Bell Helicopter Demonstration Pilot

By: Bruce Frazer, March 3,2009

     Shortly after I was discharged from the Army, I heard about a possible job with Bell Helicopter in Hurst, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth. I was still flying fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters with the Connecticut National Guard but doubted the job would be in a flying capacity. I’d had excellent helicopter training by the Air Force and Army, but I was a fairly low-time pilot, with about 400 hours in helicopters and 1,500 hours in all. I was nevertheless intrigued with the idea of working for such a prominent aircraft manufacturer, but I was thinking sales.

     The job for which I interviewed turned out to be in contracts administration which, at least in theory, is tantamount to military sales. Following what seemed like a somewhat cursory interview with my prospective boss, he asked me if I’d like a ride with Dick Buyers, Bell’s senior production test pilot. This was totally unexpected, but I remember my answer was “You bet.”

     Dick ushered me to the flight line and pointed out some experimental and prototype models and then to a “school ship.” He said: “You’ll be doing the flying, hop in the left (pilot’s) seat and fire her up.” Dick had me head toward some Texas flat lands and told me to “do anything you want.” Despite his relaxed demeanor, I realized this was more than “a ride.” I was being evaluated. The only maneuver he asked me to perform was an autorotation, which I proceeded to do as the Army had trained me: I slowed to 45 m.p.h., leveled the skids, and maintained this attitude until we touched down. Dick said “Uh–huh. I thought so. Let me show you how we do it,”and he demonstrated a beautiful full flare autorotation that slowed our forward motion to a crawl when we touched down.

     It seemed Dick felt my flying performance was at least adequate, and this was the opinion he relayed to management. I guess the consensus was that I was teachable and therefore might be qualified to fly for the company. Still, there was no guarantee this would happen if the company offered me a job.

     As soon as I started working for Bell, I realized contracts administration required gathering technical information from the engineering department and writing sales-like “Engineering Change Proposals (ECPs).” The items the company hoped to sell to the armed services ranged from one small component for helicopters already in service to entirely new aircraft. The ECPs were routed through labyrinthian military channels. The need for the items and corresponding prices to which they referred were always overstated. Thank goodness there were government agencies and personnel that understood this proclivity, and, during the negotiations that always followed, the government would understate the values it perceived as fair and necessary. In the end this charade almost always benefitted all the interested parties.

     I liked and respected my boss, but he shall remain nameless here because he had a, well, strange behavior impediment. While it never interfered with his work, you couldn’t help thinking about it: he was a kleptomaniac! This quirk was well known, and, after he was invited to a party, his wife would almost always return the next day with something he had taken home. The loot ranged from ashtrays to silverware to anything he could hide.

     Anyway, I knew within a few days a steady diet of contracts administration was simply not for me. I didn’t make any secret of my disdain, and within a very short time, my responsibilities changed much to my liking.

     In 1946, the Army purchased its first helicopters: 13 YR-13s. The next year the Army contracted with the company to train the first Army helicopter pilots at a subsidiary factory just a few miles away. The contract only lasted a couple of years, but the company has kept the school active to the present time. The enrollment was down to ten or so per year, and these are typically commercial helicopter purchasers. I was invited to take the training as the only student at the time, and my instructor, Jim Carmichael, was a veteran test pilot.

     I guess Jim was asked to teach me as much as he could, which was a lot. This was my fifth flight school but I may well have been one of its most highly motivated students. This tutorial approach allowed me to fill in some of my flight knowledge gaps and quite a bit about mechanical aspects. Jim and I hit it off very well.

     After the school, I was technically retained in Contracts Administration, but was seldom involved with the ECPs I dreaded so.

     Hans Weichsel, Jr., a senior vice president, was two levels above my boss and he dispatched me on an interesting flight. A four-place Model 47–J was being used in a TV series entitled “Whirly Birds,” with filming near Burbank, California. Another Bell pilot, Fred Roscoe, had crashed and burned while flying a second 47-J to Burbank a month before. The tail rotor is critically important on a single pylon helicopter, and the accident investigation showed it failed. In a case like this, the aircraft will spin through 360 degrees in two or three seconds unless the pilot “bottoms the pitch” (immediately powers down). Bell engineers knew what had happened, but not why, and I was to fly the same model helicopter over the same route.

     The 47–J had rather limited fuel endurance of 1 hour and 50 minutes or about 170 miles, so I had to fly a zigzag route from airport to airport to refuel.

