The History of Helicopters
When Igor Sikorsky first revealed to the world his successful VS-300 helicopter, it created only a fair amount of general interest. Although the flying windmill dazzled those who saw it fly straight up, sidewards, and backwards, the real significance of these aerial antics was
The reason for this seeming indifference is readily understood when it is recalled that the early years of the machine's existence —it came out in 1939—were complicated by war and preparations for war. The attention of those in the field of aeronautics particularly was focused on far more important technical developments which were destined to revolutionize aerial warfare. The tiny helicopter with its clown-like flying tricks could hardly compete in interest with lightning-fast fighter planes or giant bombers.
Despite its lukewarm reception, Sikorsky's helicopter did manage to attract some notice, especially from the military services. These organizations must ever be on the alert for new inventions or other developments, however insignificant they may appear, that might aid them in carrying out their defense duties more efficiently. Therefore, when the news spread that Sikorsky was flying a queer looking airplane through some of the weirdest maneuvers ever seen at an airfield, several Air Force officers went up to the factory to see for themselves. The group was headed by Colonel Frank Gregory, who was one of the military flying service's earliest and most experienced airman on rotating-wing aircraft.
It was no coincidence that the Air Force should be the first of the military services in the United States to investigate the possibilities of the Sikorsky helicopter. For almost twenty years they had been interested in rotating-wing aircraft in an off-and-on fashion. This was first indicated when they supported Dr. George Bothezat's helicopter experiments and again years later, with their rather extensive autogyro activities. None of these windmill airplane interests quite produced the results they were looking for. Yet they never gave up hope of eventually finding the perfect whirling-wing airplane. That is why Colonel Gregory and his associates one day found themselves en route to Sikorsky's airplane factory in Stratford, Connecticut.
Gracious and gentlemanly as always, Igor patiently explained in great detail to his military guests the workings of his pride and joy, the VS-300. Then, leading the visitors to the small flying field beside the factory, he climbed into the cockpit of the machine and prepared to give them a visual demonstration of what his flying egg-beater could do.
After the engine was warmed thoroughly, Sikorsky signaled . to his ground assistants that all was ready. He gunned the motor to its loudest roar, and then gently, as though pulled upward by some unseen force in the clouds above, the helicopter rose straight up. When he reached a distance of about three feet, the pilot stopped his machine and hung almost motionless in the air. Then, pointing with his arm before each maneuver, Igor flew a short distance forwards, sidewards, and finally backwards. By first pointing, he wished to prove to his guests that he had complete mastery over the airplane.
Sikorsky landed the VS-300 near the astonished officers and, approaching them, asked Colonel Gregory if he would like to try flying it. The airman eagerly accepted the invitation and soon he was receiving exact instructions from the inventor in the use of the various controls. Most of these were familiar both in appearance and operation, since they resembled very closely those of the ordinary airplane. The only different one was the collective pitch lever, which guided the helicopter on its up and down flight. Then, with a somewhat anxious feeling on his part and that of the spectators, Colonel Gregory indicated that he was ready to take off. Cautiously he pulled upward on the collective pitch lever. What followed almost immediately was probably the wildest helicopter ride ever witnessed at the little flying field. The officer and his strange mechanical contrivance were off on a wild gallop through the sky. They swooped and dived and skittered above the horrified eyes of those on the ground. This went on for almost ten minutes as Colonel Gregory tried desperately to remember Sikorsky's instructions. Finally, after bringing the craft under some measure of control, he succeeded in landing it in one piece much to his own relief and that of his audience.
Writing later of this experience, Colonel Gregory told of his reaction in a very amusing manner. "More than anything else the VS-300 reminded me of a bucking bronco. She had tried to throw me when she leaped into the air right at the start. She was ornery. When I wanted her to go down she went up. When I tried to back her up she persisted in going forward. About the only thing she was agreeable to was getting down again and that probably was because she wanted to get fed and pampered by the mechanics and her maker."
Despite his hair-raising ride, the Air Force officer was so fascinated with the aerial sensations of riding in this helicopter that he took it up again that same day for another attempt. Apparently experience was a great teacher in his case because this second flight was completely successful. He had mastered the craft to such a degree that he was able to take off from a spot marked with a handkerchief and land almost directly upon it.
Colonel Gregory and his companions left Sikorsky's factory that day completely convinced that this world-famous aviation engineer's flying machine was truly an extraordinary aerial vehicle. There seemed little doubt that it could be of great value to the Air Force. It wasn't long after this momentous day that Igor Sikorsky was given a contract by the United States Air Force to build a similar machine which was called the XR-4.
The XR-4 was a noteworthy windmill flying machine in more ways than one. Not only was it the first practical helicopter to be acquired by a military service in this country, but it was also a much improved machine over the VS-300 both in appearance and flying performance. Unlike Sikorsky's experimental helicopter, the fuselage and cockpit on the military model were enclosed. As technical improvements were visualized from flights with the VS-300, they were quickly incorporated in the XR-4. By January of 1942, the craft was ready for its first aerial capers. It was put through these by C. L. (Les) Morris, Sikorsky's test pilot at that time.
The XR-4 performed well, and only a few minor changes were found necessary to make it fly still better. The mechanical alterations were completed in April of that same year, and Morris once again flew the machine through its test paces. These were a novel series of stunts that truly proved the flying egg-beater worthy of Air Force acceptance.
