Pioneer RQ-2A UAV

Display Status:

This object is not on display at the National Air and Space Museum. It is either on loan or in storage.

Collection Item Summary:

The RQ-2A provides field commanders with real-time reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, and battle damage information. Ground controllers pilot the aircraft over its 185-kilometer (115-mile) range. The RQ-2A can be recovered by flying into a large net aboard a ship or by using a tail hook and arresting wire on land. Its small size and composite materials make the RQ-2A difficult to detect visually and on radar.

U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine units began using RQ-2As in the late 1980s. This one operated from the battleship Wisconsin during the 1991 Gulf War. While it was assessing damage from naval gunfire to targets on Faylaka Island near Kuwait City, several Iraqi soldiers signaled their intention to surrender to the aircraft during a low pass-the first time enemy soldiers had ever surrendered to an unmanned aerial vehicle. They were later captured by U.S. ground troops.

Collection Item Long Description:

By the 1990s, American military forces trained primarily for peacekeeping operations and limited warfare. Maintaining peace often required covert, real-time, 24-hour surveillance of military and security forces. Among western nations, the political will to launch and maintain limited warfare depended almost entirely on minimizing casualties to service personnel and preventing collateral damage to non-combatants. Friendly units had to first locate and positively identify enemy forces, then launch weapons well beyond threat from enemy defensive fire. Once in flight, missiles, bombs, or other battlefield munitions launched by friendly forces could not miss the target by more than a few meters.

Close-up, real-time surveillance was required to succeed at these demanding missions. Since the Vietnam War, military forces have used the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, to closely track the enemy without incurring their own casualties. One of the most successful UAVs fielded by U. S. forces was the Pioneer RQ-2A. This aircraft has played a significant role in several major conflicts. The UAV dates to World War II when unmanned remotely- controlled aircraft served as primitive, cruise missiles and gunnery targets. On May 1, 1960, Soviet forces downed Francis Gary Powers near Svedlovsk when he over-flew the Soviet Union in a Lockheed U-2 (see NASM collection) reconnaissance jet. This incident was front-page news when President Dwight D. Eisenhower met Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Paris a few weeks later. Initial reports that a Soviet surface-to-air missile downed Powers' airplane jump-started the development of reconnaissance UAVs.

Mounting bulky camera equipment to the UAV airframe without making it considerably larger and easier to target with anti-aircraft weapons became the most difficult technical hurdle. The U.S. Air Force developed the AQM-34 Firebee and flew this aircraft extensively during the Vietnam War. A small jet-turbine engine propelled the swept-wing Firebee on reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam and China.

Israel invested heavily in remotely piloted aircraft technology during the late 1960s after the Egyptians badly surprised Israeli aircrews during the short but intense Six-Day War in early June 1967. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Israel Aircraft Industries, Ltd., (IAI) was manufacturing the Scout UAV. Successes flying the Scout during the invasion and subsequent flight demonstrations of this UAV's capabilities convinced leaders in the U.S. Navy Mediterranean Fleet to acquire their own Scouts. Reports suggest that the suicide bombing that killed 241 U. S. Marines in Beirut in 1983 also spurred Navy officials to investigate reconnaissance UAVs. In 1984, IAI and Tadiran, Ltd., formed a joint subsidiary company called Mazlat Ltd., to develop an improved version of the Scout known as the Pioneer. The following year, Mazlat flew the Pioneer in a UAV competition sponsored by the Navy. Pacific Aerosystem's Heron 26 UAV competed against the Pioneer for a lucrative Navy contract. Pioneer won and the Navy selected AAI Corporation in the United States to build this UAV.

A Pioneer airframe consists of a twin-tail boom fuselage with two vertical stabilizers on the tail and a conventional wing and stub fuselage mounting a pusher engine. The fixed, tricycle landing gear uses small inflatable main wheel tires but the nose gear has a castering, solid plastic wheel. The airframe consists of carbon-fiber composites, fiberglass, Kevlar, aluminum, and balsa wood. These lightweight materials enable the Pioneer to loft its payload of surveillance equipment with a 26 horsepower, two-cycle engine. The non-metallic composites also reduce the UAV's radar cross-section. A fuel capacity of 47 liters (12 gal) of 100-octane aviation gasoline can keep the Pioneer airborne for 5.5 hours.

