After the Second World War, the US Navy developed a pilotless drone they designated the F6F-5K, commonly known as the “Hellcat.” It had a number of functions but primarily was used as an aerial target to train Navy attack aircraft pilots. On the morning of 16 August 1956, Navy personnel at Point Mugu, California prepared one of their older drones for its final training mission. Painted a high-visibility red, it had red and yellow camera pods mounted on the wingtips.
After its radio remote control systems were checked and rechecked, the Hellcat took off at 11:34 a.m. and began to climb out over the Pacific Ocean.
Ground controllers began to maneuver the drone toward the target area when it suddenly stopped responding to radio commands.
Ahead of the unguided drone lay thousands of square miles of ocean where the Navy assumed it would eventually run out of fuel and crash. A total loss of a venerable old training tool, and a whole day of training down the drain, but no crisis.
However as the US Navy watched, the old Hellcat made a slow climbing turn to the southeast toward the city of Los Angeles. Suddenly there was a crisis and as the runaway aircraft approached this major metropolitan area, the Navy called for help.
Five miles north of NAS Point Mugu, two F-89D Scorpion twin jet planes of the 437th Fighter Interceptor Squadron were scrambled from Oxnard Air Force Base.
1Lt. Hans Einstein and his radar observer, 1Lt.C. D. Murray, leapt into their sleek war fighter. Simultaneously, 1Lt. Richard Hurliman and 1Lt. Walter Hale climbed into a second aircraft. The interceptors roared south after their target. Their orders were to shoot down the Hellcat before it caused problems or created panic on the ground.
LA loomed ahead.
Armed with wingtip-mounted rocket pods, the Scorpion was typical of the Cold War approach to countering the “Red Menace.” Each pod contained 52 Mighty Mouse 2.75-inch rockets. Salvo-launched, the Mighty Mouse did not have to have precision guidance – large numbers of rockets would be fired into approaching Soviet bomber formations to overwhelm them with sheer numbers.
This day, their target would not be a squadron of Soviet bombers. It would be that one wayward single engine old US Navy drone.
Einstein and Hurliman caught up with the Hellcat at 30,000 feet, northeast of Los Angeles. They watched as the drone slowly turned southwest, crossing over the city, then headed northwest. Zigzagging on its own. As the Hellcat began to circle lazily over Santa Paula, the interceptor crews waited impatiently. As soon as it passed over an unpopulated area, they would fire their rockets.
When the interceptor pilots thought the time was right, they flicked switches to fire their pods automatically. Nothing happened. They re-set the switches to fire again. Nothing. (Problem was later found to be a design flaw in both aircraft.)
The drone turned northeast, passing Fillmore and Frazier Park. It now appeared to be heading toward the sparsely populated western end of the Antelope Valley. Then suddenly, it turned southeast toward Los Angeles again.
Time seemed to be running out. Einstein and Hurliman decided to abandon the automatic modes and fire manually.
Murry and Hale’s interceptors made its first attack run as the Hellcat crossed the mountains near Castaic. Their intervalometers set to “ripple fire” the rockets in two salvos, the crew lined up their target and fired, missing the target completely.
The rockets blazed passed the drone and plunged earthward to spark brush fires seven miles north of Castaic. 150 acres of woodland above the old Ridge Route near Bouquet Canyon were decimated.
The second interceptor made a diving run at the drone and unleashed a salvo.
Which also completely missed the target.
It’s spent rockets rained down near the town of Newhall. One bounced across the ground, leaving a string of fires in its wake between the Oak of the Golden Dream Park and the Placerita Canyon oilfield. The fires ignited several oil sumps and burned 100 acres of brush. For a while the blazes raged out of control, threatening the nearby Bermite Powder Company explosives plant. The rockets from this salvo also ignited a fire in the vicinity of Soledad Canyon, west of Mt. Gleason , burning over 350 acres of heavy brush.
Meanwhile, the errant drone meandered north toward Palmdale. The Scorpion crews readjusted their intervalometers and each fired a final salvo each, expending their remaining rockets.
208 rockets total.
Not a single one hit the target.
The obsolete, unpiloted, unguided, unarmed, propeller-driven drone flew on, unscathed, completely oblivious to the attack.
Downtown Palmdale, Edna Carlson was at home with her six-year-old son William when a chunk of shrapnel burst through her front window, bounced off the ceiling, pierced a wall, and finally came to rest in a pantry cupboard. Another fragment passed through J. R. Hingle’s garage and home, nearly hitting Mrs. Lilly Willingham as she sat on the couch. A Leona Valley teenager, Larry Kempton, was driving west on Palmdale Boulevard with his mother in the passenger seat when a rocket exploded on the street in front of him. Fragments blew out his left front tire, and put numerous holes in the radiator, hood, windshield, and the firewall.
On the outskirts of Palmdale the drone finally, mercifully, ran out of fuel. The engine sputtered and stopped. The drone started a slow wobbly spiral down toward an unpopulated patch of desert eight miles east of Palmdale Airport, where it crashed but did not burn.
The two state-of-art Scorpion interceptors and their 4 Top Gun pilots made a final pass over Palmdale – fires from their rockets burning behind them for as far as they could see – before returning to their base.
Over 500 firemen and policemen called to the scene watched them go… and wondered what the hell had just happened.