There are many things that the US Military Industrial Complex don’t want you to know. One of the things it doesn’t want you to know is that two of its much vaunted drones are developments of a rather peculiar line of British aircraft development dating from the late 1950s.
In 1955 the BBC approached the struggling aircraft company Airspeed Ltd to provide it with a dedicated aerial camera platform. It was to have excellent low speed handling and exceptional endurance to enable its crew to film sporting events or appropriate news items with maximum efficiency. A crew of three was envisaged: pilot, camera operator and director/producer. For such items as football matches it was intended that a commentator might be carried in the place of the director and the capability for live audio transfer from the aircraft was a requirement from the very beginning. A helicopter design was considered but rejected due to endurance and noise concerns.
The Airspeed AS66 ‘Peeper’ was the result. Powered by a small and quiet Turbomeca turboprop derived from the Astazou, the Peeper made its first flight on the 6th July 1962 and proved an immediate success. BBC cutbacks meant that the initial order was cut from 126 to 4 but this quartet of aircraft would provide sterling service for the next forty years. Amazingly, according to a BBC correspondent, one is retained in mothballed condition at Brooklands aerodrome in Surrey ‘just in case’.
Despite its great success the Peeper did present its pilots with some rather peculiar handling characteristics so a training version was developed. This, the piston-engined AS67 ‘Editor’ was much cheaper to operate but effectively mimicked the larger aircraft’s characteristics. The economical Editor was a charming aircraft to fly and cheap to operate but the asking price was high and, despite a herculean sales effort, Airspeed managed to sell a mere five examples, two going to the BBC.
Looking back without a man
Fast forward thirty odd years and General Atomics is charged with developing a reliable, quiet unmanned aircraft with a good loiter time to spy on America’s enemies. Unwilling to bother developing a new airframe from scratch for a requirement that might turn out to be a dead end, General Atomics looked around for a suitable base airframe for its UAV. By this time Airspeed was long since defunct, having initially merged with de Havilland which in turn was absorbed into Hawker Siddeley and thus ultimately becoming part of British Aerospace. To cut a long story short General Atomics approached BAe with their requirements, BAe dug out Airspeed’s drawings for an aircraft designed to carry cameras with a great loiter time and the rest is history. The prototype General Atomics MQ-1 ‘Predator’, an unmanned Airspeed Editor took to the sky from Brooklands aerodrome in July 1994 followed by the larger turboprop MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ in 2001. Both have proved of great worth to US forces and are despised and feared by all manner of people the world over.
In a curious footnote to this tale it was discovered in 2005 that Neville Shute, Director of Airspeed, had postulated a radio controlled ‘Queen Peeper’ in 1961 when a lost notebook of the designer/author turned up at an auction in Devon. His idea was that it could be used to film newsworthy events where a human crew would be put at risk – his example being a tactical nuclear battlefield situation. Available technology at the time simply could not provide the necessary remote control for such a vehicle but thirty years of radio and TV improvement have resulted in the ‘Queen Peeper’ becoming a reality, though not (thankfully) in a nuclear war.
No. 39 Squadron RAF currently operates the MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan, they will be joined by No. 13 squadron during 2012.
If you enjoyed this, you may like our other ULTIMATE WHAT-IF AIRCRAFT, like this one: https://hushkit.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/the-ultimate-what-if-fighter-the-griffon-powered-hawker-hurricane-mk-xiv/