'Robot Planes' at Selfridge Paved Way for Modern UAVs

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of a series of stories on heroic & historic flights that took place in the state of Michigan)

On a wintry day in suburban Detroit, before anyone serving in today's Air Force was even born, success was declared on what has since become one of the nation's most advanced airborne systems.

Then, they were called "robot planes." And on Jan. 11, 1941, the grandfathers of today's unmanned aerial vehicles burst on to the scene at Selfridge Field, Mich. Newspaper headlines heralded the news from coast to coast over the next several days.

Today, UAVs are in regular use not only for a variety of applications in the U.S. Air Force, but earlier this year the Federal Aviation Administration approved the use of "unmanned aerial systems" for certain civilian uses. In Michigan, the 110th Air Wing, which operates at Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, is in the process of transitioning to the operation of remotely piloted aircraft - the pilots of the UAVs will be based in Battle Creek, but the UAVs they fly will not be based in the state. The 110th will be operating MQ-9 Reapers, which Capt. Craig Warn, 110th public affairs officer, notes has many of the same mission-sets as the A-10 Thunderbolt II, an attack aircraft now flown at Selfridge and formerly operated at Battle Creek.

The Reapers and other modern UAVs are a far cry from those early robot planes at Selfridge way back in the months just before the U.S. entered World War II.

In January 1941, the Army Air Corps' Sixth Pursuit Wing was located at Selfridge and drew an unusual assignment, to test a group of radio-controlled planes to determine their feasibility. The idea of some type of unmanned aerial vehicle was not a new one. At least as early as the U.S. Civil War, the American military had been experimenting with various concepts. During the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies tried, without much success, to use balloons loaded with explosives to target the other side's supply and ammunitions depots.

As aviation and radio technology began improving in the 1930s, additional tests of remotely radio-controlled aircraft were called for by the U.S. military.

In 1940, several Douglas BT-2 biplanes - the training variant of the O-2 -- were modified to serve as the experimental platform. The aircraft were given an oversized tricycle-style landing gear apparatus to make take-offs and landings easier. The rear of the two cockpit locations was covered and filled with a radio receiver and the related controls that would allow the aircraft to be flown remotely. The forward of the two cockpits was left open. A human pilot would sit in the forward seat, ready to throw a switch and take over control of the aircraft in case of a malfunction.

In January 1941, four of the BT-2s were transported to what is today known as Selfridge Air National Guard Base and the pilots of the Sixth Pursuit Wing began a series of test flights. The robot planes could be controlled from another aircraft outfitted with special transmitting gear or from a truck on the ground with the same equipment.

On Jan. 11, Army leaders at Selfridge contacted the press and reported success in the tests. Stories of the new robot planes appeared in newspapers from coast to coast over the next several days.

While the tests were labeled a success by the Army - and the press noted that any planned future use of the new robot planes was a closely held military secret and no photos of the project were released - several drawbacks were noted. According to a Jan. 11 Associated Press account of the tests, two concerns were raised:
· The remote controller needed to remain in visual range of the robot plane. (Small, quality TV-style images were still many years in the future.)
· The physical separation of a skilled pilot, who has developed a sensitive touch to the operational feel of an aircraft, was of little use when flying by remote control.

The magazine Popular Mechanics reported on the project in its March 1941 edition: "The control pilot uses a wheel resembling that of a transport plane, which he manipulates as in normal flight to operate the controls of the robot plane. Coordination of the aileron and rudder controls into a single unit, which is directed by the wheel instead of foot pedals, limits maneuverability so most acrobatic stunts become impossible."

Throughout 1941 the Army continued a variety of tests on robot planes, as well as on remote-controlled target drones that could be used for aerial gunnery practice. At the same time, the Navy was conducting a number of similar tests on a variety of "flying torpedoes" and other ideas.

The search for new and better weapon systems intensified with U.S. entry into World War II in December 1941. Among the plans put into place was Operation Aphrodite in 1944. In that plan, B-17 Flying Fortresses were stripped of much of their gear and loaded with extra explosives. A pilot and co-pilot would fly the aircraft to take off and then bail out, allowing a remote pilot in a "mother ship" to take control of the B-17, turning the aircraft into a potent flying missile. Aphrodite was put into operation for about a dozen missions against German targets in the second half of 1944, with extremely limited results. The project was scrubbed in January 1945.

By the time of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, technology had evolved to a point where unmanned aerial vehicles began to become a significant part of the arsenal of the U.S. Air Force. Today's UAVs, which have played key roles in a variety of capacities in Afghanistan and Iraq, draw their lineage directly from those early tests along the shores of Lake St. Clair at Selfridge.

The robot planes experiments at Selfridge are just one of many innovations that have been tested at the air base over the years, from the use of liquid oxygen for pilots in the 1930s to the testing of a wide range of synthetic biofuels for ground equipment and aircraft in the 2000s.

Comprised of approximately 1,600 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marked its 96th year of continuous military air operations in 2013.