In August 1956, interceptor aircraft took off from Oxnard Air Force Base in Southern California in pursuit of a rogue target. In the ensuing aerial battle, rockets were fired which threatened the safety of the unassuming inhabitants below. All the while, a potential tragedy was at real risk of unfolding.
The aircraft involved were F-89D Scorpions, at that time state-of-the-art fighter jets which were employed by the U.S Air Force. Their very utilization revealed the true extent of the danger at hand. The Scorpions were, 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 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 in the air.
Thankfully, given that we are sitting here reading this, we now know that this particular Doomsday scenario was not to play out in late summer more than 60 years ago. But what was it that had provoked the U.S. Air Force to scramble two of its interceptors? Indeed, what was it that led to more than 200 rockets being fired that fateful day? The truth is rather surprising.
The story begins on August 16, 1956, at Point Mugu Naval Air Station, in Ventura County, California. The site still exists, although today it has been combined with the Naval Construction Battalion Center Port Hueneme, and is now called Naval Base Ventura County (NSVC). Notably, the base was used as a prominent filming location in the 1960 John Wayne movie North to Alaska. Ironically, the 1950 movie The Flying Missile, starring Glenn Ford, was also filmed at the base.
On the particular morning in question, no movies were being made. Instead, ground staff were preparing a F6F-5K Hellcat drone for launch. The unmanned craft’s destination was the Pacific Ocean area that was used by the U.S. Navy for missile testing. Unfortunately, the drone, painted in distinctive scarlet to aid visibility, was never to reach its intended target area.
What was a F6F-5K Hellcat drone exactly, and what was its mission that day? A little background is required. At this time, the U.S. military was concerned about the potential dangers posed by Soviet bombers and missiles. For this reason, the development of air-to-air, as well as surface-to-air, missiles was a primary focus. 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.
And so the unmanned drone, intended as the target in a test scenario, was launched at 11:34 a.m., under the control of its remote device. However, within moments, it became obvious that there was a malfunction of some sort. In short, the F6F-5K was no longer under control, and had in essence gone rogue.
Immediately Navy personnel had to assess the nature of the threat. The drone itself was not fitted with any missiles or additional explosive equipment. However, a crash in a populated area had the potential to cause serious damage and loss of life. Seeing as the city of Los Angeles was nearby, this was a distinct possibility.
Almost instantly the F6F-5K began to bank to the left, taking it on an immediate course for Los Angeles, situated to the south-east of the base. Without any aircraft to intercept the drone, and fearful of the runaway crashing into an urban area, Navy personnel contacted Oxnard Air Force Base seeking immediate assistance. Fortunately, Oxnard was situated only 5m, or 8km, away.
It is worth noting that another major concern in U.S. military circles at this time was the threat posed by Soviet bombers such as the Myasishchev M-4 and Tupolev Tu-16. To combat them, aircraft such as the Northrop F-89D Scorpion had been developed. No one could have envisaged F-89Ds being utilized against a craft launched by the U.S. Navy, however.
At Oxnard was the 437th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. 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. The first F-89D was piloted by First Lt. Hans Einstein, accompanied by First Lt. C.D. Murray, while the second aircraft was flown by First Lt. Richard Hurliman, accompanied by First Lt. Walter Hale.
The first job of the crews was to catch up with the runaway drone. After using their afterburners, the Scorpions met the F6F-5K while it was still clear of Los Angeles. However, the drone soon turned again and crossed over the city, rendering it impossible for the flight crews to act. The jets were 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 an air-to-air rocket that was primarily designed to intercept enemy bombers: it was an air-to-air missile of some force. Although powerful enough to down an enemy bomber, the ‘Mighty Mouse’ was also an inaccurate weapon. Unfortunately, this was to prove the case 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 had to wait to take their chance when the F6F-5K moved into an airspace with uninhabited terrain below. Then there was the question of how best to tackle the threat: either by using a ‘tail chase’ tactic where the rockets are fired from directly behind, or via a 90-degree angle of attack. As the drone was consistently banking, the crews decided on the latter approach.
Certainly one advantage 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.
For when the pilots attempted to fire the rockets automatically, there was no response. A previously unknown design flaw had in fact rendered the weapon’s targeting system useless. As the drone was currently flying over the mostly uninhabited Antelope Valley, now was the best chance to unleash their load. Yet despite their continued efforts, the automated system would not respond. The only option left was to move to a manual fire option.
Already hamstrung by the technical deficiency in the radar-guided system, the crews faced further obstacles. The drone had once again altered its course, and 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 was 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 aim. The next decision was whether to fire all of the F-89D’s rockets in one go (deploying in an impressive 0.4 seconds), or use a ripple-firing system, which would see the rockets unleashed in two or three waves. Both crews decided on a triple-wave-salvo attack, giving them three attempts each at bringing down the drone.
With the drone once again heading back towards Los Angeles, the pilots were running out of time to act. With this in mind, both jets 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.
While those initial salvos were mightily close to bringing down the rogue drone, the difficulty of the interception was becoming clear. Some of the 84 rockets passed within a whisker of their intended target, and in one or two cases the missiles in fact grazed the fuselage of the drone. None, however, managed a direct hit.
The prey and its pursuers were now approaching the suburban area of Newhall. Both jets made another attempt to bring down the unmanned craft, and a total of 64 rockets were unleashed this time, but again to no avail. As both crews were operating a three-wave rocket attack, they now had one last chance each: a combined 60 rockets with which to bring down their quarry.
It was Last-Chance-Saloon time. 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 were launched. However, the missiles whizzed past their target, failing to land a direct hit. The Scorpions were 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 headed back to Oxnard.
The threat still existed, and at this stage the drone was heading towards the urban center of Palmdale. Fortunately for everyone that fateful day, however, the Hellcat too was short on fuel and began to circle downwards. 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. According to eyewitness reports,one wing of the Hellcat pitched into the earth, and the drone’s fuselage was sent into a cartwheel which caused the craft to disintegrate upon impact. And that was that.
No one was killed by the drone, which had thankfully fallen back to earth in an unpopulated area. As for the cause of the incident, failures of either the transmitter and/or the aircraft’s remote receiver were mooted as possible explanations. Viewed alongside the design flaw in the Scorpion’s rocket fire-control systems, it’s fair to say it hadn’t been a good day for U.S. military technology.
But that wasn’t quite the end of this story. What of all those 208 rockets that the F-89D Scorpions had unleashed? That is a serious amount of firepower that had been launched 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 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 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 and their velocity decreased. In the event, however, only 15 of the 208 rockets were found undetonated.
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. 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 came within 300ft of an explosives factory on the outskirts of the town.
Further damage was caused to the city of Palmdale, which has subsequently lent its name to the incident. Newspaper 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.” She 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, one teen driver had a lucky escape when debris from one of the rockets smashed through his windscreen. Miraculously, like everyone else affected by the unintentional aerial bombardment, he was left unharmed by the experience.
All in all, it took 500 hundred firefighters two days to put out all the blazes started by the rockets fired from the Scorpions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the unmanned drone ended up taking down nothing more than a few power lines with it. Ironically the interceptor jets scrambled to prevent a catastophe eventually caused considerably more damage than the rogue drone.
As well as the scorched land, a large amount of property was damaged or destroyed. Although the story was reported by local press outlets at the time, 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 wasn’t the first time that these types of drones had been used by the U.S. Navy. “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, Einstein and Hurliman, 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 there was an incident involving an unmanned drone in Afghanistan which failed to respond to controls, although this time 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, 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, 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.