It started already with the first drones developed before, during and after the WWII. The US Army Air Corps, and later the US Air Force, considered themselves always as „Air Forces for pilots“, thus anything that had something to do with aircraft without pilots was simply despised. Many programs for development of pilot-less aircraft were shut down almost as soon as they were started, before the correct terminology for drones was found: „Remotely Piloted Vehicle“. This actually didn’t helped drones to be more accepted by the USAF, however they were at least tolerated and the continuous development of drones for the USAF became a go-ahead during the 1950s. The final break-trough came only during the early 1960s, when several losses of U-2 reconnaissance planes over the USSR, China and Cuba forced Americans to find the ways of learning more about Soviet S-172/SA-2 SAM systems.
[Firebee drones deployed to Vietnam…]
Immediately drones showed immense capabilities and adaptability. The simplest AQM-34H variant - of the project „Litter Bug“ - was used for dropping leaflets. However, advanced models, foremost AQM-34L/Ms (project „Buffalo Hunter“) were equipped with Doppler-radars, precise LORAN-nav-systems and recce cameras, including a TV-camera capable of transmitting pictures to carrier aircraft in „real-time“. The AQM-34Q and AQM-34Rs were designed for operations at high altitudes, but - generally - all versions could relatively simply be equipped with modules for a very wide range of missions, including ELINT, SIGINT, jamming, photo-reconnaissance (especially at low level), real-time televised reconnaissance and leaflet-dropping. The guidance system automatically controlled the height, course, power setting of the engine and the recovery systems. Usual AQM-34 for use at low levels had a span between 3.96 and 4.57mm. For missions at high altitude, however, wings of between 8.23m and 9.14m span could be attached. Early drones had a length of 7.92m, but this grew to 9.75m on later versions. Initial engines were not very powerful at only 771 or 871kg thrust, but later better - with up to 1.27 tonnes - were added. Several models were also capable of carrying drop tanks under the fuselage or wings. […]
Due to their excellent capabilities in low-level missions, highly upgraded AQM-34L became the most successful of all Firebee variants. Drones of this version flew no less than 1.600 missions over North Vietnam. Several examples of AQM-34L, namely, „Tomcat“ (68 missions, shot down by Vietnamese AAA), „Budweiser“ (63 missions), „Rayan’s Daughter“ (52 missions) and „Baby Buck“ (46 missions) became unbelievably successful and survived some of most fascinating adventures of this war. All their missions were properly marked by „mission-signs“ on the right side of the fuselage. This is the story of some of their missions. […]
But the drones themselves developed also some very unique capabilities and particular predilections. The AQM-34L, c/n 28, for example, seems to have loved both flying and water very much. During five of its six operational flights, it „disobeyed“ the order to initiate the recovery sequence and close on the waiting CH-3 helicopter, instead flying out of the recovery zone and landing in the water. During another mission, it landed in the water far away from the waiting CH-3: the recovery team took an UH-1D of the US Army and tried to salvage the drone, but the light helicopter crashed in the process. This drone was kind enough, however, to take all seven survivors on board and keep them safe until the help arrived. Nonetheless, it was christened „Super Stupid Waterbug“.
Headless Fighters: USAF Recconnaissance-UAVs over Vietnam)