In 1959, Ryan Aeronautical Company, which produced the jet-powered "Firebee" target drones for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, conducted a study to determine whether these machines could be adapted to perform long-range aerial reconnaissance. Indeed, the study found that they could and that with lengthened wings they could operate at much higher altitudes. Two months after a U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union, in July 1960, Air Force Under Secretary Joseph Charyk approved a small contract for two flight tests of a modified Firebee. Conducted in September and October, they revealed that a few basic alterations (screening the jet intake and applying radar absorbent materials to the fuselage) greatly reduced the airplane's radar signature. Subsequent plans to contract for the design and construction of an advanced reconnaissance version, known as Ryan Model 136 (Red Wagon), sailed through Pentagon approvals. Deputy Secretary of Defense James H. Douglas also recommended in favor of funding the project and sent the package to Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates in November. But just a few days before, Republican Richard Nixon had lost the presidential election to John Kennedy, and the secretary declined to authorize so large a contract start for an incoming Democratic administration. That ended all work on drones for more than a year. Ultimately, in February 1962, Under Secretary Charyk approved a far less expensive order for four modified target drones that would fly a programmed course over a 1,200-mile range at an altitude of 55,000 feet.
Identified as Ryan Model 147A (code name "Fire Fly"), these classified vehicles (1) had a 30-inch plug inserted in the fuselage to carry additional fuel (increasing capacity from 100 to 160 gallons), which increased their length from 23 feet to 27 feet (some later versions would reach 30 feet). The wing was a standard Firebee with extended replaceable wing tips, providing a span of 13 feet. The initial guidance system consisted of a simple time-based programmer capable of being set to command heading changes, controls for the payload, and a gyrocompass for heading control. The drones, flown in a cruise-climb mode, continued to ascend as fuel burned off. Launched from beneath the wing of a DC-130 "Hercules," the 147A was operator programmed to fly a specified route and return to a predetermined point where a beacon and radio turned on, and control was assumed by a ground-based command system that directed drone recovery. When recovery was commanded, the engine shut down, parachutes deployed, and the vehicle descended to earth. After additional flight tests conducted in April and May 1962 from Holloman AFB over New Mexico and Utah proved successful, officials in the National Reconnaissance Office contemplated an order for more vehicles for operational testing and eventual use.
Back in September 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had established a secret National Reconnaissance Program (NRP) that funded all United States overflight technical collection assets, and a clandestine National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in the Pentagon to manage and direct the effort. (2) This highly classified activity he placed under the direction of Under Secretary of the Air Force Charyk who, in 1962, created four alphabetic programs to procure, launch, and operate reconnaissance vehicles. (3) The last of these, Air Force "Program D," was responsible for development, test, and evaluation (DT&E) of aerial reconnaissance vehicles including drones. (An exception was the CIA A-12, for which Program D provided only the NRP funds.) Thus, beginning in 1962, a covert Program D placed the orders for all classified Ryan drones, their reconnaissance payloads, and their test and evaluation through a "cut out" --Air Force Logistic Command's Big Safari Office, (4) and paid for them with NRP funds. In government offices and contractor facilities this special drone procurement effort, like its immediate successors, was conducted in a Top Secret compartment. Unlike the NRO satellite programs, however, Program D did not operate any of the aerial assets it developed, which meant that Program D and its agent, Big Safari, had to find an Air Force command willing to perform that function before it ordered any more.
With test and evaluation proceeding well in...