Above & Beyond: Jump Ship

Above & Beyond: Jump Ship

On a cool day, with a bit of wind and a light load, the Kellett jump giro could leap straight up some 15 feet, gain forward speed, and climb out. But in hot weather and still air, with a full load of fuel and a passenger, it merely lurched upward, relying on its straining engine and propeller to pull it out. (Courtesy E. Stuart Gregg)
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On one occasion, with the tower’s permission, we landed right in front of base operations at Richmond Army Air Base in Virginia. The ops officer, who had not heard our conversation with the tower, spied us through the window and came storming out, ready to throw the book at us. But as he took in the sight of the strange wingless aircraft that had landed almost vertically on his crowded ramp, his stride slowed. By the time we shut down and got out of the aircraft, he was cordial, full of questions and begging for a ride.

Less than two weeks after we got the YO-60s to Orlando, Miller was killed while flying a Bell P-63 Kingcobra. In an evasive maneuver during a mock dogfight with a P-51, he flew into a thunderhead and spun out the bottom. At the time, I was flying one of the YO-60s, and, hearing a report of the crash, spotted the wreckage. I checked in with the tower, then flew slowly ahead of the ambulance and crash wagon, leading them down back roads and across fields to the scene. It was a terrible loss.

Because of the YO-60’s classified and unconventional nature, we had been ordered not to check anyone else out on the aircraft. Now the tactical test program was mine alone.

I flew at Camp Rucker in Alabama for the Infantry Board, at Camp Bragg in North Carolina for the Artillery Board, then finally with a division training in Florida for overseas duty. There I faced some unusual hazards. I delighted in landing in tight spots near “enemy” lines, but often these tree-lined sites were much too tight to attempt a takeoff. I did a lot of taxiing along roads in the woods and between trees, dodging branches that could hit the delicate rotors, while searching for sufficient open space for a safe takeoff.

We learned a lot from these operations in the field. For one thing, the YO-60 was very sensitive to rotor trim. Metal trim tabs near the ends of each of the three rotor blades sometimes had to be adjusted on the ground and by hand. Bang a rotor tip on a branch, or subject the fabric-covered blades to prolonged moisture, and when you revved the rotor, the YO-60 would oscillate and dance alarmingly on its spidery landing gear. Several times I had to rectify bent trim tabs and rotor imbalance with a pair of pliers—real shade-tree maintenance.

Ultimately, these field tests showed that in some respects the YO-60 could outperform the L-3 Aeronca, L-4 Piper, and L-5 Stinson liaison aircraft, but it was more expensive and complicated to fly and to maintain in the field.

The sight of this bizarre aircraft flying at low altitudes around northeast Florida occasionally prompted unusual requests. One day, Orlando sent down word to fly the YO-60 to the football stadium in Jacksonville, and report back if I thought I could land on and take off from the football field inside the stadium. After a casual flyby, I reported that it looked doable, so I was told to fly out of the stadium as a stunt for a war bond rally.

At twilight on the evening of the rally, with my crew chief in the back seat, I landed in the middle of the field. No problem. In the waning daylight, the prospect of a takeoff from this limited space seemed easy enough. But as darkness descended and the rally droned on, the tiers of stadium seats seemed to increase in height alarmingly.

As things finally began to wrap up, I was asked to tell the crowd about this unusual aircraft. Dry-mouthed, I mumbled a few sentences into the microphone, then climbed into the YO-60 and went through rev-up. As insurance, and out of desperation, I exceeded the rotor rpm redline and popped the quick-release pitch button, only to have the YO-60 stagger a few feet upward in the hot, still air, then fall back almost to the ground. The engine was snarling and the propeller did its best to pull us up and out of that big hole. I counted the entire alphabet of seat rows as we clawed our way upward. After I barely cleared the row of flagpoles and the stadium lights, everything immediately went black. The only instrument-flying aids the YO-60 had were rudimentary gauges, and I had never flown it at night. I resolved never to try a fool thing like that again.

Late in 1943, before the YO-60 test program was complete, I was ordered to the Sikorsky factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to evaluate the YR-4B helicopter. After just a few hours of flying, it was clear that the primitive but functional machine could perform vertical takeoffs and landings with far greater ease and dexterity than a jump giro—an observation I included in the final test report of the YO-60, virtually killing further military procurement of autogiros.

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