Douglas A/B-26 Invader


HOME | SUB INDEX | Preface | Features | Site Navigation | Reg'n cross ref. | S/No's & Prod'n codes | MILITARY VARIANTS - History, Data & Photos | CIVIL VARIANTS - History, Data & Photos | About the author/Contact | Info Req'd | LATEST

In the mid-1950s some B-26Bs were modified as drone director aircraft. All guns were removed and special drone mount points were added to the wings to enable special pylons to be added. The aircraft was intended to test new air-to-air missiles by providing a target drone for live fire tests. Additionally, the aircraft was used in support of combat crew training by providing aerial targets for pilot proficiency training. The Ryan Q-2A Firebee was the standard drone carried on the DB-26B. These director aircraft began service in the late 1950s and continued through the 1960s before being replaced by more modern aircraft capable of carrying larger drones.

Associated reading

The Max Hawkins page

The Bill Todd page

The B-26 and air-to-air missile development

The Alain Seguy collection




Specifications - DB-26B Invader



Number built/




Drone director conversion

* The A-26B was re-designated B-26B in 1948 after the USAF dropped the attack designation

TECHNICAL NOTES (Typical for late block B-26B Invaders):
Armament: None (DB-26B carried two Q-2A Firebee drones)
Engines: Two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-27 (or -71 or -79) radials of 2,000 hp each
Maximum speed: 322 mph
Cruising speed: 278 mph
Range: 2,900 miles maximum ferry range
Service ceiling: 24,500 ft.
Span: 70 ft. 0 in.
Length: 50 ft. 8 in.
Height: 18 ft. 6 in.
Weight: Approx. 41,800 lbs. gross takeoff weight
Serial numbers (A-26B): 41-39100 to 41-39151; 41-39153 to 41-39192; 41-39194; 41-39196 to 41-39198; 41-39201 to 41-39599; 43-22252 to 43-22303; 43-22305 to 43-22307; 43-22313 to 43-22345; 43-22350 to 43-22466; 44-34098 to 44-34753

This section has been created largely by John Nitka, who's father worked on Firebees.
John has been good enough to send me through some wonderful shots along with the narrative and I am in his debt for the effort he has made with his contribution to this site.
Hi Martin,
I found your website just recently, you have done a wonderrful job!  In reference to the Drone Carrier B-26’s, allow me to share some information for you for your special projects page one.
These pictures are from the Ryan Archives at San Diego Air and Space Museum.    
John Nitka

Visit John's site here

My father worked on the Firebee drones. We were stationed at Vincent AFB in 1957 and were transferred to Tyndall AFB for the first William Tell in 1958. When the Vietnam war heated up in 1967 and the drone launch responsibilities were contracted to a civilian company, we moved to Tucson, Davis-Monthan AFB. When we were In Yuma, my father was assigned to the 4750th Drone Squadron, and with the 4756th

Field Maintenance Squadron which specifically worked on the drones in support of the 4756th Drone Squadron. He worked in the drone shop where the drones were prepared for launch on the DB-26 Invaders. After the drones were recovered, and he checked out the electronic equipment on the Q-2A as the drones were repaired for the next launch.

In 1961, he was moved to the Ground Launch Facility and worked there until 1967. During this time the newer, bigger and heavier Q-2C (BQM-34A) became operational, The larger drone, the DC-130A and ground launch facilities at yndall would spell the demise of the DB-26 Invader Drone Carrier. Many of theInvaders would have a colourful futures.

Three would become B-26K's, at least one ould become involved in the Bay of Pigs with the CIA.

When we were at Vincent AFB and Tyndall AFB the mission of the Firebee was as a target. At Davis-Monthan AFB the mission was different. The Firebee was for econnaissance, and supported air operations in Vietnam.

I have been researching USAF Invader Drone Carriers for 15 years and will be writing a small (In Action type) book about the subject. These are photos I intend to use in the book,  I have some 300 pictures of Firebees and Drone Carrier Invaders.  



In depth History
Ryan Firebee I

Q-2/KDA-1 Firebee

The Firebee I was the result of a 1948 US Air Force request and contract to Ryan for a jet-powered gunnery target. The first flight of the XQ-2 Firebee prototype took place in early 1951. The drone featured swept flight surfaces and a circular nose inlet. The initial models had distinctive "arrowhead" shaped endplates on the tailplane. The Firebee could be air-launched, or ground-launched with a single RATO booster.

