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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“Larry Bell wanted his helicopters to look like cars,” Rhodes says. “Young was more interested in the smoothness and safety of the helicopter.” In the end, it was Young’s concept of the 47D, with the plexiglass bubble, as opposed to Bell’s preference—a design that looked like a family sedan—that won out. Both versions appeared at the 1947 National Aircraft Show in Cleveland, Ohio. At the show, Bell sold 27 Bubbles and exactly none of the sedans.

Larry Bell died of a stroke at 62 in 1956, and his company was subsequently sold to Textron; Arthur Young left aviation in 1947, published several books on philosophy, and went on to found the Institute for the Study of Consciousness in Berkeley, California. He died there in 1995 at the age of 89.

Although World War II was over by the time the Bubble was certified, the war influenced the 47’s development. The late-1940s bust in the aviation industry left a scarcity of resources to develop new parts, and the war’s end had left airplane makers with big stockpiles of fixed-wing military aircraft parts. (During the war, Bell built the P-39 Airacobra, the P-63 Kingcobra, and the first U.S. jet, the P-59 Airacomet.) According to Scott Churchill, all those leftovers played pivotal roles in the design and manufacture of the 47. “It was developed from World War II surplus parts that came off the shelves or fixed-wing aircraft after the war,” he says. “They were proven parts. The universal joint on the tail boom was the same one used on wing flaps on World War II fighters. The swashplate [a device used to provide pitch control of the main rotor blades] used off-the-shelf bearings; they didn’t design the part for a new bearing. Little things like that kept the cost down. It is sort of like a farm tractor: You can buy a new bearing for it anywhere. That’s how they wanted to build it.”

As the Korean War ramped up in 1950, one thing Larry Bell had a big supply of were 200-horsepower Franklin O335-3 engines for a military version of the 47, designated the H-13. Initially, H-13s were used as scout aircraft, but once in the battlefield, pilots began adapting them to other missions, including medevac. On January 3, 1951, Lieutenants Willie Strawn and Joe Bowler, both in H-13s, flew Army medevac missions with skid-mounted litters improvised by Army Captain Albert Sebourn. But those missions were not the first medevacs of the Korean War. The Marines of VMO-6 beat the Army by less than a week, also flying the Bell H-13 (designated HTL-4).

By the time of the 1953 armistice, according to the National Air and Space Museum’s Roger Connor, almost 40,000 wounded troops had been evacuated by helicopter, more than half in H-13s.

After the war, the services ordered 1,500 model 47 variants as primary and instrument trainers as well as gunships. However, it was the helicopter’s Korean War performance that made it a legend. The dramatization of its work as an aerial ambulance, in both the 1970 movie M*A*S*H and the subsequent television series, made the H-13/47 the world’s most recognized helicopter. Each of the television show’s 251 episodes, which ran from 1972 to 1983, opened with a pair of Bell H-13s carrying wounded soldiers on side-mounted stretchers and landing at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. The Bubble’s effect on two generations was the work of one director: Robert Altman, who directed the film version of M*A*S*H, had years earlier directed episodes of “Whirlybirds.”

Although Model 47 variants would fly in the Vietnam War, by then the Army preferred Bell’s new turbine-powered models, the UH-1 Huey and the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse. In the civilian market, Bell introduced the Model 206 JetRanger in 1967. The debut of the 206 marked the beginning of the end of the 47. After Bell ended 47 production in 1974, the company continued to support the helicopter, but spare parts became increasingly expensive. Operators of the piston-powered relic came to believe that it was a nuisance to the company.

“A lot of people were falling out of love with Bell Helicopter,” says Joey Rhodes.

As the animus between Bell and the 47 community grew, a handful of operators decided to take action. In 2000, led by Jack Kelly and Charlie Hollinger, they formed the Bell 47 Helicopter Association. Rhodes says the group’s immediate goal was to “form a new relationship with Bell Helicopter because the old one was in the gutter.” Bell assigned 47 guru Don Maguire to work with them.

Today the director of customer support for Scott’s Bell 47, Maguire explains Bell Helicopter’s predicament at the time the association was formed. “Nobody is in the business to build parts to put them on the shelf,” he says, and since operators often considered Bell the supplier of last resort, there were times when the company sold one part in a year. “If a part is a high-volume sale item, the manufacturer can stock it, and the cost is minimized.” In addition, Bell’s position at the time, says Maguire, is the same as Scott’s Bell 47’s position today: Helicopters that were once in military service and their parts are ineligible for civilian certification and therefore unsupportable. The Bell 47 Helicopter Association, says Joey Rhodes, takes the same stand.

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