Many familiar with Dahlgren history know of Carl Norden’s development of his famous bombsight – a device that played an important role in the strategic bombing of World War II – and Dahlgren’s role in its development and testing.  Fewer know that he visited Dahlgren even earlier to develop and test a “flying bomb” for the Navy. A century before drones emerged as new ways to take aerial photos and even deliver groceries, Dahlgren was testing an early 20th-century version – an unmanned aircraft.

While serving on the Naval Consulting Board during World War I, Elmer Sperry became aware of the military need to reduce the danger to bomber pilots and advocated with Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels for an unmanned “aerial torpedo.”  Based on his experience with gyrostabilizers for automobiles, ships, and airplanes and the relative immaturity of radio, he chose to use a gyro-based guidance system.

The first three flights of the Curtiss “Flying Bug (FB)” took place in December and resulted in three failures and the destruction of two airplanes.  Carl Norden, a consulting engineer and former Sperry employee, was brought in to help redesign the launching mechanism.  Even so, two more aircraft were lost.  After making changes to both the aircraft and the control system, the FB flew successfully in March 1918.  Unfortunately, flights during the summer and fall were failures and the last of the aircraft was destroyed in a test failure in September 1918.

Sperry conducted a successful test of an unmanned Curtiss N-9 in October 1918.  However, the end of the war saw interest in the aerial torpedo decline and the Navy contract with Sperry ended in January 1919.

The Navy decided on a fundamental change to their approach.  Carl Norden (known as “Old Man Dynamite” to the Navy because of his temperament) and a small staff, a launching system, and five Witteman-Lewis aircraft arrived in Dahlgren in late May 1919.  The first flight at Dahlgren took place in August 1920 and was a failure.  The second flight, a month later was successful.  The final flight, also a failure, took place in April 1921.  Faced with budget issues, the program was cancelled and Norden returned to his bombsight work.  While his focus was on the bombsight, he returned to work on unmanned flight repeatedly over the next few years.

The gyro-guided aerial bomb was, at best, only moderately successful and interest shifted to radio control.  Representatives of the Bureaus of Ordnance and Engineering visited Dahlgren in October 1921 to work out the procedures for conducting radio control research there.  The program was approved and work started in January 1922.

Norden was asked to install his control system on an N-9 seaplane with a radio system that had been developed and tested by the Naval Aircraft Radio Laboratory.  The systems were mated in July 1923 and, with Lieutenant John J. Ballantine as safety pilot, was flown successfully more than 30 times that summer and fall.  The final test of the year, in mid-November, was flown by radio control for 25 minutes.

Testing resumed in July 1924 and continued into September, again with a safety pilot.  After two successful radio-controlled flights on the morning of 15 September, Ballantine and Carlo Mirick (the radio engineer) decided to attempt the first completely unmanned test of the system.  Ballantine controlled the aircraft from the radio-control station for the entire forty minute flight.  Although the aircraft was damaged on landing, this is considered the first time that a remotely-controlled unmanned airplane took off, maneuvered, and landed.

The radio gear was moved to a Vought VE-7 airplane which flew successfully with a safety pilot in December of that year.  Ballantine completed 28 more tests before leaving Dahlgren in September 1925.  Testing continued with Lieutenant Valentine H. Schaeffer as safety pilot until the final flight on 11 December 1925.  This last test was unmanned and ended when the Vought crashed on takeoff.

Even though the project was considered successful and was never officially cancelled, no further tests were conducted. Once again, it was a casualty of the very limited interwar Navy research budget and, perhaps, to the success of Norden’s bombsight.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren continues to work with unmanned aerial vehicles and has an in-house capability to research, develop and test unmanned aerial vehicles with new sensors, payloads, weapons and engagement systems.  The focus is on the integration and interoperability of unmanned systems for surface warfare.