The first of these was rather simple. The pilot merely took off and landed the helicopter within a twenty-foot square. After this the tests turned more difficult. A pole eight feet high was erected. A brass ring almost eight inches in diameter was then attached to this pole. Like a knight of old, Les Morris jockeyed his aerial steed around until he placed a long tube at the front of the helicopter directly through the center of the ring. Just as carefully he backed away without disturbing the ring. Next a dozen eggs were placed in a net bag and suspended from the same rod on the nose of the helicopter. Morris then circled the field with his delicate cargo and landed without cracking a single egg. And so the circus-like activities continued throughout the day. The conclusion was reached when the windmill airplane was hovered close to the landing area with a rope ladder hung over its side. An engineer on the ground grasped the ladder and climbed up it into the cockpit of the aircraft. At the end of the day there wasn't any question in the minds of the civilian and military audience that the XR-4 was a perfectly successful and practical helicopter.
If the foregoing antics were considered major accomplishments, they were soon far overshadowed by another XR-4 performance. This occurred in May when, again under the skilled guidance of Les Morris, the rotary-wing airplane was delivered under its own power to the United States Air Force. The machine acquired a certain amount of fame through this because by flying from the Sikorsky factory at Stratford, Connecticut, to the Air Force test base at Wright Field, Ohio, it achieved the first cross-country helicopter flight in the Western Hemisphere.
The astonishingly successful trial flights of the XR-4 the previous month had convinced the inventor and his associates that their flying egg-beater was thoroughly capable of attempting so ambitious a journey. Soon after the idea was first suggested and permission received from the government, preparations were begun for the air trip, whose keynote was caution. First an easy route was selected, one that eliminated flying over mountains. The journey was also to be broken up into easy stages with the pilot landing long before sundown. In addition the helicopter was to be accompanied by an automobile bearing a large yellow circle on its roof so the pilot could recognize it. Several mechanics were to ride in the car to give assistance to Morris in case he was forced to land because of mechanical difficulties. Everything was in readiness by May 13, and with a beautiful spring day for accompaniment, the pilot gently eased his machine into the sky and headed for his goal, 761 airline miles away.
After five adventure-filled days, Les Morris reached his objective. He had made sixteen stops along the way and spent a total of sixteen hours and ten minutes in the air. His average speed over this route was fifty miles per hour.
Since the XR-4 was a military airplane and constructed during the war, a good deal of secrecy surrounded it. As a result, wherever Morris landed his whirligig airplane there was no end of eye-popping and head-scratching by those who saw it. Every landing seemed to have its full share of incidents, almost all humorous.
Once Morris was forced to land on a farm because of a mechanical disturbance. When the trouble was corrected and he was about to take off, the farmer kept repeating a warning that a deep ditch crossed Morris' path a few feet away. The pilot tried to explain to the man that it didn't matter to his airplane. The helicopter would simply fly over it. But the poor farmer could not quite grasp the explanation, so Morris gave up, thanked him for the warning, and started to climb back into the sky. The farmer stood as though transfixed as the helicopter rose straight up before his eyes. No wonder the airman wasn't interested in the ditch!
Tower operators at airports were others who rubbed their eyes in wonderment when Morris would poke the nose of his machine before their windows and await landing instructions. Sometimes while staring at this apparition, they kept him gently bobbing up and down for minutes at a time before telling him to land. Snapping back to reality, they would signal frantically with their arms for him to settle earthward. Morris used to enjoy going through a very special maneuver for the confused benefit of these same airport individuals. After being given a particular spot to land on, he would purposely miss it. Then, to correct the error, Morris would rise a few feet off the ground and fly backwards to the area he should have landed on at first. The poor tower operators were convinced after this that someone was really playing a ridiculous joke on them.
The journey to Wright Field was truly the supreme test for the XR-4. According to Les Morris, the craft handled beautifully even during the moments of unpleasant weather which he encountered. Sometimes this consisted of strong headwinds with gusts up to thirty-five miles per hour, heavy rains, low-hanging clouds with poor visibility, and rough air currents which he bumped into near thunderstorm areas. Sikorsky's windmill aerial machine had demonstrated that it was no longer an experimental curiosity, but a tried and proven aircraft. The Air Force thought the same way because not long after they placed a substantial order for others with the Sikorsky plant.
The picture of Air Force helicopter activities at this point would not be complete if mention of their Platt-LePage XR-1 were omitted. This machine was not too successful and as a consequence was far overshadowed by the more efficient Sikorsky model. However, at the time the Air Force became interested in its design, this windmill airplane appeared to be the answer as a replacement for autogyros which were beginning to fade in promise as military aircraft.
The XR-1 was the work of two aeronautical engineers, W. Laurence Le Page and Havilland H. Platt. Both these gentlemen had long been concerned with rotary-wing aircraft. Le Page at one time had worked for the Pitcairn and Kellet Autogyro companies. Inspired, perhaps, by the success of Dr. Focke, they decided to pool their technical knowledge and build a helicopter. They formed a company, obtained patents on their own helicopter designs and began development work. This initial activity proved so promising that they were able to obtain the backing of the United States Air Force. As a result, they signed a contract with that military service on July 9, 1940, to produce what they hoped would be the first successful military helicopter.
The XR-1 had a strong resemblance to Dr. Focke's historic windmill airplane. The American version merely appeared more streamlined. It was quite conventional in appearance as airplanes go, except for two large booms extending from the sides of the fuselage. The rotors, thirty feet in diameter, were fixed to the tips of these booms. They spun in opposite directions to overcome torque. Although the helicopter was eventually accepted by the Air Force, the machine's performance left much to be desired and it quietly passed out of existence.
