The Western Museum of Flight is located at Torrance Municipal Airport (CA), also known as 'Louis Zamperini Field', and has an AQM-34K in its collection. The museum has a sizeable collection of drones and targets: apart from the Firebee they have a Northrop NV-135 and NV-144, Radioplane TDD-1 / OQ-2A/B, KD2R-5, OQ-19 Recce, RP-76 and RP-99, and a Teledyne-Ryan 326 (subscale Hind). The AQM-34K is on display and accessible to the public.
The WMOF used to be located at Hawthorne (CA), but due to problems with its lease contract, the museum closed on 26 July 2006. Late August 2006, the museum signed a lease contract for two hangars at nearby Torrance Municipal Airport / Zamperini Field in Torrance. The collection was downscaled: the restored DC-3 airliner, the F-86 Sabre, the F-14 Tomcat, the AT-6 trainer and other fighters did not move to Torrance, they are loaned out to aviation-related businesses and organizations. The DH-82C Tiger Moth was sold. The museum reopened on 4 November 2007.
The AQM-34K is the USAF designation for the TRA Model 147SRE, and it is a night-time infrared film recce version. Only twenty were built, and this is only one still original external configuration. The manufacturer's identity of this Firebee is 'SRE-8', making it the eighth SRE produced. The USAF serial number is 67-21633, which falls in a BQM-34 serial batch (67-21501 - 21700).
The in-service and post-service history so far uncovered by Craig Kaston is as follows:
|Ryan Aeronautical Company||San Diego, CA||New Production||Initial USAF Acceptance||24 August 1968|
|100 SRW||Davis-Monthan AFB||Intercommand Transfer||Combat Capable||28 August 1968|
|100 SRW||Davis-Monthan AFB||Intercommand Transfer||Placed In Storage||20 November 1968|
|100 SRW||Davis-Monthan AFB||Intercommand Transfer||Combat Capable||5 February 1969|
|100 SRW||Davis-Monthan AFB||Intercommand Transfer||Placed In Storage||7 February 1969|
|100 SRW||Davis-Monthan AFB||Intercommand Transfer||Transfer of accountability||26 May 1969|
|Lear Siegler, Inc. (LSI) Astronics Division||Santa Monica, CA||Bailed to LSI||Testbed||Unknown (possibly by 1971-2)|
|California Science Center||Los Angeles, CA||Donated to CSC by Lawrence A. LaCotti, President of LSI.||Stored||1986|
|The Western Museum of Flight||Hawthorne, CA||Loaned to WMOF by CSC||On display, restoration in progress.||2001|
The post Air Force life of SRE-8 has been deduced from Craig Kastonís close examination of the airframe:
LSI data plate. Next to the Ryan data plate on the aft bulkhead is a second data plate with 'L.S.I.' on it, short for 'Lear Siegler Incorporated'. Six AQM-34L's were supplied by SAC to Lear Siegler Astronics Division under project 'Update'. In an attempt to produce a much better performing RPV (with regards to navigation accuracy, controllability, checkout time) nearly all original systems were removed except for the engine, and new systems were installed. It appears that this AQM-34K was used as a pattern / electrical mockup for the YAQM-34U.
Part numbers. A check of the electronics bay confirmed the theory: there were many cable harnesses and pieces of bracketry with non-TRA style part numbers, and the FSCM/CAGE (Federal Supply Code for Manufacturer / Commercial And Government Entity) code on these parts was that of Lear Siegler / Lear Astronics. A relay box is labeled 'hot mockup'. In addition, there were some non-flight LRU mounting shelves that had TRA part numbers such as 259K014-3. '259' is the Teledyne-Ryan model number for the BGM-34C. The shelves were labeled with Dymo tape; if TRA had made the plates, they would have been corrosion-proofed and ink-stamped with the part number. As it happens, the five surviving YAQM-34U's were all converted to BGM-34C's. So the subsequent use of this AQM-34K by LSI as an electrical mockup for the BGM-34C isn't unlikely at all.
Outside air temperature / total temperature probe. A temperature probe is mounted on the left forward fuselage, but the SRE originally did not have such a probe according to Dave Matthews. The AQM-34M has one in exactly the same location, but on the right side (see for example this photo); starting with the SD (AQM-34M) the flight control system processed that data. Other drones with this installation were the YAQM-34U and BGM-34C.
