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BQM-34 Firebee UAV
The Ryan BQM-34 Firebee is a radio-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used primarily as a target drone. It can operate at speeds and altitudes similar to combat aircraft, and is used to test new missiles and train pilots in the use of air-to-air missiles. The Firebee can be launched from the ground or an aircraft in flight. When hit by a missile and disabled, or after finishing its mission, the Firebee returns to the ground using an onboard parachute. Since the late 1950s the Firebee has served under various designations in the U.S. Navy and Air Force.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV): Ryan BQM-34 Firebee Development
The Firebee was developed by Ryan in response to an Air Force requirement for a jet-powered aerial target drone for training purposes in August 1948. Ryan tested the first-generation drone, designated the XQ-2, in 1951. A production order was issued under the designation Q2-A Firebee. The U.S. Army and Navy ordered similar drones from Ryan.
Ryan improved the Firebee, producing a second-generation drone known as the Model 124, which first flew in late 1958. Production began in 1960, with the BQM-34A designation being given in 1963.
The BQM-34A had a larger airframe, longer wings, and a chin-shaped inlet under a pointed nose. A Continental J69-T-29A turbojet served as the powerplant. Some of these Firebees have triangular endplates on the tailplane, whereas others instead have a ventral fin under the tail or no endplate or fin. Production records are unclear about these variations.
The U.S. Army acquired a ground-launched version of the Firebee, with longer wings and a more powerful jet-assisted takeoff (JATO). This Firebee was designated the MQM-34D. The Navy also used the Firebee for its own training and testing.
The Army modified some of its MQM-34D Firebees for testing the new "Stinger" surface-to-air missile (SAM). The Army replaced the existing engine with a General Electric J85-GE-7 turbojet and reshaped the forward fuselage. These drones were designated MQM-34D Mod II.
Ryan ceased production of the BQM-34A in 1982, but then began producing BQM-34S drones in 1986.
The Navy improved its Firebees by upgrading the avionics. These Firebees flew under the designation BQM-34S. In the early 1980s the Navy also started to use the improved J69-T-41A engine. The U.S. Air Force upgraded its Firebees starting in 1989, using the J85-GE-100 engine and new avionics. By the late 1990s some Firebees even had GPS receivers installed.
The Firebee was originally launched from the air on a Lockheed DC-130 Hercules drone controller aircraft. This aircraft can carry four drones on underwing pylons. Ground-launch capacity was added to meet the needs of the Army.
The Firebee is typically recovered by a helicopter that captures the drone's parachute, reducing the risk of damage to the drone from hitting the ground. The Firebee can float for a significant period of time in case of a water landing.
The Firebee can use a variety of control systems to create fighter-level maneuverability. Other onboard systems include scoring and countermeasure systems, radar that allows the drone to emulate various combat aircraft, wingtip thermal flares that redirect heat-seeking missiles away from the engine exhaust. The Firebee can also tow various targets.
A supersonic BQM-34 known as the Model 166 Firebee II was developed in the 1960s. The Navy awarded a contract for this variant in 1965, and the first flight took place in 1968. Although different in appearance, the internal systems were similar, and the BQM-34 designation was kept. The Navy designated this variant the BQM-34E, whereas the Air Force used the designation BQM-34F.
In the 1970s the Air Force updated the BQM-34F with improved avionics, giving the new variant the designation BQM-34T.
The Firebee II had swept wings and a swept-back tailplane. Because of the small capacity of the internal fuel tank, a conformal external tank was added. The drone used this tank at subsonic speeds. A total of 286 Firebee IIs were manufactured.
In the late 1990s two Firebees were fitted with communications electronics and cameras to perform real-time intelligence and battlefield target acquisition and battle assessment. These two drones, named Argus, were used in test operations by the Air Force, with images relayed from a Nevada test range to staff in Florida.
The Firebee saw further improvement in 2005 with enhanced integrated avionics units for the autopilot. Similar upgrades to improve Firebee performance in training exercises were completed in 2010, with this variant designated the BQM-34S.
More than 7,000 BQM-34 Firebees have been produced, approximately 1,280 of which have been first-generation variants.
BQM-34 Firebee Operational History
The Firebee has been used by the Army, Air Force, and Navy as a training drone for decades. As of 2011, it is the UAV with the longest service record. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Firebees helped pilots develop air combat skills, and ground personnel learn to track, target, and kill enemy aircraft.
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, five Firebees (BQM-34-53) were used to create "chaff corridors." In addition to chaff dispensers, these Firebees had guidance systems based on GPS.
On the first night of operation, the one remaining DC-130 drone launcher available to the U.S. military was grounded. As a result, two Firebees were launched from the ground. The next night, the DC-130 was back in service, and the remaining three Firebees were launched from the air. The Firebee drones flew until they exhausted their fuel and crashed. Iraqi television incorrectly reported that the crashes were wreckage from piloted aircraft.
Characteristics of the BQM-34 Firebee
Note: Characteristics above vary depending on the Firebee variant and branch of the military using the UAV.
Recommended Books about the BQM-34 Firebee and UAVs
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