12 July 1957

President Eisenhower fastens his seat belt aboard H-13J-BF Sioux 57-2729, on the White House lawn, 12 July 1957. (U.S. Air Force)
Dwight David Eisenhower, President of the United States
Dwight David Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States

12 July 1957: President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first United States president to fly in a helicopter when a U.S. Air Force H-13J-BF Sioux, serial number 57-2729 (c/n 1576), flown by Major Joseph E. Barrett, USAF, departed the White House lawn for Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Also on board was a U.S. Secret Service special agent. A second H-13J, 57-2728 (c/n 1575), followed, carrying President Eisenhower’s personal physician and a second Secret Service agent.

The helicopter was intended to rapidly move the president from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base where his Lockheed VC-121E Constellation, Columbine III, would be standing by, or to other secure facilities in case of an emergency.

Major Barrett had been selected because of his extensive experience as a combat pilot. During World War II, he had flown the B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bomber. During the Korean War, Barrett had carried out a helicopter rescue 70 miles (113 kilometers) behind enemy lines, for which he was awarded the Silver Star.

Bell H-13J 57-2729, flown by Major Barret, with President eisenhower and a Secret Service agent, departs the White House for teh first time, 2:08 p.m., 12 July 1957. (The White House)
Bell H-13J 57-2729, flown by Major Joseph E. Barrett, with President Eisenhower and a Secret Service agent, departs the White House, 2:08 p.m., 12 July 1957. (The White House)

The two helicopters were manufactured by the Bell Helicopter Company at Fort Worth, Texas, and delivered to the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on 29 March 1957. The presidential H-13Js were nearly identical to the commercial Bell Model 47J Ranger. The H-13J differed from the civil Model 47J by the substitution of main rotor blades of all-metal construction in place of the standard laminated wood blades.

Capable of carrying a pilot and up to three passengers, the Ranger was constructed with an enclosed cabin built on a tubular steel framework with all-metal semi-monocoque tail boom. The main rotor diameter was 37 feet, 2.00 inches (11.328 meters) and tail rotor diameter was 5 feet, 10.13 inches (1.781 meters), which gave the helicopter an overall length of 43 feet, 3¾ inches (13.185 meters) with rotors turning. The height (to the top of the centrifugal flapping restraints) was 9 feet, 8 inches (2.946 meters). The helicopter had a maximum gross weight of 2,800 pounds (1,270 kilograms).

The main rotor, in common to all American-designed helicopters, rotates counter-clockwise as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right.) The anti-torque (tail) rotor is mounted to the right side of an angled tail boom extension, in a tractor configuration, and rotates counter-clockwise as seen from the helicopter’s left. (The advancing blade is above the axis of rotation.)

The main rotor is a two-bladed, under-slung, semi-rigid assembly that would be a characteristic of helicopters built by Bell for decades. The main rotor system incorporates a stabilizer bar, positioned below and at right angles to the main rotor blades. Teardrop-shaped weights are placed at each end of the bar, on 100-inch (2.540 meters) centers. The outside diameter of the stabilizer bar is 8 feet, 6.781 inches (2.611 meters). (A similar system is used on the larger Bell 204/205/212 helicopters.)

The H-13J was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 433.972-cubic-inch-displacement (7.112 liter) AVCO Lycoming VO-435-A1B (O-435-21) vertically-opposed 6-cylinder direct-drive engine. The VO-435 had a compression ration of 7.3:1. It was rated at 220 horsepower at 3,200 r.p.m., maximum continuous power, and 260 horsepower at 3,200 r.p.m. for takeoff. The VO-435-A1B weighed 393.00 pounds (178.262 kilograms).

Engine torque is sent through a centrifugal clutch to a 9:1 gear-reduction transmission, which drives the main rotor through a two-stage planetary gear system. The transmission also drives the tail rotor drive shaft, and through a vee-belt/pulley system, a large fan to provide cooling air for the engine.

Bell H-13J hovering over the White House lawn. (U.S. Air Force)
One of the two presidential Bell H-13J Sioux helicopters hovers over the White House lawn. (U.S. Air Force)

Fuel was carried in two gravity-feed tanks, mounted above and on each side of the engine. The total fuel capacity was 34.0 gallons (128.7 liters)

Cruise speed for the H-13J was 87–98 miles per hour (140–158 kilometers per hour), depending on gross weight, and its maximum speed was 105 miles per hour (169 kilometers per hour). The helicopter had a hover ceiling in ground effect (HIGE) of 8,100 feet (2,469 meters). The service ceiling was 15,000 feet (4,572 meters).

Both H-13J Sioux served as presidential aircraft until 1962. They were redesignated UH-13J and continued in use for VIP transportation until 1967.

Bell UH-13J-BF Sioux 57-2729 is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum National Air and Space Museum, Steven V. Udvar-Hazy Center, while its sister ship, 57-2728, is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, along with Columbine III.

The first presidential helicopter, USAF H-13J-BF Sioux 57-2729, on display at the Steven V. Udvar-Hazy Center, Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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