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87 Years In The Making: Turning Our Heritage Into Your Advantage

“Hands to Action Stations, hands to action stations, Air Raid Warning RED”. The ships tannoy pierces the morning quiet as a young sailor quickly man’s his 40mm anti-aircraft gun and begins eagerly scanning the sky above. Soon the cause for the alarm is spotted, a faint dot on the horizon, an aircraft easily visible against the contrast of the cloud. “Bearing one-three-zero, range 5 nautical miles, altitude 100 feet”. As it closes further, the ships various weapon systems begin to engage – throwing thousands of rounds of ammunition in deadly arcs toward the target. Despite this, the aircraft keeps advancing, undamaged and undeterred as red tracer streaks by and black clouds of flack burst above and below.

Finally, after two hours and with all ammunition spent, all the ship’s crew can do is watch as the seaplane lands gently on the Mediterranean’s calm surface. Nearby is HMS Valiant, A Queen Elizabeth Class battleship undertaking exercises off the coast of Gibraltar. For all her weaponry, the ships company had failed to even scratch it. The year is 1933, the aircraft is a radio-controlled variant of the British Fairey III reconnaissance biplane, and the world has just seen the first successful use of a remote-controlled aircraft for military gunnery practice.

Necessity Breeds Innovation.

It was the poor state of anti-aircraft gunnery skills in the 1930’s which had convinced the British Royal Navy of the need for more advanced training methods, with which to hone their skills for the ever-increasing probability of war in next few years. The first world war had given rise to giant technological leaps as the Allied and Axis powers tried desperately to harness new innovations to outmaneuver one another and break the stalemate of the western front. This push for new technological advantages continued throughout the interwar years and gave rise to innumerable military and industrial inventions.

It was in 1925 that the British developed the world’s first ‘radio controlled’ cruise missile. Intended to be launched from the decks of Royal Navy warships as an anti-ship missile, the Larynx (Long Range Gun with Lynx Engine) achieved ranges of over 100 nautical miles in testing and showed true potential as a battle winning capability. Despite this, the Larynx never saw full production or was fired in anger but had convinced the British of the utility of remotely piloted systems for both offensive and training purposes.

Enter the Queen Bee

Some years after the humble Fairey III had eluded the Royal Navy’s guns at Gibraltar, the Admiralty were again looking for a cheap, reliable, expendable and (importantly) pilotless target aircraft that would eclipse the limited success of the Fairey III. 

In response to this, in 1935 the British Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) successfully converted and remotely piloted a de Havilland DH-82B Queen Bee biplane at Farnborough aerodrome. The aircraft represented a huge technological leap forward and was intended to be a versatile and deployable solution to anti-aircraft gunnery training requirements. The target could be operated remotely by a controller from another aircraft, from a warship at sea or from land. Like the Fairey III before it, the Queen Bee could also be shot from catapults on a ships deck and recovered on floats or take off and land from soft grass runways.

The aircraft’s control system was revolutionary, and featured a a rotary dial system, whereby the controller could “dial in” commands. Actions such as “turn left, turn right, pitch-down and pitch-up,” had corresponding command numbers which could be entered and transmitted to the aircraft. Due to design limitations, the ailerons could not be operated, so were always locked in the neutral position. Controllers used only the rudder, elevator and throttle controls which provided enough maneuverability to give a realistic target for the gunners below.

Today we would call the Queen Bee an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Target (UAV-T), a remotely piloted system which is used to train military forces all over the world. However, in 1935 it was simply a pilotless aircraft which would go onto be the most successful radio-controlled system of its era, with over 380 being built and operated by the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force. Many Queen Bees survived multiple target missions (due to the practice of gunners ‘aiming off’) and returned many years of continuous service as the UK’s principal anti-air gunnery target. The increase in training realism the Queen Bee provided helped improve British anti-air doctrine and prepare anti-air gun crews and radar operators for the challenges they would face in both the European and Pacific theatres of World War II.  The pace of technological advance though eventually outstrips even the most innovative ideas and the prevalence of faster and more maneuverable monoplane fighters and bombers, and the need for target systems to match these, gradually began to phase the de Havilland DH-82B of service.

Our Heritage. Your Advantage.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, the RAE which pioneered the remote flight of the de Havilland DH-82B Queen Bee, would go on to merge and evolve to serve the different defence needs of the United Kingdom. In 1991 it became the UK’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA), part of which was privatized in 2001 and became our parent company QinetiQ. Many of those Queen Bee targets flew from sites which QinetiQ operate today on behalf of the UK Ministry of Defence, such as MOD Aberporth in Wales. This site saw the testing of one of the world’s first Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) – the Bristol Bloodhound – in the 1950’s and is still used today by QinetiQ to test and evaluate unmanned air systems, for both commercial and defence purposes.

In 2018 QinetiQ brought the proud lineage and history of our forebearers to the UAE, as Houbara Defence and Security was established with Middle East General Enterprises (MGE). Formed as a Joint Venture in Abu Dhabi, our mission is to deliver a modern unmanned target capability both in the air and at sea for the UAE armed forces, assisting them in preparing for the challenges they may be called upon to face in the future.

Today, our modern target systems are a far cry from the Queen Bee or Fairey III. They can reach supersonic speeds, accurately replicate the radar cross section and infra-red signature of much larger aircraft and anti-ship or cruise missile systems. They can skim above the waves at a height of 5 meters and reach altitudes and maneuver in a way the inventors of the Queen Bee could only have imagined. Their necessity and purpose have not changed however, and we deploy our targets today for the same reason as the gunners aboard HMS Valiant did in 1932, to test, evaluate and train against that small dot, coming closer on the horizon.

By Harry Rose, Regional BD Manager, Houbara