Ode to the Bubble

The Bell 47, famous as the star of “Whirlybirds,” was the DC-3 of helicopters. Could it make a comeback?

The trademark plexiglass sphere enclosing its cockpit gave the Bell 47 its nickname and provides the pilot cruising this beach a glorious view of a Florida sunset. (Frank Steinkohl)
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Summer’s end for me always meant a trip to the Wisconsin State Fair. After the obligatory meandering through the farm animal barns, my brothers and I would line up to commit mayhem in the bumper cars. But in 1967, when I was 10, as my brothers were giving each other whiplash, I schemed for something better. For an hour, I pestered my mother until she surrendered the five bucks I needed for a helicopter ride. Then I sprinted to the Bubble.

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The Bell 47G at the fairgrounds was the exact type flown in the popular 1950s television series “Whirlybirds,” which I had watched in reruns on Saturday mornings: bubble cockpit, open-lattice tail boom, two-blade main rotor beating its signature whup whup whup. I strapped in for 10 minutes of magic and the bragging rights I’d exercise when school resumed. Hundreds of pilots are enjoying those same rights today, having found a way in adulthood to live their childhood dream.

As a kid, Joey Rhodes was a “Whirlybirds” fan. He bought his first Bubble in 1977 and today is the president and one of the founding members of the Bell 47 Helicopter Association. Since the group was founded in 2000, membership has grown from 11 to 700.

Tim Newton grew up on a farm in Stacyville, Iowa, up the road from a cropdusting operation that flew 47s. He’s been flying them for 17 years. Four years ago, he bought one to use for instruction and to give rides at county fairs, for $30 a seat. Dave James operates a fleet of 10 from his base in Wayne, Michigan, and hits the county fair circuit too. Jerry Clemens’ father crop-dusted in a 47. Today Clemens and his family operate Bell47parts.com, one of the largest independent suppliers of parts for the aircraft, out of Parsons, Kansas.

Jim Freeman runs Helicopter Specialties, a repair and refurbishment business for mostly turbine medevac helicopters, in Janesville, Wisconsin, but his personal helicopter is a 1955 Bell 47G2 that was once owned by William Boeing Jr.

The Bell 47 was the world’s first certified civil helicopter, the first to be used by all branches of the U.S. armed forces, to cross the Alps, to carry a U.S. president, and to spray crops—a job it does today. NASA used the 47 as a lunar module training aid for Apollo astronauts. But those distinctions have little to do with the loyalty the Bubble inspires.

“I’ve been flying for 35 years and I have yet to find another aircraft that can take the pounding these can take,” says Scott Churchill.

Churchill’s company, Scott’s Helicopter Services in Le Sueur, Minnesota, operates 20 Bell 47s, the world’s largest fleet. In addition to the crop-dusting operation he manages with his own 47s, Churchill has operated a Bell-authorized service center since 1990, and along the way became the de facto product support hotline for 47 operators worldwide. In 2010, he acquired the aircraft’s type certificate from Bell and formed a new company, Scott’s Bell 47, to support the aircraft. He hopes to place the helicopter back into production one day. For now, he and his supplier partners are developing new components, including more comfortable seats, a redesigned instrument panel, composite main rotor blades with longer lifespans, and canopies tinted to reduce sun glare.

Of 6,632 47s built by Bell and its foreign licensees, almost 700 still fly in the United States and 1,000 fly worldwide. The 47 has remained in service longer than any other helicopter. Why is it still popular?

“Simplicity,” says Roger Connor, curator of rotary flight at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. “The 47’s rotor system was lighter, much easier to maintain, more reliable and rugged than the Sikorsky articulated system.” The Sikorsky helicopters that entered service in the 1940s had three blades that were hinged to move forward and backward (lead and lag) as well as up and down (flapping). “There were six different hinges and a lot of movement,” says Connor. The 47 has a two-blade teetering, or seesaw, rotor system with two up-and-down hinges. “The 47’s mechanical simplicity allowed operating costs at about 50 percent of the [1945] Sikorsky S-51, but with much of the useful load.”

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