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Vertical Rewind: An original mystery

By Bob Petite

Published on: November 15, 2019
Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 3 seconds.

Some believe a Bell Model 47 in a private collection in Cohocton, New York, could be the first registered commercial helicopter. We look at the mystery surrounding NC-1H.

During the 1970s, an early pre-production Bell Model 47 helicopter showed up at Larry Camphaug’s Viking Helicopters facilities near Ottawa, Ontario. Those who discovered it believed it to be the legendary Model 47 “NC-1H” — which represented the first registration number for the world’s first commercial helicopter. There are still those today who believe that it is. The true fate of this momentous aircraft, however, remains something of a mystery — one that has its roots at the type’s launch almost 30 years earlier.

A non-flying mock-up of a Bell 47 at the Bell mechanic’s training school. The device was used as a training aid. Bell Aircraft/Steve Yuhasz Collection Photo

In late 1945, the Bell Aircraft Corporation in Niagara Falls, New York, had become the first company to manufacture and produce a commercial helicopter for the new rotary-wing industry that was expected to revolutionize transport.

The very first Model 47 (ship 1) left the production line in December 1945. The aircraft’s designer, Arthur M. Young, became the first person to fly it on Dec. 27, followed by Bell pilot Floyd Carlson the following day. Carlson oversaw the testing of ship 1 throughout the flight testing and certification program.

Company president Larry Bell authorized the manufacture of another 10 pre-production Model 47s to be built by mid-June 1946. The aircraft were to be used for research and development, marketing applications, pilot training, and demonstration flights.

“No two of the first 10 Bell 47s were anything like each other,” recalled Bell engineer Bart Kelley, in a Bell public affairs booklet.

Bell originally planned to manufacture 500 Model 47s for commercial use once the type certificate was received from the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA). Ship 1 became NC-1H when it was licensed by the CAA on March 8, 1946. A month later, the CAA approved the Bell 47’s type certificate (H-1).

As with many new aircraft, there were accidents as the new type built air time. On April 3, 1946, NC-1H was involved in a training flight accident following a mechanical failure in the main rotor hub. Bell instructor Ed Hensley and student Gerald “Jay” Demming were injured in the crash, and the aircraft was scrapped, with damaged parts returned to the engineering department for structural analysis and metal fatigue testing. (The original data plate for ship 1 was saved and is on display at the Bell plant in Hurst, Texas.)

The Viking Helicopters Bell Model 47 in a field just west of Ottawa, Ontario, in the late 1970s. Neil Aird Photo

Carlson suggested to Larry Bell that another of the Bell 47s be re-designated as NC-1H, so the company could continue with its marketing program, which was based around having the first commercially certified helicopter. Bell approved the idea, and ship 11 was selected as the new NC-1H. The CAA approved the switch on June 14, 1946. Over the following years, this helicopter was used experimentally, in demonstrations, and for pilot training.

Building a training program

Not long after NC-1H was certified, Bell had started a pilot flight training and mechanics school at the Wheatfield Plant in Niagara Falls. Steven Yuhasz, a mechanic and flight engineer for over 44 years at Bell, was one of the first instructors in the mechanics school.

“[NC-1H] was used a lot in the helicopter pilot training school, and we were ordered to keep it in pristine condition, as we had a lot of VIPs, military, CAA, and foreign visitors who wanted their pictures next to [it],” said Yuhasz.

Another Bell 47 was assembled from spare parts to be used to teach blade tracking, flight control rigging, and electrical and fuel system troubleshooting. The aircraft never flew, but it was complete and could be started. A further aircraft was built for training, using a complete center frame on landing gear, with an engine, transmission, mast and cabin.

Around 1950, the Bell Aircraft pilot and mechanic school upgraded to the latest Model 47D. All the Bell 47 spare parts, un-airworthy parts, cutaways, and small mockups were gathered and given to a local high school for its aviation training program; while the full Bell 47 mockup and the center frame on wheels, along with additional spare parts, were boxed up for shipping to an aviation school in Canada.

Construction of the Bell Model 47 non-flying mock-up at the mechanic’s training school. Sitting in the pilot’s seat is Joe Mashman. Bell Aircraft/Steve Yuhasz Collection Photo

The destination of the latter remains a mystery, as there is no evidence that the helicopter went to an aviation school or a commercial company. In 1950, there were only a few Bell 47s flying in Canada — with Okanagan Helicopters in British Columbia, Ontario Hydro and De Havilland Canada in Ontario, and Associated Helicopters in Alberta.

Around the same time, Bell decided to permanently retire NC-1H, sending a letter to the CAA requesting the registration be cancelled. Larry Bell planned to donate it to the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and over several months it was completely upgraded and repainted for future display.

