AMARC Experience - The AMARC Experience
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

QF-4 Phantom Drone Program

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McDonnell Douglas QF-4 Phantoms

At the beginning of the 1990s the McDonnell Douglas QF-4 Phantom replaced the Convair QF-106 Delta Dart as the Department of Defenses Full-Scale Aerial Target (FSAT). Tracor was awarded a contract to convert AMARC stored F-4 Phantoms at a cost of around $800,000 per machine, the company now known as BAE Systems carried out the conversion work at its facility at Mojave Airport in California.

A steady stream of F-4G, F-4E and RF-4C were regenerated from AMARC with several of them being worked on or flight tested ath the facility at any time. In October 2000 the final suitable F-4G left for Mojave, it was 69-7583 which was retired on December 19, 1990 from the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing based at Clark AFB in the Philippines. Its departure was soon followed by the first F-4E and in the second quarter of 2008 the first RF-4C were being dispatched for conversion. It is planned that RF-4Cs will continue to be converted through 2013 and along with the surviving QF-4Gs and QF-4Es, they will be undertake the FSAT role until 2015. By November 2012 BAE Systems had completed and delivered its 300th converted QF-4.

Before the aircraft are delivered to BAE Systems at Mojave they go through the Process-Out process which takes them from storage to airworthy condition. The engines are completely rebuilt and thorough system checks are carried out in all it has been taking around 3 months to complete this work. Once completed the aircraft is fully tested by the AMARC flight test team to verify everything is working as expected.

  • Description: Scoring system housed in a crude looking box on the port side of the QF-4. It was originally housed in the compartment that can be seen open on top of the aircraft. © AMARC Experience.
  • Description: QF-4E 74-1048 undergoing the extensive transformation to an operational QF-4E Drone. © AMARC Experience.
  • Description: Close-up of A-frame which will hold the main drone control computers, utilising the vacant gun compartment under the nose. © AMARC Experience.
  • Description: The fully converted QF-4 has 4 sensors which provide information to the scoring system during missile trials. The sensors are located on the tail, one on each wing and one underneath (pictured). © AMARC Experience.

The conversions carried out include the replacement of the conventional control systems with remotely operated ones, the installation of electronic scoring systems and the painting of high visibility patches on the tail and wingtips. Each conversion takes around 4 months from the time the aircraft arrives from AMARC.

The main nerve centre of the drone system is housed in the vacant gun compartment below the front of the cockpit. Two systems provide primary and secondary functionality, the secondary system is used when a problem occurs with the primary one and only has limited capabilities. This may be reviewed in time and revised so that both systems are identical. The nose of the aircraft is also fitted with replacement electronics and lead ballast is added to make up the weight of original equipment that is removed. Although the conversion effects much of the aircraft, there are only four external signs of it to be seen. The most noticeable difference is the addition of a 'hump' on top of the fuselage. This houses transponder equipment used to locate and identify the drone.

The second most obvious change can be seen on the port side of the aircraft (see picture 3. above). A crude looking box contains the electronic scoring system that measures and records the direction, velocity and distance of missiles used against the drone on trials. The scoring system used to be housed internally in a compartment behind the cockpit, but has changed to this new location probably for easier installation and access.

  • Description: McDonnell F-4G Phantom seen at Mojave in July 2001 after conversion work was complete. This example was the very last QF-4G conversion to be delivered to the US Air Force. There are still F-4G Phantoms stored at AMARG but owing to their condition or events which happened in their operational life they were deemed unsuitable for drone conversion. © AMARC Experience.
  • Description: F-4E 74-0664 shortly after being delivered to Mojave from AMARC. © AMARC Experience.
  • Description: QF-4E 74-1040 being readied for delivery to Tyndall AFB in Florida. © AMARC Experience.
  • Description: QF-4G 69-7566 fully converted and ready for delivery to Tyndall AFB, FL. © AMARC Experience.

The third noticeable difference is the addition of 2 small mounds, one under each wing where the wing joins the fuselage. These mounds house the steering servos used by the guidance systems. The last difference are four sensors that are located on the tail, one on each wing and one underneath the fuselage (see picture 3. above). These sensors provide information to the scoring system on missile speed, direction and distance during trials.

