Viewport: No Runway Required
The rotary wing collection at the National Air and Space Museum.
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, May 2006
“Viewport,” by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air&Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum’s ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the April/May 2006 issue of Air&Space.
We have grown so accustomed to the sight of the president's helicopter alighting on the White House lawn that it's difficult to imagine a president arriving any other way. But the first presidential helicopter flight took place only after U.S. security planners, wanting to test plans for escape in case of nuclear attack, sent President Dwight D. Eisenhower to a bunker outside the city in his limousine. When Eisenhower arrived, his cabinet members, who had traveled by helicopter, were there to greet him. The result of that test was the 1957 purchase of a Bell H-13J, the first presidential helicopter, which visitors can now see in the Vertical Flight exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The exhibit features the many weird and wonderful solutions to the problem of operating aircraft away from airport infrastructure and includes the most comprehensive collection of early vertical-takeoff-and-landing and rotary-wing aircraft anywhere.
The first successful rotary-wing aircraft was a hybrid: The 1930s autogiro was essentially an airplane with an unpowered (autorotating) lifting rotor. Though it could not hover, it was safe and convinced many that a practical helicopter was possible. The Museum's examples, such as the Autogiro Company of America AC-35 and the Kellett XO-60, were technical successes but commercial failures. Still, autogiro experience paid off with the helicopter. Igor Sikorsky's R-4, the world's first mass-produced helicopter, used 39 inventions patented for the autogiro. On display is the prototype, the XR-4, which sold the U.S. military on the viability of the helicopter. Sikorsky's achievements in the early 1940s led to predictions of a post-war aviation boom. Scores of companies scrambled to build helicopters, but only a few were successful.
The collection features the most notable examples from this pioneering period: Bell's Model 30 (see In the Museum), Piasecki's PV-2, and Hiller's XH-44. All are the first craft made by these industry leaders. Bell built affordable lightweight helicopters beginning with the Model 47B, the first helicopter certified by the Civil Aeronautics Authority. The Museum's 47B holds the record for the longest operational life of any helicopter (1947-2004) and set the world's hovering record (50 hours, 50 seconds). In 1944, at the age of 19, Stanley Hiller Jr. designed, built, and test flew the coaxial XH-44. This machine launched Hiller's innovative company, and the Museum has several of his exotic machines. The XHOE-1 Hornet, powered by ramjets on the rotor tips, is currently on display, and the foldable YROE-1 Rotorcycle and the Flying Platform will soon follow.
Perhaps the most innovative VTOL aircraft to come into our collection is a recent development: the Bell XV-15 Tilt Rotor Research Aircraft. By cruising as efficiently as an airplane, the tilt rotor has enormous advantages over conventional helicopters in speed and in range and is the only class of VTOL transports to go into full-scale production. From autogiro to XV-15, this little-known aspect of aviation history awaits you at the Udvar-Hazy Center.