News that the U.S. has been operating mini-UAVs disguised to look like large birds along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan reminded me of the time that I discovered Project Aquiline. This was a scheme devised by the CIA in the early 1970s to fly a reconnaissance UAV over key intelligence targets, such as ICBM sites and nuclear test grounds in the Soviet Union and China, without detection. The project was cancelled before deployment and has never been declassified. During a visit to Las Vegas 12 years ago, I found myself in the trailer home of Hank Meierdierck, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel who had a long history of involvement in the agency’s secret airplane projects. Among his collection of airplane models was one of a raptor-like bird. Hank explained that this was a one-tenth-scale depiction of a UAV that was test-flown from Groom Lake about 20 times. Before Hank died, he wrote a short memoir of the project that can be found on
the website of the Roadrunners Association, a reunion group for veterans of Groom Lake. I made subsequent inquiries about Project Aquiline of three former CIA managers. Their recollections differed in some respects from Hank’s account. As far as I can tell, the rail-launched “bird,” powered by a converted lawn-mower engine driving a pusher prop, was designed to fly between 500 and 1,000 feet for up to 3,000 miles on about 100 pounds of fuel. A video camera in the nose would periodically relay an image of the terrain below via a high-flying U-2 or a communications satellite to a control station where an operator compared it with pre-acquired satellite imagery, and kept the bird on course. The main sensor was a 35mm camera, whose “take” would be recovered after the UAV had returned to friendly territory, and been flown into a net. This was all clever stuff at the time, requiring a degree of miniaturization never previously attempted. “We wanted an eagle, but it ended up the size of a condor,” said one manager. Unsurprisingly, the contractor (McDonnell Douglas) wanted lots of money to proceed further. The CIA balked at the cost, and turned the work over to the Air Force. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), a smaller, unclassified UAV named Aquila emerged a few years later, built by Lockheed. It did not have bird-like pretensions. But neither was it successful. Thirty years later, UAVs have matured and proliferated. Now all they lack is the kind of “sense and avoid” system that can be found in, for instance, birds.