16 February 1946

The prototype Sikorsky S-51 commercial helicopter, NX19800, in flight between Bridgeport and East Hartford, Connecticut, 1946. (Sikorsky Historical Archive)
The prototype Sikorsky S-51 commercial helicopter, NX92800, in flight between Bridgeport and East Hartford, Connecticut, 1946. (Sikorsky Historical Archive)

16 February 1946: The Sikorsky S-51 prototype, NX92800, made its first flight. The test pilot was Dimitry D. (“Jimmy”) Viner, who later made the first civilian rescue using a helicopter. The S-51 was the first helicopter intended for commercial use, though it was also widely used by military services worldwide. (The prototype was later delivered to Aéronavale, French Naval Aviation.)

Dimitry D. ("Jimmy") Viner with a Sikorsky S-51, the civil version of the R-5. (Sikorsky Historical Archive)
Dimitry D. (“Jimmy”) Viner with a Sikorsky S-51, the civil version of the R-5. (Sikorsky Historical Archive)

The S-51 was a commercial version of the Sikorsky R-5 series military helicopters. It was a four-place, single engine helicopter, operated by one pilot. The cabin was built of aluminum with Plexiglas windows. The fuselage was built of plastic-impregnated plywood, and the tail boom was wood monocoque construction.

The main rotor consisted of three fully-articulated blades built of metal spars and plywood ribs and covered with two layers of fabric. (All metal blades soon became available.) The three bladed semi-articulated tail rotor was built of laminated wood. The main rotor turned counter-clockwise, as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right.) The tail rotor was mounted on the helicopter’s left side in a pusher configuration. It turned clockwise as seen from the helicopter’s left.

The helicopter’s fuselage was 41 feet, 7.5 inches (12.687 meters). The main rotor had a diameter of 48 feet (14.630 meters) and tail rotor diameter was 8 feet, 5 inches (2.2.565 meters) giving the helicopter an overall length of 57 feet, 1 inch (17.399 meters). It was 13 feet, 1.5 inches (4.001 meters) high. The landing gear tread was 12 feet (3.7 meters).

The S-51 had an empty weight of 4,050 pounds (1,837.05 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 5,500 pounds (2,494.76 kilograms). Fuel capacity was 100 gallons (378.5 liters).

Sikorsky S-51 NC92813, Los Angeles Airways, departs on a commercial flight, Los Angeles, California, 1947. (LAT)
Sikorsky S-51 NC92813, Los Angeles Airways, departs on a commercial flight, Los Angeles, California, 1947. (Los Angeles Times)

The helicopter was powered by a 986.749-cubic-inch-displacement (16.170 liter) air-cooled, supercharged, Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. T1B4 (R-985 AN-5) direct-drive,  nine-cylinder radial engine which was placed vertically in the fuselage behind the crew compartment. This engine had a compression ratio of 6:1 and was rated at 450 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m., Standard Day at Sea Level. The R-985 AN-5 was 48.00 inches (1.219 meters) long, 46.25 inches (1.175 meters) in diameter and weighed 684 pounds (310.3 kilograms) with a magnesium crankcase.

The S-51 had a maximum speed (Vne) of 107 knots (123.1 miles per hour/198.2 kilometers per hour). Range was 275 miles (442.6 kilometers). The service ceiling was 14,800 feet (4,511 meters). The absolute hover ceiling was 3,000 feet (914.4 meters).

Of 220 helicopters in the S-51 series built by Sikorsky, 55 were commercial models.

One of Los Angeles Airways' Sikorsky S-51 helicopters takes off from roof of the the Terminal Annex Post Office, Los Angeles, California, 1 October 1947. (Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive/UCLA Library)
One of Los Angeles Airways’ Sikorsky S-51 helicopters takes off from roof of the the Terminal Annex Post Office, Los Angeles, California, 1 October 1947. (Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive/UCLA Library)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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