early helicopter technology
early helicopter development
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Heinrich Focke Fa 61W
Anton Flettner Kolibri
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Igor Sikorsky VS-300
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Bell UH-1 "Huey"
M.A.S.H. medevac helicopters
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M.A.S.H. medevac helicopters

This Bell Model 47 has an external litter for transporting wounded.

During World War II, helicopters were used for numerous light utility duties such as scouting and searching for submarines. They also carried out a large medevac operation in June 1945 when helicopters airlifted at least 70 wounded soldiers from the front lines in Luzon to rear-area hospitals, marking the first time that U.S. helicopters came under concentrated enemy fire. But few helicopters—either German or American—made it into front-line service. That changed by the time the Korean War took place.

Two helicopters—the Bell 47 (designated the H-13 by the military) and the Sikorsky S-51 (designated the H-5 by the military)—were the primary rescue helicopters in the Korean War. The Sikorsky S-51 helicopters were pressed into service early in the war as aerial ambulances. These helicopters could carry two crewmembers and a wounded soldier. There was so little room in the narrow fuselage for the stretcher that the soldier's legs stuck out the side of the helicopter from the knees down.

The history of the Bell 47 began in November 1941 when the somewhat eccentric inventor Arthur Young and his assistant Bartram Kelley persuaded Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to sponsor the development of a helicopter Young designated the Model 30. The craft made its first untethered flight in June 1943. It had a single two-bladed rotor and a small vertical propeller at the tail. In April 1945, the third Model 30 made its flight, demonstrating many of the characteristics that were soon incorporated into the Model 47, which flew on December 8, 1945. In March 1946, it became the first commercially certified helicopter.

The Bell 47/H-13 had a two-seat cockpit enclosed by a distinctive plastic bubble. The two-bladed rotor made a "chop-chop" sound, leading to the nickname "chopper" for helicopters. It became the first successful commercial helicopter beginning in the early 1950s. It is perhaps most famous for its extensive use during the Korean War.

In addition to its role as a medivac helicopter, the Sioux was selected for use by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957.

Soon the H-13, which was serving in a light utility and observation role, was converted to a flying ambulance, ferrying wounded troops from the front lines to Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (M.A.S.H.) that were often far from the front. The H-13, which the U.S. Army named the Sioux, normally could carry a pilot and two passengers in the bubble cockpit. The Army fitted stretchers on both sides of the cockpit—outside of the cockpit—atop the landing skids so a pilot could carry the wounded soldiers to medical help. Small plastic bubbles were fitted at the fronts of the stretchers to protect the men's heads. It was a cold and windy ride for the wounded soldiers, but it meant they would be rushed to a team of trained doctors working in a well-equipped hospital room. The alternative was first aid at the battlefield and a long, bumpy ride to a field hospital. However, the limited carrying capacity of these small helicopters and their slow speed were clear drawbacks for military use.

The Bell 47 was one of the supporting actors of the long-running television show M.A.S.H. The helicopters were seen at the beginning of every show bringing wounded soldiers to the field hospital.

The Bell 47 has proved to be one of the most successful helicopters of all time, staying in production for over three decades. More than 5,000 copies were built for both military and civilian use. In addition to its military use, it has been used for everything from police work to radio traffic reports to crop-dusting to cattle herding. Thousands are still in use today in training and light observation roles. A typical variant, the Model 47G-3B-2A, has been equipped with a single Lycoming TVO-435-F1A piston engine providing 280 horsepower (209 kilowatts). It is 31 feet 7 inches (9.6 meters) long, 9 feet 3 inches (2.8 meters) high, and has a rotor diameter of 37 feet 1 inch (11.3 meters). It weighs 2,893 pounds (1,312 kilograms) empty, has a maximum speed of 105 miles per hour (169 kilometres per hour), and a maximum range of 215 nautical miles (398 kilometres).

Because Korea had a relatively fixed battle front during the second half of the war, M.A.S.H. units could be located near the front and the helicopters did not have to fly far or for long periods of time when transporting their wounded. This was not the case only a few years later in Vietnam, where there were no clear front lines and medevac helicopters often had to fly into battles to retrieve the wounded and carry them great distances to medical help. In the 1950s, the French used Sikorsky H-19 helicopters to transport wounded during the Indochina war. (The U.S. Air Force also used the H-19 as a search and rescue helicopter in Korea.) By the mid-1950s, the U.S. Army began searching for a replacement medevac aircraft for the Bell Model 47 and soon selected the Bell Model 204, HU-1A (later UH-1A) "Huey." In early 1962, the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) went to Vietnam to provide medevac service to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces. The unit's Hueys often had large red crosses painted on their side and nose. The Hueys quickly became the primary medevac helicopter of the war.

The medevac Hueys were known by their radio call sign "Dustoff" for the dirt they kicked up as they took the wounded to safety. Later variants, such as the UH-1H, could carry three stretcher patients and a trained medic inside the cabin. Most served in the Army, although both the Navy and Marines used their Hueys for similar tasks.

The U.S. Army "Dustoff" helicopter, the Bell UH-1 Huey, received its nickname for the dirt that it kicked up as it took off and landed.

Although almost never armed, Dustoff Hueys sometimes dropped off supplies and even ammunition to troops in the field—what one pilot referred to as "preventive medicine." They frequently came under fire and many were shot down—the large red crosses on their sides did not provide them with immunity. Dustoff pilots often earned reputations for immense bravery, risking themselves and their aircraft to remove wounded soldiers during intense fire fights, and resulted in the awarding of several Medals of Honor to pilots and crewmen.

By the 1980s, the U.S. Army began replacing the Huey with the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk in the medevac role. The military's requirement was the ability to carry a greater number of wounded, and the Black Hawk's larger fuselage and higher speed (compared to the Huey) made it highly valuable in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. But the Army also changed tactics—medevac helicopters no longer went into firefights to retrieve the wounded. Instead, wounded soldiers were retrieved either by the helicopters that brought them to the front or by dedicated search and rescue craft. They were then taken to a staging area where the most seriously wounded soldiers were evacuated by medevac helicopters to field hospitals. During the Gulf War, one helicopter working in the search and rescue role and carrying a doctor was shot down. Five members of its crew were killed and three captured.