One addition to the airframe during the conversion and which cannot be seen is a self-destruction installation. In the event of a communication loss between the QF-4 and the controller, or if the aircraft becomes unstable in flight, a mobile remote system will attempt to re-establish contact and fly the aircraft from a position near the drone runway allowing the operators to see the aircraft. If attempts to restore communications fail, or stable flight cannot be re-established, the aircraft self destruction mechanism will activate, destroying it and preventing it from crashing into an undesirable location.

After the conversion and before delivery to Tyndall AFB the drones go through a series of flight tests to ensure that the newly installed systems are effective and that the extensive re-wiring has not affected the reliability of the aircraft. Once finished the drone is capable of taking-off, navigating to designated locations, flying programmed flight profiles and manouevres and even carrying out landings, all controlled by remote operators many miles away. Unlike the US Navy QF-4s these drones do not carry TV broadcast capability and this makes their whole operation that much more impressive. To provide the visual information to the controllers, the remote QF-4 is followed by a manned QF-4, acting as a chase aircraft during takeoff and landing.

Final QF-4 Phantom

The last F-4 to be selected for the QF-4 program was RF-4C 68-0606 (PCN AAFP0195), this was the 318th F-4 to be re-generated. Its delivery to BAE Systems will take place sometime in January 2013.

QF-16 Fighting Falcons

Due to the number of available F-4 airframes running out in the foreseeable future a replacement FSAT platform has been selected in the shape of the General Dynamics QF-16. A contract for a batch of six pre-engineering and manufacturing development QF-16s was signed with Boeing in March 2010, these will be built at Cecil Field near Jacksonville, FL. It is planned that the first production batch will be delivered in 2014 ready for the type to take over the role from the QF-4 in 2015. On November 22, 2012 the first QF-16, 85-1569, was delivered to the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group at Tyndall AFB, FL. It is to undertake six months of testing and evaluation to ensure that its capabilities are as expected and its compatibility with the Gulf Range Drone Control System which is used to control and record the QF testing activities. From here it will move to Holloman AFB, NM. for a further four months of testing before returning to Tyndall. It is envisaged that approximately 210 F-16s will be re-generated for conversion to QF-16 drones.

My thanks go to Bob Miller at BAE Systems for the invaluable help he has given to the production of this web page.


Flight Systems F-4D Phantom

To support the QF-4 drone program a number of leased F-4D Phantoms were flown from Mojave by BAE Systems. Each carried a civilian registration as they were not operated by the Air Force but each also retained its military serial number. During December 2003 these were retired to AMARC and turned over for reclamation where they will again support to the QF-4 program, this time as a source of spare parts.

  • Description: F-4D 66-7483 on the Mojave ramp. © AMARC Experience.
  • Description: F-4D 66-7505 on the Mojave ramp. © AMARC Experience.
  • Description: F-4D 66-7505 on the AMARC arrival ramp shortly after retirement. © Phil Kovaric
  • Description: F-4D 66-7483 on the AMARC arrival ramp shortly after retirement. © Phil Kovaric.


North American F-86 Sabre

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F-86D | F-86F | F-86H | F-86L |

Two interesting AMARC arrivals in April 2006 were vintage North American F-86F Sabres 55-5026 and 55-5035. They arrived in a dismantled state for storage on behalf of the United States Air Force Museum (USAFM) at Wright Patterson AFB, OH. 55-5035 is little more than a tail section but 55-5026 is reasonably whole.

These F-86F were originally supplied to the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) under MAP (Military Assistance Program) and evidence of this can be seen on the fuselage of 55-5026 where chinese writing is present. After retirement from the RoCAF these F-86 and many others were returned to the USA for conversion to QF-86 pilotless drones at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. When the QF-86 drone program had finished a number of unconverted F-86s remained stored at China Lake, over time many of these found there way into museums and private hands.

  • Description: The sectioned fuselage of North American F-86F Sabre 55-5026 strapped down on delivery pallets. © Phil Kovaric.
  • Description: The sectioned fuselage of North American F-86F Sabre 55-5026 strapped down on delivery pallets. © Phil Kovaric.
  • Description: Chinese writing on the side of F-86F fuselages gives a clue as to their previous service with the Republic of China (Taiwan). © Phil Kovaric.
  • Description: F-86F 55-5026's unassembled wings, tail and horizontal stabilizer.

It appears that 55-5026 left China Lake in the late 1990s to the Budd McGhee Air Park collection in nearby Inyokern. The USAFM acquired the F-86 and it was moved to Wright Patterson AFB, from here it was delivered to AMARC. 55-5035 left China Lake and eventually ended up at the Southern Museum of Flight, Birmingham, AL. The main fuselage was restored to display condition using the tail from another F-86F. Its original tail is what is now at AMARG.

