The story behind this incredible photo of a North Vietnamese MiG-21 flying extremely close to a Firebee drone (and other BQM-34 tales)

The deployment of BQM-34 Firebee reconnaissance drones during the Vietnam War (and over the PR China) would be worth a ‘book’ (at least).

The BQM-34 Firebee, originally designated the Q-2, was a high-speed target drone for both surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. It was used primarily for the testing of newly-developed missiles and for the training of fighter-interceptor pilots whose aircraft were armed with missiles.

Capable of being launched from the ground or from an airplane in flight, the Firebee is radio-controlled during its mission by an operator on the ground or aboard an aircraft. Upon being hit by a missile and disabled, or upon completing its mission undamaged, the Firebee is lowered safely to earth by a self-contained parachute.

The deployment of BQM-34 reconnaissance drones during the Vietnam War (and over the PR China) would be worth a ‘book’ (at least).

Ironically, some of their craziest missions were caused by simple programming mistakes. The ‘classic’ between these was the wrong entry for flight altitude: say, 60 – instead of 600ft…

No idea why, but the word is that this happened especially often during reconnaissance sorties to the Kep AB, in North Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, in one case, a miss-programmed AQM-34L came back enveloped in branches and other parts of trees, plus some telephone wires…

….another sent to take photos of the Kep AB is said to have actually collided with a MiG-17 that was about to land…

The main image of this post is a nice example for how close some of MiGs approached while trying to intercept them: visible is the command console inside a DC-130 drone-carrier, with a screen showing the wing and fin of a North Vietnamese MiG-21….

Another little-known one: most people nowadays think the armed UCAVs appeared only in the early 21st Century.

Actually, AGM-65 Maverick missiles were test-fired from BQM-34s already back in the early 1970s: indeed, there are rumours according to which a few of such UAVs (and C-130s deploying them) were even sent to Israel during the Arab-Israeli War of 1973.

….BTW, an earlier BQM-34 might have been the first US ace of the Vietnam War: reportedly, it caused a loss of five North Vietnamese MiGs in period 1970-1971.

Check out Helion & Company website for books featuring interesting stories written by The Aviation Geek Club contributor Tom Cooper.

Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper is an Austrian aerial warfare analyst and historian. Following a career in the worldwide transportation business – during which he established a network of contacts in the Middle East and Africa – he moved into narrow-focus analysis and writing on small, little-known air forces and conflicts, about which he has collected extensive archives. This has resulted in specialisation in Middle Eastern, African and Asian air forces. As well as authoring and co-authoring 560 books and over 1,000 articles, he has co-authored the Arab MiGs book series – a six-volume, in-depth analysis of the Arab air forces at war with Israel, in the 1955–73 period. Cooper has been working as editor of the five @War series since 2017. tom@acig.info

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