     It was awkward to read a map in helicopters of this era, because you couldn’t let go of the controls. The solution was to mark your map with crayon and spread it on the floor. At one point I saw a short cut along a railroad track leading to Gila Bend, Arizona. I couldn’t see signs of life, but the tracks were shiny, and this indicated they were used – surely civilization couldn’t be far ahead. Light turbulence developed and I realized I might be encountering a bit of a headwind. The railroad tracks that had first appeared shiny started to look a bit rusty. Then they ended and only the cross ties remained. They too disappeared and there was only the road bed. I was running low on gas and called Gila Bend radio to tell them I was inbound about 20 miles east along a deserted railroad track. I never cared much for gila monsters, and the thought occurred to me there were plenty of them right below me. I landed with embarrassingly low gas tanks and was taken to lunch by two missionaries who came out to the airport when they heard some kind of airplane was having a problem. Lunch consisted of the best barbecue I’d ever tasted.

    Several weeks later Bell engineers figured out what why Fred Rosco’s tail rotor failed. He was flying the same helicopter outfitted with pontoons. Our test pilot practiced some touchdown autorotations, and the tail rotor, turning at 3,200 r.p.m.’s, struck the water. The pilot wasn’t aware of it, but it stressed the trailing edge of the tail rotor blade, and the engineers were able to replicate a weakness in this area by monitoring destructive testing. Tail assembly blades on all new Bells were strengthened and older models retrofitted.

     I flew back and forth between Bell in Texas and Burbank several times, and each of these 1,300 mile trips was a hoot. On one eastbound trip I didn’t get to Burbank until late in the afternoon. This was before California imposed strict emission standards. The visibility was about half a mile, and the weather the next day was forecast to be worse. I wanted to get through the San Gorgonio Pass east of Los Angeles with the daylight that remained, so I carefully threaded my way through and beyond Beverly Hills to Palm Springs and finally landed on a motel lawn in Indio about 6:00 p.m. I did this kind of thing fairly often on these trips, and nobody seemed to care.

     After tying down the helicopter, I checked in and showered. When I returned to the registration desk, the clerk said: “oh, Mr. Frazer, we have a message for you. One of our guests wants to buy a helicopter and he wants you to call him.” I reluctantly called this person, who introduced himself as Leopold Schlucker of the Dunlap Paper Bag Company. He was very excited and said “I want to buy a helicopter and you land at my hotel; I can’t wait to meet you.” I demurred, or tried to, but he wouldn’t have any of it. So I agreed to meet him at the helicopter to let him inspect the aircraft and answer his questions. This took fully 30 minutes, and it was obvious Mr. Schlucker was mightily impressed. At the end of the tour his big question was “So how much does it cost?” I told him the basic price would be about $100,000, and he said “You stinker!” He had a private pilot’s license and had in mind calling on his date-packing accounts up and down the valley.

     Mr. Schlucker turned out to be a very decent sort, and he had his friend, Clarence Ott, join us for dinner. The Indio Valley is the date growing capital of America, and Clarence managed one of the plants. I’d always wondered how they pit dates and mentioned this. So, after dinner, we visited Clarence’s plant. He gave me all the dates we could fit in the helicopter, and I handed out box upon box when I returned to the plant.

     Between flights, I greeted plant visitors. At this point, the Army trained all new helicopter pilots at Mineral Wells, Texas, about 25 miles west of the plant. They graduated classes of 40 or so every two months, and each class visited the plant. We met in the cafeteria, and I told them about Bell’s history and current activities. Then I broke the class into small groups of four or five and had several test pilots or engineers take them on a tour.

     One time, E.J. Ducayet, the company president, introduced me to a couple of investment brokers who were interested in “developing Amon Carter Field,” the precursor to the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) airport. I flew them around the periphery of the field and answered several of their questions. I’ve always wondered if or how these gentlemen were involved with eventual development of DFW.

     Prior to joining Bell, I was with the Aviation Sales Department of Sinclair Refining Company. I was never very knowledgeable about oil or gas but had many Sinclair friends who were. So they helped me write two articles about safe handling of kerosene–derived JP-4 jet fuel for Rotor Breeze, Bell’s house organ. These were reprinted by Army Aviation Digest, and the contents were extracted for Army manuals.

     Brigadier General (BG) Paul Tibbits, who flew the Enola Gay B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, commanded the 509th Composite Group. It was composed of pilots and other personnel who flew practice missions and handled logistics. BG Tibbits encountered a problem early on: former B-17 pilots were leery about flying the B-29. His solution was to teach two Woman’s Air Service Pilots (WASPs) to fly B-29s. Dora Dougherty and Didi Moorman were the candidates. Once they had been checked out, they flew to Alamagordo, New Mexico, where they made several flights carrying potential male crews to demonstrate that the B-29 was not a formidable beast.

