Operation Aphrodite was the code name of a secret program initiated by the United States Army Air Forces during the latter part of World War II. The United States Eighth Air Force used 'Aphrodite' both as an experimental method of destroying V weapon production and launch facilities and as a way to dispose of B-17 and B-24 bombers (although only two B-24 were modified for the operation) that had outlived their operational usefulness.
The plan called for B-17 aircraft which had been taken out of operational service to be loaded to capacity with explosives, and flown by remote control into bomb-resistant fortifications such as German U-boat pens and V-1 missile sites.
The plan was first proposed to Major General James H. Doolittle some time in 1944 (the original author and date of submission are unknown). Doolittle approved the plan on June 26, and assigned the 3rd Bombardment Division with preparing and flying the drone aircraft, which was to be designated BQ-7. Final assignment of responsibility was given to the 562nd Bomb Squadron at RAF Honington in Suffolk.
In preparation for their final mission, several old B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were stripped of all normal combat armament and all other non-essential gear (armor, guns, bomb racks, transceiver, seats, etc.), thus relieving the bomber of about 12,000 lb of weight. The stripped aircraft were then equipped with a radio remote-control system and loaded with up to 18,000 lb (8,200 kg) of explosives, more than twice the normal bomb payload.
To facilitate control of what was essentially a slow guided missile, two television cameras were fitted in the cockpit of each B-17, providing a view of both the ground and the main instrumentation panel. This view was transmitted back to an accompanying control aircraft, designated CQ17, (referred to as the 'mothership'), allowing the craft to be flown remotely.
Because the crude remote control thus created did not allow for safe takeoff from a runway, each craft was taken aloft by a volunteer crew of two (a pilot and flight engineer), who were to pilot the aircraft to an altitude of 2,000 ft.(600 m), at which point control would be transferred to the remote operators. Just before reaching the North Sea, the two-man crew would prime the Torpex explosive payload and parachute out of the cockpit, the canopy of which was removed to speed their exit. The 'mothership' would then direct the missile locking it onto a course for the target.
When the training program was complete, the 562nd Squadron had ten drones and four 'motherships'. The first mission was flown on August 4 against a V-1 launch site in Pas-de-Calais. One plane lost control after the first crewman bailed out, and crashed near Orford, making a huge crater and destroying more than 2 acres (8,000 m²) of the surrounding countryside; the second crewman was presumably incinerated. The view from the nose of the other drone was obscured as it came over the target, and it missed by several hundred feet. In the mission's next phase, one drone was shot down by flak due to a control malfunction and the other missed its target by a quarter mile (400 m).
On the second mission, flown two days later, Operation Aphrodite took a dangerous turn. Though crews were able to abandon the missiles without complications, a few minutes later one of the missiles lost control and fell into the sea. The other also lost control, but turned inland and began to circle the important industrial town Ipswich. After several minutes, it crashed harmlessly at sea.
Following the failure of the first missions due to control malfunctions, Doolittle decided to investigate. Most of his aides recommended changing to a different kind of control system. When these alterations had been implemented, Doolittle relaunched Aphrodite with an attack on Heligoland. On this raid, the second casualty of the operation was suffered, when one pilot's parachute failed to open. The missile also failed, most likely shot down by flak before reaching the target. The next raid, against targets in Heide, was plagued by problems with the control system. Three failed to reach their target due to malfunctions, but the fourth actually crashed near enough to cause significant damage and high casualties.
The BQ-7 is often blamed for the death of Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., the oldest brother of John F. Kennedy. He was in fact flying the naval version of the B-24 Liberator, the PB4-Y, not a B-17. A variant on the mission profile, employing B-24 Liberators, codenamed 'Anvil', and designated BQ8, several were configured but never used in operations after an accident on the maiden flight on 12th August 1944 by 562nd Bomb Squadron based at Honington in Suffolk, aimed at the V-1 site in Pas-de-Calais, when the Torpex exploded in mid flight before the crew could bail out.
Operation Aphrodite was only used on a small number of occasions, the first one taking off on 4th August 1944, followed by 14 more. Several targets were tried, including Heligoland, Heide and Hemmingstedt, but the drones repeatedly missed their targets due to mechanical failure, poor visibility or deficiencies in the remote control system.
Concluding that the BQ-7 was not successful against the 'hard targets' it had been designed for, United States Strategic Air Forces Headquarters ordered that it be sent against industrial targets instead. Two more missions were flown, and both were failures as well. Bad weather and control problems caused misses. The only drone that actually hit the target didn't explode, supplying the Germans with an intact B-17 and a set of radio controls.
After the last mission, the Strategic Air Forces decided that the concept behind Operation Aphrodite was unfeasible, and scrapped the effort. In the course of the operation, only one drone had done any damage, and none had hit their targets. Furthermore, two crewmen had been lost. The failure of the program was attributed to the lack of suitable implementations of available technology. One contributing factor to the difficulties may well have been the changed flight characteristics due to the different weight distribution of the 'Aphrodite-equipped' craft versus un-modified aircraft.
- Gray, Edwin (1996). Operation Aphrodite's B-17 "Smart Bomb". Aviation History.
- Jablonski, Edward (1965). Flying Fortress. Doubleday.
- Baugher, Joe. BQ-7. Encyclopedia of American Aircraft. Retrieved on 21 January, 2005.
- The Evolution of the Cruise Missile by Werrell, Kenneth P. See PDF pages 43
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