By 1944 the Air Force had a goodly number of helicopters on hand, all Sikorsky models. These were slightly improved over the original XR-4 in that they could fly a bit faster and carry a heavier load. As the Air Force came into possession of more and more flying egg-beaters, they slowly discovered that their unusual maneuvering ability made them extremely useful for a variety of aerial jobs. When World War II ended, they were just beginning to recognize the helicopter's value for carrying wounded out of battle areas to rear-line hospitals, transporting supplies, and reconnaissance duties. But the work of adapting helicopters to military tasks went on slowly during the postwar years—not only with Sikorsky types but others which had come into existence as well—until the Korean War, in which, seemingly overnight, their ultimate versatility was demonstrated.
In this conflict they have been put to every conceivable military use outside of actual combat not only by the Air Force but the other branches of the military service as well. Perhaps the helicopter's greatest single role is that of a mercy plane—saving the lives of countless wounded soldiers with fast, safe trips to aid stations. The injured are usually fastened into special litters fixed to the sides of the helicopter and then whisked away to hospital care and comfort in a matter of minutes.
Of equal importance is the helicopter's use as a rescue plane. As such it has performed like no other aerial vehicle for getting into impossible places to save airmen forced down by enemy gunfire or mechanical failure of their airplanes. The Air Force has organized special squadrons just to carry out this kind of work, which is not limited solely to military needs. The units also respond to civilian calls for help whenever they arise.
The Air Rescue Service, the name under which the various squadrons have been grouped, was first established in January, 1946. From a few units in this country, they have since expanded into a worldwide organization with squadrons located at Air Force bases ranging from the tropics to the Arctic and from the Orient to Europe. Members of the Air Rescue Service are highly trained for their specialized tasks and respond to appeals for aid by means of an elaborate alarm system. In a combat area, however, a radio call from a ground unit or by fellow pilots of a downed airman is usually sufficient for them to spring into action.
Although the Service uses several different airplane types to accomplish their missions of mercy, the helicopter is its prized aerial vehicle. One of the most versatile of these is the H-21. This twin-rotored airplane, designed and built by Piasecki Helicopter Corporation, was created especially for use in the Arctic regions. To enable it to cope with the varied types of landing surfaces encountered in the frozen north, the helicopter is fitted with a very special type of landing gear described by the rather formidable name of "omniphibious." Actually all this means is that it has a combination landing gear consisting of wheels, floats, and skis. Thus the pilot can bring his craft down on snow, ice, water, tundra, marsh, or land without changing any part of the equipment. This Air Rescue Service helicopter is of a considerable size, having a cabin twenty feet long and a little more than fifteen feet wide. In an emergency it can carry twenty-seven persons. A special hoist is fitted over the door by which, while the helicopter is hovering, supplies can be lowered to stranded survivors on the ground below or they themselves may be hoisted aboard.
Since its acceptance of the Sikorsky XR-4 in 1942, the United States Air Force's stable of flying windmills has grown in numbers and variety. No longer are the Sikorsky models the sole representatives, as they once were during the days of World War II. Although highly efficient modern types still predominate, they have been joined by Bell models and giant Piasecki whirligigs like the one just described. All are contributing in their own unique fashion toward making the Air Force an ever more efficient defense organization.
In July, 1952, two Air Service Rescue helicopters created aviation history by being the first of their type to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. The flying windmills, large Sikorsky H-19's called the Hop-A-Long and Whirl-A-Way by their crew, left Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts and by easy stages reached Prestwick, Scotland. The journey of 3,300 miles was made in a leisurely fashion of five separate hops. The longest of these— between Keflavik, Iceland, and Prestwick, a distance of 920 miles, broke a helicopter record for a non-stop flight. The airmen—each craft was manned by a pilot and co-pilot—spent a total of forty-two hours and thirty minutes in the air and averaged eighty miles an hour in speed. Eventually the helicopters went on to their base in Wiesbaden, Germany, where they were assigned to carry out their rescue duties.
The Air Force had undertaken this flight to find out whether helicopters could be delivered by air to Europe. Its success proved that this method was not only practical but that as flying machines they had advanced a long way from the days of the VS-300.
Although young in years, the Air Rescue Service has already accomplished brilliant achievements, enough to fill several volumes. One that was less spectacular than the transoceanic flight, but of infinitely greater importance, was its participation in the fall of 1951 in helping to stop the spread of yellow fever in Costa Rica. The disease was threatening to sweep the country in epidemic proportions when the Air Service was called on to aid. Day after day, in good weather and bad, doctors and serum were flown over thousands of square miles of rugged land so that natives could be inoculated against its spread. At the end of a two-week period the yellow fever was definitely brought under control, thanks to the only vehicle, land or air, that could have reached these people in time.
When the United States military air service received its first successful helicopter, it lost little time showing it off before its sister defense services. One of the first to sit up and take notice was the Navy. They were especially impressed when the XR-4 was put through a spectacular series of landings and take-offs from a special platform fastened to the deck of an oil tanker, the U.S.S. Bunker Hill, anchored in Long Island Sound. Here was something for which the Navy had long tried to adapt the autogyro, but without success. Cierva's aircraft required too much of a forward run to be practical aboard the confined space of a warship. Along with officers of the Coast Guard, they lost little time getting up to the Sikorsky plant to see about this extraordinary airplane.
This was in the early months of 1943. By October of that year the Navy had its first helicopter and training was begun of pilots and mechanics at the Coast Guard Air Station, Floyd Bennett Field, New York. The Navy was soon as busy as the Air Force in finding out how to take advantage of the versatile abilities of the helicopter for its own specialized sea-going defense duties. To aid studying this question and make recommendations, a small group of officers was established and assigned this task in the Bureau of Aeronautics.
