Bell’s First Chopper

While many credit Igor Sikorsky for paving the way to the successful helicopter, Sikorsky’s products and progeny are not the only craft capable of making VTOL flight and indeed another had its beginnings this week in 1942. Larry Bell was a forward-thinking man, and his accomplishments in aeronautical design reflected this. He did not however, rest on his laurels. He often welcomed new ideas in aviation. The helicopter was one.

Inventor-designer Arthur Young approached Bell in the fall of 1941 with his proposal for a helicopter design. The craft utilized a two-blade rotor and stabilizer, a system that Young had developed in experimentation with models over the course of several years. The Bell Model 30, as the helicopter was known, had a wooden rotor blade that had a metal leading edge. The blade was 12 inches at the hub and tapered to 9 inches at the tip. Just below and at 90 degrees to the blade was the stabilizing bar, capped with counterweights. This was the signature of Young’s design, and would become a hallmark of Bell helicopters for years to come.

As World War Two raged on, space at the Bell factory was at a premium. Young and his team found a garage previously used by a Chrysler dealer in Gardenville, New York, just outside of Buffalo. No one was buying new cars, and Chrysler was devoted to the war effort, so the accommodations were almost ideal. The garage became a secret facility, but placing guards around the once vacant building did more to draw attention than if it had simply been left alone.

Welded tube was the structure of the Model 30, and initially the craft used four long splayed-out aluminum tubes as landing gear. The helicopter mounted the small Franklin engine behind the pilot’s seat next to the rotor shaft, and a small fuel tank was carried there as well. The first Model 30, NX-41867 was rolled out December 24, 1942 and christened ‘Genevieve.’

December 29, 1942 the Model 30 was powered up, and although a slack tether was attached to the helicopter, it flew for the first time. Designer Arthur Young was at the controls. Later that same day, Bell pilot Floyd Carlson also took flight in the Model 30. In early 1943 Bell’s chief test pilot, Robert Stanley took the controls of the new machine, and ran into problems. During some oscillations, the craft slammed into the ground, and Stanley was pitched into the moving rotors. Badly hurt, Stanley did recover to keep flying – he was also the first to fly the jet Bell XP-59A Airacomet.

Three Model 30s were built, and the work they did was primarily that of proving and refining the technology. By the summer of 1943 testing of the number one ship progressed to the point of the tether being removed and Floyd Carlson making the first free flight on June 26th. The skids were removed, and the Bell team added a three-wheeled undercarriage. Work also progressed on getting the second craft ready to fly.

The second Model 30 used a semi-monocoque fuselage with a fully enclosed cockpit. There were doors for entry into the cabin. This was the helicopter flown inside the Buffalo armoury in May of 1944. The first Model 30 had a mishap and, although pilot Carlson was not injured, the helicopter suffered serious damage and was rebuilt — as the Model 30, serial 1A.

Ultimately, rescue would be the most profound roll played by helicopters and it was one of these Model 30s that Carlson flew to the aid of Bell Pilot Jack Woolams, who had crashed in a Bell P-59A. A very public rescue was made almost two months later in March of 1945 when Carlson saved two fishermen from Lake Erie. For this feat Carlson was awarded the Treasury Department Silver Medal. Of the three Model 30s built, the first had an open cockpit, the second had an enclosed cockpit, and the third ended with an enclosed Plexiglas bubble about the cockpit, a configuration that became a near-standard for light helicopters. The first currently resides at the American Helicopter Museum at Brandywine Airport in West Chester, Pennsylvania; the second is in Buffalo, New York at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Bell Model 30 helicopter: Length: 27 feet; Rotor diameter: 32 feet; Empty Weight: 1,150; Height: 8 feet, 6 inches; Powerplant: Franklin 6ACV 6 cylinder opposed of 150 hp; Max Speed: just over 100 mph.