Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Marilyn Monroe's Drones

Increasingly often I see the press giving coverage to drone warfare. It's good. The issue is morally ambiguous and worthy of public debate. But the use of drones aka radio controlled pilot-less aircraft is nothing new. Nikola Tesla patented radio controlled vehicles in 1898 with a small boat. In a 1915 dissertation on the concept of unmanned flight, Nikola Tesla described an armed, pilot-less aircraft capable of defending the USA. That makes this idea almost a century old.
But the first real-world military use of drones was in 1935. Reginald Denny, Hollywood actor and former WWI British gunner in the Royal Flying Corps. He opened a model plane shop at 5751 Hollywood Blvd in 1934 known as Reginald Denny Hobby Shops. Denny bought a plane design from Walter H. Righter in 1938. They were marketed as the "Dennyplane," with an engine called the "Dennymite".

Righter was only 33 but already a veteran engineer who had worked at the Kinner Airplane & Motor Corp, Hughes Aircraft, and Lockheed. Righter actually manufactured thousands of these for Denny in his own garage. Sales were consistent enough for Righter to move out of the garage and open a 12-man shop at 626 San Fernando Road in Glendale. More here.

Denny thought that cheap RC planes would make for great target practice for training anti-aircraft gunners. It was something he knew a bit about from WWI. In 1935 he demonstrated a prototype target drone for the US army. In 1940, Reginald Denny Hobby Shops won a US Army contract for their radio-controlled target drone, the OQ-2 Radioplane. The Army placed an order for 53 model RP-4s, which the military designated the OQ-1. In1941 US Army placed an even bigger order for RP-5s, which became the US Army OQ-2. Denny manufactured nearly fifteen thousand drones for the US Army during World War II.

The US Navy also bought into the target drone idea. They signed an order for thousands as well and designated it the TDD-1. A factory was opened in the old Timm aircraft plant at the Van Nuys Airport near  Los Angeles for production. Because it was the height of WWII most of the workers were women. It was there in 1944 an Army photographer photographed Norma Jeane Dougherty at work. Those pictures led to a screen test, and to the fame of a woman later known as Marilyn Monroe.