17 May 1942

Sikorsky XR-4 41-18874 at Wright Field, Ohio, 17 May 1942. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)
Vought-Sikorsky XR-4 41-18874 at Wright Field, Ohio, 17 May 1942. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)
The Sikorsky XR-4 41-18874 at Wright Field, 17 May 1942. Left to right: E. Walsh, A. Planefisch, Igor Sikorsky, Orville Wright, R. Alex, Les Morris, B. Labensky. (Sikorsky Archives)

17 May 1942: After a 761 mile (1,224.7 kilometer) flight over five days, test pilot Charles Lester (“Les”) Morris and Igor Sikorsky arrived at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, to deliver the U.S. Army’s first helicopter, the Vought-Sikorsky XR-4. Morris hovered directly up to the base administration building and landed there. He and Sikorsky were greeted by a large group of people which included Lieutenant Colonel Hollingsworth Franklin (“Frank”) Gregory, the Army’s designated rotorcraft expert, and pioneer aviator Orville Wright.

From the Sikorsky factory at Stratford, Connecticut, to Wright Field, Ohio, was 761 miles (1,224.7 kilometers), direct. Because of the XR-4’s low speed and short range (weight limitations restricted the quantity of gasoline it could carry) the distance was covered in sixteen separate flights with a total flight time of 16 hours, 10 minutes. The longest single flight lasted 1 hour, 50 minutes, a new world’s record for helicopter flight endurance. Igor Sikorsky joined Les Morris for the final leg of the flight.

Sikorsky test pilot Charles Lester (“Les”) Morris in the cockpit of an earlier version of the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300. (Hans Groenhoff Photographic Collection, Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum NASM-HGC-1408)

The Vought-Sikorsky VS-316A (which was designated XR-4 by the U.S. Army Air Corps and assigned serial number 41-18874), established the single main rotor/anti-torque tail rotor configuration. It was a two-place helicopter with side-by-side seating and dual flight controls. The fabric-covered three-blade main rotor was 38 feet (11.582 meters) in diameter and turned counter-clockwise as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right). The three-blade tail rotor was mounted to the right of the tail boom in a tractor configuration, and rotated clockwise when seen from the helicopter’s left side. (The advancing blade was below the axis of rotation.)

The XR-4 was 33 feet, 11.5 inches (10.351 meters) long and 12 feet, 5 inches (3.785 meters) high. It weighed 2,010 pounds (911.7 kilograms) empty and the maximum gross weight was 2,540 pounds (1,152.1 kilograms).

The VS-316A had originally been powered by a 499.8-cubic-inch-displacement (8.19 liter) air-cooled Warner Aircraft Corporation Scarab SS-50 (R-500-1) seven-cylinder radial engine, rated at 145 horsepower at 2,050 r.p.m. In the XR-4 configuration, the engine was upgraded to an air-cooled, direct-drive 555.298-cubic-inch-displacement (9.100 liter) Warner Super Scarab SS185 (R-550-3) seven-cylinder radial engine with a compression ration of 6.20:1. The R-550-3 was rated at 185 horsepower at 2,175 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 200 horsepower at 2,475 r.p.m (five minute limit) for takeoff. The engine was placed backwards in the aircraft with the propeller shaft driving a short driveshaft through a clutch to a 90° gear box and the transmission. The R-550-3 weighed 344 pounds (156 kilograms).

The XR-4 was redesignated XR-4C. This would be the world’s first production helicopter. It is at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Vought-Sikorsky XR-4C 41-18874 at the National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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2 thoughts on “17 May 1942

  1. Did you know about these helicopters?

    The Focke-Achgelis Fa 223, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focke-Achgelis_Fa_223.

    Nazi Germany also made a one seater helicopter called the
    Focke-Achgelis Fa 330: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focke-Achgelis_Fa_330

    I just wanted you to see these Wikipedia pages. I can’t tell if the XR-4 was the first production helicopter or was the German Fa 223, the first production helicopter?

    Please feel free to delete this comment.

    1. The second one is actually an unpowered autogyro, so that doesn’t count. I don’t know enough about the first to guess whether it or the XR-4 was “first.”

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