GEAR & TECH

This versatile drone has been around since 1952

(Jeff Quitney)

Modern drones, like the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, or even the quadcopters you can buy at your local electronics store have changed how we think about unmanned vehicles. But drones have been around a lot longer than you might think. One of the most versatile unmanned vehicles entered service in 1952 (the same year the B-52 first flew) and is still around today.


That is the BGM-34 Firebee. First built by Teledyne, Northrop Grumman now operates this versatile and venerable drone. The BGM-34C has a top speed of 472 miles per hour, a maximum range of 875 miles, and can operate as high as 50,000 feet.

The Firebee could be launched from ground, sea, or air. The C-130 is carrying two Firebees to give the crew of USS Chosin (CG 65) some practice.

(USAF photo by TSGT Michael Haggerty)

The Firebee was initially intended to serve as an aerial target. Yes, there are old fighters that serve in this role, but when you have to have enough pilots for the 1,983 tactical jets on inventory with the Air Force alone (per FlightGlobal.com's World Air Forces 2018), something has to fill the gap. Many Firebees made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that missiles worked and pilots knew how to use them.

Fortunately, many of drones can be recovered via parachute and are re-used. This saved money for the times in which pilots missed or when tests didn't involve blowing something out of the sky. But the Firebee hasn't always been a turbojet-powered clay pigeon.

While some Firebees were blown up as target drones, others were recovered and used again.

(USAF photo by TSGT Frank Garzelnick)

During the Vietnam War, some were modified for use as reconnaissance drones. Outfitted with cameras and datalinks, these drones were able to provide real-time intelligence. If they were shot down, there was no need to send in a CSAR chopper to get a pilot out. Versions were also developed for electronic warfare, and they even considered making it an anti-ship missile. The Firebee even saw use during Operation Iraqi Freedom in laying down chaff to cover modern strike aircraft.

Learn more about this versatile and venerable drone in the video below!