In August 1956 interceptor aircraft took off from Oxnard Air Force Base in Southern California in pursuit of a rogue target. And in the ensuing aerial battle, rockets were fired that threatened the safety of the unassuming inhabitants below. All the while, too, a potential disaster was at real risk of unfolding.
The aircraft involved were F-89D Scorpions, which at the time were state-of-the-art fighter jets employed by the U.S. Air Force. And the very utilization of the jets revealed the true extent of the danger at hand. The Scorpion was, after all, contemporaneously described as “the most heavily armed interceptor in the air force.”
And lest we forget, this was the Cold War era – and also the time of the “Second Red Scare” in America. International tensions were therefore heightened all around the globe, and the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union was particularly fraught. The threat of nuclear war hung heavy in the air.
Thankfully, of course, we now know that this particular Doomsday scenario in the late summer of more than 60 years ago was not to play out. But what was it that had provoked the U.S. Air Force to scramble two of its interceptors in the first place? And why were over 200 rockets fired on that fateful day, anyway? Well, the truth is rather surprising.
The story begins on August 16, 1956, at Point Mugu Naval Air Station in Ventura County, California. Interestingly, this base was used as a prominent filming location in the 1960 John Wayne movie North to Alaska. And the 1950 movie The Flying Missile, starring Glenn Ford, had also filmed at the station. The site actually still exists too. Today, however, the station has been combined with the Naval Construction Battalion Center Port Hueneme and is called Naval Base Ventura County (NSVC).
On the particular morning in question, though, no movies were being made. Instead, ground staff were preparing a F6F-5K Hellcat drone for launch. The unmanned craft’s destination was the section of the Pacific Ocean that the U.S. Navy used for missile testing. Unfortunately, however, the drone – painted in distinctive scarlet to aid visibility – was never to reach its intended target area.
But perhaps a little background information is required first. At this time, you see, the U.S. military was concerned about the potential dangers of Soviet bombers and missiles. And partly for this reason, the development of air-to-air – as well as surface-to-air – missiles was a primary focus. So unmanned craft in the shape of the F6F-5K, or Grumman F6F-5K Hellcat to use its full name, were used in order to test the effectiveness of these new weapons.
In this scenario, then, the Hellcat was intended as the target in a test. The aircraft was consequently launched at 11:34 a.m., under the control of its remote device. Within moments, however, it became obvious that there was a malfunction of some sort. In fact, the F6F-5K was no longer under control – and had in essence gone rogue.
Navy personnel had to immediately assess the nature of the threat. Fortunately, the drone itself was not fitted with any missiles or additional explosive equipment. Yet a crash in a populated area had the potential to cause serious damage and loss of life. Seeing as Los Angeles was situated to the south-east of the base, then, Navy staff were likely on high alert.
And almost instantly the F6F-5K began to bank to the left – taking it on a direct course for Los Angeles. The Navy, without any aircraft with which to intercept the drone, grew fearful of the runaway crashing into an urban area. Personnel therefore contacted Oxnard Air Force Base – situated around five miles away – seeking immediate assistance.
It is also worth noting that at this time another major concern in U.S. military circles was the threat of Soviet bombers such as the Myasishchev M-4 and Tupolev Tu-16. And to combat them, the armed forces had developed aircraft such as the Northrop F-89D Scorpion. No one could have envisaged F-89Ds being utilized against a drone launched by the U.S. Navy, however.
So at Oxnard the 437th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron was on hand. And in response to the call from the U.S. Navy at NAS Point Mugu, two high-spec F-89D Scorpions were rapidly dispatched. Each jet was manned by two personnel: the pilot and a radar observer. First Lt. Hans Einstein, accompanied by First Lt. C.D. Murray, piloted the first F-89D, while First Lt. Richard Hurliman, accompanied by First Lt. Walter Hale, flew the second.
The first job of the crews was to catch up with the runaway drone. So, after using their afterburners, the Scorpions met the F6F-5K while it was still clear of Los Angeles. But then the drone turned again and crossed over the city – rendering it impossible for the flight crews to act. The jets were actually fitted with 2.75-inch folding-fin rockets – each known colloquially as a “Mighty Mouse” after the popular cartoon character – but these posed an obvious civilian risk.
