Rachel flies a true classic helicopter, the Bell 47
26 June 2023
Here at FLYER we’re looking forward to heading across the pond to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh at the end of July. It’ll be my first time there, and the team has already forewarned me that there won’t be too much in the way of helicopter action. One rotary icon the show is noted for, however, is the Bell 47 – a machine in which I was lucky enough to log some flight time here in the UK before the pandemic.
Famous for its appearances in the 1970s sitcom M*A*S*H, the Bell 47 is instantly recognisable thanks to its bubble-shaped canopy, steel tube tail boom, twin fuel tanks and wide skids – the latter designed to accommodate stretchers when used in a military medevac role.
A fact I really love: the Bell 47 was also used by NASA to train astronauts on another iconic machine with distinctive skids: the Apollo Lunar Module.
As early as 1946, the Bell 47 became the first helicopter ever certified for civilian use, and while designed and developed in the US, it was also made under licence in the UK by Westland and in Italy by Agusta. Another fun fact: the distinctive ‘chop-chop’ noise made by the Bell 47’s rotors are what gave rise to the word ‘chopper’ now often used about any helicopter.
There were 5,600 of these helicopters made, though these days there aren’t many of them about. But there is one at Heli Air at Wellesbourne Airfield, G-CHOP, built by Westland in 1966.
It’s this one that I had the privilege of flying with my original helicopter instructor, Matt. In our pre-flight briefing he showed me an original Bell 47 flight manual – not from this specific machine, but still a fascinating thing to see.
Out in the hangar, I discovered that the Check A is easy to conduct when everything’s so exposed, but one thing you do need to be careful of is the grease. It’s absolutely covered in it – something I would later learn, courtesy of the Scout and Wasp, is generally a thing with vintage helicopters.
Having previously only flown Robinsons, the fuel tank set-up on the Bell 47 came as a bit of a surprise. Instead of fuel gauges, you rely on a visual inspection of the tanks’ contents, noting which hole the fuel comes up to on a metal plate inside. I loved the quaintly worded label on the outside entreating you to “replenish both tanks”.
Getting the Bell 47 out of the hangar was something more of a challenge and required considerable man-and-woman power: two of us pushing strenuously on the skids and another on the tail rotor guard. This labour complete, it was time to climb aboard.
The seating arrangements are worthy of note, firstly because, unlike in most helicopters, the pilot sits on the left, and secondly because it actually seats three abreast. I’d venture to say that it wouldn’t be a very comfortable ride for the person in the middle should there be an instructor in the right-hand seat, however, as the collective would need to be raised between their legs!
I don’t remember too much about the engine start, so I can only assume it was uneventful, but I do recall the feeling of trepidation I had when Matt got me flying the Bell 47 right from the word go. This was my first time flying a helicopter with manual throttle control, and it seemed to be putting a lot of confidence in me to entrust me to do the take-off right next to the hangar!
For non-heli pilots, I should explain the whole ‘manual throttle control’ thing. These days, helicopters automatically open and close the throttle when you raise and lower the collective. This lightens your load, as it means you only really have three controls to operate, although in most helicopters you can also adjust the throttle manually if certain circumstances require you to.
With older helicopters like the Bell 47, though, you have to manually open and close the throttle on the end of the collective to apply or reduce power, meaning you’re juggling no fewer than four controls. Not easy – especially when you have the added problem that your arms aren’t quite long enough to reach the cyclic without fully stretching them out (must bring a cushion next time!).
After a perfectly passable first take-off, we climbed out of the circuit and had a go at some general handling. Though slow, it was nicely stable, and it was an enjoyable ‘back to basics’ experience. I found myself flying more instinctively in response to the engine sound rather than referring much to the instruments, although, being used for training, this one does have a few comparatively modern ones retrofitted.
Another novel experience for me was leaning round and being able to see right down the steel tube tail boom, with a great view of both main and tail rotors in action. Not a sight you’re used to seeing as a Robinson pilot!
And that wasn’t the only thing I wasn’t used to seeing. Around the front of the cockpit was a yellow band, and I struggled to work out what it was for. It was only when I had a go at an autorotation that I realised: it’s a visual guide showing you where to look for landing spots in the event of an engine failure.
You’re in glide range of the fields below the yellow line, while those above it are too far away. Handy! It was a lovely stable autorotation – Matt pointed out that you can take your hands off the controls and nothing happens – but the glide ratio isn’t great.
After a few take-offs and landings into wind and crosswind back at the airfield, it was time to shut down. At this point I discovered that the Bell 47 is missing another ‘modern’ innovation – a rotor brake – so it was a patient wait for the blades to stop turning of their own accord before we could escape the hot Bell 47 bubble.
I wasn’t tempted to get the type rating, but it was certainly a fantastic introduction to the world of historic helicopter flying. Here’s hoping I can blag another flight in one at Oshkosh…