These aircraft will most probably be used for trade to obtain additional display aircraft or material for the Museum.

The North American F-86 Sabre was a highly successful fighter aircraft and served in large numbers during the Korean War. Many foreign air forces flew the type, supplied new from the factory and also through MAP. MASDC (as AMARC/AMARG used to be known) saw several hundred of the type arrive in the 1960s from Air National Guard, Tactical Air Command and also from various foreign customers. The vast majority were scrapped by the first years of the 1970s although a few were still stored up until the middle of the decade.


General Specifications
Powerplant 1 × General Electric J47-GE-27 turbojet, 5,910 lbf (maximum thrust at 7.950 rpm for five min) (26.3 kN)
Length 37 ft 1 in (11.4 m)
Wingspan 37 ft 0 in (11.3 m)
Height 14 ft 1 in (4.5 m)
Wing area 313.4 ft² (29.11 m²)
Empty weight 11,125 lb (5,046 kg)
Max. takeoff weight 18,152 lb (8,234 kg)
Crew One


Maximum speed 687 mph (1,106 km/h) at sea level at 14,212 lb (6,447 kg) combat weight
Range 1,525 miles (2,454 km)
Service ceiling 49,600 ft at combat weight (15,100 m)
Rate of climb 9,000 ft/min at sea level (45.72 m/s)


McDonnell Douglas C-9B Skytrain

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C-9A | C-9B | DC-9

Other C-9B Articles
US Navy C-9B Units
VR-57 "Conquistadors"

The McDonnell Douglas C-9B Skytrain II, a military version of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 airliner, has been in use with the US Navy for over 30 years.

A total of 27 C-9Bs were delivered to the US Navy. The earliest 12 were produced in the early 1980s by converting civil DC-9 airliners, the other 15 were produced on the McDonnell Douglas production line during the 1970s and 1980s. The major difference between the airliner and military versions of the DC-9 is the large cargo door which was added to the port side of the aircraft and other necessary cargo-handling features which allows for the conversion to either a full or partial cargo configuration.

The C-9B has proved to be a capable and flexible asset with the ability to change interior configurations to specifically meet cargo or passenger airlift mission requirements. During 2002 alone, the US Navy C-9B fleet accumulated more than 25,600 flight hours, transporting more than 250,000 personnel and 7 million pounds of cargo to locations throughout the world.

In common with the C-9A Nightingale, the Air Force Aeromedical Evacuation version of this aircraft, age, increased support requirements and noise regulations has prompted their replacement with a newer type. The upgrade of the C-9B fleet was initially considered but even with the replacement of engines and avionics the fleet would still consist of 30 year old airframes with considerably less performance than some of the more modern aircraft types now available.

The aircraft chosen to replace the C-9B, the Boeing C-40 Clipper which is a military version of the Boeing 737-700C airliner, has provided the US Navy with a faster aircraft with an extended flight capability, which meets the strict international noise regulations. The US Navy is very keen on replacing their older aircraft types and the C-9 is just one of the many US Navy types arriving at AMARC over the last few years.

Fleet Logistics Support Squadron FIFTY SEVEN (VR-57) have recently begun their transition to the new Boeing C-40 Clipper and as a result one of their C-9s (164605) arrived at AMARC on June 9, 2005 for long term storage. It joins three other C-9Bs which have been retired to the Center since the end of 2001.

The C-40 has had a slow and steady introduction into service, with Fleet Logistics Support Squadron FIFTY NINE (VR-59) being the first squadron to convert to the type at the end of 2001. The Naval Reserve believes that the C-9Bs should be replaced by C-40s on a one-for-one basis but studies are currently underway to assess what the actual airlift requirements are and the final aircraft purchases will be based on the results of these studies.


General Specifications

Powerplant 2 × Pratt & Whitney JT8D-9 - 14,500lbs each
Length 119 ft 3 in (36.40 m)
Wingspan 93 ft 3 in (28.40 m),
Height 27 ft 5 in (8.40 m)
Max. takeoff weight 108,000 lb (48,988 kg)
Crew Eight - Aircraft Commander/pilot in command, Co-pilot, Flight Mechanic, Medical Crew Director (MCD), Flight Nurse (FN), Charge Medical Technician (CMT) 2d Medical Technicial (2MT), 3d Medical Technician (3MT)
Capacity Up to 100 passengers or 27,000 pounds of cargo or a combination of both.


