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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Churchill says the 47’s simplicity actually perplexes today’s generation of helicopter mechanics, who have been trained on complex turbine engine models. “Mechanics who were trained to work on [Sikorsky] Army Blackhawks can’t believe how simple 47s are to work on. If you see a crack on the airframe, you just weld it. The engines [piston Franklins and Lycomings] are out in the open and easy to fix.”

Most of the Bell operators use the 47 as they would a tractor or other piece of farm machinery. “A lot of other manufacturers are faster or prettier,” says Dave James, “but when it comes to being out in the field doing a job, nothing beats a 47.”

Empty, the 47G-2, one of the most popular variants, weighs about 1,400 pounds. It can carry about 1,100 pounds in passengers, cargo, and fuel for 255 miles at a pokey 80 mph (about 70 knots). Top speed is just north of 95. Jerry Clemens of Bell47parts.com says the helicopter’s robustness makes it an ideal trainer. “If you make a hard landing in a 47, you bend the cross tube section and it costs you $800, not $20,000.”

Its near invincibility also won Bell a famous customer. Roger Connor notes that in 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower’s pilot chose the Bell 47J (H-13J, in military service) for the first Presidential helicopter over much more capable models. During its first decade of service, the Bubble had built a reputation for safety and reliability. “That turned out to be a bad decision,” he adds. “Eisenhower dumped the 47J pretty fast. He could bring along only a Secret Service agent, and his aides, who were traveling in Sikorskys, got there faster than he did. And of course the bubble cooked him alive.” The faster, roomier Sikorsky H-34 took over the job of presidential transport.

Scott Churchill admits that the cockpit can get pretty warm. “In the summer it is like sitting in a sauna,” he says. “And then you put the helmet on and it’s like you put a microwave over your head and plugged it in.” The small engine can’t spare excess power for air-conditioning, so most pilots fly with the doors off in summer.

The bubble makes the cockpit warm, but it also gives pilot and passenger a panoramic view of the landscape, as I found when I hopped a ride with Churchill at his Minnesota base. After we lifted off and circled the field, Churchill chopped the power and put us into a practice autorotation, an emergency landing maneuver that my stomach thought was an uncontrolled plunge down an elevator shaft. The ground started coming up real fast, and in the Bubble, you can see all of it. Churchill aimed for an open spot and flared to a gentle touchdown. “Bell designed [the 47] with a nice rotor system that is very forgiving,” he said, reassuringly. “Let’s try another one.”

I reminded myself what Churchill told me about his pilots, who fly up to 12 hours a shift: They make as many as 60 takeoffs and landings a day.

Despite the heat in the cockpit and its stately pace, the Bubble has become a classic, and, as often happens in aviation, its fans treasure it for sentimental as well as practical reasons. Says Scott’s Helicopter Services chief pilot Mike Balch: “People look at this helicopter the same way [fixed-wing pilots] look at a Stearman or a J-3 Cub.”

The designer of the Bell 47 was not an aeronautical engineer but a mathematician and philosopher who believed the act of inventing would help him understand the workings of the universe. Arthur Young graduated from Princeton University with a degree in mathematics and set about tackling the problem of providing stability in vertical flight. After some experimentation, he conceived a system in the late 1930s that linked a two-blade main rotor to a stabilizer bar, mounted on a mast beneath the rotor blades. The weighted, spinning bar acted as a gyroscope to help the rotor resist change in its plane of rotation, thus dampening the effects of wind gusts and other perturbations. Young patented the design in 1937 and later assigned the patent to the Bell Aircraft Company when he joined the company to build technology demonstrators and a series of Model 30 prototypes. Devotees claim the helicopter should really be called the “Young 47.”

The first was built in an abandoned Chrysler dealership in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, in late 1942. Two years later, a Bell Model 30 made its public debut before a crowd of 42,000 at a soldiers’ benefit show inside Buffalo’s sports stadium. (This model is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virgnia.) In 1946, its descendant Model 47 earned certification from the Civil Aeronautics Administration, a forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration. Looking back, Joey Rhodes thinks it remarkable that the helicopter was built at all as Young and Bell Aircraft president Larry Bell disagreed on a key point.

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