Early naval helicopters were also Sikorsky models, improved XR-4's. However, this sea-going defense service in addition supported the development of other types like the McDonnell XHSD-1 and the Piasecki XHRP-1, both of which were twin-rotor models. The former never quite reached the standards which the Navy required, but the other did. None of the helicopters acquired by the Navy in World War II were ever put to actual use in line of duty, but instead were mostly applied to training purposes and also tested for ways and means of making them useful aboard ships.
By 1946, the Navy felt that it had acquired enough experience with helicopters to permit their participation in the Bikini atom-bomb tests. A group of fourteen officers and men together with four flying egg-beaters were sent to the South Pacific atoll along with other units of the naval fleet. Not only did the helicopters perform many worthwhile tasks during the course of the A-bomb tests but they also provided the pilots and ground crewmen valuable experience in their handling under actual working conditions. This is considered the Navy's first planned use of the whirly-birds.
Following the trials at the Bikini A-bomb experiments, the work of turning the helicopter into a naval plane progressed slowly. As with nearly all new undertakings, there was a goodly number of naval people who had little faith in the flying egg-beaters. But even many of these were forced to change their opinions by a series of dramatic incidents which occurred in 1947.
The giant aircraft carrier U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt was going through a routine practice cruise at the time, carrying among its horde of fighter and bombing planes a lone, odd-looking Sikorsky helicopter. The Navy had decided to send the craft along together with Sikorsky's chief test pilot for the purpose of making practice take-offs and landings from the ship's large deck. As things turned out, these were accomplished with ease but for far different reasons than experimental.
The practice of high-speed airplanes taking off from and landing on a carrier's deck is at best hazardous. Frequently, for various reasons, a pilot is unable to make it and finds himself and his plane splashed in the water. Ordinarily rescue operations are rather slow for the airman's peace of mind. This particular cruise of the Roosevelt was no exception when it came to pilots falling into the water. However, with pilot Viner and his egg-beater present getting the airmen back aboard ship was accomplished in far less time. Six times Viner hovered over an unfortunate pilot, dropped his rescue line and whisked him back aboard the carrier almost before he could become soaking wet. Naval pilots quickly recognized a friend in the little helicopter and sang its praises to the sky.
Apparently the helicopter's experience aboard the carrier was the spark needed to hasten its acceptance as an official member in the Navy's family of aircraft. By 1949 it had replaced all conventional propeller-driven types aboard cruisers and battleships. Aircraft carriers, survey ships, and ice breakers were also equipped with one or more of the flying windmills. To provide trained pilots and mechanics for the whirly-birds, two squadrons were formed for this purpose in 1948, the HU-1 and HU-2. These groups at the time supplied both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. Today most of the pilot training takes place at Ellyson Field in Pensacola, Florida, while that of ground crewmen is at Naval Air Technical Training Center, Memphis, Tennessee.
Now the Navy wonders how it ever managed without the whirly-birds. Aside from their key job of saving the lives of downed airmen they have also been indispensable for shuttling dispatches and important personnel between ship and shore, observation work, reconnaissance and photographic missions, and mine-spotting activity. The last-mentioned duty is quite a recent one since its ability for this was discovered in the currently raging Korean War. How well it accomplished this assignment can be seen in the praise heaped upon it by the Commander of the Far East Naval Forces, Vice-Admiral Charles T. Joy. "Helicopter mine field search in the approaches to and in Wonsan Harbor were instrumental in our mine sweeping plans, greatly increasing the safety of ships and rapid clearing of required entry channels." This high-ranking naval officer also went on to say, "If any single type of aircraft has ever sold itself to the entire Navy and Marine Corps by superior performance in the field, it has been the helicopter."
One other chore which the helicopter holds great promise of fulfilling some day is that of anti-submarine work. So far the Navy has only scratched the surface with this helicopter activity but when more advanced models are obtained, whirly-birds may play a starring role in this vital naval defense job.
At the moment the Navy is flying a number of different helicopter models, some more advanced than others. One of the most modern of its shipboard types is the HUP, designed and built by Piasecki Helicopter Corporation. Twin-rotored and capable of carrying five, this craft is gradually replacing older Sikorsky models. Others include Bell HTL-5's and Hiller HTE-2's, both mainly used for training purposes. The Kaman HTK, a comparative newcomer in the helicopter field, is another of the training models. Along with these the Navy has a number of advanced helicopters under development, whose existence is shrouded in a good deal of wartime secrecy. However, it is generally known that among these are some with jet propulsion for power plants and very special models for carrying out anti-submarine work.
As a flying machine the helicopter is a mere youth, but even in its pioneering form—which in a sense present-day helicopters are—they have proved themselves capable of performing many vital jobs for the Navy. A number of these were tasks never dreamed of being accomplished by ordinary airplanes. As helicopters become more advanced in flying ability, they promise to increase their naval usefulness many times over.
If the Air Force and the Navy found the helicopter ideally suited for many specialized uses, the same could also be said for the United States Coast Guard, but with far greater emphasis. Since the main duty of this organization is to go to the aid of human beings in distress, especially at sea, a more ideal vehicle than the helicopter for this purpose could not have been developed. One who saw the infinite possibilities of this flying machine better than any of his colleagues was Commander Frank A. Erickson, who had first become attracted towards the flying windmills by Sikorsky's successful flights with the VS-300. It was largely his initiative, vision, and technical ability that as made the helicopter a standout member of the Coast Guard rescue team.
