Stealth. 80,000ft. $375 Million A Copy. Did We Say This Was In 1970?

by Bill Sweetman
May 06, 2015

Black Arrow

Aviation Week's team reports from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference and show in Atlanta this week. It's a lot bigger than the first AUVS (no 'I' in those days) that I attended, in Monterey in 1982, and I'm sure it's more upbeat.

AUVS in those days was a community that had seen triumph followed by crushing defeat. Aviation Week had reported extensively on the use of what were then called remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) in Vietnam. The most prominent types used operationally were produced by Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical (TRA), based on the Firebee target drone.

By the end of the war, the Lightning Bugs - as the modified Firebees were generically nicknamed - had evolved with bigger wings and tails, more powerful engines and a variety of mission equipment, including guided missiles and precision-guided bombs. Purpose-built RPVs were in the works, including the long-endurance Compass Cope prototypes from TRA and Boeing. The business appeared to have no place to go but up.

The wartime Lightning Bugs were part of the reconnaissance community and were operated by Strategic Air Command. But with war's end, they were handed over to Tactical Air Command, and the fighter pilots knew exactly what to do with the robotic upstarts. They sent them all to the boneyard. As for the Compass Cope designs, Lockheed's Skunk Works made a successful bid to perform their intended mission with new-production U-2s. 

AUVS in 1982 was trying to figure out a recovery plan. One watchword, heard a couple of times at Monterey: "We don't want any more $2 billion RPVs". Nobody would say what RPV could possibly have run up such a startling bill. 

The guilty party was TRA's Model 154 Firefly, designated AQM-91 and codenamed Compass Arrow. Aerospace Daily had hinted at the existence of the then-secret program soon after its first flight, in June 1968, but the biggest breach in security came in August 1969 when a Firefly stopped flying, and made a parachute descent into the Los Alamos National Laboratory site - landing in a picnic area that was visible from public land. Photos taken at the time allowed Aviation Week editor Barry Miller to lead a November 1970 story on RPVs with an artist's impression and three-view of the Model 154, and a detailed description. 

Miller's story hinted at how big the project had been. This was no once-over-Hanoi lashup but a very serious effort to probe China's biggest defense secrets. The Model 154 was designed to fly higher than any subsonic aircraft, reaching over 80,000 feet on the power of a specially developed engine, the General Electric J97. A few years before anyone talked about stealth, its radar cross-section (RCS) was the lowest of any aircraft ever flown, thanks to shaping and specially developed radar-absorbent materials and structures. It also had an automatic electronic jamming system. Update: From the collection of the San Diego Air & Space Musem, this is the 67% scale RCS model, showing nose, tail and wingtip radomes and RAM/RAS insets on wings and tail:

Since the basic China reconnaissance problem started with the absence of good maps, let alone precise knowledge of where key facilities were, the Firefly's reconnaissance sensor had to take up the slack. Designed by spy camera specialist Itek, the KA-80A Optical Bar Camera was unique in its combination of resolution and area coverage. A Firefly following the track of Interstate 80 from New York City could image a strip all the way into Utah, easily wide enough to take in the entire New York and Chicago metropolitan areas (including Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports), with a peak resolution good enough to tell a mid-size from a compact car, and an off-track resolution good enough to identify aircraft types. (The KA-80A is still used on the U-2 and has been an important reason to retain the type in service.) 

The program had produced 28 aircraft when President Nixon went to China in February 1972, and promised his new friends that overflights would cease. (This was less altruistic than it seemed, given that by then the KH-9 wide-area spy satellite was on orbit and the electro-optical KH-11 was coming on well.) Compass Arrow was quickly cancelled and its assets mostly vanished, the engines disappearing into NASA storage.  But the program had indeed cost almost $2 billion in then-year dollars, or $65 million per unit. That is almost $375 million in today's money - for a 5,400-pound airplane. 

No wonder that it was, in 1982, a cautionary tale. 

Read the November 9, 1970 story:

► USAF Widens Unmanned Aircraft Effort

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