Grumman: In 1956, the US was deep in the throes of the Cold War, concerned that the Soviets could launch an invasion at any time.
The US Navy began testing surface-to-air and air-to-air rockets at this time in order to be prepared for whatever might be to come.
This testing involved surplus Hellcat fighter planes from WWII equipped with remote control technology.
Many of the Grumman F6F-5k drones, as the remote controlled planes were designated, were flown from Naval Air Station Point Mugu in Ventura County, southern California. Once they were safely over the Pacific Ocean and away from inhabited areas, the Navy would practice shooting them down.
On August 16, 1956, one of those drones went rogue. The crew lost control of the plane and began flying southeast towards Los Angeles rather than out to the ocean.
The Air Force responded by launching two interceptors from the 437th Fighter-Interceptor at Oxnard Air Force Base. The Northrop F-89D Scorpion twin-jet planes were the most advanced aircraft in the world at the time, the first jet-powered planes able to fly in any weather and the first outfitted with computer-guided missiles.
Their goal was to bring the drone down before it crashed into a populated area.
When they reached the drone northeast of Los Angeles at 30,000 feet, it immediately banked and flew directly over the city. Eventually it changed course and headed northwest toward the Santa Clara River Valley where it circled the city of Santa Paula.
Meanwhile, the pilots followed the runaway plane and prayed it would not crash into the buildings below. The drone responded by heading northeast over Fillmore and then toward Antelope Valley.
For all their advancements, the Scorpions were not equipped with machine guns. Now that the drone was away from the cities, they were determined to bring it down with their missiles.
Each plane carried 104 Mk 4 Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR), aka the Mighty Mouse rockets. The planes also had been outfitted with the new Hughes E-6 fire control system and AN/APG-40 radar connected to a computer that guided the missiles.
If the pilots could get the drone in their sights and fire the missiles, the computer should handle the rest. But nothing happened when they fired. They had discovered a bug in the system.
Fortunately the missiles could also be fired manually. This required carefully lining up the target in their gunsights. But here is where another problem appeared. The gunsights had been removed when the Hughes system was installed.
Now the drone was changing course again and heading back toward LA. The pilots fired 42 rockets and missed with each. A couple brushed against the fuselage of the plane, but none exploded or caused any damage to the drone.
The drone began to head toward Newhall so the pilots fired another 64 rockets at it missing with every one of them.
After this, the Hellcat began to fly toward Palmdale. The pilots tried to bring it down with 30 more rockets and managed to miss with all 30.
Out of missiles and nearly out of fuel, the two interceptors headed back to base defeated by an unmanned remote control plane.
When the drone finally ran out of fuel, it hit about 8 miles from the Palmdale airport. It took out power lines along Avenue P, flipped into the desert, and cartwheeled multiple times before smashing into the ground and bursting apart into so many pieces they weren’t discovered until 1997.
Though the drone did relatively little damage when it came down, the missiles fired by the interceptors were another matter.
150 acres in Castaic were set ablaze. A series of fires were started by a single missile in Placerita Canyon – one of those fires ignited some of the Indian Oil Company’s oil slumps. Another 350 acres were set on fire at Soledad Canyon.
While the drone had missed Palmdale, some of the rockets landed there. Fires were started. Shrapnel flew through the walls and windows of area houses. One man was driving with his mother when a missile detonated in front of his car. Two men had just left their truck to get some lunch when a missile destroyed it.
500 firefighters took 2 days to contain the fires and an unexploded ordnance team had to remove 13 duds. Amazingly, no one was killed or even severely injured during the incident.