He had been among the first group of naval officers to receive their helicopter training at the Floyd Bennett Field base in October of 1943. Thus, after a few weeks of hopping and skipping along Brooklyn's sandy shore in an R-4 Sikorsky whirly-bird, Commander Erickson became the Coast Guard's number one helicopter pilot. Later, when the Coast Guard established a helicopter development group at Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in recognition of his skill with whirly-birds, he was placed in charge of the unit. It was here that he created many devices which not only made the helicopter a better aerial vehicle for Coast Guard rescue work but were also found helpful by other military services and the helicopter industry as a whole.
Among the earliest of Commander Erickson's contrivances was a hydraulic hoist for pulling rescued persons aboard the plane from areas where landings were impossible. So well has this device worked that it has since become standard equipment not only on all Coast Guard helicopters but also those of the Air Force, Navy, and others where the windmill airplanes are especially used for life-saving work. Not content to rest on his laurels with this valuable helicopter invention, the Coast Guard officer next designed a unique type of harness for scooping people out of the water who might be too helpless to grab hold of a rescue line. This life-saving bucket is a versatile affair and actually can be used for two jobs. When not serving as an emergency device it is easily changed into an extra seat within the helicopter if one is needed. The rescue harness has also been adopted as regular equipment on most Coast Guard helicopters.
Since the Coast Guard area of activity is almost entirely associated with water, it seemed perfectly natural for Commander Erickson to want to change the conventional wheels of the whirly-birds for a different arrangement, one that would permit helicopters to land on water if necessary. After considerable study and experiment with dozens of paper models he finally hit upon a design that worked perfectly. It consisted of round, inflated cushion affairs that were fitted to the undercarriage of the flying machine. Because of their shape they were promptly nicknamed "doughnuts," which indeed they strongly resembled. Equipped with three of these air-filled "doughnuts" Coast Guard egg-beaters could land on almost all types of surfaces, such as snow, mud, ice and, of course, water. Time after time whenever helicopters with this unique landing gear were called upon for aid, the "doughnuts" have proved a great success.
Commander Erickson did not stop with these helicopter accomplishments. He brought into being many more, and all in some degree have made the flying windmill an ever more valuable instrument for bringing help to those in need.
Unlike the other military services in the United States who were pioneering in the use of the helicopter, the Coast Guard did not have to go through a long period of training or waiting to see the real worth of these flying machines. Almost before the first pilots had completed their instructions on the aerial egg-beater, a Coast Guard R-4 was pressed into service to help the victims of a ship explosion off the New Jersey coast.
It was the winter of 1943-44 when on a cold, grey day the normal calm of the daily routine at Floyd Bennett Coast Guard base was suddenly broken by urgent appeals for assistance. The United States destroyer Turner had suddenly exploded off the New Jersey coast, and many seriously injured survivors had been brought to the beaches badly in need of blood plasma. A hurried conference was held among the officers at the base, several calls were put in to blood bank centers in Manhattan, and soon one of their helicopters was on its way to the heart of New York. The flying machine landed at Battery Park, where the blood plasma had been waiting and was speedily loaded aboard the craft. Within minutes the helicopter was in the air again and whirling along to the scene of the disaster. A raging snowstorm did not make the task easier for the pilot, but he reached his goal successfully and by the speedy deliverance of the vitally needed plasma, the lives of many of the victims were saved.
With this historic mission of mercy, the Coast Guard began a new and thrilling chapter in a long career already studded with countless glorious achievements. The helicopter, a modern miracle of the air, has multiplied many times the organization's ability to bring help to the distressed. Even though this unique flying machine has been in its possession for only a few years, the list of life-saving triumphs the machine has achieved is already a long one. Airmen forced to land their crippled planes on the sea have been pulled to safety, often while on the verge of being swallowed by a cold and forbidding ocean; others have been plucked from isolated swamps, badly injured in many cases; food and medical supplies have been dropped to flood victims, while others have been rushed away for hospitalization. And so the long record of bringing relief to human suffering reads on. This noble work promises to reach higher peaks of glory when still better flying helicopters are made available to the Coast Guard.
An entirely different reason for wanting to acquire and fly helicopters was presented by the United States Marine Corps. This military group is chiefly concerned with fighting battles, and its history, a long one, includes many brilliant victories. The men who have led this colorful military organization have ever been alert to adopt the latest in tactics and technical weapons to make their fighting prowess still greater. Therefore, after watching the antics of the helicopter for almost four years, as it performed its wondrous feats in the hands of Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard pilots, they decided it was time the Marine Corps began flying some of their own. As an aircraft for fighting uses alone it appeared to have tempting advantages, fitting in nicely with the Corps' unique combat tactics.
Consequently in 1946 the Corps took steps to obtain helicopters and form their first rotary-wing aircraft squadron. They were going to find out through actual test whether the flying windmills could meet with their rigid fighting needs.
When the Marine Corps began their helicopter development work, they soon were able to see that these aerial vehicles could be adapted for two different types of military assignments. One might be observation and liaison work, and the other transport or troop-carrying duties. The first would be mainly concerned with carrying wounded to aid stations, saving downed pilots of fighter and bomber planes, laying communication wire, and finally transporting officers and important dispatches. Squadrons charged with these tasks would need small, fast helicopters. The second assignment, transport work, would call for moving troops and their supplies to fighting areas and the removal of wounded to hospitals. The helicopters required for this work would have to be large models, capable of carrying a number of troops with their equipment and heavy cargoes of ammunition and other necessary items. As the helicopter slowly aroused more and more enthusiasm among Marine Corps strategists, they began to concentrate most of their attention on its use as a troop carrier for attack purposes. Today, after several years of painstakingly slow work, they have brought this unique style of fighting to a high degree of perfection.
