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Now and Then in the SCV | Commentary by Darryl Manzer, USN
| Tuesday, Feb 18, 2014

darrylmanzer021014The United States Air Force has thought, since its inception, that all military aircraft should belong to it. It wanted all airplanes in the Air Force. The Navy and the Army didn’t like that idea then, and they still think it’s dumb.

Some of the inter-service arguments were still being heard long after the decision was made. In the following story it was nearly 10 years after the fact. Maybe this is one reason the Navy and the Army still have aircraft, as does the Coast Guard.

On Aug. 16, 1956, the Navy launched a drone. The drone was a World War II aircraft called an F6F Hellcat. There were plenty of those old airplanes around after the war, and the Navy was using them for target practice over the Pacific Missile Range at Point Mugu Naval Air Station on the coast south of Oxnard.

Now, Command and control of drones in 1956 wasn’t like that of the drones we have today. An operator couldn’t sit in an isolated bunker thousands of miles away and direct the drone. He had to be pretty close.

So the old Hellcat airplane gets launched and heads out to sea, then control was lost. The darned thing was flying over downtown Los Angeles at least twice and was making slow circles to an altitude of around 30,000 feet.

Soon the Hellcat decided to head east over Santa Paula and Fillmore. It took a turn toward Frazier Park and then on toward Castaic.

It must have really hurt Navy pride to call the Air Force for assistance. The idea was for a couple of Air Force jet fighters to shoot down the errant drone.

It was over Castaic that the first shots were fired in what was called “The Santa Clarita War” or “The Battle of Palmdale.”

The Air Force fighter jets were not armed with guns. No, the planes had no guns, but they did have a rocket pod on each wing that each carried 52 unguided Mighty Mouse rockets. There is a good possibility that the solid fuel for those little rockets was made at the SCV’s very own Superfund-wannabe site, Bermite Powder Co.

Anyway, each plane having 104 Mighty Mouse rockets, there was a good possibility the old Hellcat drone would be shot from the sky.

It didn’t happen. The Air Force had a rocket control system that prevented firing the little rockets when the fighters were turning. So the pilots turned off the system and fired by pointing the plane as best they could.

Oh, I forgot to mention the new rocket system meant the gun sights had been removed from the Air Force planes. Why have them? They didn’t have any guns.

The jets fired at least 42 Mighty Mouse rockets at the drone over Castaic. All missed the drone but managed to start some brush fires – one just north of Castaic and another near Newhall.

At least one Mighty Mouse skipped around Placerita Canyon, starting a couple of fires near oil wells and the Oak of The Golden Dream. At one point, the brush fires threatened Bermite Powder Co. in Saugus.

Still the old Hellcat “droned” on. You know, at this point it was just a large, unguided plane. It really couldn’t be called a drone. It was just a plane without a pilot.

Not to be seen as bad pilots and worse, to be shown up by an obsolete, unpiloted, unguided, unarmed and slow propeller-driven airplane, the Air Force tried again. Airmen shot another 62 Mighty Mouse rockets at the old Hellcat. Every one missed the drone.

The tiny little rockets did hit a few things in Palmdale. Homes, a car and a garage. The brush fires burned over 400 acres. More than 800 firefighters were called to put out the fires.

The old Hellcat kept flying over Palmdale and finally crashed about eight miles north of town in an empty field. Nothing much was left. Just small pieces.

So the Battle of Palmdale ended. Old Navy Hellcat, 1. Modern Air Force jets, 0. (No points for the brush fires and other damage.)

Maybe having drones above us today isn’t so bad. As long as the Air Force isn’t sent to shoot them down.

Soon you can read the whole story in a form better suited to history books. I couldn’t help but give the USAF a little poke in the ribs. It is just the sailor in me.

Looking back, I am also glad the Navy got to keep its own planes. If those Air Force guys couldn’t hit an old plane, we know they could never land at a Naval airport. The Navy runways are always moving and are far too short. The Air Force requires an Air Force Base to have golf courses, bowling alleys, clubs, housing, pools and all sorts of recreational things.

Not any room for that, even on the biggest U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

 

Darryl Manzer grew up in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s and attended Hart High School. After a career in the U.S. Navy he returned to live in the Santa Clarita Valley. He can be reached at dmanzer@scvhistory.com and his commentaries, published on Tuesdays and Sundays, are archived at DManzer.com. Watch his walking tour of Mentryville [here].

 

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5 Comments

  1. DennisO says:

    Those old Grumman Hellcats had a heck of a record of success during the war, shouldn’t be surprising that it carried over into Peacetime.

  2. old granny says:

    – – what a great read – THANKS

  3. Burt says:

    I just read about the Battle of Palmdale for the first time. Shook my confidence that those F-89 “all-weather interveptors” could ever have shot down Russian Bear bombers. Glad I was hiding under my desk in elementary school!

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