Following successful evaluation, the target was ordered into production for the USAF as the Q-2A, powered by a Continental J69-T-19B turbojet engine, with 1,060 pound (481 kg) thrust. The Air Force then obtained small numbers of a Q-2B with a more powerful engine for high-altitude performance.

The US Navy bought the Firebee as the KDA-1, with much the same appearance as the Q-2A, differing mainly in that the powerplant was a Fairchild J44-R-20B turbojet, with 1,000 pound (453 kg) thrust. The KDA-1 could be distinguished from the Q-2A from the fact that the KDA-1 had an inlet centerbody. The US Army also obtained a version designated the XM21 that differed from the KDA-1 only in minor details.

The Navy obtained several improved variants of the KDA-1, including the XKDA-2 and XKDA-3, which were not built in quantity, and the KDA-4, which was the main production version for the series. These variants were hard to distinguish from the KDA-1, differing mainly in successively uprated J44 engines and minor changes.




Model 124/BQM-34A Drone

In the late 1950s, the USAF awarded Ryan a contract for a substantially improved "second generation" Firebee, the Model 124, originally with the designation Q-2C. The initial prototype performed its first flight in late 1958 and went into production in 1960. In 1963, it was redesignated the BQM-34A.

The old first-generation KDA-1 and KDA-4 targets that were still flying with the Navy were then, somewhat confusingly, given the designations AQM-34B and AQM-34C respectively.

The BQM-34A emerged as the Firebee as it is recognized today, with a bigger airframe, longer wings, and in particular a "chin"-type inlet under a pointed nose, in contrast to the circular intake of the first-generation Firebees. It was powered by a Continental J69-T-29A turbojet, a copy of the improved Turbomeca Gourdon derivative of the Marbore, with 1,700 pound (770 kg) thrust. The Navy also adopted the BQM-34A, while the Army obtained a ground-launched version designated MQM-34D, with longer wings and a heavier RATO booster.

One of the puzzling features of the second-generation Firebee is that some photos show it to have triangular endplates on the tailplane, while others show no endplates but feature a ventral fin under the tail, and still others have neither endplates nor ventral fin. Since most modern pictures of Firebees show the ventral fin, this may have been due to production changes of some sort. Sources are not clear on the issue.

During the 1970s, the Army updated some of their MQM-34Ds for use as targets for "Stinger" man-portable SAMs, refitting these drones with a General Electric J85-GE-7 turbojet, with 10.9 kN (1,110 kgp / 2,450 lb) thrust and salvaged from old ADM-20C Quail decoys. The modified MQM-34Ds featured a revised forward fuselage with a circular nose intake that gave them an appearance something like that of a "stretched" first-generation Q-2A target, and were given the designation of MQM-34D Mod II.

In the meantime, the Navy upgraded their BQM-34As with improved avionics, which were then designated BQM-34S. In the early 1980s, the Navy also began to refit these with the uprated J69-T-41A engine, providing 1,920 pound (871 kg) thrust. The Air Force began to update their BQM-34As with improved avionics, and fitted them with the J85-GE-7 engine. The new engine was fitted without major changes in the target's airframe, and the improved USAF variants retained the BQM-34A designation.

BQM-34A production ended in 1982, but the production line was reopened in 1986 to produce more BQM-34S targets. Air Force and Navy Firebees have received further upgrades since that time, with most refitted beginning in 1989 with the improved J85-GE-100 engine, also with 2,450 pound (1,110 kg) thrust, as well as modernized avionics. In the late 1990s, some Firebees were also fitted with a GPS navigation receivers.

The Firebee's main air launch platform is the Lockheed DC-130 Hercules drone controller aircraft, which can carry four drones on underwing pylons. The Firebee is generally snatched out of the air by a helicopter that sweeps up the drone's parachute, simplifying recovery and reducing damage to the target from ground impact. The Firebee can float for an extended period of time if it ditches in water.

