Rare 1960s-era helicopter drone goes on display

Though many people are aware of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) currently active in war, they may not know that UAVs go as far back as the 1960s.

Now, an early drone dating from the 1960s has been restored and placed on display in a College of Engineering facility. One of the few remaining aircraft of its kind, the Gyrodyne QH-50 drone anti-submarine helicopter hangs in the second-floor lobby of the Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence (VLRCOE) in Engineering Unit C.

The QH-50 was flown from 1960 to 1970 in order to prevent enemy submarines and ships from coming too close to U.S. Navy ships. The aircraft were remote-controlled to a distance up to 22 miles, and they were able to drop MK-44 torpedoes.

The QH-50 drones were taken out of active use by 1970, though the military found other uses for them. The Navy transferred the last 30 aircraft to the Army, where they were stationed at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. At White Sands, the QH-50 was used until 2006 to tow targets for weapons testing. When funding for that program ended, the Army was planning on putting all the remaining aircraft on the range as targets themselves.

Sam Evans, research assistant in the VLRCOE and retired Army colonel, said the Army commonly uses inactive aircraft for target practice on such ranges.

"They put interesting things out there and say, 'What is that? I don't know, let's shoot it,'" Evans said.

But Peter P. Papadakos, the son of the founder of Gyrodyne -- the company that produced the QH-50, among other helicopters -- wanted to save some of the aircraft before they were all demolished. He later decided to bring one to Penn State.

"Peter said, 'I can't see that happening, they're the last of these in the world and they're interesting. If you can help me save a couple, I'll refurbish one for you and bring it to you,'" Evans said of his eventual conversation with Papadakos.

Papadakos needed a way to get these aircraft from the Army. The information was passed on to Ed Smith, director of the VLRCOE and professor of aerospace engineering, who had been looking for interesting rotary-wing aviation displays.

Smith contacted Papadakos and got him in touch with Evans. Having just retired from an Army career in aviation and logistics, Evans' connections could help him recover several of the drones for Papadakos to refurbish.

After about two years of work at his home in Reno, Nev., Papadakos drove cross-country to deliver the refurbished drone to the VLRCOE, where it can be seen by passersby as they walk below the windowed lobby in Engineering Unit C from College Avenue.

But Papadakos didn't stop with the restored QH-50. He has donated scores of helicopter parts to display in the VLRCOE, as well as for use by Jose Palacios, aerospace engineering research associate, in his Adverse Environment Rotor Test Stand and icing lab.

"I had money to make a hover stand, but I was scratching my head thinking, 'How the heck am I going to do that?'" Palacios recalled of his initial plans in 2008. "I needed some helicopter parts, but that's not something you can just go buy."

Palacios said he learned about Papadakos and his available parts from Evans. The refurbishing of the QH-50 was in the works already, and Palacios decided to check out the other parts to see if he could use them in his research.

Fortunately, Palacios could use numerous QH-50 parts in his test stand. He had to slightly modify them to fit with other parts donated by Boeing.

With the help of the Gyrodyne parts, several graduate and undergraduate students and money donated from the Army, Palacios has been able to build a rotor stand and test the effects of ice accretion and evaluate low-power, non-thermal de-icing systems for helicopter rotor blades.

"Thanks to the donations from Gyrodyne, we were able to do this," Palacios said. "We would have had to buy all those parts, and there's no way we could have done that."

Palacios said Papadakos also brought a whole shelf of extra parts in case he could use them, from engine parts to rotor blades. "This facility is set for the next 20 years," he suggested.

Evans said the VLRCOE staff is trying to create a small museum featuring helicopter parts and vehicles in the facility's lobby. It is already lined with enormous rotor blades, photos and other parts. "This is kind of a large addition to our display," he joked.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010