Maximum speed 565 mph at 25,000 ft (7,584 m)
Range 2,500 miles
Service ceiling 37,000 ft (11,277 m)


McDonnell Douglas C-9A Nightingale

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Other C-9A Articles
Air Force C-9A Units

The McDonnell Douglas C-9A Nightingale is a much modified version of the civilian DC-9 airliner which was brought into service in 1969 specifically for the movement of litter and ambulatory patients. To this date the C-9A has remained the only aircraft in the USAF inventory that is dedicated to this role. It has served not only the military but also Department of Veterans Affairs and civilian hospitals throughout the world, and has been a very familiar sight at both military and commercial airfields.

On July 23rd 2003 the Air Force made an announcement that it was retiring their entire C-9A fleet and that this would be completed by 30th September 2003. The age of the aircraft has been one of the contributory factors in this decision. The noisy and inefficient engines would not meet strict new noise regulations without an expensive refit.

The C-9A has an outdated cockpit and navigational aids and as time has passed support costs have increased considerably. The second and probably the main reason behind the decision is the reduction in transported patient numbers. In 1995 the C-9A fleet transported over 70,000 patients. By 2000 that figure has dropped to 15,000 and new estimates quote a figure of 3,000 patients by the year 2005, it was felt that this level of work does not justify maintaining a dedicated aeromedical capability.

Currently there are no plans for a direct C-9A replacement. It was announced that the medical airlifts that the 30th AS fleet carried out from Yokota AB, Japan will be taken over by Boeing KC-135 from Kadena AB and the C-141 Starlifter and C-17 Globemaster fleets already carry out long distance aeromedical flights from many parts of the world back to CONUS. However, the C-141 is currently being withdrawn from active service and the C-17 is considered an overstreched resource. One idea that may be investigated further is the utilization of yet another military version of the Douglas DC-9, the VC-9C. The 89th Airlift Wing operates three of these aircraft from Andrews AFB, but they themselves are due to be replaced in the near future by the Boeing C-40B, a military version of the Boeing 737-700 commercial airliner.

During 2002, due to the reduced aeromedical requirement, the Air Force made the decision to utilize the C-9s for non-medical missions, including the movement of combat troops. To remain within Geneva Convention rulings the distinctive red crosses which were worn on the tails of the C-9's since their introduction into active service were painted out. The tails have remained plain white until their arrival at AMARC.


General Specifications

Powerplant 2 × Pratt & Whitney JT8D-9 - 14,500lbs each
Length 119 ft 3 in (36.40 m)
Wingspan 93 ft 3 in (28.40 m),
Height  27 ft 5 in (8.40 m)
Max. takeoff weight 108,000 lb (48,988 kg)
Crew Eight - Aircraft Commander/pilot in command, Co-pilot, Flight Mechanic, Medical Crew Director (MCD), Flight Nurse (FN), Charge Medical Technician (CMT) 2d Medical Technicial (2MT), 3d Medical Technician (3MT)
Capacity 40 litters or four litters and 40 ambulatory or any combination


Maximum speed 565 mph at 25,000 ft (7,584 m)
Range 2,500 miles
Service ceiling 37,000 ft (11,277 m)


Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King Regeneration

In February 2010 the US Department of State announced its intention to purchase up to 110 Sikorsky S-61Ts, to support its operations in Afghanistan and other countries around the world. An agreement was signed with Sikorsky.

Carson Helicopters, a major civilian operator of the S-61, is a joint developer with Sikorsky of the S-61T Triton which is a fully modernized version of the elderly S-61 which was designed and entered service in the early 1960s. Despite its age the S-61 has an excellent reputation as a reliable workhorse with a strong and durable construction, and it is these qualities which make their re-manufacture a viable alternative. Each conversion takes six months to complete and provides a full Sagem “glass cockpit”, a modular wiring harness, engine and transmission improvements, and composite main rotor blades in order to add extra speed and another 1,200 pounds of lift capacity.

Over twenty SH-3 Sea Kings, the military version of the S-61, comprising of SH-3D, SH-3G and SH-3H have been sourced from AMARG and provided with civilian registrations prior to being overhauled. Several more have been allocated for the project but remain in AMARG, awaiting their turn.

The first converted airframe was delivered to the U.S. State Department on December 2, 2010.

