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The World’s First Drone Flew For The First Time 98 Years Ago Today

Kettering bug flew back before there was even an FAA to regulate the skies.

The Kettering Bug was launched from a four-wheeled dolly on movable tracks.

The world’s first drone was a crude cruise missile that could hit a target up to 75 miles away.

Germany’s V-1 “Buzz Bomb” was an early version of a cruise missile, but not the first! In 1918 during World War I, the US Army contracted Charles Kettering of Dayton, Ohio to design and build an “aerial torpedo” with the capability to strike targets up to 75 miles away, flying at a speed of 50 mph. Kettering hired Orville Wright as his aeronautical consultant for the development of what would be called the “Kettering Bug.”

The biplane design looked like a big model airplane, 12.5 feet long with a wing span of 15 feet. It was powered by a 40-horsepower, four-cylinder De Palma engine manufactured by Ford Motor Company. The airframe was made of wood laminates and paper papier-mâché. The wings were covered with cardboard.

Full-scale model of the Kettering Aerial Torpedo on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
Full-scale model of the Kettering Aerial Torpedo on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

The aircraft was launched from a four-wheeled dolly-and-track system similar to that used by the Wright brothers for their first successful flights at Kitty Hawk.

The challenge was to be able to launch the aircraft and have it travel to, and strike, a specific target carrying 180 pounds of explosive. The challenge was to be able to control the aircraft’s track to the target. The solution was ingenious.

Prior to launch, technicians would plot the precise distance to the intended target and also determine the aircraft’s heading based on wind direction and airspeed. This information was used to determine the number of engine revolutions required to travel to the target.

The Kettering Bug was launched from a four-wheeled dolly on movable tracks.
The Kettering Bug was launched from a four-wheeled dolly on movable tracks.

Once launched, a small onboard gyroscope guided the aircraft toward its destination. To maintain altitude and direction, the system used a pneumatic/vacuum system, an electric control system, and an aneroid barometer/altimeter.

When the revolution counter reached the programmed value, a cam shut off electrical power to the engine. Another control retracted the wing-attachment bolts, releasing the wings. At this point the craft became a ballistic missile falling towards its target. The 180-pound explosive payload detonated upon impact.

The Kettering Bug during early testing
The Kettering Bug during early testing

On its first test flight in Dayton, Ohio, the aircraft took off and climbed too steeply, stalled, and crashed. Adjustments were made and subsequent flights were successful.

Toward the end of World War I, the Army conducted a total of 24 test flights, seven of which were successful.

Although the Army spent some $275,000 developing the early drone, the Kettering Bug was never used in combat. Approximately 45 “Bugs” were produced. The existence of the Kettering Bug was kept secret until the beginning of World War II.

A full-scale replica of the Kettering Bug is on display in the “Early Years” Gallery of the National Museum of the United States Airforce.

And we thought drones and cruise missiles were a modern invention!

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Written by Jeff Richmond

Jeff Richmond

Jeff has been flying and writing for more than thirty-five years. He flew in the Air Force and later taught college-level aeronautics. He has worked as professional photographer and a business and technical writer for both Pratt and Whitney and Lockheed Martin. Now retired, Jeff is on a mission to visit, photograph and write about aerospace museums—especially the smaller, lesser known museums.