Two operators flew a Pioneer manually from a Ground Control Station (GCS), or the airplane could fly autonomously using an on-board autopilot preprogrammed to follow a specific flight path. A ground-based Tracking Control Unit (TCU) was required to maintain a communication data link with the aircraft and monitored its position. The range of the transmitter was 185 km (115 miles). The data link was jam resistant but operators could switch to a backup mode if the primary frequency was successfully jammed. IAI also developed a Portable Control Station (PCS) for the Pioneer system. Several small, man-portable loads comprised the PCS. This allowed soldiers on the battlefield to assume control once the air vehicle was in flight. Another handy bit of avionics, the Remote Receiving Station (RRS) consisted of a small box with video display that allowed commanders to remotely view real-time imagery transmitted from the Pioneer but independent of the video link to the GCS. A fully equipped Pioneer reconnaissance unit typically consisted of five UAVs and one each GCS, TCU, and PCS, plus four RRS boxes and launch and recovery gear.

Two people could easily assemble and knockdown the Pioneer in the field. The fuselage, wings, empennage, and tail-booms detach easily and fit within a purpose-built container that protects these components during transport or prolonged storage. Once assembled, ground crews could launch the Pioneer using several methods. When launching from all but the smallest ships, a launch platform held the UAV in take-off position until an operator ignited a small, solid-fuel rocket motor to propel the aircraft to sufficient flying speed. The rocket burned out and fell away a few seconds after liftoff. Runway takeoffs also require the boost rocket or a truck-mounted pneumatic catapult. Without a steerable nosewheel, a normal runway takeoff is not possible.

To recover the UAV, operators usually fly it into a large net. The airplane also carries a tail-hook to catch an arresting wire strung across a runway. A Pioneer can carry up to 45.4 kg (100 lb) of surveillance equipment including high resolution, black-and-white television, infrared, or color cameras plus to an array of sensor packages for chemical and radiological monitoring, or for gathering electronic intelligence.

U.S. Navy forces received their first Pioneers in June 1986, the initial part of an $87.7 million purchase of 72 Pioneers and support equipment. Fleet Composite Squadron Six (VC-6) broke-in the new UAVs at the Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center in Maryland. In December 1986, five Pioneers went aboard the battleship "U.S.S. Iowa" to demonstrate their ability to extend the eyes of Navy gunners. The "Iowa's" 41-cm (16-inch) main gun battery could hit targets beyond a range of 38 km (24 miles). During tests, four Pioneers were lost, three of them during attempts to recover the aircraft using the net. Continuing losses during flight and recovery prompted a $50 million expenditure to improve the system. Landing was particularly difficult because operators were attempting to fly the Pioneer into a small target at a precise airspeed, altitude, and angle-of-attack, without benefit of the visual, tactile, aural cues available to conventional pilots.

In 1987, the U. S. Marine Corps began fielding the Pioneer. The U.S. Army also experimented with UAVs during the 1980s. The Army's Aquila UAV cost nearly a billion dollars to build and test but the program failed to reach design goals and Army leaders terminated the project, and then evaluated the Pioneer. By 1990, Army units were operating this UAV. The next year, AAI formed a new subsidiary called Pioneer UAV, Inc., to exclusively manufacture the Pioneer, provide user support, and continue to refine the aircraft. The new company was required because American forces were flying hundreds of Pioneers.

Saddam Hussein's military incursion into Kuwait in 1991 provided the ideal proving ground for Pioneer UAV units to prove their worth. About 40 U. S. Navy, Marine, and Army Pioneers flew more than 300 missions during Operation Desert Storm. The Navy flew Pioneers from the battleships "Iowa" and "Wisconsin" and three Marine Corps Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) companies used their Pioneers to identify targets for marine artillery units and to correct their shot. The Army also deployed one UAV platoon to aid army artillery in the same manner as the Marine UAV units.

