The First Mission

by Barrett Thomas Beard

helicopter first rescue

Destiny was on Commander Frank Erickson 's side in December 1943 as he started the world's first helicopter school at Floyd Bennett Field, New York. The work of getting a flying machine, people trained, and most importantly for him, spreading an awareness of the peculiar capabilities of the helicopter throughout areas of leadership, all combined with a series of fates that pushed Erickson into the first mission.

A catastrophic event occurred on 3 January 1944 that inaugurated the helicopter in the humanitarian role. The Navy destroyer, USS TURNER, anchored off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, suffered an explosion shortly after six in the storm darkened pre-dawn hours. The blast, felt fifteen miles away was followed by a second explosion forty-seven minutes later sinking the ship. Many survivors were brought to the hospital at Sandy Hook. Large quantities of plasma were urgently needed. A blizzard blocked all aircraft flights and hampered ground delivery.

A nor eastly storm sweeping the Atlantic coast with snow and sleet driven by 20 to 25 knot winds impeded rescue operations. All airfields in the region were closed. U.S Coast Guard Admiral Parker, from his Third Naval District headquarters in New York, remembering what he had earlier described as the remarkable performance telephoned Erickson asking if it would be practicable for a helicopter to pick up blood plasma at the New York City's waterfront Battery and fly it to Sandy Hook in the current weather. Erickson did not restrain his enthusiasm when he responded with a booming, Yes Sir! Neither he nor the helicopter had experience together in stormy conditions. However, this was his chance to prove his dream to the world.

Erickson flying the Navy new HNS (a Sikorsky R-4) , Buno 46445, with Ens. Walter Bolton as co-pilot struggled with the controls fighting the gusting winds tearing through the corridors of downtown Manhattan. The dark blue colored craft was but a shadow in the swirling snow. Visibility was so low, Erickson observed, "We practically had to 'feel' our way around the ships anchored in Gravesend Bay. He battled the roiling snow-turbid winds in a steep approach over pilings along the shoreline to a landing in Battery Park.

Bolton, just qualified as a helicopter pilot three days before, reluctantly left the aircraft to allow for the weight of two cases of plasma strapped to the landing floats. Erickson noted the "only way to get out was to back out. His forward passage was blocked; he could not take-off normally, forward into the wind.

Sitting in the helicopter's pilot seat parked next to the Barge Office on New York's waterfront, Erickson, with his left hand, rolled the hand-grip throttle. Gradually he raised the collective lever coordinating the twisting motions of his left hand and rising arm, watching closely that engine RPMs did not drop below 2150 or surge past 2250. The Warner R-550-3 Super Scarab engine provided him 200 horse power maximum. Erickson's hands, arms, and feet moved in an uncoordinated cacophony of motion. Anticipating needed rotor blade pitch for balance, he moved the cyclic stick with his right hand. Simultaneously, with deftness, but gently, he alternated foot pressure gradually applying left rudder pressure to counteract the torque, keeping the nose pointing straight ahead into the park. This strange seated dance of the helicopter pilot was a reaction to the irregular rhythm beat of the sudden and variable wind gusts pummeling the frail fabric and steel-tube structure. Steadily, he kept the shaking helicopter in place and level as it struggled to rise into battering winds.

Igor 's nightmare, bouncing on its sausage like floats, suddenly leaping, rose vertically. Slowly, still climbing, it backed over the pilings before finally spinning around to the right and heading downwind. Paradoxically, this maligned craft started it first mission flying backwards. It was an appropriate entry into history for the helicopter.

According to Erickson the "weather conditions were such that this flight could not have been made in any other type of aircraft. But for a helicopter, it was simple. So Erickson, with confidence in the helicopter, announced to the public that the flight was routine for the helicopter. The casualness of his comments did not escape the press. The New York Times, in an editorial dated January 6, 1944, echoed :

It was indeed routine for the strange rotary-winged machine which Igor Sikorsky has brought to practical flight, but it shows in striking fashion how the helicopter can make use of tiny landing areas in conditions of visibility which make other types of flying impossible.

The editorial went on to accurately predict, the role of the helicopter for the next five decades. Nothing can dim the future of a machine which can take in its stride weather conditions such as those which prevailed in New York on Monday. With only six months of experience in this novel rotor craft, Erickson, fighting the weather and concentrating on the mission, probably could not note the irony of this fourteen minute flight. The first operational mission for this maligned flying machine was a rescue sortie his dream. Erickson rushed life-saving aid to the crew of the US Navy. This was the very organization that had found little use for the helicopter and who he had fought so hard to convince of the usefulness of the radical new flying machine.

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