The SRE version is not illustrated in any Firebee reference, and it is the first time we can see the details of this rare version. Some external differences compared to an AQM-34L are:
The camera windows are more forward, because of the different camera system that was installed. This appears to have been a dual (left and right pointed) short focal-length camera installation.
Under the rear fuselage plug six large windows are seen for the near-infrared flasher units. Of note is that they are not placed symmetrically. The windows appear to be covered with translucent green tape. Since the flasher installation appears rather bulky, one wonders whether the fuel capacity was reduced.
Two cooling air inlets are installed on the right side of the rear fuselage. Behind the six flasher windows a louvred panel is installed, venting the flasher bay.
In 'Lightning Bugs and other reconnaissance drones' it is reported that ScotchLite reflective tape was used on various parts, in order to be able to perform night-time in-flight inspections before launch, on the pylon. It appears that some tape remains, like outboard of the left aileron, and on the leading edges of both wings.
The vertical tail is likely from another Firebee, judging from the paint color.
There are three dull-red panels installed: two on the forward fuselage sides, one behind the exhaust. These parts are replacement parts made by the restoration crew. Here is an earlier photo without these parts installed.
Dave Matthews of 100th AMMS/100th SRW and 512th FTD (see USAF bio) remembers that one AQM-34K was in use at Davis-Monthan in 1971, most likely as a maintenance trainer. It was gone before the end of the year; he doesn't remember whether it was eventually expended as a day flight trainer or put it in storage at the Bosal company at Tuscon airport. Dave reports that the AQM-34K was closely related to the AQM-34L in all subsystems other than the camera and lighting system. Dave reported that an interesting aspect of the AQM-34K is the fact that the capacitor bank that provided the high voltage discharge for the strobe lights was extremely dangerous after flight. The capacitors could hold their charge for a considerable time period. A special grounding rod was driven into the ground next to the recovered drone. Attached to the ground rod was a braided cable that connected to an insulated shaft that contained a row of low value resistors. At the end of the insulated shaft was a bayonet connector that was plugged into a grounding plug on the drone; this connection discharged the capacitor bank to ground. Only then was it safe to touch the drone! Dave believes the electrical receptacle was the actual airframe ground, located on the left side of the top fairing, more or less in line with the leading edge of the wing.
The Firebee was restored by a WMOF crew under the direction of volunteer Herb Stark. It initially lacked wingtips and a tailcone, but a set of short wingtips and a long parachute container/tailcone have been obtained and are now being refurbished. Whether a long or short tailcone was fitted originally is very difficult to establish (lacking photos), but Dave Matthews thinks the the switch to the 100 foot chute with corresponding larger tailcone was made in late 1971. Close examination of the drone has revealed that it is fitted with the original horizontal stabilizer tips without endplates (endplate use began with the 147SC, SD and SK models). This means that the restoration crew will have to build a ventral fin from scratch. SRE-8 does not have an engine.
The restoration crew worked hard during 2005 and 2006. Wing tips and a tailcone were found and installed, and a replacement rudder and rudder actuator fairing were made from scratch. In June 2006 the Firebee was repainted in black overall. The excellent result can be seen on Herb Stark's 'Stark Ravings' web site.
Tjepke Heeringa photographed SRE-8 in July 2005.
Restoration project leader Herb Stark opened the forward and aft compartments of the AQM-34K in August 2005, and kindly provided the following photographs (more can be be seen on Herb's 'Stark Ravings' web site). In the forward compartment all the modules are present, but the camera has been removed. The camera windows are protected by white felt inside the compartment when the camera are not installed. In the aft compartment, all the electronics have been removed.
Craig Kaston photographed the Firebee in January and March 2006, and kindly sent some views not covered in the previous photo sets. An interesting detail is the fiberglass disk seen under the horizontal stabiliser (fitted on both sides, look closely here). According to Craig, it's possibly a radar altimeter (RALACS?) that was later moved the fiberglass stabiliser tip.
The museum's Grand Opening was held on 4 November 2007. Craig Kaston attended the ceremony and photographed the AQM-34K in its display position.