World War II drone engine is running again

A radioplane OQ-2A is displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.


By DONNA THOMPSON | The (Herkimer, N.Y.) Times Telegram | Published: February 5, 2019

ST. LOUIS (Tribune News Service) — A World War II drone engine made by a Herkimer, N.Y., company is operating once again thanks to a former resident of the area.

Jack Beetz, formerly of Whitesboro, N.Y., and now living in Illinois near St. Louis, discovered the small, two-cycle gas engine aircraft made by Herkimer Tool and Model Works in an antique store in Alton, Ill. The 8-horsepower, two-cylinder, two-propeller engine was still attached to the military drone airplane for which it was designed. The aircraft, attached to a 12-foot-wingspan aerial gunnery drone, was used to train World War II gunners to shoot down enemy aircraft. Its propellers turn in opposite directions to keep the radio-controlled airplane level in flight.

The drone is a rare find, according to Beetz. The few that have been restored are in museums that explain their history. But this 75-year-old plane and its engine had never flown and he wanted to see it come to life.

Beetz, a retired Delta Air Lines pilot and former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who learned to fly at the Oneida County Airport in the 1960s, painstakingly took it apart and refurbished each part, working on the project through much of last year. He recently was able to start it using all the original equipment and believes it was the first time it was started since the Herkimer factory run. A video has been posted on Youtube (Search “Herkimer drone engine start”).

Beetz has attended air shows with his Herkimer engine-and-drone combination, educating those interested about its history. He plans to attend several more shows this year.

He is interested in connecting with local residents who can share stories of family members involved in the production of the engines or who know of any additional engines in the area. He can be contacted at vortex00@yahoo.com. Beetz grew up in Whitesboro and noted his parents lived there until their recent deaths.

During the war, the small engines, designated the 2-GS-17, originally were designed by the Righter Motor Company in Burbank, Calif., he explained in an email. As the war dragged on, the company couldn’t keep up with production, so other sources of production were sought. The Herkimer Tool and Model Works manufactured the engines under government contract from 1943 until the end of the war. Dozens of other companies in the area also were involved in producing the parts.

As an aside, Beetz noted that Norma Jean Mortenson, later known as Marilyn Monroe, once worked in the California engine factory producing the same drone engines.

The 26-pound, two-cylinder, two-cycle, air-cooled engine, featuring a unique gearbox to rotate the two propellers in opposite directions, was attached to a target drone. Designated the OQ-2, it was the first mass-produced, radio-controlled drone used by the military. It could fly for an hour and be recovered by parachute if it wasn’t destroyed by the gunnery trainees. Beetz’s restored Herkimer engine was attached to a drone produced by the Frankfurt Sailplane Co. in Joliet, Ill. The drones simulated an enemy aircraft because of its speed and distance from the gunnery students.

“It was a valuable training aid that resulted in saving many lives during the war,” he said.

He referred those interested in the history of the Herkimer company and its engine and toy products to the website OKEngines.com.

An online article on the history of Herkimer Tool & Model Works by David Burke notes the company was established in 1921 by Charles Brebeck and produced a wide array of engines for the model toy aircraft industry as well as doing manufacturing work on the Righter engines used to power U.S. Army target drones in World War II. Walter Righter teamed up with movie actor Reginald Denny to produce four variants of the drone engines, one of which was produced in Herkimer. The Herkimer-based company continued to manufacture model engines until about 1965, after which it reverted to subcontract machining.

In 1960, the plant relocated to its current address on Marginal Road and expanded. In 1973, Ellis Green purchased the business and changed the name to Herkimer Tool and Machining Corp., according to the company’s website. He also reinstated the production of model railroad cars under the OK trade name. In 1997, that division was sold to Ted Brebeck, the founding owner’s grandson, who resumed production of some of the gas engines.

©2019 The Times Telegram, Herkimer, N.Y.
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