Robert L. McDaniel, a retired Army colonel and combat helicopter pilot who later led a campaign against a costly Pentagon helicopter project that he denounced as “flawed beyond recovery,” died Feb. 9 at Inova Alexandria Hospital. He was 88.
He died of cardiac arrest, said his stepdaughter, Sarah Kemple.
Col. McDaniel was a veteran of three wars and an aeronautical engineer who became one of the Army’s leading authorities on helicopters. He commanded a combat aviation battalion in Vietnam and received a Silver Star for leading helicopter assaults on North Vietnamese forces during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
After Vietnam, Col. McDaniel spent several years at the Pentagon, where he worked on helicopter and transport aircraft programs until his retirement in 1974.
He then became a consultant and, under contract to the Defense Department, issued periodic reports on an Army program to develop a new armed reconnaissance helicopter called the Comanche. The project began in 1983 and was designed to replace the old Huey helicopter, which had been widely used in Vietnam.
The Comanche was once considered one of the Army’s high-tech crown jewels, and two aeronautical firms, Sikorsky and Boeing, were under contract to produce an estimated 2,000 helicopters.
Col. McDaniel became an early and persistent critic of the program, calling the Comanche unnecessary, poorly designed and ill-suited for almost any kind of warfare.
He pointed out that the aircraft weighed almost 1,500 pounds more than its original specifications called for. He identified what he considered 15 major problems with the Comanche, including deficiencies in the engine, rotor design, transmission, clutch, flight-control software, weaponry and landing gear.
Moreover, other military helicopters under development, including the Apache, Chinook and Black Hawk, were making the Comanche obsolete before it could be built. Col. McDaniel recommended that the entire program be “expeditiously scrapped.”
As early as 1992, a Senate Armed Services Committee report called the Comanche “little more than a high tech science fair project.”
In spite of Col. McDaniel’s experience as a combat pilot and engineer, his constant criticism of the Comanche made him unpopular among some of his former colleagues at the Pentagon.
“You could call him a curmudgeon,” retired Army Maj. Gen. Carl H. McNair, who had served under Col. McDaniel in Vietnam, said in an interview. “He questioned things, and that helped us. Bob was respected in our field and admired for his beliefs.”
Politicians and business leaders with a stake in the multibillion-dollar project tried to ignore Col. McDaniel, and the Army sent a package of information to Congress attempting to refute his charges about the Comanche,
“Beginning during its formulation phase,” Col. McDaniel wrote in a 1997 report, “Comanche program managers evolved a culture of artful, evasive and flagrantly deceptive claims that has persisted and plagued the program to this day.”
The Comanche remained under development for 21 years until the plug was finally pulled in 2004. The Army said changing military imperatives made the Comanche unnecessary.
“Comanche was a joke,” Robert Hewson, an aviation expert and editor of Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons, told the Army Times in 2004. “It was designed for a battlefield that never existed.”
Even then, the helicopter’s supporters continued to defend it.
“I am outraged by the Army’s decision to terminate the Comanche program,” said then-Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), whose state included a large Sikorsky plant.
In the end, taxpayers spent $8 billion for a helicopter that never took flight.
Robert Lee McDaniel was born July 13, 1924, at Fort Bliss, Tex., and spent much of his childhood in China, where his father served as a U.S. Army officer.
Col. McDaniel was a 1945 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and served in an airborne unit near the end of World War II. He participated in parachute operations during the Korean War.
Throughout the 1960s, he took part in a large-scale effort to improve Army aviation and, in 1967, received a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Georgia Tech. In addition to the Silver Star, Col. McDaniel received four awards of the Legion of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 42 Air Medals.
After his military retirement, he settled in Alexandria and founded Analytics & Engineering Services. He did consulting work for the military and often wrote about helicopters and aviation for the Armed Forces Journal and other publications. In 2012, Col. McDaniel received a lifetime achievement award from the American Helicopter Society.
His first wife, Rachel Ragle McDaniel, died in 1983 after 36 years of marriage.
Survivors include his wife of 17 years, Jean Hughes McDaniel of Alexandria; six children from his first marriage, Robert L. McDaniel Jr. of Montgomery, Ala., Dorothy M. Woodson of Fort Worth, Jean McDaniel and Nathan B.F. McDaniel, both of Houston, J.E.B. McDaniel of Midlothian, Va., and Louise M. Dodsworth of Savannah, Ga.; two stepchildren, William M. Hughes of Wilton, Conn., and Sarah Kemple of Alexandria; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Col. McDaniel won few friends in the defense establishment when he pointed out flaws in the Comanche. But in the years since then, opponents of government waste have pointed to the Comanche project as a prime example of federal spending gone awry.
“It’s unbelievable the Comanche has survived this long,” Keith Ashdown, then an official with the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said in 2004.
“After two decades, billions of dollars, and not one helicopter built, the final curtain has fallen on one of the most wasteful military money pits in United States history.”