  • Description: Sikorsky SH-3D Sea King 154113. This SH-3D left AMARG on 24-AUG-2011 and is now registered to the U.S. State Department as N113WR. © Phil Kovaric.
  • Description: Sikorsky SH-3G Sea King 149723, ex. NASA 735. This SH-3G left AMARG on 28-APR-2011 and is now registered to the U.S. State Department as N723AW. © Phil Kovaric.
  • Description: SH-3H Sea King 156489. This SH-3H left AMARG on 26-JUL-2010 and is now registered as N489WR with the U.S. State Department. © Phil Kovaric.
  • Description: Sikorsky SH-3H Sea King 148988. This SH-3H left AMARG and is now registered to the U.S. State Department as N988AW. © Phil Kovaric.

Below are Sikorsky's press releases on this project providing more information.


Troy Facility Completes S-61 Airframe Modernization for U.S. State Department

Sikorsky - TROY, Alabama - Sikorsky Aircraft’s Troy, Ala., facility announced today it has completed the structural modernization of its first S-61T™ airframe, which will now undergo completion at Carson Helicopters for eventual delivery to the U.S. State Department for diplomatic service in Afghanistan. Sikorsky is a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp.

The State Department signed an agreement in 2010 to purchase up to 110 modernized S-61™ aircraft that Sikorsky is refurbishing under its S-61T™ Program, managed by its aftermarket business Sikorsky Aerospace Services. The program includes the upgrade and installation of composite main rotor blades, state-of-the-art glass cockpit, modular wiring harness, and modern survivability and force protection enhancements – all of which dramatically improve aircraft capability and supportability. These enhancements result in an aircraft with improved safety, and 15 percent greater performance with a lower operating cost. The number of aircraft the State Department purchases will depend upon need and availability of government funding.

“With its rugged endurance, spaciousness and lift capabilities, the Sikorsky S-61 helicopter has proven to be a dependable, multi-mission aircraft and provides a capable solution for our customers looking for a utility aircraft with a legacy of strength and reliability. Our S-61 helicopter is the best value proposition in the industry,” said John Johnson, S-61 Program Director, Sikorsky Aerospace Services.

Sikorsky Aerospace Services launched the program in 2010 with Carson Helicopters, and so far has delivered 14 modernized S-61 aircraft to the State Department.

The Troy facility employs more than 640 people and produces SEAHAWK® airframes, and BLACK HAWK and CH148 Cyclone™ subassemblies for U.S. and foreign military customers. In 2012, the facility also began modernizing S-61 airframes for the upgrade program to take better advantage of available production capacity. Previously the airframes were all modernized at Carson Helicopters in Perkasie, Penn. The Troy facility has developed capacity to refurbish up to six aircraft in flow, with the program employing more than 100 people.

The S-61 helicopter has long been acclaimed as an industry workhorse. For more than 50 years, the aircraft have reliably and safely performed missions for U.S. and foreign allied militaries. The latest airframe first entered service as an SH-3D aircraft with the U.S. Navy in November 1966 and primarily performed antisubmarine warfare.

“Our workforce here in Troy is highly skilled and understands the importance of the work we do in support of our nation and military allies,” said facility General Manager Jason Lambert. “Completion of this first modernized airframe represents a big milestone for us. Our team is extremely proud of our ability to utilize world class lean manufacturing techniques to create capacity for this important program.”

Sikorsky Aerospace Services, a Sikorsky company, provides comprehensive support to rotary- and fixed-wing operators throughout the world. It offers its military and commercial customers a full portfolio of support services, including material distribution, maintenance, overhaul & repair, aircraft modifications and life-cycle support. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., based in Stratford, Conn., is a world leader in helicopter design, manufacture, and service. United Technologies Corp., based in Hartford, Conn., provides a broad range of high technology products and support services to the aerospace and building systems industries.

US Department of State Orders Three Additional Upgraded S-61 Helicopters

Sikorsky - SHELTON, Connecticut - Sikorsky Aerospace Services today announced that the U.S. Department of State (DoS) has ordered three additional upgraded S-61 utility helicopters, bringing the total number purchased by DoS to 29 aircraft to date. Sikorsky Aerospace Services (SAS) is the aftermarket division of Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp.

“The S-61 helicopter is known as an industry workhorse and for decades has reliably performed missions for U.S. and foreign allied militaries. The upgraded S-61helicopter can be outfitted to meet a wide variety of requirements, and we believe it provides ‘best-in-class-value’ for a mid-size, multi-mission helicopter. In December 2010, we proudly delivered the first upgraded S-61 aircraft to the U.S. State Department for passenger and cargo transport missions,” said John Johnson, Director, S-61 Programs.

