DASH, Snoopy, and the Night Panther - By Commander Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong, U.S. Navy.
In the mid-1950s modern helicopter development was in its early years, and was full of innovative desirn ideas. The technology, less than two
decades old, was in the capable hands of eminent engineers such as Igor Sikorsky, Frank Piasecki, and Stanley Hiller, Jr., and the ideas for
the future seemed unlimited. From the era of aviation innovation came the U.S. Navy's first mass-produced unmanned arial vehicle (UAV), the
QH-50 Drone Antisubmarine Helicopter, or DASH.
The story of DASH begins with the Marine Corps. Its development of helicopter operational concepts in the early 1950s showed that it needed
helicopters with large carrying capacity and range to accomplish its vision of vertical envelopment and heliborne amphibious assault. But the
Marines wondered if they could go smaller. They began investigating the idea of the "rotorcycle" or a one-manned helicopter that could be flown
on reconnaissance missions or special operations. They turned to the Gyrodyne Company of America, which developed the XRON-1 prototype using
a coaxial rotor design, a two-cycle engine, and an open-air seating arrangement that lived up to the rotorcycle name.
However, the Marines realized that the prototype had too many safety and reliability problems. Navy engineers looked at the bare-bones airframe
and simple systems, and got another idea.
Antisubmarine warfare specialists had a problem. Sonar in the 1950s and early 1960s was making significant advancements. The new AN/SQS-26 sonar
system being installed on board destroyers had a detection range that was far greater than their relatively short range torpedoes could reach.
Putting a large helicopter on nearly every ship, which would eventually become the favorite solution with the development of the Light Airborne
Multipurpose System (LAMPS) program in the early 1970s, appeared too expensive and difficult to backfit onto ships at the end of World War II.
Instead, the Navy decided to create a small, unmanned helicopter to carry torpedoes to the target. The Navy turned to Gyrodyne and the design of
In June 1958, Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke ordered the Navy to develop an operational drone helicopter that could be deployed by 1962.
The Navy signed a contract to build nine DSN-1 antisubmarine drone helicopters. In August 1960, the DSN-1 made the world's first free flight of an
unmanned helicopter from a high wooden platform at Patuxent River Naval Testing Facility. After running tests with a safety pilot on board with the
USS Mitscher (DL-2) at the end of the summer, the helicopter made the first ever unmanned aircraft landing on a ship at sea, the Hazelwood
(DD-531), off Key West in December.
Development of the aircraft continued as the Navy and Gyrodyne resolved different challenges. For example, the aviation gasoline the Porsche engine
used was determined to be too dangerous for use on board destroyers. A new model, initially called the DSN-3 DASH, with a Boeing-built turbine engine,
was developed to use the jet fuel that was becoming standard throughout the fleet. In 1962, the aircraft's name was changed to the QH-50 DASH and initial
production began. In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy watched a DASH take off and deliver a torpedo during a firepower demonstration with the fleet
off San Diego. A few months later, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara approved full-scale production. The plan was to buy enough DASH airframes to have
two and a spare for each of the Navy's 240 Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) antisubmarine destroyers.
Over the life of the program, the Navy purchased more than 750 DASH aircraft. The DASH could carry two Mark 44 torpedoes or a nuclear depth charge, making
it the only UAV designed to deliver nuclear weapons. During takeoff and landing the aircraft was controlled from a station on the flight deck. Once the
DASH was safely airborne, control for the mission was transferred to an operator in the combat information center. In exercises, the aircraft proved itself
well and engaged targets repeatedly. However, the DASH began to earn a reputation with the commanders in the fleet and the leaders at Navy headquarters as
more of a hinderance than an operational benefit.
In large measure, the poor reputation was the result of the Navy's own mismanagement of the program. Naval aviation leaders wanted nothing to do with DASH.
The unmahhed helicopter challenged aviators who were focused on flying high and fast in manned jets. Th operation of DASH was left to the surface Navy,
which assigned officers with little knowledge of aviation. The supply system for the aircraft also was conflicted; the surface needed the parts, but they
had to be purchased through aviation channels. Seen as a collateral duty, the officers and sailors who received DASH training rarely spent more than a few
months on the job, meaning very few built up any experience or expertise. Afraid they couldn't get parts for repairs, commanding officers tended to keep the
aircraft grounded. From a resource standpoint the strategy seemed logical, but it also meant assigned DASH officers rarely had a chance to develop proficiency
in UAV operations and led to high loss rates.
By 1970 Congress wanted to know why the Navy was spending money on a program with such a bad reputation. A report from the General Accountability Office
pointed out a number of the failures. A lack of understanding from Navy leaders and no real effort to defend the program resulted in the complete cancellation
of DASH by Congress that year. Designed by Navy aviation, funded and supplied in the surface fleet, and manned with nonspecialists who were not given the
opportunity to develop proficiency, DASH was an innovation ahead of its time that shows how technological advancements are still reliant on procedure and
But a dedicated few had demonstrated exactly how creative and innovative DASH operators could be. Off the coast of Vietnam, destroyers on the "gun line" had
very little to go on when assessing their naval gunnery. In 1965 the DASH team and XO on board the USS Blue (DD-744) came up with the idea of adding an
intelligence-gathering system - referred to as "Snoopy" - to their UAV so they could do real-time spotting of the rounds from their 5-inch guns. Telemetry kits
were built and issued to a number of ships to try on the coast. One gunners mate claimed the incredible accuracy and instant feedback from the DASH overhead
meant the George K. MacKenzie (DD-836) could fire so fast the barrels of her guns wore out. Despite the success and the creative uses of the new
technology, the DASH systems started to be removed from ships in late 1969 in advance of congressional defunding of the program.
The airframes, however, continued to fly and could be used to test new ideas. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, which became present day DARPA) took
custody of a number of QH-50Ds. In coordination with the Army in the late 1960s, the agency developed the "Night Panther" variant, which mounted the control
systems for a DASH on the back of an Army jeep and added an intelligence-gathering kit including full-motion day-and-night video, covert infrared illuminator,
laser rangefinder, and armor plating for the engine and control systems. Tests were conducted with a radar mounted on DASH to serve as a mini-airborne, early-warning
platform. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, DASH aircraft served as test platforms for new technology and classified R&D. As late as 2002 the Army planned to use a
QH-50 to test the first firing of the Hellfire missile from a UAV. Unfortunately, the 40-year-old helicopter developed reliability issues. But the program continued
and proved itself, which led to the arming of MQ-1 Predators and the development of the MQ-9 Reaper.
Four decades before the first flight of today's MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, the Navy began fielding its rotary-wing UAV. The service's experience with
DASH offers present-day sailors with important insights about success and failure in military innovation.
Reprinted from Naval History with permission; Copyright © 2016 U.S. Naval Institute/www.usni.org.