By Mark Albertson: A humble, radio-controlled, camera-equipped drone, has now been added to the photographic aerial combat potential of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The RP-71 Falconer unmanned aerial vehicle was readied at the Army Electronic Proving Ground, Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
U.S. Army RP-71/SD-1/MQM-57 Falconer reconnaissance drone. Note wooden propeller and jet-assisted takeoff pods / Radio Combat Photography, 1955 courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Air Force
The RP-71 has a speed of 228 miles-per-hour and a rate-of-climb of 3,060 feet-per-minute. The pilotless propeller-driven aircraft features a gasoline engine; yet, defies gravity with a jet-assisted takeoff. The Falconer measured some twelve feet in length, with a wingspan of 12 feet. Approximate weight, 430 pounds.
With rapid assembly of the catapult, the drone itself can be readied for takeoff in as little as five minutes. This includes charging the catapult, checking the controls, starting the engine, disengaging the safety devices, to which the peeper is then cast aloft.
The RP-71 can take still images or motion pictures. Same can be done from several hundred feet from the ground or up to an altitude of four miles. Such a capability can afford ground commanders the required intelligence of enemy dispositions and movements within an hour.
Upon completion of its mission, the operator prepares the RP-71 for return. This entails guiding the drone to the landing area; shutting the engine, then, engaging the parachute. Once the peeper is grounded, the films or photos are removed and hustled for processing.
The RP-71 was a variant or reconnaissance version of the Northrup Ventura RP-4 (OQ-19) target drone. Radioplane (later taken over by Northrup) produced it as the RP-71, SD-1 or Surveillance Drone 1 per the Army, later designated the MQM-57 by Northrup.
The Army procured 1,485 Falconers. And while it never saw combat, it was an important step in the maturation of the unmanned aerial vehicle. “Drone expert John David Blom says, that it ‘solved many of the traditional problems Army ground commanders had with aerial reconnaissance support. It was stationed with his forces. It could fly in weather that would ground other aircraft, and the intelligence it gathered could be processed by the unit’s staff and be available for use in a timely manner.”[2
The RP-71/MQM-57 was in serviced with the U.S. Army and NATO until the mid-1970s.
- “Radioplane/Northrup MQM-57 Falconer,” National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, places the maximum speed at 184 MPH.
- See page 48, “Drones: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” by Steve Llamso.
- Llamso, Steve, “Drones: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” page 48, Flight Journal.com, February 2017.
- “Northrup Radioplane RP-71 Falconer, SD-1,” Western Museum of Flight, wmof.com/rp71falconer.html
- “Radioplane/Northrup MGM-57 Falconer,” National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/195784/radioplanenorthrup-mqm-57-falconer/
- “Rapid Combat Photography,” page 6, Army Aviation, Vol. 3, No. 12, Publisher: Dorothy Keston, Westport, Ct., December 1955.