The Marine Corps helicopter squadron HMX-1 was the pioneer flying group that did much to prove that helicopters could be used for assaulting enemy positions. They were commissioned on December 1, 1947, and their windmill airplanes were Sikorsky HO3S-l's. Month after month the group worked hard on its assigned task of turning the helicopter into a fighting airplane for the Corps. They studied theoretical military problems —how best to land armed troops against enemy positions—and engaged in many field tests to prove their theories. The maneuvers were first conducted with the small Sikorsky models and later with more advanced Piasecki HRP's or flying bananas, as they were humorously called. These were tandem-rotored giants that could carry seven fully armed marines. The large whirly-birds were also capable of lifting heavy loads.
By the spring of 1949 the Corps felt that they had progressed sufficiently with their newly developed helicopter-attacking maneuvers to put on a public demonstration. On May 9 they invited members of Congress and the press to the Marine Corps air base at Quantico, Virginia, to watch their work with whirly-birds. The highlight of the show was to be an attack on and the capture of an imaginary enemy-held beachhead position by Marines brought to the fighting scene with helicopters.
Eight HRP's each carrying seven heavily armed leathernecks took off from a make-believe aircraft carrier whose outline had been painted on the runway at the Air Base. Quickly they were flown to the attacking areas and unloaded. Some Marines dashed to fighting positions, others hastened to put into operation 75 mm. howitzers which were flown into the area by helicopters. They had been hung by cables beneath the fuselage. Other helicopters helped to lay communication wires and brought up ammunition, while departing flying bananas took away the make-believe wounded. Live bombs, rockets, and artillery shells added a realistic touch to the military pageant, which was pronounced a huge success by all who witnessed it. The sham battle impressed many as a startling new way of bringing the fighting to an enemy.
Today, as a result of the studies and tactics developed by Helicopter Squadron HMX-1, the Marine Corps has several squadrons of troop-carrying whirly-birds on the east and west coasts. They also have other squadrons using smaller helicopters for general utility and rescue work. Additional squadrons of both types are likewise operating in Korea, where in the fall of 1951 one of their troop-carrying units, HMR-161, created military history by helping to capture a Korean mountain peak.
This noteworthy event took place in September of that year, when it was decided that helicopters would be the answer for flying troops to a particular mountain area which for strategic reasons the Marines desired to capture. First a helicopter was sent aloft to explore the three-thousand-foot mountain ridge for likely landing areas. Two were located which, after the removal of some obstructions, would be useful. The large rotors had to have plenty of clearance as they spun around their circular path. The survey group hastened back to their base to report their findings, and shortly thereafter Operation Summit was begun.
A small group of heavily armed Marines blazed the trail to the mountaintop battlefront. They were assigned the job of clearing the selected landing spots so the huge transport helicopters could bring in the remainder of their comrades and supplies. Hovering above their objectives, the Marines climbed down knotted ropes to the ground below. Working swiftly, they soon had the first landing surface cleared, and within minutes the helicopter shuttle service began.
Down at the valley base the giant windmill flying machines were loaded with fighting men and supplies. Then, up, up they soared to their mountain perch and, when emptied, returned for a new cargo. Back and forth with motors thundering and rotors swishing through the air the mechanical whirly-birds flew until the historic airlift was completed. When the noise ceased and the dust settled and the helicopters had been put to rest, 224 heavily armed fighting men had been carried to their lofty objective. In addition, almost nine tons of food, supplies, and ammunition had been shipped to the heights. All this was accomplished in the brief period of four hours. Had the men been sent out afoot over difficult ground and possible enemy action, the maneuver would have taken two days to complete.
The encouragement which the Marine Corps officers received from this unique aerial action—the first real test actually of tactics with which they had been experimenting for almost four years—inspired them to repeat the performance a little less than a month later. This time they attempted a much larger operation, transporting a full battalion of armed Marines, close to a thousand, by helicopter to another mountaintop fighting area. The Marine Corps and helicopters were slowly but definitely revolutionizing warring tactics.
The last of the great defense arms of the United States, the Army, welcomed the existence of the helicopter just as much as its sister services. In the eyes of those directing that organization's affairs, flying windmills offered the next logical step in advancing the mobility of this ground-based fighting force. The ability to bring the greatest number of troops and supplies to a given fighting area in the quickest possible time is one of the great advantages in military strategy. Horses were the first to add to the speed of an army's movements; then came motor vehicles. Now helicopters, with their ability to fly almost anywhere, have promised to increase many times over the number of miles such a military force can cover in a day.
The United States Army began its first use of helicopters at about the same time as the Marine Corps, 1947. They soon appreciated the fact that the greatest asset of this aerial vehicle appeared to be in the field of transportation. Therefore it was planned to emphasize their development along those lines. Eventually special helicopter transport companies were organized and these have been attached to the Transportation Corps of the Army. Up to the moment three whirly-bird transport units have been created, with seven more planned. The latter will be established just as fast as the desired types of helicopters can be obtained.