The three aircraft will transport diplomatic personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. Building on the S-61 helicopter’s 50-year legacy of dependability, SAS initiated the S-61 Upgrade Program in early 2010. As Sikorsky’s launch customer, the DoS has entered into a five-year IQ (indefinite quantity) agreement with the option to purchase up to 110 upgraded S-61 aircraft. This IQ purchase agreement serves as the contracting vehicle for any U.S. government agency to purchase upgraded S-61 aircraft.

The upgraded S-61 helicopters will undergo a full structural refurbishment with all major dynamic components zero-timed and key upgrades provided, including new composite main rotor blades (CMRB) and a survivability suite. The customer can select additional options such as a state-of-the-art glass cockpit and crashworthy primary and auxiliary fuel systems.

Sikorsky Aerospace Services, a Sikorsky company, provides comprehensive support to rotary and fixed wing operators worldwide. It offers its military and commercial customers a full portfolio of aftermarket support services, including material distribution, maintenance, overhaul & repair, aircraft modifications and life-cycle support.Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., based in Stratford, Conn., is a world leader in helicopter design, manufacture and service. United Technologies Corp., based in Hartford, Conn., provides a broad range of high technology products and support services to the aerospace and building systems industries worldwide.  

Lockheed D-21 Drone

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One of the most interesting aircraft types to be stored at AMARC is the pilotless Lockheed D-21 Reconnainassance Drone. The D-21 is a stand-off high speed, high altitude reconnainassance drone that was the result of a 'Black' project, codenamed 'Tagboard', carried out by the famous Lockheed Skunk Works at Palmdale, CA.

The D-21 was powered by a Marquardt XRJ 43-MA20S-4 Ramjet engine, a modified version of the XRJ 43-MA20 engine which powered the Bomarc surface-to-air missile. The modifications were neccessary to ensure the engine would operate efficiently at the much lower pressures and higher temperatures that would be experienced while operating at speeds in excess of Mach 3 and altitudes of over 90,000 feet. The ramjet, by its design, can only start delivering thrust at a very high airspeed and as a result the D-21 required a delivery platform which would accelerate the aircraft to its operational velocity.

Lockheed converted two of their Mach 3+ capable A-12 Blackbird aircraft, serial numbers 60-6940 and 60-6941, to become D-21 motherships, these modified aircraft were designated M-21. The modifications allowed the D-21s to be carried 'piggyback' on top of the M-21 rear fuselage to designated launch points. Before launching the D-21 engine would be started to help accelerate the paired aircraft to the Mach 3 launch speed. After reaching the launch speed the D-21 fuel tanks would be topped off, the combination would seperate with the use of ballistic charges and the D-21 would continue its mission powered by its ramjet engine. On completion of its mission over a designated landmass and its return to 'friendly' airspace the D-21 would enter an unpowered descent. At 60,000 ft a hatch assembly was ejected and the drone's camera and exposed film would be jetisoned and recovered in mid-air by a Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. Having no landing gear or other means of recovery, the D-21 would self destruct at 52,000 ft after completing its mission.

  • Description: Lockheed D-21B Drone 531 being stored in the U.S. Air Force Museum storage area (Area 20). This aircraft was eventually scrapped in September 2013. © Phil Kovaric.
  • Description: Lockheed D-21B Drone 536 in storage within Area 1. This aircraft was eventually scrapped in Septemer 2013. © Phil Kovaric.
  • Description: Lockheed D-21B Drone 522 in storage within Area 1. This aircraft was eventually scrapped in Septemer 2013. © Phil Kovaric.
  • Description: Row of Lockheed D-21B Drones (top right) in storage within Area 1, shortly after their arrival at AMARC. © Bob Shane.

The first flight of a D-21 took place during December 1964, the first actual launch of a D-21 took place on March 5, 1966, followed by two others on April 27, 1966 and June 16, 1966.

The fourth launch which took place on July 30, 1966 ended in disaster when D-21B #504 lost control after seperation and struck M-12 Blackbird 60-6941 resulting in both aircraft being destroyed. The two M-21 crewmen successfully ejected but unfortunately Launch Control Officer (LCO) Ray Torrick died while in the water of the Pacific Ocean awaiting rescue. This incident prompted the cancellation of the entire M-21/D-21 program.

