distance. He was steadily drawn by the aerial maelstrom until within two hundred feet of the water.
He said to himself “this is the last flight for me. I can do nothing, only sit and wait. I would not have minded meeting death in an ordinary way, but I could see beneath me the sharks, waiting to make a meal of me.”
(At this point the sharks were very numerous as the drainage from a packing factory passed by there and the “man eaters” were always on the wait for the offal.)
“Finally, when I thought it was all up with me,” said Mr. Brown, “the machine passed over the spot and I flew level, clear over the town just skimming the palace, I could see the crowds of Porto Ricans and Spaniards gazing up at me. I covered in that flight, about twenty-five or thirty miles and finally landed and got back to the fair grounds from where I started. If my motor had stopped, I would not be here to tell the story.”
It isn’t clear if the crowds of onlookers gazing up at Brown were aware of the pilot’s dread, but he, and his then fiancée, were certainly rattled by his brush with death. A few months after this story was printed, in the summer of 1914, Harry Bingham Brown retired from the aviation world at the behest of his fiancée. I’m sure we can all agree that love bites far less than a swarm of hungry sharks!
While this ad might seem a bit stale and underwhelming by today’s standards, it’s important to remember that in the early days of aviation, adventuresome pilots, like Harry Bingham Brown, commonly brought the thrill of flight to curious crowds attending fairs, airshows, and a variety of other events.
With A. Leo Stevens, famous balloonist and aviation promoter, as his manager, Brown gained associations with other pioneering aviators, such as George W. Beatty, Harry Atwood, Ruth Law, and her husband, Frederick Rodman Law. With Brown at the controls of his Wright biplane, Rodman Law pulled off many daring parachute jumps. Stevens recognized how he could monetize the duo’s ability to awe crowds with the bold stunt, so their act was often publicized in magazines like Aeronautics.
Here are a few more glimpses of the photographs that were accessioned with Brown’s scrapbook:
Interested in learning more about Harry Bingham Brown and other Early Birds of Aviation? Visitors can make an appointment to view our collections in the Archives’ Reading Room.
Amanda Buel is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department.
Henry “Hank” Hartsfield served as commander of the first mission of Space Shuttle Discovery, now on display at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The six-day STS-41D mission began on August 30, 1984. An earlier launch attempt ended with the first on-the-pad abort just four seconds before launch. The first Discovery crew successfully deployed three communications satellites, tested a towering solar array, and used the IMAX® motion picture camera in orbit.
Hartsfield was the first native of Alabama to become an astronaut. He graduated from the USAF Test Pilot School and served in the Air Force for 22 years. He logged more than 7,400 hours flying time, mostly in fighter jets (F-86, F-100, F-104, F-105, F-106) and in the T-33 and T-38 training jets. He was selected to be a military astronaut in the USAF Manned Orbital Laboratory program but was reassigned to NASA in 1969 when it was cancelled.
As an astronaut Hartsfield supported the Apollo 16 mission and three Skylab missions before transitioning to the orbital flight test team for the new space shuttle program. His first spaceflight occurred in 1982; with commander Thomas K. Mattingly, he piloted Columbia on its fourth and final orbital test flight, STS-4. President Ronald Reagan greeted the crew upon landing, and NASA declared the shuttle “operational” – ready for routine spaceflight.
The Discovery mission was his second flight. Hartsfield flew his last shuttle mission on Challenger as commander of STS-61A in 1985, the last successful flight of this vehicle. This scientific research mission carried more than 75 experiments. Designated Spacelab D-1, it was the first shuttle mission operated for Germany and the European Space Agency, and it was the first with an eight-member crew. Altogether he spent 483 hours (20 days) in space.
After the 1986 Challenger tragedy, Hartsfield held a series of NASA management positions until 1998. He worked on the International Space Station program and the future-oriented Human Exploration and Development of Space enterprise before moving on to become an executive with Raytheon Corp. until his retirement in 2005. He received numerous military and civilian awards during his long career.
Valerie Neal is a curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Department.
The navigator and last surviving crew member of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, passed away on July 28, 2014. On August 6, 1945, he guided the bomber to Hiroshima, Japan, the target of the first atomic bomb to be used in combat. Van Kirk’s experience during World War II illustrated the contributions of countless Americans trained to perform highly-specialized jobs, their role in the overall outcome of the war, and one man’s part in a pivotal moment in human history.
Born in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, in February 1921, Van Kirk attended Susquehanna College before entering the U.S. Army Air Forces cadet training program in October 1941. He received his officer’s commission and navigator’s wings the following April and joined the Eighth Air Force’s 97th Bombardment Group in England. Van Kirk was the navigator aboard the 97th’s lead B-17 Flying Fortress, called the Red Gremlin and commanded by pilot Paul Tibbets with Tom Ferebee serving as bombardier. They led the group on its first strategic bombing missions over Europe and North Africa. They also performed special missions including transporting generals Mark Clark and Dwight Eisenhower to their needed locations in anticipation of the critical North African campaign during the fall of 1942. After 58 missions, Van Kirk returned to the United States in June 1943 to serve as a navigation instructor.
Van Kirk reunited with Tibbets and Ferebee in late 1944 to become the lead navigator for the 509th Composite Group, the world’s first atomic bombing force. After months of intensive training at Wendover, Utah, the 509th deployed to Tinian in the Marianas chain in the western Pacific in anticipation of attacking Imperial Japan. On August 6, 1945, Enola Gay followed the 1,500-mile route planned by Van Kirk to deliver an atomic bomb, called Little Boy, to the target city, Hiroshima. Planning the mission required the skilled use of navigational techniques and equipment ranging from the use of a sextant to a LORAN oscilloscope. Another 509th B-29 called Bockscar dropped the atomic bomb, Fat Man, on Nagasaki three days later. On August 15, a recorded radio address by Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies.
Van Kirk earned the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in World War II. After the war, Van Kirk and the 509th participated in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll under Operation Crossroads. He left the Army Air Forces shortly thereafter. Van Kirk attended Bucknell University, worked as a marketing executive for the DuPont Company, and raised a family. In his later years, Van Kirk shared his perspective on his service with the 509th as a voice for the World War II generation and its views on the use of atomic weapons.
Jeremy Kinney is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.