The Army transport helicopter groups are equipped with twenty-one cargo-carrying machines and two small models for general purposes such as liaison and reconnaissance. To accomplish the heavier tasks, big up-to-date Piasecki and Sikorsky models are employed, while Bell and Hiller types are carrying out the lighter work. The manner in which the smaller aerial windmills of these squadrons perform their chores has earned for them the name "flying jeeps" after their famous earthbound namesake. So successful has been the use of helicopters as Army transports that they have in many cases taken over completely the jobs formerly carried out by motor vehicles. Indeed, they have lived up to expectations with their transportation activities to such a degree that they have won eager acceptance by other Army units to do a number of different jobs. This applied especially to the versatile midget flying windmills.
Many of the Bell and Hiller helicopters have been attached to infantry regiments, engineer units, and field artillery groups. Here they are quickly and efficiently doing about as many different kinds of jobs as it is possible for a giant diversified organization like the Army to have. Carrying important mail and messages, flying officers on inspection tours of battle areas, aiding radio communications, providing spotting and survey information for artillery batteries are merely a few of the myriad jobs they are called upon to perform. A number of these were first tried in the Korean War, which has turned out to be the proving-ground for helicopters.
The Army, like the other military services, has found the flying egg-beater to be most valuable as an aerial ambulance. Early in the Korean War three air evacuation units were created and assigned to work with the Mobile Surgical Hospitals. Night and day, in the foulest of weather, helicopters bore their way through the sky in response to calls from front-line aid stations. The wounded are placed in "pods" fastened to the outside of the fuselage and in a matter of minutes are whisked gently back to the hospitals. Up to the present helicopters have borne in this fashion in swiftness and safety more than six thousand injured fighting men. Many were so seriously wounded that if it had not been for the amazing whirly-birds they would have died.
The United States Army, by adopting and working with the helicopter, has found that this unique aerial machine is forcing it to develop new military strategy just as the horse and motor vehicle did years before. This process has already started and advanced to a considerable degree even though the rotary-wing aircraft, technically speaking, is in the infancy of its development.
The helicopter's role in the civilian world has been no less startling than in the military world. Since the day when the Civil Aeronautics Administration issued the first commercial helicopter license, March 8, 1946, helicopters have been adapted for dozens of different commercial enterprises in countries throughout the world. These have ranged from the more formal commercial airline duties like carrying mail and cargo to exploring for oil and inspecting isolated electric power lines. In 1947, for example, aviation history was made in the United States when the first regular-schedule helicopter mail-carrying service was established. At that time several enthusiastic aviation supporters in California, led by energetic Clarence Belinn, looked upon the youthful helicopter as an ideal aerial vehicle for speeding mail deliveries within large cities having sprawling suburban areas. Convinced of the worth of the rotary-wing aerial vehicle as a commercial carrier, they soon organized the Los Angeles Airways and, after receiving government approval, began their flying windmill operations on October 1. Their service began with four routes which touched upon forty-four suburbs and totaled about 356 miles. One of these was a short twelve miles but an extremely important one. It connected the municipal airport with the Terminal Annex Post Office building, the helicopters landing on and taking off from the latter's roof. Four Sikorsky S-51 model helicopters were used to carry the mail, and they operated from small fenced in areas which were called "heliports."
Almost the entire aviation world, especially those connected with helicopter design and construction, watched this pioneering air transport operation with keen interest. A good deal of the helicopter's future transport usefulness would be connected with the success or failure of the operation. In a way, it was like a laboratory project on a giant outdoor scale to which, indeed, it was likened by President Belinn in his report at the end of the airline's first year of activities.
Whatever fears might have existed about the enterprise were brushed away by the results listed in that year-end report, which declared, "The reliability and safety of the helicopter is virtually a proven fact. It is the product of over 40,000 precision landings and take-offs carrying over 1,750,000 pounds of mail and parcel post in its first year. It delivers the mail in minutes instead of hours. Formerly it took as long for a letter to travel between the communities of the metropolitan area as it did to cross the continent."
The Los Angeles Airways has continued to operate its mail and cargo-carrying helicopter service with much success. In recognition of the great accumulation of experience it has obtained flying helicopters and its wonderful safety record, the government granted it in 1951 the right to carry passengers. This, of course, was the ultimate goal which the company had in mind when it began the flying windmill mail service. However, it first had to go through the training period of carrying mail not only to test thoroughly the flying abilities of the helicopter, but also to work out many ground-based problems connected with establishing a pioneering aerial transport system.
Having been proved completely adequate after more than four years of flying day in and day out over its miniature air routes, the helicopter was now ready to compete with other types of surface transport like autos and buses. This promised to be the aerial commuter service which many of the autogyro's enthusiasts had dreamed about years before. Now a traveler at the most distant point in the helicopter airway's system, about fifty miles from the Municipal Airport in Los Angeles, wishing to catch an airliner at that point, can hop a whirly-bird, float comfortably above congested highways, and reach his destination in less than half the time normally required by bus or auto. Because the military services at present have first call on all the latest helicopters being produced, Los Angeles Airways has been able to acquire only a few of the ten-passenger models which it wishes for the passenger service. These are Sikorsky types. Some day, after the service has been fully accepted by the public, the company hopes to be flying giant twenty- and thirty-passenger models. When that time arrives, it also expects to see them landing and taking-off from "heliports" located on the tops of tall buildings in the very heart of the city.
Other large metropolitan centers in the United States, noting the success of the Los Angeles helicopter experiment, were quick to see the advantages which flying windmills could bring to overburdened transport systems. Many planned and established similar whirly-bird services. In 1948 the Civil Aeronautics Board gave its approval to Helicopter Air Service, Inc., for carrying mail and cargo throughout the Chicago area. The Windy City thus became the second in this country to boast of a helicopter airline. This company is following the same pattern as the California airline by flying mail and cargo first before taking passengers aloft. When the necessary experience is obtained, then that midwestern city will also have its helicopter commuting service.
