Teledyne Ryan Firebee

In 1948 the USAF issued a requirement for a jet powered aerial target, designated Q-2, capable of high subsonic speed for use in ground-to-air and air-to-air gunnery and in August that year it was announced that Ryan was the winner of the competition. Ryan first flew their XQ-2 drone in early 1951 and later that year began mass production of the drone now known as the Q-2A Firebee – the US Navy and Army also order similar versions of the same drone. Powered by a Continental J69-T-19 turbojet, the Q-2A was launched into the air by an Aerojet General X102F solid-fuelled rocked. The drone was recovered by a two-stage parachute system that would activate if the drone was hit or it suffered an equipment failure.

Teledyne Ryan Firebee Model 147

Ryan continued to develop the Firebee drone and in 1960 put into production the Q-2C drone which had a larger airframe, a chin engine intake and longer wings. The Q-2C drone remains almost unchanged to this day and is still the standard Firebee I subsonic drone configuration. Further developments introduced higher altitude versions, air launched versions and versions with higher performance and to date over 6500 Firebee I have been delivered to the US armed forces. Production of the latest version for the USAF, the BQM-167A Skeeter, began in 2004. Various supersonic versions of the Firebee have also been produced and these versions are known as Firebee II’s.

Lockheed DC-130 Hercules carrying Teledyne Ryan Firebees

By 1961 the success of the Firebee target drones resulted in the USAF instructing Ryan to develop a reconnaissance version of the BQM-34A under Project Fire Fly. This resulted in the Firebee Model 147A which first flew in 1962, the drone also used the same Continental J69-T-29 engine and appeared identical to the standard BQM-34A, but actually had a new navigation system and greater fuel capacity. Like all subsequent versions of this drone, it was air-launched from underneath the wing of a specially modified Lockheed DC-130 Hercules. Tests of the Model 147A were successful and the aircraft was designated the AQM-34 and various versions of this drone were flown over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, although not all versions were given an AQM designation.

Various configurations were tried in the early versions of the reconnaissance varient and these were known as Models 147B-G. The most significant models were given different USAF designations:

Teledyne Ryan AQM-34N Compass Dawn

AQM-34N Compass Dawn

This high altitude version had a very large wingspan, more than three times the size of the original Firebee, that could carry additional fuel and enabled the drone to operate between 60-70,000ft and gave it a range in excess of 2,400 miles. Between Mar 1967 and Jul 1971 a total of 138 missions with AQM-34Ns were launched from DC-130 aircraft to fly pre-programmed sorties over North Vietnam and China and almost 67% were recovered. The drones were recovered by deploying a parachute that was then snatched in mid-air by a helicopter equipped with the Mid Air Retrieval System (MARS).

WuZhen WZ-5

However, several AQM-34Ns were lost over the Chinese mainland. At least one of these drones were recovered in reasonable conditions and, as they were incapable of developing the technology themselves, in 1969 Chinese engineers at the Beijing Institute of Aeronautics began reverse engineering the done into the WuZhen-5 (WZ-5) which first flew in 1972. In 1979 the WZ-5 was used to collect imagery in the Sino-Vietnam War and remains in service as their only operational unmanned drone, The WZ-5 was launched initially from under the wing of a Tu-4 Bull, a Soviet copy of the Boeing B-29 bomber and later from under the wing of the Shaanix Aircraft Company Y-8E, a Chinese copy of the Antonov An-12 Cub. By comparison with current western UAVs, the WZ-5 is obsolete and can only operate effectively in daylight and cannot data-link its imagery to a ground station. It will be interesting to see if the Chinese are able to develop a modern UAV with the capability of current western systems, or if they continue their habit of stealing and then copying technology from other countries.


This version of the RPV was a medium altitude ECM variant built as part of the Compass Bin programme. It carried active jamming or passive AN/ALE-2 chaff-dispensing pods.

Helicopter recovery


This version was optimised for low-altitude day photography and was an interim model introduced into service until the arrival of the AQM-34L.


This was a night reconnaissance version and had short wings but an uprated engine.


SA-2 SAM site

This was the most numerous variant of this RPV and was the definitive low altitude photo-reconnaissance model. Several hundred examples of the model were built under the Compass Bin and Buffalo Hunter programs. Some were equipped with a real-time TV camera and transmitter system and were known as the AQM-34L/TV. One example of the AQM-34 L known as ‘Top Cat’ completed no less than 68 successful missions over North Vietnam before it was finally lost.


This version was a AQM-34L fitted with a real-time data link system. Some examples of this model were fitted with a LORAN navigation system and were known as the AQM-34M(L) and could fly low-level missions between 200-500ft.


This version was optimised for high-altitude photo-reconnaissance and was fitted with the more powerful J100-CA-100 turbojet engine. In the event only a few high-altitude missions were flown between 1969-70. However, when an EC-121 was shot down whilst engaged on SIGINT duties near the coast of North Vietnam, it was decided to introduce a SIGINT version of the AQM-34P to allow it to undertake the dangerous SIGINT mission.



This was the SIGINT version of the AQM-34P and sported various antennas along the fuselage. The final examples were also fitted with underwing tanks to increase their range.


This was an updated version of the AQM-34Q and carried underwing tanks as standard and had improved SIGINT equipment.

These Ryan RPVs and many others made a very significant contribution to the overall reconnaissance effort during the Vietnam War. The wisdom of always having a reconnaissance aircraft make a Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) run over a target after it had just been attacked was soon exposed as an increasing number of aircraft were shot down. When the Ryan series of RPVs became operational the ability to use these unmanned RPVs for BDA and other highly dangerous duties undoubtably saved many lives. Furthermore, the use of RPVs in Vietnam demonstrated how useful these vehicle could be in combat. However, many USAF senior pilots were against unmanned aircraft on principle and after the Vietnam War did their best to stifle development of more advanced RPVs in favour of manned aircraft. It was left to the Israeli Armed Forces in the 1982 campaign in the Bekka Valley to show the rest of the world how small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) equipped with electro-optical sensors could provide near real-time reconnaissance data from high-risk areas of enemy territory.

BMG-34 in GW2

The Teledyne Ryan BMG-34 is still used on ocassions and in Gulf War II was used by the USAF to simulate manned aircraft attacking Iraq, this caused Iraqi radars to switch on and track the PRVs making the radars vunerable to attack. Although the US once again leads the world in UAV technology, they could have been even further ahead if, building on their experience with RPVs in Vietnam, the concept of UAVs had then been wholeheartedly embraced by the upper echelons of the USAF.