On April 8, 1951, a Bell pilot flew the restored helicopter on an unauthorized flight, which culminated in it crashing near Lake Ontario. The aircraft was destroyed. Larry Bell was furious, and had mechanics Ernie Panepinto, Ray Myers and Steven Yuhasz remove the helicopter from the crash site and secretly hide the remains in the old paint hangar. No one was to say a word.

It was then cut up and scrapped into small pieces, and hauled to a company-approved scrapyard nearby. The wheels, instrument panel, radio and a control stick were the only pieces salvaged. The data plate for the ship was removed by Myers, who etched on the back of it “Crashed 04-08-51” along with his initials, “RM.” He kept the data plate in his toolbox for many years, and in 2001, the Meyers family gave it to the Niagara Aerospace Museum in Niagara Falls, New York.

A happy discovery

During the mid-1970s, several Viking Helicopters employees happened upon the remains of an early Bell 47 helicopter in a junkyard in Pennsylvania. There was a tag identifying it as NC-1H, serial number 11. The helicopter was not in very good shape, but, believing they had stumbled across an historically important helicopter, the employees purchased the aircraft and hauled it across the border to Ottawa. They planned to refurbish the helicopter.

Journalist and helicopter historian Kenneth Swartz became aware of the Viking Bell Model 47 from an article he read in the late 1970s. He asked about it at the Bell Helicopter office in downtown Ottawa, and found out that Bell had tried and failed to determine if the helicopter was NC-1H, serial 11.

The very first Bell 47 pre-production prototype, shown in December 1945. This helicopter later became NC-1H in March 1946. Bell Aircraft/Jeff Evans Collection Photo

Unfortunately, the Viking Helicopters hangar was later destroyed in a fire, resulting in the disappearance of the major clue — the tag that appeared to show the aircraft was NC-1H. Luckily, the Bell 47 was not in the hangar at the time.

Viking later entered bankruptcy, and its early-model Bell 47 assets ultimately ended up with Dennis Clarcq of D.C. Helicopters in Cohocton, New York. There were no records or data plate with the helicopter sale, but Clarcq believed it was NC-1H. Through his lawyer, Clarcq attempted to piece together the chain of title from Bell to Viking, but was unsuccessful. The lawyer also contacted Bell in Texas about early records on the pre-production Model 47 helicopters, but the records were no longer available. Despite this, on Jan. 25, 1990, Clarcq’s Bell 47 was registered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as N1HQ, serial number 11.

Canadian G.S. (Mac) Maguire, a helicopter engineer/mechanic, had worked for Viking during the time it owned the early Bell 47. He kept a photocopy of the aircraft’s tag — but all it said was “NC-1H Bell 47 No. 11.” According to Ned Gilliand Jr., a Bell production test pilot and helicopter historian in Texas, the photocopy does not show a true data plate, as official data plates don’t show an aircraft’s “N” number — just the manufacturer’s model number, the manufacturer’s serial number, type certificate number and possibly, the customer’s model number, customer’s serial number, and contract number.

In May 2004, Gilliand conducted a telephone interview with early Bell mechanic Yuhasz, and they discussed the fate of NC-1H, serial 11.

“I do not know how anyone can claim that they have the real ship number 11, NC-1H, as it was scrapped,” Yuhasz told him. “I saw Ray Myers put the data plate . . . in his pocket, after it was removed and handed to him.”

He added that a photo taken of the Viking Bell 47 certainly looked like one of the early pre-production helicopters, and may have been the complete unit built for the mechanic school, or a composite of the various parts and mockups sent to Canada. “[But] the mockups never had data plates or serial numbers assigned to them,” he said.

Canadian Tom Noakes at the controls of NC-1H ship 11 at the Bell training school for new pilots during 1946. Tom Noakes Collection Photo

Today, the mystery aircraft still resides at Clarcq’s private museum in Cohocton. There are a lot of questions about this Model 47 that we may never have answered, simply due to the amount of time that has now passed since the type’s formative days, and the lack of surviving documentation. Is it the “real” NC-1H, ship 11? If not, is it the mockup that came to Canada in the early 1950s? If so, how did it end up in a junkyard in Pennsylvania? Who made the tag found on it?

After many years of following this aircraft’s story and much diligent research, I believe there’s a good chance the Bell 47 in Cohocton is the original full size mock-up built for the mechanics’ training school in 1946. If anyone can bring new insight into the mystery, I’d be happy to hear from them!

Of all the original 11 pre-production Bell Model 47 helicopters manufactured by the Bell Aircraft Company, only one is certain to have survived the test of time: Model 47, ship 5 (NC-3H) is on display at the Niagara Aerospace Museum.

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