UAVs: Before Fire Scout There Was DASH

Captain Thomas Pinney, U.S. Navy (Retired)

In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union was building plentiful submarines rapidly. The U.S. Navy was still very large, but most of the ships were remnants of the huge World War II fleet. Lessons from the German U-boat war were fresh in the minds of senior officers, and it was impractical to build sufficient modern escorts in time to counter the perceived threat of large numbers of Soviet submarines that could intercept reinforcements from the United States to NATO should World War III break out. 

The Navy embarked on a program to modernize many older ships, especially destroyers, with an emphasis on improving ASW capability. As a perceived stop-gap program, the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) program was instituted. Some 33  Allen M. Sumner  (DD-692)–class and 45  Gearing  (DD-710)-class World War II–era destroyers were given significant upgrades, including antisubmarine rocket (ASROC) launchers and Mk 32 torpedo tubes. A new, much more powerful sonar, the SQS-23, was also installed. Finally, a small flight deck and hangar were added for DASH helicopters. The initial idea was to prolong these ships’ service lives for an additional 8 years, but most lasted much longer, some serving an additional 20 years.

This new sonar gave escorts the ability to detect submarines at much longer ranges. ASROC had a range of 10,000 yards, but it was hoped that favorable water conditions would make it possible to detect submarines at longer ranges. New frigates were being built that would support the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite light airborne multipurpose system (LAMPS) Mk I helicopter, but both the ships and the helicopters were years away. It was a time of high anxiety about a very possible war involving nuclear weapons, and innovative concepts such as DASH were welcome.

Gyrodyne’s Neat Little Innovation

The value of helicopters in ASW was well understood, but the FRAM-type destroyers did not have the space for the new LAMPS Mk I helicopters that were already being committed to new classes of escort ships. Instead, the Navy decided to go with a small, unmanned drone. Gyrodyne made such an aircraft, a development of Bendix’s one-man helicopter. Equipped with a set of coaxial counter-rotating rotors, it needed no tail rotor because there was no angular momentum. This provided more stable handling. Gyrodyne was able to rapidly develop and submit a remotely controlled helicopter: the QH-50. This was a weird, almost insectoid-looking little aircraft. Two stout skids descended from the open frame. The QH-50 had no outer skin, so all the internal parts were visible. It looked like it was somehow unfinished. The original engine was powered by gasoline, but it was upgraded to a 330-horsepower Boeing T50 turboshaft that burned aviation fuel. 

The aircraft was a neat little package; it had a rotor diameter of 20 feet and only weighed 1,150 pounds empty. Maximum takeoff weight was 2,285 pounds. Top speed was about 90 knots, and nominal range was about 80 nautical miles. It could carry as many as two Mk 44 ASW torpedoes or one B57 nuclear depth charge, although there is no record that any nukes were ever carried by a QH-50. 3

Operation was simple. The QH-50 was moved from the hangar to the small flight deck and secured with quick-release cables. The deck controller’s station next to the hangar gave him a clear view of the aircraft. He had a basic control panel, with wheels for collective pitch, heading, and power, and a cyclic stick. The controller applied full power and selected a higher elevation, then released the hold-down cables. The airborne QH-50 then headed out according to its assignment, and when it was well away from the ship and in radar contact, control shifted to the combat information center (CIC). The drone was usually tracked on the SPS-10 surface radar. The CIC controller directed the QH-50 from his separate console in CIC, using the same rudimentary panel.

The typical way to direct aircraft at that time was to receive the bearing and range of the contact, then move the cursor of the radar to that spot and mark it with a white grease pencil. Instead of directing an aircraft over the spot by voice commands, a DASH operator drove the QH-50 to that spot and released the weapon from his own console. This was undoubtedly challenging, as the original QH-50 had a poor radar signature and no transponder. 

The CIC controller directed the drone not according to crisp digital signals but a big blurry radar blip. Once he had completed his mission, CIC returned the aircraft back to the ship. There was no feedback loop—the operator had no input to see the drone’s actual speed, altitude, and heading. Once the deck controller had a good visual on the DASH, he took control and landed it back on the ship. It all sounds very simplistic, even primitive by today’s standards—but it worked. 

Geopolitics and Fatal Flaws 

Development and deployment were swift. The contract was awarded in May 1957. The first landing on a modified FRAM destroyer, with a safety pilot embarked, was in July 1960, with a takeoff and landing of the unmanned production aircraft that December. Installations proceeded briskly. The first system was deployed on board the USS  Buck (DD-761) in January 1963. President John F. Kennedy watched a successful demonstration of a DASH dropping an exercise torpedo on a target later that year. The system was quickly installed in the fleet. It ended almost as quickly. Canceled in 1969, the program was soon forgotten. 

The Vietnam War was devouring large segments of the military budget. ASW, once a primary concern of the Navy, became superfluous. DASH had no real champion, and, as a new type of weapon, seemed like a gimmick that was plagued by a series of failures; more than 400 QH-50s were lost. Any new system should expect failures, but DASH used a lot of commercial off-the-shelf components with single point-of-failure components. An estimated 80 percent of the failures were due to faulty components. About 10 percent of the aircraft were lost to pilot error, and another 10 percent were considered airframe failures.

