COLD WAR: With Russian jets buzzing U.S. ships these days and the chill of cold war looming, a couple of wordsmiths I ran into at Loreto Plaza reminded me of the long-forgotten “Battle of Palmdale.”
The attempted shoot-down occurred on August 16, 1956, at a time when one of the U.S. Air Force’s major concerns was how to protect the country from Soviet long-range bombers.
Our top interceptor was the Northrop F-89D Scorpion, then based at Oxnard AFB and other locations. On the morning of August 16, an unmanned World War II–era Grumman F6F-5K Hellcat drone, painted bright red, was launched from the Naval Air Station at nearby Point Mugu.
Radio controllers sent it out over the Pacific Ocean on a test flight. But soon — horrors! — the lumbering propeller-driven Grumman stopped heeding commands and became a runaway, curving toward the city of Los Angeles. The Navy quickly notified Oxnard AFB (today’s Camarillo Airport), which scrambled two Scorpions.
They headed south on full afterburner power, caught up with the Grumman at 30,000 feet, and waited for the plane to fly over an unpopulated area before shooting it down. The Scorpions were equipped with “Mighty Mouse” rockets and the new Hughes E-6 fire control system.
Meanwhile, the drone passed over L.A. and turned to circle over Santa Paula, then Fillmore and Frazier Park, heading for the largely uninhabited Antelope Valley. The interceptors went for the kill. Then something went wrong. According to Wikipedia, “[D]ue to a design flaw in the fire control system the rockets failed to launch.”
Suddenly the runaway plane turned back toward L.A. The two pilots switched from automatic fire mode to manual fire control. But then they discovered that the gun sights had been removed, meaning that they had to manually aim the rockets.
As the drone flew over Castaic, the first crew fired 42 rockets, completely missing the plane. The second interceptor unleashed another salvo of 42, but the rockets passed just beneath the plane, a few glancing off but not detonating. As the interceptors flew over Newhall, the two jets fired 64 more rockets at the Hellcat. None hit.
But they didn’t give up. As the drone headed northeast toward the desert town of Palmdale, they each fired 30 more rockets, without success.
In all, they had fired 208 rockets but failed to shoot the plane down. Low on fuel, the jets headed home. But the Hellcat flew on to Palmdale, its engine sputtering from lack of gas. While slowly descending, it severed three Edison power lines and crashed near the Palmdale airport, its day of adventure over.
But in Palmdale, all hell had broken loose. Rockets seemed to have fallen like hail. Edna Carlson, living on Third Street, said a chunk of shrapnel from a rocket came crashing through her front window, bounced off the ceiling, and came to rest in a kitchen cupboard.
Another rocket crashed into the road in front of a car headed west on Route 138, shredding a tire and punching holes in the body. After two workmen finished eating lunch in their truck and walked off to sit under a shade tree, a rocket demolished the vehicle.
One rocket was seen bouncing along the ground in Placerita Canyon. Others set fire to oil sumps, the blaze coming within 300 feet of a powder-explosives plant.
Brush fires touched off by rockets burned 1,000 acres. It took 500 firefighters two days to put the blazes out. But no one was killed in what the L.A. Times dubbed “The Battle of Palmdale.”
More than 40 years later, Peter Merlin, a historian at Edwards AFB, went looking for the Grumman wreckage. “Finding plane crash sites has been a passion of mine for decades,” Merlin told the Times. He and fellow wreck-finder Tony Moore located the spliced Edison power lines, using old photos and newspaper files.
The Times had headlined the 1956 event: “208 Rockets Fired at Runaway Plane: Missiles Spray Southland Area in Effort to Halt Wild Drone.”
Merlin and Moore finally found the wreckage eight miles from the airport, undisturbed after four decades.
Alan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, later commented: “Ironically, this unarmed, unmanned, and obsolete prop-driven aircraft managed to elude two of the most advanced jet interceptors of their time.”