Navy Pioneers conducted 71 missions and flew a total of 232 hours during the conflict. These aircraft allowed their operators to detect, and helped vector forces to intercept, two Iraqi high-speed patrol boats menacing the fleet. They also became the eyes of naval gunners who successfully bombarded Faylaka Island. It was during this bombardment that the international media spotlight fell on the Pioneer. Crewmen aboard the battleship "Wisconsin" launched a Pioneer, Air Vehicle number 159, to conduct battle damage assessment after shells from the "Missouri's" massive 41-cm (16-inch) guns. As operators flew the Pioneer low over Faylaka Island, a number of Iraqis realized the battleship was probably preparing to fire another volley. They waved white surrender flags as the UAV passed overhead. U. S. Marines landed and collected the waiting prisoners. This event marked the first time that humans had surrendered to a robot in combat. When Navy officials offered to transfer a Pioneer to the Smithsonian Institution, curators at the National Air and Space Museum specifically asked for the UAV that Iraquis troops surrendered to during the Gulf War.

Marine Corps UAV operators completed 196 Pioneer sorties and logged 606 flight hours, including missions performed during the buildup to Operation Desert Storm. The Navy and Marine Corps lost 12 Pioneers during Desert Storm: one to hostile fire, another when it ran out of fuel while following a convoy of mobile SCUD missile launchers. Combat operations were not associated with the remaining losses. These losses included control difficulties, recovery mishaps, and one Pioneer that crashed after it accidentally flew through the wake turbulence from a passing Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport (see NASM collection). Enemy gunfire damaged three Pioneers and routine operational events damaged another 15 UAVs. U. S. Army Pioneers carried out 46 missions and logged 155 hours of flight time without losing a single aircraft.

The high non-combat loss rate prompted a negative review by the U. S. General Accounting Office. Other government watchdog groups also attacked the Pioneer operations because of alleged laxness in monitoring parts procurement. To military leaders, the Pioneer proved invaluable, even with a high loss rate. The aircraft saved many military men and women who might otherwise have died because of exposure to enemy fire. The price of a single Pioneer, $850,000, is also several orders of magnitude less than the cost of a manned reconnaissance aircraft. In 1995, Pioneer UAV Inc. began developing a Common Automatic Recovery System (CARS) to allow automated recovery at land and sea. CARS could dramatically reduce the number of recovery accidents and expand the air vehicle's adverse weather performance.

The Pioneer continued to operate throughout the 1990s in most major U.S. military operations, including Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Flying over the former Yugoslavia, Pioneer operators spotted targets for Standoff Land Attack Missiles launched from Lockheed P-3 Orions aircraft. Pioneers have also helped carry out extensive surveillance during drug interdiction operations. During the late 1990s, this classs of slow and low flying UAV became increasingly vulnerable to anti-aircraft gunfire, particularly in flight over Kosovo. Army units traded in their Pioneers for a larger and more advanced model called the Hunter. Until the Navy and Marine Corps phase out the Pioneer (now called Outrider), this robust airplane will remain in service.

The U. S. Navy donated Pioneer RQ-2A, Air Vehicle 159, to the National Air and Space Museum during October 2000. A camera surveillance package is mounted inside the spherical turret installed in the middle of the RQ-2A fuselage. The Pioneer is on display as part of the UAV Gallery in the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall that opened in 2008.

Wingspan: 5.1 m (16 ft 10 in),

Length: 4.4 m (14 ft 4 in),

Height: 1.2 m (4 ft)

Reference and Further Reading:

Gerken, Louis C. "UAV: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles." Chula Vista, California: American Scientific Corp., 1991.

McDaid, Hugh and David Oliver. "Smart Weapons: Top Secret History of Remote Controlled Airborne Weapons." New York: Welcome Rain, 1997.

Munson, Kenneth. "World Unmanned Aircraft." Janes, 1988.

Pioneer RQ-2A curatorial file, Aeronautics Division, National Air and Space Museum.

DAD, 11-11-01