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Meet The Grandfather Of Today’s Reaper And Predator Drones: The Ryan Lightning Bug

Operation Fire Fly Proved Photo Reconnaissance Could Be Done Remotely With Stealthy Tech

Official US Air Force Photograph

Operation Fire Fly was a 1962 test of the Ryan (later Teledyne-Ryan) 147D Lightning Bug drone aircraft modified to perform photographic reconnaissance. This film, produced by Ryan in conjunction with the Air Force, explains how each aspect and phase of the entire operation was prosecuted and how the Lightning Bug performed as a photo-recon platform. Two 147D drones, developed from Ryan’s hugely successful Firebee target drone, were utilized to fly a total of five missions flown from MacDill Air Force Base (AFB) in Florida over the Caribbean Sea and from the test ranges near Eglin and Tyndall AFBs over the Gulf of Mexico. These 147Ds were unarmed but Ryan had already successfully used drones for remote weapon release.

The Lightning Bug was a stealthier version of the Firebee, with longer wings for higher altitude flight and longer range with radar absorbing material (RAM) incorporated into its design. Air Force Douglas C-124 Globemaster II transports were used to fly the drones and test equipment to MacDill AFB for the initial tests. Lockheed DC-130A Hercules drone controller aircraft were used to control the drones during the test flights. Sikorsky CH-37 Mojave helicopters were used to recover the drones post-flight and return them for re-conditioning and re-use. Thanks to YouTuber Jeff Quitney for uploading this comprehensive look at some of the early tech that was eventually developed into the UAVs of today.

Official US Air Force Photograph

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.