In late 1966 a request was made by the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (DRNO) to 'reorient' the drone program to be launched from B-52H motherships instead of the A-12. Approval was received and in January 1967 Contractor go ahead for the conversion of two B-52 aircraft and neccessary modifications to the remaining D-21 assets was issued. The programme was renamed to 'Senior Bowl'.

A 60 foot long, solid-propellant rocket booster (in essence a second stage) was manufactured by Lockheed which would be used to propell the D-21 to ramjet ignition speed after being gravity dropped from the B-52. All remaining D-21s were modified to support this new configuration and were re-designated D-21Bs. Two B-52Hs (61-0021 and 60-0036) were modified to carry the D-21Bs by adding pylons under each wing, electrical launch control systems and high-speed cameras to record the drone releases.

Between July 1967 and February 1968 all 15 remaining D-21 were upgraded to the D-21B standard by Lockheed at their Burbank, CA. facilities. In addition another 19 D-21B were manufactured taking the total number of available aircraft to 39;

Serial Number Conversion Date   Serial Number Production Date
501 July 1967 521 March 1968
507 August 1967 522 April 1968
508 August 1967 523 May 1968
509 September 1967 524 June 1968
510 September 1967 525 July 1968
511 October 1967 526 August 1968
512 October 1967 527 September 1968
513 November 1967 528 October 1968
514 November 1967 529 November 1968
515 December 1967 530 December 1968
516 December 1967 531 December 1968
517 January 1968 532 January 1969
518 January 1968 533 February 1969
519 February 1968 534 March 1969
520 February 1968 535 March 1969
    536 April 1969
    537 May 1969
    538 June 1969
    539 June 1969

During the the D-21's active service the following aircraft were expended during testing and operational launches;

Serial Number Expended Location Mission Notes
507 06-NOV-1967 Pacific Missile Range

Launch and boost were successful. Drone attained mach . Cruise flight was not sustained due to low inlet recovery; deformed inlet cone primary suspect. Drone travelled 134 miles down range and the hatch was not recovered.

Drone flew 134 nm.

509 02-DEC-1967 Pacific Missile Range

Launch and boost were successful. Free flight continued on course for feet less than normal). Flight terminated prematurely after failure of the hydraulic system and subsequent loss of control. The hatch was not recovered.

Drone flew 1,430 nm.

508 19-JAN-1968 Pacific Missile Range

Launch and boost were successful. The drone travelled 550 miles down range, the the flight terminated prematurely when the drone began a pitch down and roll to the left. Telemetry was lost. Most probable cause of failure was electrical malfunction. The hatch was not recovered.

Drone flew 280 nm.

511 30-APR-1968 Pacific Missile Range

Launch and boost were successful. Following booster ejection, the drone was unable to sustain cruise and lost altitude and speed due to low thrust from the engine (inlet not started). Drone travelled 150 miles down range and was destroyed. Hatch not recovered.

Drone flew 150 nm.

512 16-JUN-1968 Pacific Missile Range

Successful test flight. The hatch was air-recovered by JC-130 aircraft.

Drone flew 2,850 nm.

514 01-JUL-1968 Pacific Missile Range

During pushover at the top of boost phase, the drone became laterally unstable due to insufficient autopilot gains. At separation, the booster struck the drone, rupturing the drone's fuel tank. The hatch ejected upon command and was recovered from the water in good condition.

Drone flew 80 nm.

516 28-AUG-1968 Pacific Missile Range

Launch and boost were successful. However, the drone's engine remained at minimum power and cruise altitude was not maintained. The hatch ejected at an excessive speed on descent and was not recovered.

Drone flew 78 nm.

515 15-DEC-1968 Pacific Missile Range

Successful test flight. This was the first mission to test the full system with the camera aboard. The hatch was air-recovered by JC-130.

Drone flew 2,953 nm.

518 11-FEB-1969 Pacific Missile Range

Launch and boost successful. Apparent shift in autopilot control at excessive mach caused the drone to descend resulting in the inlet remaining only partially started with attendant loss of thrust. Severe oscillations resulted. Drone believed to have structurally destroyed itself. Hatch was not recovered.

Drone flew 161 nm.

519 10-MAY-1969 Pacific Missile Range

Successful test flight. The hatch was air-recovered by JC-130 aircraft.

Drone flew 2,972 nm.

520 10-JUL-1969 Pacific Missile Range

Successful test flight. The hatch was air-recovered by JC-130 aircraft.

