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Radio Flyer

Reginald Denny made movies with Alfred Hitchcock and Abbott and Costello-and he built the U.S. Army’s first robot plane.

In the recent fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military touted a wealth of new battlefield hardware. Among the more prominent innovations were remotely piloted planes, such as the Predator and Global Hawk, that were prized for surveillance work; some could even fire missiles at enemy targets.

Because of the vehicles’ ever increasing capabilities and low cost-both in money and in pilots’ lives-their emergence is taken by many as a glimpse into the future of warfare. But unmanned aerial vehicles, like piloted airplanes, have a history that stretches back more than a century and includes many independent inventors and hobbyists. One such pioneer was Reginald Denny. Though he was instrumental in bringing unmanned craft to the military, Denny was better known for his achievements on the silver screen: the British-born actor’s name appears in old Hollywood film titles ranging from Anna Karenina to Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Denny had served in the Royal Air Force during World War I, but his interest in radio-controlled planes came about by accident-literally. One day in the early 1930s, Denny was between movie shoots when he encountered a neighborhood boy fiddling with a gas-powered model plane. When the actor tried to help the boy fly the plane, his adjustments caused it to spin out of control. The plane was destroyed, but Denny’s fascination with models was born. Denny’s hobby soon grew into a business, Reginald Denny Industries, which sold kits for building model planes.

Around that time, the U.S. Army was searching for better methods for training its antiaircraft gunners. The gunners of the day took target practice on unpowered dummy targets towed by piloted airplanes. These were a poor surrogate for powered aircraft, and towing them was undoubtedly a nerve-wracking job.

Denny began working on a radio plane large enough and fast enough to provide a practical target. He and his associates Walter Righter and Paul Whittier demonstrated their first prototype, the RP-1, for the army in 1935. The primitive model was out of their control for most of the flight. Even so, the military could see its potential, and after two more prototypes, the U.S. Army awarded Denny a contract. California-based Radioplane formed in 1940 to manufacture the robot planes; during World War II, the company produced nearly 15,000 of them. Radioplane was purchased by aerospace firm Northrop in 1952, after having made its mark on aviation history.

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