July 2016

2016 July photoU.S. Air Force/Bell H-13J Ranger
Bell Model 47 (H-13) first flight: December 8, 1945
Two H-13J VIP variants are delivered to the Air Force for presidential use: March 29, 1957
Manufacturer: Bell Helicopter Corporation
Helicopter: Modified Bell H-13J, Serial Number 57-2729
Current Location; Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia 

On May 31, 1957, Air Force Major Joseph E. Barrett landed a helicopter for the first time on the South Lawn of the White House. Then on July 12, at 2:08 p.m., Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first President to use a helicopter while in office. Major Barrett, flying from the center front seat, lifted off in H-13J serial number 57-2729 with Eisenhower sitting in the right rear seat and James Rowley, chief of the White House Secret Service detail sitting to the left rear. A second H-13J, 57-2828, flew in trail with Eisenhower’s personal physician and a second Secret Service agent. The occasion was a simulated nuclear alert staged to test how quickly the Chief Executive could depart Washington, DC, and reach a safe haven (Camp David) outside of the city.

Bell Helicopter Corporation modified a stock Bell H-13J helicopter to meet the President's special needs. Technicians added all-metal rotor blades, upgraded upholstery with special arm and foot rests to the right seat, and a frame-less, Plexiglas nose bubble heavily tinted a dark-blue to reduce glare and heat. Other improvements over standard models were military radios and a rotor-brake to reduce the shutdown time.

The Secret Service insisted on safety as the deciding factor in the selection process and much more capable models were bypassed in favor of Bell’s Ranger (military designation H-13J). It could accommodate only two passengers with any real degree of comfort with an effective range of 150 mi (240 km) and a top speed of approximately 100 mph (160 kph). It was also a single pilot aircraft, unlike the larger military models and essentially a civilian off-the-shelf model that was an evolution of the bubble-topped Model 47s of Korean War fame. Bell marketed the Ranger principally for VIP travel.

The Ranger did have some significant advantages. This all-metal helicopter with a single main rotor and single tail rotor, powered by a reciprocating engine and equipped with skid landing gear had a base purchase price of $40,000 and low operating costs which made it one of the most economical helicopters in its class, but most importantly, it had an outstanding safety record and was the most reliable design available. As part of the Model 47 series (the first civil certificated helicopter in the world), it had a decade of operational use behind its design.

Source: Condensed from “Ike and the First Presidential Helicopters,” by Roger Connor, a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

(Associated Press photo; Main photo: National Museum of the USAF; text by Paul Fardink)

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