Drone flew 2,937 nm.

517 10-NOV-1969 First Operational Mission

Launch and boost successful. Computational errors in the drone's Inertial Navigation System prevented drone from flying the programmed route. Self-destruct believed to have occurred upon descent at [redacted] feet. Hatch was not recovered.

521 20-FEB-1970 Pacific Missile Range

Successful test flight. [Redacted]. Changes to INS program validated. Hatch was air-recovered by JC-130 aircraft.

Drone flew 2,969 nm.

523 17-DEC-1970

Operational Mission

South China

The drone launched from the B-52 mother-ship on schedule at 17/0[?]04Z, and flew the programmed route over South China precisely as programmed. The recovery package ejected at the proper location on time at 17/0525Z. The C-130 recovery forces sighted the drone recovery package electronically and visually, and reported that the package was descending at a very high rate. Although in position above and below cloud cover, the recovery forces were unable to successfully catch the package as it passed through the clouds and impacted in the water. Initial indications are that the recovery package impacted with the water at a high rate, probably broke up and sank. The surface recovery ship in the projected recovery area did not sight the package, but will continue search operations jointly with the C-130 aircraft. Preliminary COMINT reflections indicate that the CHICOM air defense radars possibly tracked the drone during the most northern portion of its route for approximately 7 minutes, beginning 45 minutes after launch.

Drone flew 2,448 nm.

526 05-MAR-1971

Operational Mission

South China

Drone flew preset route over South China exactly as programmed. Recovery package ejection occurred on time at 05/0530Z and was sighted by the JC-130 recovery aircraft at 05/0531Z. Because of probable air pickup chute failure, aerial recovery was not possible and the package impacted in the water 10nm northwest of the predicted impact point at 05/0558Z. This malfunction differed from the failure on the previous mission in that the package apparently experienced a retarded if not soft landing, transmitted required telemetry signals, and floated for approximately one hour. The destroyer, USS McMorris, the back-up recovery ship, steamed to the splash down point and had visual sighting at 05/0700Z. Telemetry was lost at 05/0655Z and the destroyer reported loss of visual contact and unsuccessful boarding attempt as 05/0714Z due to extremely rough seas. The recovery destroyer remained in the impact area, however, the recovery package was assumed sunk in approximately 2100 fathoms of water.

Drone flew 2,935 nm.

In total four operational missions were carried out using D-21Bs over China to collect data from the Lop Nor nuclear test area, 2,000 miles from the China/Mongolia border. Due to various technical problems not a single mission resulted in the film being recovered, however three of the D-21s did complete their missions and return successfully only for the film to be lost due to parachute and recovery issues.

In 1971 diplomatic relations with China were improving and the Senior Bowl programme was cancelled by President Nixon.

Between July 1976 and January 1977 seventeen of the thirty eight D-21s built arrived for long term storage at AMARC. Since then many have left for display at various museums across the USA, however, two were transferred to NASA and are currently being stored at one of their facilities at Barstow, CA.

In the late 1990s a proposal was drafted to utilise three D-21s in NASA's possession as vechicles to test and develop a revolutionary DRACO (Demonstration of Rocket and Air-Breathing Combined-cycle Operation) engine. The plan was to use a B-52 as a launch platform, although a ground launch set-up was not ruled out and to develop a recovery system which would allow the D-21s to be re-used. Due to its original mission no low speed flight characteristic data availeble for the D-21 so any idea of multiple landing techniques would need to be proven before incorporated into the final design. When the three NASA D-21s were visually examined they were found to be in relatively good shape with the inlet and engine areas appearing to be clean and well preserved, although the composite leading edge elements had degraded from exposure. No details of the internal condition of the aircraft were noted and it was assumed that they may have been stripped of some parts.

It appears that the NASA proposal was not successful and that the three NASA D-21s are still in storage.


General Specifications

Construction Titanium Alloy Beta-120 (Titanium - 13% Vanadium - 11% Chromium - 3% Aluminum) monococque airframe with some composite plastics
Powerplant One Marquardt XRJ 43-MA20S-4 Ramjet engine, 1,500 lbs thrust.
Length 42 ft 10 in
Wingspan 19 ft 9 in
Height 7 ft 1/4 in
Max. takeoff weight 11,000 lbs
Crew None


Maximum speed Mach 4 (2,500+mph) at 80,000 to 95,000 ft
Range 3,000 miles
Service ceiling 95,000 ft


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