BQ-7

Last revised July 25, 1999




Approximately 25 high-time Fortresses (mainly B-17Fs) were converted into radio-controlled flying bombs under the designation BQ-7. They were designed to be used against German V-1 missile sites, submarine pens, or deep fortifications that had resisted conventional bombing.

The name of the USAAF officer who first thought of the idea of using war-weary B-17s as flying bombs has been lost to history, but the plan was proposed to Maj Gen James Doolittle under the code name Operation Aphrodite, and he approved it on June 26, 1944. Responsibility for preparing and flying the drone aircraft was given to the 3rd Bombardment Division, which passed the job down to the 388th Bombardment Group, which in turn passed responsibility down to the 562nd Squadron based at Honington in Suffolk.

The B-17s selected for the project were stripped of their normal military equipment and packed with up to 9 tons of explosives. Each pilotless bomber was fitted with a radio-controlled flight system known as Double-Azon. A television camera was placed on the flight deck so that an image of the main instrument panel could be sent back to a controlling aircraft. A second TV camera was installed inside the Plexiglas nose which gave a television monitor in the controlling aircraft a view of the ground so that the robot machine could be directed onto the target. It was planned that a volunteer two-man crew would get the ship off the ground and fly it up to an operational altitude of 2000 feet, point the aircraft in the general direction of the target, arm the explosives for an on-impact detonation, hand over control to the director aircraft that was flying above at 20,000 feet, and then parachute to safety while still over England. The canopy was removed from each aircraft, creating an open cockpit so that the two-man crew could exit the plane with minimum delay once they had completed their tasks. The controlling B-17 would then direct the BQ-7 to the target area over the Continent and lock its controls into a crash course into the target before turning to escape.

Upon completion of the training program, the squadron with its 10 drones and four command ships moved to an airfield at Woodbridge, which was a few miles from the Suffolk coast northeast of London. They then moved to a small satellite airfield at Fersfield, 25 miles from Woodbridge, in a very isolated area that was well away from any civilian areas.

The first mission took place on August 4. The target was a V-1 site in Pas-de-Calais. In the first phase of the mission, two motherships and two drones took off. Unfortunately, one of the drones went out of control shortly after the first crewman had bailed out. It crashed near the coastal village of Orford, destroying two acres of trees and digging an enormous crater. The body of the other crewman was never found. The second drone was successfully dispatched toward the Pas-de-Calais. Unfortunately, clouds obscured the television view from the nose just as the drone approached the target site, and the plane missed the target by 500 feet. The second phase of the mission fared little better. One robot BQ-7 had a control malfunction before it could dive onto its target and was shot down by German flak. The other one missed its target by 500 yards.

On August 6, another task force of two robots and four command ships was sent out against V-1 targets in France. The crews parachuted clear of the aircraft without incident, but within minutes one of the drones went out of control and crashed into the sea. The other drone decided to develop a mind of its own and the explosives-packed aircraft began to circle the industrial area of Ipswich before flying out to sea, where it was harmlessly ditched.

After these early failures, General Doolittle decided that it might be a good idea to suspend further missions until it could be determined what was going wrong. Most of the advisers pointed the finger at the Double-Azon radio control system and recommended conversion to a new system known as Castor.

The first *Castor* raid was an attack on targets at Heligoland. Again, it started badly--the parachute of the pilot of one of the drones failed to open when he bailed out, and he was killed. Nevertheless, the drone made it all the way to Heligoland, but it crashed some 100 yards short of the target, probably a victim of flak. The next mission was against targets on Heide/Hemmingstedt. The first robot crashed short of its target because of director disorientation caused by image distortion in the television monitor, whereas the second robot malfunctioned and had to be ditched at sea.

Further sorties against Heligoland took place in October, but yielded little success. One drone was shot down by flak, whereas another went out of control and ended up over the North Sea where it finally ran out of fuel and crashed into the water. A third drone failed to locate its target due to low visibility. The exasperated director crew pointed the BQ-7 in the general direction of Berlin and let it go. The fourth drone actually crashed near its target and caused some serious damage and fairly heavy casualties.

On October 27, the headquarters of the US Strategic Air Forces in Europe concluded that these attacks by BQ-7s against hard targets were not yielding much success, and decided that further targets for the BQ-7s would be industrial targets in large German cities. The first of these sorties was on December 5, the target being a group of railroad marshaling yards west of Hannover. Because of bad weather, the first robot could not find the primary target, and was shot down by flak while approaching the secondary target. The second robot failed to explode when it crashed, leaving the Germans with a relatively undamaged aircraft with a complete set of remote controls that they could examine. The last Aphrodite mission was on January 20, 1945, against a power station at Oldenberg. Both drones missed their targets by several miles. After this last effort, the *Aphrodite* concept was abandoned as being unfeasible.

In retrospect, the Aphrodite concept was a costly failure, and was often more dangerous to the crews which operated the drones than it was to the Germans. There were persistent problems with the elevator control, which made many BQ-7s miss their targets during the final dive. It turned out that the hardware available in 1944 was simply not good enough to do the kind of job that was required.

Incidentally, the BQ-7 was NOT the plane responsible for the death of Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. The plane that killed JFK's older brother was a converted Consolidated PB4Y-1, a Navy version of the B-24 Liberator.

Sources:

  1. Flying Fortress, Edward Jablonski, Doubleday, 1965.

  2. Famous Bombers of the Second World War, Volume One, William Green, Doubleday, 1959.

  3. Boeing Aircraft Since 1916, Peter M. Bowers, Naval Institute Press, 1989.

  4. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  5. Boeing B-17E and F Flying Fortress, Charles D. Thompson, Profile Publications, 1966.

  6. American Combat Planes, Ray Wagner, Third Edition, Doubleday, 1982.

  7. Jane's Fighting Aircraft of World War II, Military Press, 1989.

  8. Operation Aphrodite's B-17 "Smart Bomb", Edwyn Gray, Aviation History, May 1996.