The Combat Air Museum’s restoration stands out after decades of obscurity.
Dick Trupp passing by the plane many times as he and his wife traveled north from Topeka, Kansas, to visit relatives in Nebraska. Trupp, the wing commander of the Combat Air Museum at Forbes Field, said he had noticed what appeared to be a tiny jet perched atop a curved pole at the entrance to the parking lot of American Legion Post 154 in the small farming community of Blair, Nebraska.
When Trupp stopped to talk with post commander George Jipp one afternoon, he learned that the legion’s “parking lot guard” was an ex–U.S. Air Force Ryan BQM-34A Firebee drone. He promptly asked the post commander if his members might consider donating the historic aircraft to the Combat Air Museum.
The post members eventually agreed to relinquish the Firebee if the museum would bear all the moving costs. In fact the drone, which had stood outside the Blair post for more than four decades, really needed to be removed because it was in the way of a planned veteran’s memorial.
A team of four set out early on the morning of May 17, 2004, for the 200-mile trip to Blair. The recovery team was headed by Trupp, assisted by volunteers Don Dawson, Martin Moyer and Ted Nolde. The first task of the day was to remove the drone from its display pylon. Jipp had secured the use of a crane and an operator, donated by a Blair businessman for the job.
“Removing it from its stand was pretty straightforward,” recalled Trupp. After some bolts were cut, the crane picked it up using a sling made from nylon straps and set it on a cradle on the trailer. The crew then went to work to cut some studs and bolts to remove the stand from its concrete base. “At that point we thought we had it made,” Trupp later remembered.
With a wingspan of nearly 13 feet, the Firebee was too big to transport in one piece. Without any technical manuals, it was difficult to determine how to disassemble the Firebee, but the team eventually managed to remove the wings. After a long and difficult day, the recovery team finally succeeded in loading and tying down the disassembled drone on the trailer and began the trek back to Topeka. They left the stand behind for another day.
After the drone had been completely disassembled at the museum’s restoration center, the airframe was carefully inspected. Mark Hasvold, owner of a local steel products fabricating shop and a skilled metalworking artisan, volunteered to help with the restoration process. After spending a sweltering July morning in the restoration hangar, Hasvold’s initial inspection turned up some corrosion but “nothing that we can’t fix.” Hasvold then quickly added, “But I’m sure we’re going to find a lot of things that are going to have to be repaired once we get into this project.” Most of the obvious metal deterioration was found on the keel of the craft, possibly the result of damage from the plane’s scraping across hard surfaces when it parachuted to the ground after a mission.
The Firebee was again loaded on a trailer and taken several miles to Hasvold’s metalworking shop, where the first step was to give the airframe a thorough interior cleaning. But before major restoration work on the fuselage could begin, several metal support jigs had to be fabricated to facilitate full access to the airframe. Constructed from steel angle stock, the jigs were mounted on pivots to allow the body of the aircraft to be easily turned during the restoration process. Once the main section of the fuselage had been mounted on the jig, Hasvold began to painstakingly work out the many dings and dents in the metal skin—some of them apparently the result of vandalism while the Firebee had been on display near the roadside.
Hasvold started out using a selection of hammers much like those used by auto body repairmen. But since many dents were located in compound curves, Hasvold had to make several custom tools in order to smooth the damaged and distorted skin in these areas. “We’re not sure what type of aluminum this aircraft was made of,” he said, pointing out that the Firebee’s metal exterior was much thicker and harder than normal aircraft plating. That became an important consideration when several damaged and misaligned access hatches had to be fabricated. Many of the doors had already been replaced earlier in the drone’s life with what appeared to be nonstandard materials.
The Firebee’s history goes back to 1948, when the U.S. Air Force’s pilotless aircraft branch requested a design for a jet-powered aerial target craft that could be used for ground-to-air and air-to-air gunnery and missile training. In August of that same year, Ryan Aeronautical Co. was named the winner of the competition. In early 1951 came the first powered flight of what was to become known as the XQ-2 Firebee.
Impressed by initial test flights, the U.S. Navy ordered a similar version of the drone, which it designated KDDA-1. The Army soon followed suit, ordering several XM21s.
Early Air Force Firebees were powered by a Continental J69-T-19B turbojet engine that generated a little more than 1,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. The drone had a wingspan of 12 feet 11 inches and measured 6 feet 7 inches high at the tail. Fully loaded with fuel and instruments, it weighed 2,062 pounds.
The first production models of the Q-2A made their debut in 1955. In 1958 a redesigned second-generation Firebee was ordered by the Air Force. Dubbed the Q-2C, it went into full production in 1960. These aircraft had a larger airframe, slightly longer wings and a “chin-type” jet inlet located under a pointed nose cone.
In 1963 the large drone was redesignated as BQM-34A—the type that was restored by the Combat Air Museum. BQM-34A production ended in 1982 but was restarted in 1986, when the Air Force ordered an advanced version of the drone, the BQM-34S. The last version of the Firebee was delivered to the Air Force in 2002 by the Northrop Grumman Corporation.
Firebees served as high-speed targets for interceptor pilots. Initially the drones were launched from the ground with the aid of an Aerojet General X102F solid-fuel booster rocket strapped to the underside of the fuselage. They could also be air-dropped from a Lockheed-Martin DC-130 Hercules drone controller aircraft, equipped to launch four of the tiny aircraft from underwing pylons.
Utilizing a radio linkup, controllers flew the 22-foot-11-inch-long jet-powered craft much like any other aircraft. Upgraded versions of the Firebee drone would later be able to fly as high as 50,000 feet and reach speeds of more than 600 mph.
After a drone completed its mission— which often involved being struck by an unarmed missile—the sturdy little craft automatically deployed a parachute and dropped to the ground, where it was repaired and readied for another mission. Firebees were designed to survive a parachute descent rate of 16 feet per second to a hard surface. The landing impact was absorbed by a heavy metal keel that ran along the bottom of the engine compartment.
On some occasions, Firebee parachutes were also recovered in midair, snagged by a helicopter equipped with the midair retrieval system. In that case, the 81-foot diameter recovery chute was automatically released from the drone’s tail, after which the Firebee was airlifted back to base.
As the restoration process continued at the Combat Air Museum, Hasvold sodablasted the airframe to remove all the old dark gray paint. That process not only removed several layers of paint and grime but also revealed the tiny aircraft’s original bright red-orange finish. (The soda-blasting process is extremely effective in removing paint but does not damage the metal and is friendly to the environment.) Airframe sections were next washed down and wheeled into Hasvold’s paint shop, where they received several coats of primer.
The tiny craft was now ready for several coats of fluorescent red-orange DuPont Imron polyurethane aviation enamel—a $300-a-gallon coating that will protect the restored drone for many years. The nose cone and tips of the vertical and horizontal stabilizers were painted gloss black.
The only markings on the drone are “U.S. Air Force,” stenciled in black along the fuselage sides, “BQM-34A” and a serial number on the vertical tail that is repeated forward of the wings near the nose. “We haven’t been able to find the original serial number of the aircraft,” explained Trupp, “so we’re going to use one from an aircraft that came from the same block.”
While the Firebee was under restoration, its display pylon was transported to Forbes Field, where Hasvold cleaned, refurbished and painted it. A new concrete pad was poured in front of the museum to accept the pylon once work on the Firebee was completed.
Trupp, Hasvold and a museum team have reassembled the drone, which at press time was nearing the end of its restoration process. Very soon the Firebee will be ready for display. A crane will lift it into position atop its pylon. Once it’s aloft again, the Combat Air Museum’s bright red Firebee will stand out among the missiles that serve as sentinels in front of the main entrance.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.