Antique Retired Military Aircraft – Still Proudly Flying

It’s always a surprise and a delight to discover retired military aircraft, especially from WW II, lovingly preserved or restored, airworthy and ready to fly.  One of these restored classics was recently discovered for sale online at http://www.planesgalore.com/AircraftForSale.aspx?id=2078; an early military unmanned aircraft, the Culver PQ-14A, one of only 6 currently registered with the FAA.

In 1940 a two seat civilian aircraft, the Cadet LCA, was selected by the United States Army Air Corps for use as a radio-controlled target for anti-aircraft gunners. The first model was designated the Culver A-8 (later the XPQ-8) and  had fixed tricycle landing gear which made it easier to land under radio control. After successful tests a production order for 200 was placed, and designated the PQ-8. Later another 200 were ordered with a more powerful engine as the PQ-8A. In late 1941 the United States Navy acquired a PQ-8A for evaluation and then ordered 200 in 1941 as the TDC-2. An enlarged and improved version was later built as the Culver PQ-14.  Larger and faster than the PQ-8, the PQ-14 also had retractable landing gear and fuselage, wings and tail components made of wood with stressed plywood skin..

The XPQ-14 was first flown in 1942 and began to be received in training units shortly after. It was flown unmanned, controlled by radio from the ground or from a “mother ship” (typically a Beech C-45) following at a distance of up to five miles.  These “beeper” pilots could control the plane as effectively as if they were sitting in the cockpit, and could perform a satisfactory imitation of even the hottest enemy fighter planes during target training for gunners and pilots.  On ferry flights onboard pilots flew the craft, using a rudimentary control panel installed for that purpose. Docile and easy to fly, the aircraft was finished in a bright red target color scheme although operationally, a silver or red finish was applied.

Twin Beech JRB-1 'mother-ship' for Culver drones
Beech JRB-1 (Twin Beech) ‘mother-ship’ for Culver drones (1940). A modified Beech Model 18 (Twin Beech), with an extra observing cockpit for the person remotely controlling the drones.

Send in the Original Drones

The first Culver drone design, the PQ-8, was flown by pilots in front of student anti-aircraft gunners (on the ground or airplanes) during “dry-fire” exercises (shooting blanks), and some were flown — by remote control — into real bullets during “live fire” exercises. Made from wood, and using some of the cheapest, smallest engines of the war, the Culver drones were “expendable” airplanes, and also a challenge to early radar operators. The addition of tricycle landing gear made them much easier to take off and land by remote control. A few survived the war to become prized war-surplus personal hot-rods for private pilots.

A later version, the PQ-14, with only a 125-hp Franklin, flew fast (up to 185 mph), and high (17,000 feet) a perfect target for fighter pilots and B-29 gunners. When kamikaze pilots threatened the U.S. Pacific fleet, several PQ-14s were rushed to Okinawa, where naval gunners practiced downing the swift little drones.

In all, over 3,000 units of the PQ-8 and successors were built by Culver  and considered a particularly unique asset by the military. Their toughness, along with the ease with which the all-wood planes were repaired meant that few PQ’s were destroyed. In fact, the toughness of the PQ-14B is the subject of many stories describing planes being badly shot away, landing under their own power to be refueled and ferried back to base. Many American gunners owed their abilities to the training received by firing at these aircraft which were used at many training based in US and on most Allied fronts overseas.

At the end of the war a dozen or more of these drone target planes had survived and were surplused after 1950 and stripped of their military hardware and insignia, were flown as personal planes by civilians. One is preserved as a flying example at the Planes of Fame in Chino, California, another is part of the collection at the National Museum of the USAF and a third is displayed at the Airpower Museum at Blakesburg, Iowa. 

Just another bit of history for those of us who thought “drones” were invented for Afghanistan and Iraq.  It’s good to know there are people out there who are willing to preserve this small piece of American aviation history.       

Is the Business Jet Dead?

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We all remember it.  Fortune 500 company CEOs sitting before the US Congress and being beaten up for planning or purchasing new business jets.  Jetting the world in a private jet used to be “cool”.  It was a thing to which many aspired.  Then almost overnight a private jet became a symbol of wretched excess, capitalism run amok.  Jets used to be seen as time savers, technology which brought efficiency and synergy to business.  Now, suddenly, a private jet is a thing to be decried as contributing to global warming, the failure of our economy and possibly capitalism itself. Wow!

