Cecilia Rasmussen: The Battle of Palmdale

Roundup: Talking About History

In the midst of the Cold War, when Nike missile sites dotted the Southland, a bright red runaway Navy drone airplane veered off course and headed for Los Angeles, triggering a dangerous sequence of events known as the "Battle of Palmdale."

It's not a battle that the military could say it won back on Aug. 16, 1956.

The Navy summoned two fighter jets to shoot down the pilotless drone, a Grumman F6F-5K Hellcat, minutes after it went out of control after being launched from Point Mugu Naval Air Station.

As the wayward Hellcat headed toward Los Angeles, twin Scorpion interceptors fired more than 200 missiles at it, missing their target each time. Instead the missiles -- each pod containing 52 Mighty Mouse 2.75-inch rockets -- damaged property and set off a string of brush fires across northern Los Angeles County. The Hellcat drone finally crash-landed harmlessly in the Mojave Desert.

Angry and frightened residents complained. Los Angeles County Supervisor Roger W. Jessup promised a detailed investigation and introduced a resolution urging the "utmost care" by Navy officials in sending the "robot planes skyward."

The Navy may have lost radio control with the Hellcat either because the ground transmitter failed or the aircraft receiver broke down, according to experts.

More than four decades later, Peter Merlin, 41, an archivist and historian in the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center history office at Edwards Air Force Base, was documenting more than 400 military and civilian crash sites in the base's vicinity when he stumbled across this little-remembered aviation incident.

"I thought I knew every aviation mishap since 1935, but I was wrong," said Merlin, who, with a partner, is driven to conduct the detective-like work of pinpointing aviation crash sites.

"Finding plane crash sites has been a passion of mine for decades," Merlin said. The Hellcat voyage and wreck are "forgotten history, filled with drama, humor, and it's not morbid."

Merlin and fellow wreck finder Tony Moore, 46, a graphic designer, founded the X-Hunters Aerospace Archeology Team in 1992.
Specializing in recovering experimental aircraft (X-planes) artifacts, he and Moore have visited more than 100 air crash sites and posted many of their finds on their website: www.thexhunters.com.

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