The Mighty Mouse was, you see, an air-to-air rocket that was primarily designed to intercept enemy bombers. Yet although the Mighty Mouse was powerful enough to down an enemy bomber, it was also an inaccurate weapon. And this fact was unfortunately to come into play for the F-89D Scorpion flight crews that day.
Yet firing any rockets was completely out of the question while the drone continued to circle over populated areas. The crews therefore had to wait to take their chance when the F6F-5K moved into an airspace with uninhabited terrain below. And then there was also the question of how best to tackle the threat. One option was using a “tail chase” tactic where the rockets are fired from directly behind. Another involved a 90-degree angle of attack. The drone was consistently banking, though, so the crews decided on the latter approach.
Certainly, one advantage that the crews held was the sheer firepower with which the F-89D Scorpions were fitted: 104 rockets per aircraft. Yet set against this was a further unexpected development on that fateful August morning. It was a twist set to make the airmen’s task still more unenviable.
The drone began to fly over the mostly uninhabited Antelope Valley – presenting the crews with the best chance to unleash their loads. But when the pilots attempted to fire the rockets automatically, there was no response. It turned out that a previously unknown design flaw had in fact rendered the weapons’ targeting systems useless. So the only choice left was to move to a manual fire option.
Yet the crews faced even further obstacles. The drone had once again altered its course, you see, and it was heading back towards Los Angeles. Also, despite the fact that the Scorpions had at one time possessed gun sights for manual firing, that equipment had actually been removed when the automated fire-control system had been added.
So the attackers were now faced with a situation where they had to fire the rockets using manual aims. And the next decision was whether to fire all of the F-89Ds’ rockets in one go (deploying them in an impressive 0.4 seconds) or to use a ripple-firing system, which would see the rockets unleashed in two or three waves. Both crews subsequently decided on triple-wave-salvo attacks – giving them three attempts each at bringing down the drone.
But with the drone once again heading back towards Los Angeles, the pilots were running out of time to act. Both jets therefore unleashed an initial volley of 42 rockets each. That is a total of 84 rockets – all of which failed to incapacitate the bright red F6F-5K Hellcat. The drone flew onwards.
Those initial failed salvos highlighted the difficulty of the interception too. Some of the 84 rockets had passed within a whisker of their intended target, after all, and in one or two cases the missiles in fact grazed the fuselage of the drone. None, however, managed a direct hit.
And the prey and its pursuers were now approaching the suburban area of Newhall. So both jets made another attempt to bring down the unmanned craft – and a total of 64 rockets were unleashed this time around. Unfortunately, though, it was again to no avail. The crews now had one last chance each: a combined 60 rockets with which to bring down their quarry.
So, as the drone flew in a north-easterly trajectory towards the town of Palmdale, pilots Einstein and Hurliman made their final attack runs. Two final salvos of 30 rockets each were subsequently launched. However, the missiles whizzed past their target – failing to land a direct hit. The Scorpions were now out of rockets, and the drone was still airborne.
There was nothing else the crews of the Scorpions could do. All of the jets’ rockets had been expended in dogged pursuit of the drone through the skies of Southern California – but to no avail. By now running virtually on fumes, the two interceptor jets therefore headed back to Oxnard.
The threat still existed, though, and at this stage the drone was heading towards the urban center of Palmdale. Fortunately for everyone that fateful day, however, the Hellcat was also short on fuel and began to circle downwards. And it eventually crashed down in a desert setting eight miles east of Palmdale Regional Airport. Hence the episode’s nickname: “The Battle of Palmdale.”
When the drone crashed, three electricity cables were cut. And according to eyewitness reports, one wing of the Hellcat pitched into the Earth. The drone’s fuselage was then reportedly sent into a cartwheel, which caused the craft to disintegrate upon impact.
