17 September 1952: Bell Aircraft Corporation test pilot Elton John (“E.J.”) Smith flew a modified Bell Model 47D-1 helicopter, N167B (s/n 21), from Hurst, Texas, to Niagara Falls, New York, setting a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world record for distance without landing of 1,958.80 kilometers (1,217.14 miles).¹
During Smith’s flight, the flight controls’ hydraulic boost system failed. The helicopter’s radio also caught fire, forcing Smith to pull the wiring loose.
BELL HELICOPTER AT NIAGARA AFTER SETTING DISTANCE MARK
A new world’s record for a nonstop distance flight by helicopter was established Wednesday when a Bell helicopter flew approximately 1,234 miles from the Bell Aircraft Corporation plant near Hurst to the front lawn of the main plant in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
The pilot was Elton J. Smith, 31-year-old Bell test pilot, who lives with his wife and three small children at 4121 Vance Rd. in North Richland Hills.
The helicopter was named Longhorn.
Smith took off from the heliport at the Hurst plant at 4:41 a.m. and landed in Niagara Falls at 5:38 p.m. Fort Worth time. His elapsed time in the air 12 hours and 57 minutes.
Lawrence D. Bell, president of the corporation, shouted congratulations to Smith while the helicopter’s rotors were still spinning.
“Thank you, sir,” Smith replied.
Later he reported that “I wasn’t very tired, it was a good flight. I ran into a little bad weather over the Ozarks, which forced me to detour somewhat from my proposed straight line flight from Fort Worth to Niagara Falls. After that I had pretty good weather and flew most of the route between 6,000 and 8,000 feet.
“I started having radio trouble about one hour out of Fort Worth, which accounts for the fact that there was no contact with me during a great deal of the trip.
“I had enough gas left to go another four hours—about 40 gallons,” he said. “I used only two quarts of oil on the trip.
“I really got a kick out of doing it because a lot of us in the helicopter industry thought it could be done.
“All in all, I was pretty fresh at the end of the trip—just a little bit stiff.”
The flight, via Cleveland and Buffalo, broke the official helicopter distance record of 703.6 miles, established in a Sikorsky R05 helicopter on May 26, 1946, by Major F. T. Caschman, U.S. Air Force.
That flight was from Cleveland to Logan, Mass, Other long distance flights on record, but not recognized by National Aeronautic Association, include:
A flight of 920 miles from Iceland to Prestwick, Scotland, on July 31, 1952, by a Sikorsky H-19, flown by an Air Force pilot and co-pilot.
A flight of 956 miles, 843 cross-country and 113 miles in the vicinity of Dayton, Ohio, on July 6, 1951, by Captain Wayne W. Eggert, U.S. Air Force.
The helicopter piloted by Smith was a Model 47D, built by Bell in December 1947. It is equipped with a 200-horsepower, six-cylinder Franklin aircooled engine. The ship previously had logged 387 hours and 50 minutes of flying time.
Official observer for the NAA was E. J. Reeves of Dallas, who placed sealed barographs aboard the Longhorn before takeoff. The NAA also sealed the gas and oil tanks and an official was on hand to certify that the seals had not been broken when the helicopter.
The helicopter took off with 187 gallons of gasoline and two gallons of oil. Estimated cost for the fuel on the flight was $59.30, a Bell release issued after the takeoff declared.
Normal gross weight for a 47D model helicopter is 2,350 pounds, the release said. Gross for the record-breaking flight was 2,750 pounds.
Smith carried with him several candy bars, a half-gallon of drinking water, and a beef sandwich.
—Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 18 September 1952, Page 1, Columns 1–3
Bell 47D-1 N167B (s/n 21) was originally built in December 1947 as a Model 47D. It was assigned to Bell’s Research and Development group for many years and went through numerous modifications. It had been used to develop the U.S. Army’s H-13B Sioux. For the record-setting flight, N167B was modified with seven fuel tanks, with two located in the passenger cabin, and five mounted behind the engine. After starting the engine, the electric starter motor was removed to save weight. At takeoff, it had a gross weight of 2,750 pounds (1,247 kilograms), 400 pounds (181 kilograms) over the certified maximum gross weight of the helicopter. It had flown 387 hours, 50 minutes, before the 17 September 1952 flight. Its FAA registration was cancelled 11 June 1970.
