Drone Strike

About drones? I’m glad you asked. 1956, the year when the Rattlesnake Patrol of the Boy Scouts of America got involved with drones. Honest, it wasn’t our fault. Not that we killed anyone with our drone but we did take out an enemy position. OK, so only we saw that barn as the enemy. Not that this was our original intent, but war is like that, collateral damage. Downside being, explain that to your dad.

Illustration by Ryan Miller.

Model airplanes were quite the rage when I was a kid. Plastic models with all of 1,634 parts to include decals and bomb bay doors that ominously opened. Least that was the original idea, but only if you applied the glue precisely. Model glue at the time was Testors in a tube that turned the bedroom workshop into an anesthesia mask. A cyanoacrylate solvent when applied in excess reshaped what was supposed to be an elevator into something that didn’t move. With dozens of models to my credit, my mom thought I was hooked on model making. It was probably the glue.

These models covered every aircraft type from WWI-era Fokkers and Nieuports to the heaps of WWII bombers and fighters. Every self-respecting kid had in his bedroom a swarm of fighters and menacing bombers hanging on monofilament. To the end that bedroom was a miniature rendition of the Battle of Britain with Messerschmitts and Spitfires duking it out. To the consequence that a kid took up kinship with an airplane and to champion that plane like a sports star. If some kids were worshipful of Eddie Mathews and Mickey Mantle, there were some devoted to P-38s with tiger teeth or Spitfires with a twelve cylinder Merlin good for 35,000 feet in about 20 minutes. Stall speed 63 mph with flaps and under carriage down, engine reduced to 9# boost. Eight Browning .303 caliber machine guns available at 1,150 rounds per minute, the last 25 tracers to let the pilot know he was out of ammunition. At a gun show in 1961 my brother acquired a single .303 caliber round marked Swynnerton Armory, a round that once flew in a Spitfire. It was like having a sliver of the true cross.

Plastic models graduated to engine-powered airplanes, in the vernacular of that age known as string flight. String flight wasn’t for every kid, especially those who couldn’t tolerate dizzy. The object of hand-held flight was to tend that hot dog model airplane at 60 mph around a 24-foot radius. String control to affect the elevator setting, climb, dive and to include the wondrous trick of a straight-up climb, known as going over the top, to hopefully level out before crashing ignominiously at the other end of the string. 60 mph is 88 feet per second, so the stunt required a quick reaction time. Crashing did not do the airplane any good.

The tiny engines in those airplanes were marvels, no valves, just a piston pumping up and down against a glow plug, the fuel was 25 percent nitro. A smell so intoxicating that we’d start that engine in our bedroom, thin out the mixture with the screw so the rpms went from dull putter to a screech three octaves above high C. The fragrance of burnt nitro is as bracing as close-range perfume. Perhaps to note here a pattern of behavior.

The problem with string flight was its circular flight pattern. Besides being dizzy, it was a touch boring. With any airplane there is a gut-level need to watch it fly off. The trick to accomplish this was to set the elevator just a trifle above horizontal flight so the plane wasn’t a straight-line missile that at 80 mph and six feet of altitude put a scare in the neighbor’s cows. Neighbors get prickly about their cows. That trifle of elevator adjustment was for a flight angle that on theory ought to clear any local buildings, like a barn. In our case, an old barn, one thought derelict if occasionally filled with straw, whence the term straw barn. To only imagine what happens when a nitro-fueled airplane, or to use the modern term drone, hits the side wall of a barn dead-on at 80 mph, 108 feet per second, 25 percent nitro, glow plug, quarter ounce left in the tank.

Setting the elevator angle by “trifles” isn’t an exact science. Trifles have yet to find their way into standard English units of measurement. Seems we missed by half a trifle. Dead-on into the north-facing door of unpainted pine, sun-warmed, semi-flammable barn. Poor thing never knew what hit it. One moment standing there on the landscape proud as an old barn can be, the next a towering inferno, though it didn’t rage as long as a proper inferno should, being empty and awaiting the next oat straw harvest. We did not confess. Our dad went on to blame the trailer court kids playing with matches, or alternately the well-known town drunk who regularly holed up in that barn to smoke his own special blend of discarded cigarettes, rain soaked cigars, admixed with sumac leaves. Seems our dad was thinking of tearing it down anyway since the roof wasn’t doing the straw much good. This is how we kept to the Boy Scout oath for honesty. Since that barn was coming down anyway, why confess?

That fall we stored the straw in very neat stacks covered with a tarp, the stacks allied next to the cow barn. A lot more convenient than that straw barn a half a mile down the lane. Our dad openly admitted he was glad to have it gone, and once the foundation stones were buried the field was bigger, with a new sense of freedom, not having to steer around the old barn. We did wonder where the town drunk holed up after that barn, thinking another resource ought be provided.

For the record it was the Rattlesnake Patrol, Boy Scouts of America who invented the world’s first drone strike. We’re not sorry either.