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; 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.