USAF Helicopter Pilot Association

Helicopters in the U.S. Military

Historically, man based his early efforts to fly primarily on rotary-wing aircraft. However, he used a fixed-wing aircraft for his first successful flight, that of Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk. Although aviation made marked advancements in fixed-wing aircraft in the decades following the Wright brothers first flight, another 35 years passed before the demonstration of a practical, successful flight with a helicopter.

The U.S. Army first became interested in rotary-wing aircraft in 1918 when the Air Service investigated the Peter Cooper Hewitt helicopter design. Although the Army never contracted for a flying model, Hewitt demonstrated his long-term interest in aeronautics by constructing a helicopter. While this craft demonstrated vertical lift-off, the helicopter proved to be unstable and difficult to control. Several other inventors had the same problems in obtaining a controllable aircraft and the Army never ordered any designs.

It took another 13 years before the Kellett Autogyro Corporation produced the first Air Corps helicopter, the YG-1 (which was an autogyro). The Air Corps conducted service trails of the YG-1 but never ordered any production models.

In 1937 the Focke-Achaelis helicopter remained in flight for more than one hour, successfully demonstrating practical flight capabilities. Spurred by this German success, the Congress passed the Dorsey Bill in 1938, which appropriated $2 million dollars for rotary-wing aircraft development. The Platt-Lepage Aircraft Company produced an experimental counter-rotating, twin-rotor helicopter that the Air Corps designated the XR-1. While the XR-1 flew successfully in July 1940, the Army only bought one experimental model.

In 1941 the Air Corps awarded Igor Sikorsky a contract for one experimental single-rotor helicopter. This helicopter, the XR-4, emerged from the status of experimental development to that of a full-fledged flying craft. On May 1942, the XR-4 completed a flight from Stratford, Connecticut, to Dayton, Ohio, a distance of 761 miles. The R-4 became the first full-production helicopter for the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). It had a 180-hp engine with the top speed of 75 mph and a range of 130 miles. In 1943 it underwent rigorous trails under arctic conditions in Alaska and hot, humid weather in Burma. Ultimately the USAAF took delivery of a total of 132 R-4 helicopters.

Sikorsky R-4 Hoverfly

The Training Progress During World War II

When the Army Air Forces accepted the R-4 as a military aircraft, there were only two rated AAF helicopter pilots in the entire country, Col. H. Frank Gregory and his assistant, Maj. L.B. Cooper, both from the Material Command at Wright Field. Thus, in mid 1943 the Army Air Forces Training Command first became involved in developing a helicopter pilot training program.

In July 1943, the AAF announced that the training of helicopter pilots would begin in early 1944, if sufficient helicopters could be produced. The AAF first planned to conduct this training near the Sikorsky factory at Bridgeport, Connecticut: however, the final site selection was that of Freeman Field, Seymour, Indiana. (see History of the Helicopter School).

The first helicopter combat rescue by the USAAF was accomplished by Lt. Carter Harmon flying a Sikorsky YR-4 in Burma in 1944.


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