The stealthy, reconnaissance-minded Ryan AQM-91 Firefly was also known under the name of Compass Arrow during its short time as a long-range reconnaissance drone.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
Credit: Image courtesy of the USAF Museum of Dayton, Ohio, USA.
Teledyne Ryan / Ryan Aeronautical produced the AQM-91 "Firefly" as a stealth-minded, high-altitude, photo-reconnaissance Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). Development began in the late-1960s with the design intended for use by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)as well as the United States Air Force (USAF) for secret over-flights of Chinese airspace - with particular interest given to its growing nuclear sites. First flight was in September of 1968. The product also carried the name of "Compass Arrow".
To fulfill the requirements, the Firefly was given an operational altitude of 78,000 feet with a mission endurance time of 4.5 hours and range out to 2,000 miles. Its onboard photographic equipment allowed for vast swathes of territory to be photographed from 15 miles up with detail providing clarity down to one foot. Externally, the UAS displayed a rather conventional aircraft-type configuration with swept-back wings, a twin-vertical rudder tail unit and central fuselage nacelle. The powerplant was fitted over the fuselage spine as a single General Electric YJ97-GE-3 turbojet engine of 4,000lb thrust. "Stealth" qualities were covered through angled surfaces, special body coatings and onboard electronics.
By design, the AQM-91 was intended for air-launching from a host mothership - this being a Lockheed DC-130E "Hercules" aircraft (a drone-controlling variant of the famous transport aircraft) - and thusly not fitted with its own launching facility. From there, the drone would have operated under its own power and self-guidance utilizing its onboard systems. However, a manual override function allowed for ground controllers to assume function as needed.
With some thawing of China-U.S. relations in the early 1970s, the aircraft no longer found a specific mission requirement within the CIA/USAF, this despite some 28 of the type completed (eight prototypes with twenty production-quality units). As such, the line never flew a single mission over Chinese airspace in its service life and was ultimately discontinued by 1973.
Ryan Aeronautical was founded in 1934 and became part of Teledyne (as Teledyne-Ryan) in 1969. In 1999, Teledyne-Ryan was absorbed under the Northrop Grumman brand label.
Status Retired, Out-of-Service
[ 28 Units ] : Ryan Aeronautical / Teledyne-Ryan - USA
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