The Battle of Palmdale

Not many people know of the Battle of Palmdale. It was a local incident that took place in 1956 involving the United States Air Force and a runaway drone. The damages were immense. Looking back on it now, it seems almost funny how a single runaway drone caused such a large incident. But in 1956, it was surely a big deal.

The Battle of Palmdale happened in the midst of the United State’s Cold War with Russia. The Cold War was a period of rivalry between the United States, Russia, and their allies. It consisted of a battle for global influence and the acceleration of technological advancements, including the Space Race. Each was trying to secure a military advantage over the other in case a war broke out.

By 1956, the U.S. definitely had the advantage after they introduced missiles onto their air fighters. But although these missiles were introduced a year before the Russians, they were very flawed and needed testing. So, the United States Air Force decided to test them against unmanned drones.

One of these drones was the Grumman F6F-5K Hellcat. The Hellcats were out of date at this time, so they were the perfect test dummies for the newly armed aircraft. The bright-red Hellcat launched from Naval Air Station Point Mugu in California, controlled by people on the ground. Its target was a missile test area over the Pacific Ocean. However, the Hellcat stopped responding to commands and went off course.

The Hellcat drone started to head towards Los Angeles. The nearby Oxnard Air Base sent two fighter jets after it, both Northrop F-89 Scorpions armed with 208 rockets and had the newest technology available. Not wanting to shoot down the drone over the populated city, the fighter pilots waited until the Hellcat was over the Antelope Valley to engage. However, the new fire control system was faulty, and the rockets were extremely inaccurate. Out of the 208 rockets the Scorpions fired, not one of them made contact with the rogue Hellcat. Instead, they exploded on cars, houses, and streets, causing large fires to break out and several near-deaths. In total, they destroyed over 1,000 acres of land. Finally, the rogue Hellcat was defeated when it ran out of fuel and crashed in Palmdale.

It is crazy to think that these Scorpions struggled against an unarmed, unmanned, and outdated Hellcat. It was a huge embarrassment for the U.S. Air Military. After all, there would have been less damage if they hadn’t sent any fighters after the Hellcat and just let it crash by itself. But, the U.S. learned from this failure and continued to make improvements to the air vehicles. And the Battle of Palmdale will always be remembered as one of the only interesting things that has ever happened in the Antelope Valley.