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The Quiet One had a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera on its belly that helped the pilots navigate at night. (Shep Johnson)

Air America's Black Helicopter

The secret aircraft that helped the CIA tap phones in North Vietnam

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(Continued from page 5)

But there were valid reasons for dropping the Quiet One from the spymasters' catalog.

"In the long run, the 500P was not the best for setting wiretaps," says Casterlin. "It was not good for high-altitude work." It was a light helicopter and had to be loaded with gear that cut into its payload capability and operating altitude. The Twin Pack was much louder but also simpler to run and more powerful, so Air America used it for later wiretap missions in North Vietnam. At least one tap, placed on the night of March 12-13, 1973, was successful.

Some of the Quiet One's innovations did show up on later helicopters, including the Hughes AH-64 Apache, which has a scissor-style tail rotor. And Hughes engineers' interest in modifying the tips of the main rotor blades to cut the slapping noise caused by blade vortices has been taken up by other experts. Aerospace engineer Gordon Leishman and his team at the University of Maryland, for example, are developing a blade with curved tubes at the tip to divert the air, thereby countering vortex formation. But, thanks to its many unusual modifications, the 500P still holds the title that Hughes gave it in April 1971: "the world's quietest helicopter."

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About James R. Chiles

James R. Chiles contributes frequently to Air & Space/Smithsonian. His book on the social history of helicopters and “helicoptrians” is The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks.

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