6–7 May 1943

Colonel Frank Gregory lands the Vought-Sikorsky XR-4, 41-18864, aboard SS Bunker Hill, 6-7 May 1943. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)
Colonel Frank Gregory lands the Vought-Sikorsky XR-4, 41-18874, aboard SS Bunker Hill, 6-7 May 1943. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)

6–7 May 1943: To determine the feasibility of operating helicopters from the decks of merchant ships for antisubmarine patrols, Colonel Hollingsworth Franklin (“Frank”) Gregory, U.S. Army Air Corps, made 23 landings and takeoffs from the tanker SS Bunker Hill in Long Island Sound, flying the Army’s Vought-Sikorsky XR-4, 41-18874.

According to an official U.S. Coast Guard history of the tests,

The tanker BUNKER HILL was made available for the tests and a deck 78 feet [23.8 meters] long, with obstructions at both ends, was put in place. An eight foot [2.4 meters] bullseye in the center of a square was painted in the middle of the platform. Colonel Frank Gregory arrived on 6 May to fly the Army XR-4 provided for the tests. The entire helicopter project rested on the XR-4’s ability to land on a ship. Gregory was concerned at first. His “shipboard” experience was limited to a 20 foot [6.1 meters] platform at Wright Field. He immediately set about getting “additional experience.” Gregory noted with reference to his first attempt:

Igor Sikorsky and Colonel Frank Gregory with the Vought-Sikorsky XR-4. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)
Igor Sikorsky and Colonel Frank Gregory with the Vought-Sikorsky XR-4. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)

“The space on the deck looked even smaller—it didn’t look like the helicopter would fit. The cabin superstructure towered up like a two story building, and the people on it had that “it can’t be done” look on their faces—yet the big white bullseye stuck out like a target—the XR-4 came true to the white marker as though being pulled by a powerful magnet, and a minute later the floats touched the deck.”

He continued to practice landings and takeoffs that afternoon with the ship at anchor, then underway at five, seven and one-half, ten and fifteen knots. As the speed increased the landings became more difficult because of increased turbulence over the superstructure but the helicopter proved to be completely controllable.

The next morning guests were ferried out to the BUNKER HILL . . . A total of 97 names were on the guest list. Gregory put on an impressive and flawless performance as the ship cruised at various speeds up to 15 knots and on various headings with relation to the wind which was blowing at 12 knots. . . .

—”The Helicopter as an Anti-Submarine Weapon,” A History of Coast Guard Aviation, The Growth Years (1939–1956).

SS Bunker Hill, a Type T2 tanker, with a tugboat alongside. (Unattributed)
SS Bunker Hill, a Type T-2 tanker, with a tugboat alongside. (Unattributed)

SS Bunker Hill was a 10,590 gross ton Type T-2 tanker owned by the Keystone Tankship Corporation. It was  504 feet (153.6 meters) long, with a beam of 68.2 feet (20.8 meters) and drawing 39.2 feet (12 meters). Its engine developed 7,000 horsepower.

On 6 March 1964, Bunker Hill was enroute from Tacoma to Anacortes, Washington when it suffered a vapor explosion in the Number 9 cargo tank which broke the ship in half. It sank in Rosario Strait in less than one hour. Five members of the crew of thirty-one, including the captain, chief mate, third mate, quartermaster and steward, were lost.

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 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-4 41-18874 during shipboard testing, June 1943. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)
Vought-Sikorsky XR-4 41-18874 during shipboard testing, June 1943. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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