The target drone can be fitted with various control systems, some that give it fighter-like maneuverability. It is also equipped with scoring and countermeasures systems, radar enhancement devices to allow it to emulate a wide range of combat aircraft and wingtip thermal flares, which cause heat-seeking missiles to aim for the wingtips rather than the engine exhaust, sparing the target. It can also tow a target sleeve or other types of towed targets.

The Firebee has proven remarkably successful and is still in operation with the US Navy and Air Force. The Firebee has also served with the Canadian Armed Forces and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, with Japanese Firebees built by Fuji Heavy Industries. A small number were also supplied to NATO programs. More than 7,000 Firebees have been built, with 1,280 of them being the first generation variants.



Ryan Firebee Performance tables





The first three pictures are of 41-39366 which was assigned to the 4750th Drone Squadron at Vincent AFB (Yuma, Arizona).  The picture was taken by Jim Brink, the first commander of the 4750th Drone Squadron.  


The fourth picture is of 44-35769, assigned to the Air Missile Development Command at Holloman AFB (New Mexico), note that this Drone Carrier mounted the “Firebee” drone in the bomb bay and not on wing pylons.  Also not e the small pod under the left wing of the DB-26 which was a smoke generator used to signal group cameras of the launch.  This Invader along with 43-22494 were used for the testing of the Q-2A Firebee drone in the early 1950’s.   43-22494 is presently on display at the Pima Air Museum.


The fifth picture is of  44-34350, which was also assigned to 4750th Drone Squadron at Vincent AFB.  41-39366, 44-34350, and 44-35411 were the 3 DB-26’s that performed the Drone Carrier duties for the drone squadron.  44-34350, and 44-35411 would later be assigned to the 4756th Drone Squadron and  41-39366 was taken out of service in May of 1958.



Pictures 6 and 7 are of 44-34652 assigned to 4756th Drone Squadron even though the tail displays the 4750th Drone Squadron Decal.  This aircraft had flown from Tyndall AFB (Florida) to Van Nuys Airport (California) to support an episode of the “Steve Canyon” TV Series.  The episode was titled “Operation Firebee” and actually was about a singel Q-2A Firebee drone nicknamed “Little Looey”.  The 4750th Drone Squadron Decal was placed over the  markings of the 4756th Drone Squadron for the tv show.  The number of the fuselage was changed as well for the episode to #366.  This is because stock movie footage was used and the film clips were of 41-39366 and the other two Invaders of the 4750th Drone Squadron.



Pictures 8 and 9 are of U.S. Navy JD-1’s (which was the Navy designation for the B-26 Invader) with KDA-1 Firebee drones.  The KDA-1 Firebee differed from the Q-2A Firebee mainly in its powerplant.  The KDA used a Fairchild J-44 Jet engine and the Q-2A used the J-69 Continental Jet Engine.  The two Firebees shared a common airframe, however there were difference in avonics used according to the needs of the two services.  Note that the Jd-1’s have a fuel tank on the wing opposite of the target drone.  The  fuel tank was carried as ballast and was filled with water,  at the time of the launch the water was released.  


The tenth photo is of DB-26C 44-35666 assigned to the Air Missile Development Command at Holloman AFB.  This picture depicts the early testing of the XQ-2C.  The pilot was Jim “No Sweat” Wilson on all of these testing missions in triple “6”.  Although the USAF usually carried two drones at a time,  the picture clearly shows the ballast water tank on the opposite wing.   Both size of the Q-2C (later designated as the BQM-34A) and its weight would spell the end of the Invader as a Drone Carrier for the USAF.  The last Invader Drone Carrier would depart Tyndall AFB in 1961, ending a colorful mission for the B-26.

Gary Verver has just sent me in this great shot from the China Lake web site ( USN Photo )



The Eleventh picture also depicts a Navy JD-1 with a KDA-1 Firebee under its left wing.


The twelfth picture  DB-26C 44-35666 assigned to the Air Missile Development Command at Holloman AFB.  Again the pilot was Jim "No Sweat" Wilson, his wife gave me this picture, however I found the same negative at the Ryan Archives at San Diego Air and Space Museum.  On this mission, the Invader carries a XQ-2C under its left wing and a Q-2A under the right wing.  Day Orange was applied to all of the Drone Carriers in 1959 as was the practice on most of the aircraft of the 2nd 0USAF.


