features A Canadian Classic

A California museum is giving new wings to an old tandem-rotor helicopter famous for a 1954 Royal Canadian Navy rescue.
Avatar for Skip Robinson By Skip Robinson | September 16, 2021

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 40 seconds.

On Oct. 26, 1954 Royal Canadian Navy Lt. Wallace Elmer James flew his Piasecki H-25 Retriever into the dark early morning on what would become an 8.5-hour mission to rescue an injured lighthouse keeper from an island off Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. 

During the storied 1954 rescue, Royal Canadian Navy Lt. Wallace Elmer James had to remain at the controls with the engine running and rotors turning for the entire 8.5-hour mission. All Photos by Skip Robinson

James, the lighthouse keeper and the RCN H-25, number 621, survived the grueling mission. The tandem-rotor helicopter eventually ended up at the Classic Rotors helicopter museum in Ramona, California, where it has spent the last two decades in storage but soon will be returned to flight status. Classic Rotors rolled the aircraft out to grant Valor an exclusive photo shoot and walkthrough in 2020.

James’ storied 1954 mission — for which he eventually earned the Order of the British Empire Military Division Medal of Bravery — began with a pre-dawn takeoff at 4:30 a.m. and lasted until 1 p.m. in the afternoon. He flew through darkness, low visibility, high winds and snow flurries. The situation was such that James had to remain at the controls with engine running and rotors turning for the entire mission, including ground running time at the lighthouse. 

The first two hours of the mission were carried out in darkness and low light. Much of the remaining flight took place scud running and under instrument meteorological conditions. The injured party was eventually loaded on the aircraft and flown to safety. 

The HUP-1 Retriever was one of the earliest useful helicopters when it entered service with the U.S. Navy in 1949 as a utility and aircraft carrier plane guard duty helicopter. It was a tandem-rotor, single-engine rescue and utility helicopter built by Piasecki Helicopter Corp., predecessor to Vertol Aircraft Corp., itself purchased by Boeing in March 1960.

Frank Piasecki designed the HUP-1 to meet a 1945 Bureau of Aeronautics requirement for a utility helicopter based on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers for search-and-rescue, plane guard and general transportation duties. The proposed aircraft was given the working designation PV-14, and two XHJP-1 prototypes were completed for Navy evaluation. The rugged HUP was reportedly the first helicopter to perform a loop, although unintentionally during a test flight. The HUP-2 was the first production helicopter to be equipped with an autopilot, which enabled hands-off flying — including hovering — making it a much safer helicopter.

The H-25A “Army Mule” transport helicopter was designed for the U.S. Army and similar to HUP-1 but powered by a 550-hp Continental R-975-46A piston engine. It had an empty weight of 4,132 pounds (1,874 kilograms) and a gross weight at 6,000 lb. (2,721 kg). The overlapped tandem design provided a compact fuselage, allowing it to fit in the tight spaces of a naval warship. Its fuselage was an all-metal, semi-monocoque construction with conventional fixed landing gear. The cockpit had side-by-side seating with dual controls and the cabin contained about 160 cubic feet (4.5 cubic meters) of space for passengers or cargo. At least 70 were produced and in 1954 the Royal Canadian Navy received three HUP-3/H-25A for light cargo duties. Operating from HMCS Labrador in northern Canadian waters, they reported on ice conditions and conducted hydrographic and oceanographic surveys. After a decade of service, the RCN HUP-3s were retired in 1964.

Over their 15 years of service life, a total of 339 HUP-1/2/3/4/H-25 helicopters went to the U.S. Army and Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and the French navy. These helicopters were responsible for saving countless lives and helped advance helicopter operations and rescue techniques.  

James’ RCN 621 continued its career serving ashore with helicopter squadron HU-21. It was also deployed aboard HMCS Magnificent and then aboard HMCS Labrador with CANAS Detachment 1. From 1958 to 1964 it flew on the west coast of Canada, out of Patricia Bay with VU-33 Squadron. Once retired from RCN service, 621 was transferred to the aviation trade school at Pacific Vocational Institute for the next 19 years. After many students used it to learn about helicopters and aviation repair, 621 was donated to the Canadian Museum of Flight where it stayed until the year 2000, when it was moved to the Classic Rotors Museum in California.

“We are thrilled to have had this historic and very special helicopter in our museum since 2000,” Mark Deciero, director of the Classic Rotors Museum told Valor. “When we received it, it was in excellent original condition and almost ready to fly again. Over the last two decades we have had it inside and [it] still looks original. Over the years we’ve only done a small amount of paint touch-up to the helicopter and that’s it.”

Built as a model H-25A for the U.S. Army in May 1954 by Piasecki in Norton, Pennsylvania, the aircraft was outfitted specifically for use by the Royal Canadian Navy.

Built as a model H-25A Army Mule for the U.S. Army in May 1954 by Piasecki in Norton, Pennsylvania, 621 was immediately modified with a side door and winch for use by the Royal Canadian Navy and re-designated a HUP-3. The large cargo door in the side of the fuselage could accommodate a stretcher and hoist for rescue work. The copilot’s seat folded forward and an electrically operated hatch door lowered to drop a rescue sling from an overhead hoist for a live rescue without crew assistance; the hydraulic hoist could lift up to 400 lb. (181 kg). A litter could be lifted directly into the cabin. For easier maintenance, the engine, its mount, fan cowling, oil system and accessories could be removed as one unit through an overhead hatch in the rear fuselage.

“Our plans are to restore it to flight condition,” Deciero said. “Not to fly it long distances but to do a hovering family photo with our HRP-1, CH-21, CH-46 and hopefully a CH-47 Chinook if we can find one to participate. This will cover the tandem rotor Piascki/Boeing family.”

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