The Bell Model 47D-1 was the first three-place variant of the Model 47 series. Its Type Certificate was approved 29 March 1949. The initial price was $39,500.
The Bell Model 47D-1 had an overall length (with rotors turning) of 41 feet, 4¾ inches (12.618 meters). The main rotor diameter was 35 feet, 1½ inches (10.706 meters) in diameter. The length of the fuselage, from the front of the canopy to the trailing edge of the tail rotor disc, was 30 feet, 5 inches (9.271 meters). It was 9 feet, 4-5/16 inches (2.827 meters) high to the top of the main rotor mast.
The Bell 47D-1 main rotor was a two-bladed, under-slung, semi-rigid assembly that would be a characteristic of helicopters built by Bell for decades. The blades were constructed of laminated wood. An 8 foot, 4 inch (2.540 meters) stabilizer bar was placed below the hub and linked to the flight controls through hydraulic dampers. This made for a very stable aircraft. The main rotor turned counter-clockwise, as seen from above. (The advancing blade was on the right.) Its normal operating range was 322–360 r.p.m. (294–360 r.p.m. in autorotation).
The 47D-1 tail rotor was positioned on the right side of the tail boom in a tractor configuration. It had a diameter of 5 feet, 8-1/8 inches (1.730 meters) and rotated counter-clockwise as seen from the helicopter’s left. (The advancing blade was above the axis of rotation.) The tail rotor blades were also made of wood.
Power was supplied by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 333.991-cubic-inch-displacement (5.473 liter) Franklin Engine Company 6V4-178-B32 vertically-opposed six cylinder engine with a compression ratio of 8.5:1. This engine was rated at 200 horsepower at 3,100 r.p.m. at Sea Level. Engine torque was sent through a centrifugal clutch to a transmission. The mast (the main rotor drive shaft) was driven through a two-stage planetary gear reduction system with a ratio of 9:1. The transmission also drove the tail rotor drive shaft, and through a vee-belt/pulley system, a large fan to provide cooling air for the engine.
The standard production Model 47D-1 had a maximum gross weight of 2,350 pounds (1,066 kilograms) and a fuel capacity of 29 U.S. gallons (110 liters). Its cruise speed was 78 miles per hour (126 kilometers per hour) and its service ceiling was 12,000 feet (3,658 meters).
Bell built 129 Model 47D-1 helicopters.
The Bell 47 was produced at the plant in New York, and later at Fort Worth, Texas. It was steadily improved and remained in production until 1974. In military service the Model 47 was designated H-13 Sioux, (Army and Air Force), HTL (Navy) and HUG (Coast Guard). The helicopter was also built under license by Agusta, Kawasaki and Westland. More than 7,000 were built worldwide and it is believed that about 10% of those remain in service.
Elton John Smith was born 4 September 1921 at Walton, New York. He was the second of three children of William H. Smith, a farmer, and Florence (“Flossie”) Delilah Knapp. He attended Parker High School in Clarence, New York.
Elton Smith enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet, 11 December 1941. He completed flight training at the Lubbock Army Flying School, 20 March 1943 and commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was assigned to fly North American Aviation B-25 Mitchell medium bombers.
On 24 December 1943, Lieutenant Mitchell married Miss Rita Marie Follett at a private residence in San Angelo, Texas. They would have four children.
Smith was discharged from the U.S. Army Air Forces, 6 December 1945.
In 1947, E. J. Smith joined the Bell Aircraft Corporation at Buffalo, New York, as a test pilot.
On 20 October 1954, along with Bell’s Chief Pilot Floyd W. Carlson, Chief Experimental Test Pilot Smith made the first flight of the Bell XH-40, prototype of the legendary “Huey” military helicopter.
In 1973, Smith became the manager of flight and technical training for Bell Helicopter International’s Iranian training program. He was later the company’s head of international sales. He retired in 1984.
Elton John Smith died Thursday, 18 October 1990, in a hospital in Irvine, Texas. His remains ere buried at Greenwood Memorial Park, Fort Worth, Texas.
¹ FAI Record File Number 976
© 2023, Bryan R. Swopes