New York City was the next to join the growing number of urban centers to add a helicopter airline to an already varied transportation system. In October, 1952, New York Airways, Inc., began flying mail by helicopter throughout the far-flung reaches of Greater New York. The center of their operations is a triangular shuttle service connecting the three principal airports of this huge city—LaGuardia, Newark, and the International. The whirly-birds will pick-up and deposit their aerial cargoes in mid-New York with stops on the roof of the New York Post Office Building, the Ferry Terminal at Staten Island, a pier jutting into the East River, and the rooftop of the Port Authority Bus Terminal building. The system extends to outlying points on Long Island, Staten Island, Connecticut, Westchester County, and New Jersey. They, too, will begin commuting passengers to and from the heart of New York City after the necessary experience of operating helicopters is obtained by flying mail on a regular schedule.
In Europe, no less than in the United States, those engaged in aviation activities clearly saw the unique advantages of the helicopter for short-haul airline operations. England was active with several helicopter mail-carrying experiments at the time that the Los Angeles Airways began operations. That country in fact was a jump ahead of the United States in establishing the world's first helicopter passenger run in June, 1950. British European Airways conducted the experimental service which ran between Cardiff and Liverpool until March 31, 1951. Later another passenger route was put in operation between Birmingham and London's two main airports. This run continued for about a year, when it too was abandoned. Now B.E.A. is using their helicopters mostly for experimental flights, trying to perfect blind-flying equipment for rotary-wing aircraft.
Although these trial helicopter air routes were unprofitable, they provided the British airline company with a number of valuable lessons. Foremost of these, perhaps, was the realization that before helicopter commuter service could really be put on a paying basis, larger and better flying aircraft must first be built. Secondly, to take the fullest advantage of their ability to fly into areas impossible for conventional airplanes, landing areas or "heliports" must be established in the very centers of cities. These might very well be on the tops of tall buildings such as the one the city of Manchester, England, is planning to build. This structure will be ten stories high and circular in form. A rectangular landing area three hundred feet long and two hundred fifty feet wide will crown it. This deck will actually be a turntable so that it can be turned in the direction of the most favorable wind. It appears, therefore, that the obstacles which this English aviation company feels stand in the way of a really successful helicopter passenger service—including that of better rotary-wing aircraft—will soon be overcome.
Continental Europe witnessed the beginning of its first helicopter mail-carrying service in December of 1948. This historic aviation event took place in Belgium, where the Post Office and Sabena Airlines undertook the distribution of mail over a 230-mile route. Using tiny Bell model whirly-birds, the service operates six days a week and includes stops at ten Belgian cities. The aerial postal vehicles complete their run in about four and a half hours and use any conveniently cleared areas for landings at their stopping points. Sometimes these are football fields or the open expanse of a motor highway. The mail has been carried with a high degree of regularity both winter and summer, and the time is not far off when the people of that country will find themselves buzzing above their lovely country with no more thought of its novelty than riding in buses and trains.
If any mechanical vehicle created by man deserves the title of a "jack-of-all-trades"—whether it be for land, sea, or air— none better deserves that honor than the helicopter. Because of its amazing flying versatility, it has been given more different kinds of work to do than all the other transport contrivances combined.
Oil explorers use helicopters to save miles and hours of weary trudging, often over difficult terrain, in their hunt for promising "black-gold" deposits. Ranchers alternate with their horses to seek out and inspect their widely scattered herds of cattle by means of the flying windmills.. Farmers use them to dust acres of crops threatened by insects. The powerful down-draft of air created by the helicopter's rotor has been found especially valuable for this work. When fires are devastating timberlands, helicopters are pressed into service rushing men and equipment to the threatened areas. Their ability to fly in and out of the most inaccessible regions has made them invaluable for this dangerous work. The first recorded use of a helicopter for this purpose was in September, 1946, when a part of the Angeles National Forest in California was destroyed by a giant blaze. Many of this country's private power companies have equipped their inspection crews with helicopters to fly along their miles of high tension wires watching for the first signs of any failures. Police departments in large cities, New York's particularly, have found them a great help in unsnarling traffic tangles on congested highways or rushing to the aid of a city dweller who is suddenly in need of assistance. Undoubtedly the most spectacular example of the latter use occurred in America's largest city in the summer of 1951. A call for help came into the Police Aviation Bureau one day, telling of a steeplejack who had fallen off a scaffold and onto the roof of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. He was badly hurt, and the problem was how to lower the man to the street without injuring him further. He refused to be lowered by means of block and tackle and then the helicopter was thought of. Captain Gustav Crawford, piloting the police helicopter, took off from his base at Floyd Bennett Field and sped to the scene of the aerial accident in twenty minutes.
Cautiously, and following the signals of those on the roof that he was clear to land, the airman settled gently near the injured man. The craft rested close to the roof edge with its tail extending into space. Quickly the accident victim was placed in a litter and strapped to the outside of the machine. Within three minutes Captain Crawford rose from the roof and flew to nearby Riverside Park, where a waiting ambulance rushed the steeplejack to a hospital.
This was a dramatic rescue. And perhaps more than any other single experience in the life of the helicopter, it caused the general public to realize that here indeed was an extraordinary flying machine.
From "Flying Windmills" by Frank Ross, 1953
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All the World's Rotorcraft