Private Jet Hawker 900XSo, is the business jet dead, a relic of a more prosperous and selfish time?  Absolutely NOT.  A recent article in Aviation Business explains that business jet inventories are back to their lowest levels since 2008.  Businesses and individuals are buying up pre-owned jets and taking advantage of lower prices to upgrade their fleets.  Although prices of some models have begun to rebound there are still outstanding deals to be had on older business jets and some newer models are poised for a rebound in prices.  One sign of possible price recovery is that dealers are beginning to use their own cash on speculative deals. 

A growing concern over economic conditions in Europe may still undo some market improvements gained over the past 18 months.  As Europe has been buying aircraft steadily over the past few years, a severe downturn would pose a threat of still more aircraft being dumped onto the market.

Still, the downside risk has been minimized when you consider that the business jet market that has already seen prices drop 50 percent and depending on model type/value, many prices are 10 to 20 percent below that.  Short of a global crisis which would make aircraft ownership completely out of the picture, it’s unlikely to see another price drop of 30 to 50 percent. 

Beyond the pure economics of the thing, the aviation community is not sitting still and taking it on the chin as in the past.  Since that dark day in November 2008 when three top auto industry executives sat before Congress and were chastised for flying to Washington to ask for a bail out, business aviation leaders have been fighting back. The stereotype of private aviation as expensive, wasteful and elitist had to be addressed.

Within months, pilots, aircraft owners and plane manufacturers had organized around a new leader at a top trade group with an extensive government background and a new congressional caucus. Two other trade groups published a new business aviation survey, showing that most business flights ferried technical, sales or service staff or middle managers with only 22% of business aircraft passengers being top management.  The survey also found most companies operating business aircraft have less than 500 employees and that 80% of flights are to airports with inadequate or no airline service.

Industry advocates knew they had work to do to make a positive impression in Washington, but they also knew they had plenty of allies in both parties. Organizing a General Aviation Caucus in both the House and the Senate brought together the strongest elected voices supporting business aviation.

Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., helped found the House caucus last year and wants to be sure the government keeps private flying safe and accessible. “As a pilot myself, I know that I appreciate easy access to general aviation airports,” he said.

Craig Fuller, who became president of the largest aviation group in the world, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, in January 2009, brings decades of public policy experience to the task of advocating for general aviation.  Fuller, who has been flying since he was 16 and served in the first Bush administration, had this to say in an interview with Forbes.  “We want the government to continue to allow us the freedom to fly. That means, not over regulating or over taxing to the point when people can’t afford to do it.”

The business jet is down, but not dead and like many of the freedoms Americans have been able to take for granted in the past,  business travel and private aircraft ownership are in for a fight. 

http://www.ainonline.com/news/single-news-page/article/buyers-dipping-more-toes-in-pre-owned-waters-24996/

http://www.planesgalore.com/AircraftForSale.aspx?id=1783

The Future of GPS?

In January a software upgrade designed to support a new generation of GPS satellites called Block IIF was installed resulting in the failure of over 10,000 US military GPS recievers.  While civilian receivers were not affected in January, the next steps in this process may have profound implications for civilian GPS users including pilots who increasingly rely on GPS for navigation.Launching the New GPS Satellite

Late last week the US Air Force launched the first of 12 new satellites designed to provide ultra-precise navigation and timing services.  These satellites will be used by both military and civilian receivers and are intended to be less vulnerable to jamming as well as longer lived.  They will use advanced atomic clocks for improved accuracy and will benefit aviation safety and search and rescue efforts.  This new system built by Boeing, has been dubbed GPS 2F-1 and is expected to last 12 years under solar power.  It is said to be twice as accurate as the current system.

Currently nearly a billion people worldwide use GPS for everything from recreation and farming to aviation, banking and disaster relief, in addition to it’s military uses.  Many are asking what the effect will be for the everyday user of GPS.  Will the new satellites be compatible with existing civilian receivers, or will we all have to purchase new ones?  Will the old system be phased out and what is the expected date when all 12 new satellites will be in operation?  Will my little handheld TomTom stop insisting that I turn right in 300 feet, even though that would put me over the side of a cliff?  We can only wait and hope.