The Thirteenth picture is of a XQ-2A being loading into the bomb bay of a DB-26 serial number 44-35769.


The Fourteenth picture  44-34350 assigned to 4750th Drone Squadron at Vincent AFB in flight over the desert near Yuma.  The DB-26's were the first aircraft of the USAF painted white, a practical means to combat the intense heat of the Arizona desert.


Picture Fifteen shows two pilots of the 4750th Drone Squadron walk out to one the three DB-26C's on the Vincent AFB flight line.  Note the H-21 "Flying Banana" at the end of the flight line.  The H-21 was used to recover the Firebee drones after they had landed.


Picture Sixteen shows Ground Crew load "Little Looey" onto the left pylon of 44-34652 for the TV Show "Steve Canyon".  The DB-26B was flown from Tyndall AFB, Florida to Van Nuys Airport.  The Firebees and ground equipment were trucked up from Vincent AFB in Yuma, Arizona.  


Picture Seventeen William Tell 1958 was the first time that the Firebee was used as the target during the Interceptor Phase of the World Wide Competition.  The Invaders Drone Carriers were brought in from the 4750th Drone Squadron (Vincent AFB) and the 3205th Drone Squadron (Eglin AFB) to support the Invaders of the 4756th Drone Squadrion.  The first 3 DB-26C were assigned to the 4756th Drone Squadrion, the fourth is from 3205th DS, and the far Invader is from the 4750th DS.  The nearest DB-26 43-22606 was on the last drone carriers to leave Tyndall in 1961 and was given to the city of Boise, Idaho.  However the static display was destroyed by vandals in the 1970.  The next aircraft  44-35766 was later converted to B-26K 64-17650  and was first A-26K lost in SE Asia    (6-28-1966)  The third Invader was sent to the Benjamin O. Davis Aeronautical School as an instructional airframe.  Then it was given to the Sherfidge Air Museum and is on display today as tail number "884".   44-35707 the fourth DB-26C was reassigned to a classified mission.  It would serve in South Vietnam, and the history of this airplane is unclear.  Its last known assignment was to Taiwan and the CIA.


Above, are gentlemen of the 4750th drop group
of which John Nitka's father was assigned to.
Thanks for the shot John


Ryan AAM-A-1 Firebird

In 1946 the USAAF awarded study contracts for several types of guided air-to-air missiles. These included project MX-799, which was assigned to Ryan Aeronautical, and which called for a fighter-launched subsonic AAM for use against bombers. In 1947, Ryan was awarded a development contract under project MX-799 for the AAM-A-1 Firebird missile, the first really viable air-to-air missile project of the U.S. Air Force. The first launch of an XAAM-A-1 prototype occurred in October 1947.

The XAAM-A-1 prototypes were launched from DF-82C and DB-26B aircraft. The missile had a solid-propellant booster, which was in line with the rear fuselage. After booster burnout, it was dropped, and the liquid-fueled sustainer engine (there is one source, though, which quotes a solid sustainer) propelled the Firebird for another 15 seconds. For stability and control, the XAAM-A-1 used cruciform moving wings and fixed tailfins. It was directed toward the target by an operator using a radio command guidance system, and used semi-active radar guidance for terminal homing. The high-explosive warhead was detonated by a proximity and impact fuzing system.

The Firebird tests continued until late 1949, when the AAM-A-1 program was cancelled. The mid-course command guidance made the missile a pure day-only clear-weather weapon, and while the possibility of a radar beam-riding guidance was studied, this option was not pursued because the subsonic XAAM-A-1 was effectively obsolete in 1950. However, data obtained during tests of the SARH terminal guidance proved useful in the development of the GAR-1/AIM-4 Falcon missile.



Data for XAAM-A-1:

Length (w/o booster)

2.29 m (7 ft 6 in); booster: 0.56 m (1 ft 10 in)


0.81 m (2 ft 8 in)


0.81 m (2 ft 8 in)


20 cm (8 in)


120 kg (260 lb)


Mach 0.85


13 km (8 miles)


Sustainer: Liquid-fueled rocket; 2.7 kN (600 lb)
Booster: Solid-fueled rocket


40 kg (90 lb) high-explosive

Misc. shots