In the new era of unmanned combat aircraft so many “new ideas” are actually far from fresh. In fact, it is stunning to examine unmanned technologies from decades ago, and realize just how far ahead of their time they truly were. One such weapon system that was less than famous but highly innovative was the Gryodyne QH-50 DASH.
The “Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter” was developed out of a pressing need to bring more airborne anti-submarine capabilities to the US Navy fleet in the late 1950s, a time when the USSR was building submarines at a breathtaking rate. Additionally, many of the US Navy’s WWII era surface combatants simply did not have the room to embark a full size helicopter, yet modular upgrades to these ships’ sonar systems allowed for large leaps in submarine detection capabilities. What resulted was a mismatch between being able to detect an enemy submarine and being able to actually attack the detected submarine, as the ship’s onboard weaponary could not range out to the horizon of its detection capabilities. With all this in mind the Gryodyne QH-50 DASH was born and fielded to the fleet by the hundreds.
The little unmanned helicopter weighed well over a ton fully armed, cruised at over 50 knots and sported a counter rotating rotor system (coaxial), which eliminated the need of a complicated tail rotor as well as reducing the craft’s “footprint.” DASH had the ability to haul a pair of Mk.44 acoustic torpedoes, or a mk.17 nuclear mine, a couple dozen miles from its mother ship. The idea was fairly simple, once the ship’s combat information center detected a hostile Russian sub within its midst, the little drone would fly out to the point of detection and unleash its deadly payload. The hunted sub really would have little early warning before the torpedo splashed down into the water and began its terminal attack phase, or if the Mk.17 was utilized, its chances of survival were very poor. Although simple in concept, the diminutive QH-50’s really did represent a large force multiplier when it came to America’s rapidly evolving anti-submarine warfare capabilities and vastly increased a dated destroyer’s “sphere of engagement.”
Looking back now, what was so ahead of its time was the QH-50’s means of control. Much like the latest and greatest unmanned aircraft of today, the helicopter utilized a now familiar two tier command and control system. An operator on the deck of the ship would control the helicopter manually during its launch and recovery while an operator in the combat information center, deep within the bowels of the ship, would control the drone during its mission using a semi-autonomous interface. Although the complexity of commands that could be executed by the unmanned helicopter were a far cry from modern systems, and its line of sight communications link was less than perfectly stable, the designers of the QH-50 had worked a similar, albeit more crude, control system as cutting edge unmanned systems like the Global Hawk today.
The QH-50 DASH spent over a decade in service, from about 1960 to 1970, and many were lost due to malfunctions, although expendability was part of the original design. Additionally, the robotic choppers’ unique capabilities were used for other functions as time passed, including directing naval gunfire for marine beach landings in a similar fashion as the highly publicized RQ-2 Shadows did during the first Gulf War. Although pulled from widespread naval anti-submarine warfare uses by the early 1970’s, with full size helicopters and fixed wing aircraft and longer range weaponary taking up the task, the DASH system continued to be used for targeting towing and other unmanned developmental tasks, such as adding tv cameras for true man-in-the-loop flight control. Autonomous vertical replenishment, a capability that is only now being proven by Lockheed Martin’s unmanned K-MAX, was actually proven back in the 1970s by the humble HQ-50. Apparently, a small gaggle of the drones continued providing targeting towing and test duties at White Sands Missile Range all the way to 2006, just as the Navy’s “cutting edge” Fire Scout unmanned chopper program was beginning to mature.
Amazingly, the concept of a ship deployed light unmanned helicopter for surveillance and attack duties would re-emerge some forty years after the QH-50’s heyday in the form of the aforementioned RQ-8 Fire Scout. In many ways, the Fire Scout is the aircraft that the designers of QH-50 likely dreamed of, with the ability to target and engage the enemy over the horizon, from the deck of almost any surface combatant. As with so many drone concepts now being fielded today, the genesis of such capabilities can be found in the golden era of the jet engine, a time when creativity often outpaced technological capability. Now in an age of reliable and secure data-links, and the transistor for that matter, these concepts have come full circle and will finally get the chance to change air combat once an for all.
The Fire Scout, in the form of the MQ-8B and the larger Bell Jet Ranger based MQ-8C, is quietly evolving into the modular flying “swiss army knifes” of the American flotilla. Surveillance, search and rescue, attack, and eventually anti-submarine warfare and material lift will become a function of pointing and clicking a mouse instead of “flying by the seat of your pants,” allowing even the most dated and toothless naval vessels the ability to reach far over the horizon and deliver a deadly or life saving payload without putting an operator at risk. As innovative as such a set of capabilities may seem, their roots began to grow over a half century ago, in a little known, but highly innovative turbine powered pocket copter known as the QH-50 DASH, the Navy’s only operational vertical takeoff and landing drone, and the grandfather of the Fire Scout, a weapons concept that is considered incredibly innovative and relevant over 50 years after the DASH’s first deployment…