DASH was a surface program, but the supply parts came from the aviation supply system—which was foreign to ship supply personnel. In the 1960s, there was a greater divide between the naval air and surface communities. Further aggravating this situation, naval air was hostile to the program.  With aircraft carriers the undisputed capital ships of the fleet and carrier battle groups the modus operandi, airspace and radio frequency interference could be concerns. DASH had little chance for employment unless the destroyer was doing an ASW exercise away from the carrier. Ships that did make the effort to operate DASH proved it was an effective system, but many commanding officers were wary of it.

With few aircraft in the cruiser/destroyer world at the time, the concept of a robot helicopter was a novelty. The DASH officer’s duty was collateral, and there was little time for the crew to build expertise. Most ships were more interested in preparing for the real possibility of going to the gun line in Vietnam. Engineers discussed the need to bring all four boilers on line when doing DASH operations so that the ship could chase the QH-50 if it headed over the horizon. DASH’s radio link was essentially line of sight. The system was designed to go into a low-altitude hover if the radio link was lost, and to stay there until the link was reestablished.  Even so, some drones headed out and were never seen again. The frequent failures were given as the reason for canceling the program. The hangars on FRAMs were converted to other uses, mostly for storage.

Life after Cancellation

The cancellation was not the end of the QH-50. Although not a success as an ASW platform, the airframe proved very adaptable. As early as 1965, the Navy installed video cameras for reconnaissance and added a telemetry system so that remote pilots could finally monitor what the drone was actually doing. A transponder was also installed to help with radar tracking. This program, called Snoopy, was used for some years, including in Vietnam combat operations. The camera allowed for spotting targets for the ship’s guns.

DASH was also tested as a potential pilot rescue tool for airmen shot down over Vietnam.  Other applications included dropping sonobuoys, deploying chaff, and delivering spare parts. The Advanced Research Project Agency took over the airframes after they were removed from the ships and used them for a variety of programs, including Night Gazelle, which incorporated low-light TV. In various trials, machine guns and laser designators were attached, and grenades were dropped. The most common use of the QH-50 drones after their DASH days was as target tows and eventually air targets for programs such as the Stinger. 4

Clearly DASH had great potential and could have launched the UAV revolution a generation earlier. Positive lessons include the introduction to the surface fleet of the concept of organic aircraft on destroyers. As the traditional friction between air and surface communities eased, unmanned vehicles began to be accepted in the collective wisdom of the fleet. Among the new UAV platforms now entering the fleet, the one closest to DASH is the MQ-8B Fire Scout. It compares with the QH-50 from 50 years earlier as follows: 5

                                                                                            MQ-8B  Fire Scout                               QH-50 DASH

Payload

600 lb

~1000 lb

Empty weight

2,000 lb

1150 lb

Cruise speed

110 knots

50 knots

Endurance, loaded

5 hours

1 hour

Rotor diameter

27.5 feet

20 feet

Of course, the MQ-8 Fire Scout is far more reliable and has a much more mature flight control system than the QH-50; it is also far more expensive. Like its ancestor, the Fire Scout does not appear to have a clearly defined mission—yet. Perhaps it is too big and expensive for basic tasks but too small to undertake load-bearing missions; mere surface surveillance can be done by much smaller shipboard UAVs. Employment as a weapon system appears to require greater payload and range. The MQ-8B will likely soon be replaced by the much larger MQ-8C system.

Any new program such as unmanned vehicles must have a meaningful mission. The system needs to be regularly employed in that job, and there must be a way for innovations developed by fleet operators to be reported back to program managers. DASH could have been an exciting breakthrough in unmanned vehicles, but instead became an interesting ancestor.

1. “Gyrodyne QH-50C Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH),” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum,  http://www.gyrodynehelicopters.com/dash_history.htm .

2. B. J. Armstrong, “Unmanned Naval Warfare: Retrospect and Prospect,”  Armed Forces Journal , 20 December 2013,  http://armedforcesjournal.com/unmanned-naval-warfare-retrospect-prospect/ .

3. “DASH History,” Gyrodyne Helicopter Historical Foundation, Reno, Nevada,   http://www.gyrodynehelicopters.com/dash_history.htm .

4. Rebecca Maksel, “D.A.S.H. Goes to War,”  Air & Space magazine, March 2012,   https://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/dash-goes-to-war-23369442/ .  

5. “Fire Scout: Unprecedented Persistent Situational Awareness,” Northrop Grumman, http://www.northropgrumman.com/Capabilities/firescout/Pages/default.aspx .


Captain Pinney served as a surface line officer from 1975 to 2000. He was stationed on four destroyers, including two FRAM destroyers, and served as an antisubmarine air controller. He later served as operations officer for a destroyer squadron and in plans and operations for a number of shore staffs.

 

 
 

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