     After World War II, Dora Dougherty was awarded a Ph.D. and joined Bell Helicopter in the Army–Navy Instrument Program, where early Heads Up Displays (HUDs) were developed. Dora selected me as a test subject, and I spent considerable time in helicopter instrument simulators.

     Much to my delight, I was given seemingly never-ending flight assignments, some of them kind of weird. One such was to join a H23-D Hiller helicopter for a golf tournament at the Norwood Country Club outside St. Louis, several hundred miles from Bell. The commanding general of the Transportation and Material Command was in charge of a “Scotch Foresome” at his club. His organization was responsible for purchasing Army helicopters, so we granted his every wish. The folks who run these frivolous affairs are expected to come up with novel ideas so fun will be had by all. The General had a Hiller H-23D fly in from the west coast, and we showed up in a Bell 47– J. Each of us picked up two contestants at a time, both with number stamped balls. Then we flew over the eighteenth green so they could drop their numbered balls into baskets. This tom–foolery was fun in a way, but it sure cost Bell and Hiller a bundle.

     All military airframe manufacturers are allowed to use “bailment” aircraft for testing. We had a backlog of ECPs that were not selling singly, so we fitted out a bailed H-13H with every conceivable kind of component our brave contract administrators (the others, not me!) could think of. Admittedly some of them, like state-of-the-art instruments, were truly potentially good additions. But, in the main, it looked like a flying garage sale. I flew this “test bed” several hundred miles to Wright– Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and then to Fort Rucker in Alabama and demonstrated the gadgets at each location.

     A wealthy Fort Worth resident, Bowen Blankenship, also had a home in Midland, and he persuaded Bell to have me demonstrate a 47-J in the opening of the new Midland Municipal Airport. I took my wife with me on this trip, and we were feted to a lavish dinner at the very renowned and exclusive Midland Petroleum Club. The women were dressed in good looking finery and bedecked with jewelry. My wife wore a shift she had made for about $3.00, but she looked good in it, and the other women kept complimenting her on it.

     We spent the night at the Blankenship compound, with a cast of socialites who kept talking about the special railroad car they were renting to take them to Las Vegas.

     Bowen and I drove to the airport in the morning and left the ladies that era’s equivalent of a jumbo SUV. As we approached the airport, some 20 miles distant, Bowen remembered he’d forgotten to leave keys for the other car. He asked me if we could fly over his compound a drop them with his wife. I agreed and we did so. As we approached, all the ladies ran out to the front yard in their peignoirs. Well, the downwash from the main rotor lifted up every peignoir in the crowd. It was a sight I’ll never forget.

     Texas Instruments had a contract to develop seismic-like devices to detect any unauthorized person trying to access Minute Man missile sites. They wanted to know if a helicopter would trigger one of these devices on the periphery of the site. So I flew over a test site varying my altitude in 20-foot increments. There were a lot of assignments like this, and I enjoyed the change of pace and challenges.

     In the middle of one afternoon, Hans asked me if I had ever operated a helicopter hoist. When I said no, he said “don’t worry, I’ll have a rubber mannequin taken out to the ramp and you can teach yourself how to do it.” He went on to explain there was going to be a large meeting of Army brass the next day just south of Dallas, and that he wanted me to fly a demo and hoist up one of our technical representatives in front of the group. I’d heard a bit about this group and realized it was important to the company’s fortunes. There was no room for error on my part.

     Fortunately, the other employees, including the pilot staff, had left for the day by the time I started trying to lift the rubber man.

     A single rotor helicopter has a vertical drive shaft that turns the main rotors, and the fuselage hangs from the tip path plane like a pendulum. To maintain level flight you have to keep an equilibrium between the two. If you lift a weight with a helicopter hoist, you have to balance a second pendulum, and it takes a lot of practice. I found it so difficult that evening that I came close to calling Hans to say “No way.” I finally talked myself into giving it a go, but I had trouble sleeping as I thought about how embarrassing it would be if I screwed up in front of this important group.

     Joe Bebee, one of the senior-most techs, met me the next morning, and we headed for Dallas. He’d previously been a hoistee and was aware I’d never been a hoister, and he was understandably a bit nervous. If I’d had an engine failure and not flared to the side, I would probably have crushed him to death. Anyway, I went north about a mile and headed for Joe, who was standing right in front of the group. I maintained a level attitude of about 30 feet and let down the hoist cable as I slowed from a 90 m.p.h. cruise to a hover right over Joe. So far, so good. Then Joe fastened himself to the cable and I hoisted him up above the left skid. In all honesty, I was flying way over my head, but I discovered it is much easier to hoist a live human than a dead weight.

    – end –

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