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Dahlgren looks to its past ahead of centennial celebration

By Cathy Dyson, The Free Lance-Star | Aug. 13, 2018

John Elliott has spent most of his career on the range at Dahlgren, overseeing tests that evaluate the safety and performance of every component of gun systems that are mounted on Navy ships and deployed around the world.

He likes being around things that go boom.

“I really like blowing up things,” he said. “You make it, I’ll tear it up. That’s my philosophy.”

Only recently did it dawn on the engineer, who grew up on a dairy farm in Richmond County and earned his degree at Virginia Tech, just how long his tenure had been on the Potomac River Test Range. He formally retired in 2003, but has kept coming to Naval Support Facility Dahlgren for contract work ever since.

“We’re getting ready to have a 100-year celebration of the base, and I realized I’ve been here more than half the time the base has,” said Elliott, who’s 80 and has worked at Dahlgren for 51 years. “That’s gotta stop.”

The King George County resident talked about some of his experiences during the latest series on the upcoming centennial, sponsored by the Dahlgren Heritage Museum. The museum hosted the forum last week at the Dahlgren campus of the University of Mary Washington.

Elliott and Barry Mohle, who heads the testing and evaluation division, took a Free Lance–Star reporter and photographer around the range before the forum.

The Dahlgren base fired its first 153-pound projectile, 24,000 yards down the river, on Oct. 16, 1918, and it’s been in the booming business ever since. The 300 people who currently work on the range—about 140 government employees and 160 contractors—try, test and prove gun systems on the shores of the Potomac before they’re placed on battleships or cruisers.

“Once you put that thing on the ship, sailors don’t have anywhere to run [should something go wrong],” Mohle said. “They need to know exactly how that thing is going to react in adverse conditions.”

Dahlgren maintains the only fully instrumented test range over water in the nation, Mohle said. The Potomac doesn’t simulate the wave action present in oceans, but it does allow testing on how radar tracks missiles over the water, which is much different than over land, Elliott said.

Ed Jones, president of the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation, moderated the forum panel which included Elliott, Mohle and former technical director Rob Gates. Jones grew up on the base as a civilian dependent and asked how often things didn’t go according to script. He recalled hearing about a projectile from a 16-inch gun, shot from Dahlgren, that landed in a Montross backyard 26 miles down range.

“Is that a myth or did that really happen?” Jones wondered.

“It’s a fact,” admitted Elliott in such a deadpan tone that the audience laughed.

Workers took a backhoe to the property and tried to remove the projectile, but couldn’t get to it, so they filled in the dirt around it, Elliott said. That projectile has been mounted on a concrete slab and still stands as a yard monument, he added.

“That’s the only round that we know of that went outside the range,” he said.

And considering how many rounds have been fired, that’s quite the record, Jones said. Toward the end of World War II, the base was firing 155,000 rounds a month, Gates said. During the Vietnam War era, there were five different ranges in operation, each with its dedicated set of employees, Elliott said.

The pace has slowed since then, as the range is active an average of three days a week, Mohle said. Its test events include open-air testing as well as work at experimental areas at nearby Pumpkin Neck and indoor labs, he said.

It’s not just ship guns that are tested. Exercises on the range evaluate various sensors and radar programs as well as high-energy lasers and the railgun, which uses electromagnetic force to launch high velocity projectiles that are more powerful than anything triggered by powdered propellant, Elliott said.

“We are actually leading the nation in several areas right now, just not with guns,” Mohle said.

Mohle came to Dahlgren in 1985 and helped lead the testing and evaluation division into the future. That’s included the evolution from wage earners, who worked in the “powder room” and toted charges to the firing line, to more scientists and engineers. The division has five employees with doctoral degrees, and they evaluate the data the tests provide. Evaluation was sorely lacking in years past, Elliott said, and Mohle’s efforts have enabled the test range to provide the complete package, from performing the necessary tests to evaluating what the data means.

Mohle admitted he’s heard a lot of booms during his years at Dahlgren, and he never gets tired of the noise.

“To me it’s the sound of freedom,” Mohle said. “Whenever I hear that, I kind of get excited because I know what we’re doing for the country.”