Fortunately, the drone, which had fallen back to Earth in an unpopulated area, claimed no human lives that day. As for the cause of the incident, people mooted failures of either the transmitter and/or the aircraft’s remote receiver as possible explanations. Viewed alongside the design flaw in the Scorpion’s rocket fire-control systems, though, it’s fair to say that it hadn’t been a good day for U.S. military technology.
But that wasn’t quite the end of this story. After all, the F-89D Scorpions had unleashed 208 rockets – a serious amount of firepower – into Southern California. Surely some damage had been caused on the ground when all those rockets missed their intended target?
Indeed, there was. In fact, a trail of destruction had been left in the wake of the mid-air pursuit. The worst damage caused by the falling rockets was actually fire: in total, nearly 1,000 acres were burned in the vicinity of the aerial battle. But even that fact only tells half the story.
The Scorpions’ rockets were in fact armed with warheads which were point-detonating – meaning that, in theory, they exploded upon impact. However, those same rockets were also supposed to be automatically deactivated if they missed their targets and their velocities decreased. In the actual event, though, only 15 of the 208 rockets were found undetonated.
Yet aside from the potential panic and confusion undetonated rockets might cause, there was the small matter of those that did in fact explode. The second salvo from the Scorpions came to Earth not far from Newhall, after all. And according to eyewitnesses, one rocket bounced several times and started a fire near a park. What’s more, the blaze caused by other exploding rockets apparently came within 300 feet of an explosives factory on the outskirts of the town.
Further damage was also caused to the city of Palmdale, which has subsequently lent its name to the incident. The Los Angeles Times quoted local resident Edna Carlson as saying, “As the drone passed over Palmdale’s downtown, Mighty Mouse rockets fell like hail.” Carlson added that shrapnel from one of the Scorpion’s rockets actually entered her home through the front window and ended up in a kitchen cupboard.
Cars were also damaged. According to local newspaper reports in the subsequent days, for instance, a teen driver had a lucky escape when debris from one of the rockets smashed through his windscreen. Yet miraculously, he, like everyone else affected by the unintentional aerial bombardment, was left unharmed by the experience.
All in all, though, it took 500 firefighters two days to put out all the blazes started by the rockets fired from the Scorpions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but the unmanned drone itself ended up taking down nothing more than a few power lines with it. Yet it was ironically the interceptor jets scrambled to prevent a catastrophe that had eventually caused the damage.
And in addition to scorching the land, the rockets damaged or destroyed a large amount of property. Yet the story has been largely forgotten today – and it only recently resurfaced after Peter Merlin, an aviation archaeologist, came across the tale while researching old newspaper articles about aircraft experiments. “It was just such a bizarre story,” Merlin told the BBC in August 2016.
This hadn’t been the first time that these types of drones had been used by the U.S. Navy, though. “They used some of them during atomic bomb tests, to fly the drones into atomic clouds and collect samples,” added Merlin. And in fact, Merlin and another expert, Tony Moore, even managed to locate the crash site of the Palmdale drone, as recently as 1997.
As for the pilots of the Scorpions, Doug Barrie, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, believes they should escape censure. “You’ve got these two vehicles moving in three dimensions, and you’re firing an unguided rocket which is itself moving along at a fair old lick. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, and the more you miss, the harder it gets,” he told the BBC in 2016.
Events over Palmdale are also not the only example of runaway aircraft causing serious problems to the U.S. Air Force. In 2009, for instance, there was an incident involving an unmanned drone in Afghanistan that failed to respond to controls. This time, though, the drone in question – a modern Reaper model – was successfully shot down.
As for NAS Point Mugu, the launch site for the Hellcat, allegedly this was not the only missile-related event related to the base to cause concern. In November 2015, in fact, local papers reported a degree of panic among local residents due to a missile that was rumored to have been launched from Point Mugu. The incident remains shrouded in uncertainty, however.
These days, of course, civilian drones are hitting the headlines on a regular basis. London’s Gatwick Airport experienced three days of disruptions due to drone activity in December 2018, for instance, with 1,000 flights and 140,000 passengers affected. But as we now know, the Battle of Palmdale proves British aviation authorities were far from the first to have been led on a merry dance by drone technology.