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Sat, Apr 16, 2005

Bonanza Warbird's An Ugly Duckling: QU-22

Unique Beech Conducted Airborne Relay Mission During Vietnam War

OK, imagine this. You're a young tiger right out of Air Force pilot training, it's 1967, and the country's at war. You make your three selections on your Dream Sheet. You want to fly Phantoms out of Thailand, first; failing that, take the war to the north in the F-105; and third choice, F-100s, dicing with antiaircraft guns to protect American troops.

You get your assignment, and you're going to Thailand all right, but to fly the QU-22. And as you realize the full implications, your heart sinks... no glory for you. Just eight or nine hours of flying holding patterns at altitude. And you're actually not even first choice for that -- you're number two to a machine.

The QU-22, seen here, is a Beech Bonanza, but it's a Bonanza with a difference. The tip tanks and geared engine (the geared engine is responsible for the unsightly bump on the cowling) gave the machine extremely great endurance. It was used to fly high over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and Cambodia, and was packed with electronic equipment that relayed data from sensors all along the trail back to Project Igloo White's operations building at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand.

The sensors were an important part of Secretary of Defense Robert S. Macnamara's vision of a high-tech "fence" preventing North Vietnamese infiltration to the South. The entire project was highly classified, and relatively few artifacts from it remain -- this unusual Bonanza is one of them. About two dozen QU-22s were built. The original plan was for the machine to be flown as a drone (hence the "Q" designation), but that part of the system was never used operationally.

At least on Monday when these photos were taken, no one had labeled the unusual warbird, and many passersby who didn't know the arcane history of the type assumed it was some kind of modified Bonanza and wondered what it was doing in the warbird area. But it came by its warbird status quite honestly.

This machine has had a long restoration from its condition several years ago (a bunch of parts indifferently piled up). Some previous owner had been trying to modify the machine into an ordinary A36 Bonanza -- the two rear windows on each side were not original to the airplane, for instance -- but the current owner appears to be putting the machine back into something closer to its wartime state.

The original finish was a light grey overall with a black anti-glare cowling (the part that's already black) -- an anonymous cloak for a plane on a secret mission.



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