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Les Morris - Rotorcraft Pioneers XIII

Posted 12 years 194 days ago ago by Admin

By Brad McNally - There is a crucial link between the many great aeronautical engineers and talented mechanics that have made rotary wing flight possible and the pilots who have maximized the unique capabilities of the helicopter. This link is the helicopter test pilot.  The test pilot is the one who shows what the aircraft is capable of, pushes it to define its limits and provides the feedback necessary for the engineers to refine the design.  One of the first trueLes Morris helicopter test pilots was a man named Les Morris.  In the 1940s Morris’s work as a test pilot helped Igor Sikorsky perfect the single main rotor and tail rotor design and bring the helicopter from one experimental aircraft to full scale production in only several years.


Charles Lester Morris was born in New Haven, CT on October 20, 1908.  Better known as Les to most people, Morris’s parents were prominent members of society.  His father was a well-known lawyer who was active in politics, running for Governor of Connecticut three times.  Morris’s mother was one of the first women ever to receive a doctorate from Yale.  Morris spent his childhood in Connecticut and went on to attend Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School as a member of the class of 1932.  The summer prior to going to Yale, Les attended the Curtiss Flying School on Long Island.  This introduction to aviation had a profound effect on his life and would lead him to help pioneer rotary-wing flight.  In 1931, Les Morris was appointed as the Connecticut Commissioner of Aeronautics.  Morris was only 22 at the time of his appointment, making him one of the youngest people ever to head a department in a state government (Morris, C. G., 2010).  He would be reappointed to this position twice.  During his time as Commissioner, Morris would serve as the president of the National Association of State Aviation Officials and be a member of several Department of Commerce and Civil Aviation Authority advisory boards and commissions.  In all, Les Morris held this position for a total of 10 years.  His greatest and most long lasting achievement as Commissioner of Aeronautics was establishing the plans and location for Bradley International Airport which is situated outside of Hartford, CT.


In 1939, while Morris was serving as the Connecticut Commissioner of Aeronautics, Dr. Igor Sikorsky was beginning to realize success developing the first North American helicopter.  Morris and Sikorsky would cross paths when both were scheduled speakers at a private pilots meeting in Washington, D.C.  Dr. Sikorsky asked Morris to pay a visit to the Vought-Sikorsky facility so he could solicit advice from Morris on helicopter development (Morris, C. L., 1945).  Although surprised at the invitation, Morris eagerly accepted as he had an interest in helicopters and understood the unique capabilities that an aircraft capable of vertical flight could offer.  Several weeks after the meeting in Washington, D.C., Les Morris visited Igor Sikorsky at the Vought-Sikorsky factory then located in Stratford, CT.  The two men discussed the helicopter and Morris was captivated by Sikorsky’s enthusiasm and determination.  On a subsequent visit, Les Morris made it known to Igor Sikorsky that he was extremely interested in helicopter development and would like to get out of public service and work in the private aviation sector.  Morris even went so far as to ask Dr. Sikorsky to consider him for any job openings at Vought-Sikorsky that he was qualified for (Morris, C. L., 1945).  Dr. Sikorsky indicated that he Les Morriswould keep Morris in mind for future employment. 


On May 29, 1940 the VS-300 made its first public flight demonstrations.  As Commissioner of Aeronautics, Les Morris was invited to witness the demonstration.  Morris had been following Sikorsky’s helicopter progress very closely, but up until that point had not seen the VS-300 fly in person.  After Igor Sikorsky finished demonstrating the helicopter’s abilities, Morris awarded him Connecticut Helicopter Pilot License Number One.  Les Morris continued to follow the development of the helicopter very closely.  In January of 1941, Morris received a phone call from Igor Sikorsky asking if he was interested in coming to work for Vought-Sikorsky as a helicopter test pilot.  Dr. Sikorsky indicated that due to the on-going testing of the VS-300 and the development of the XR-4 for the U.S. Army, he was unable to do all the test flying himself and was looking for someone else to carry out test flights so he could focus on other matters (Morris, C. L., 1945).  Les Morris eagerly accepted and started working for Vought-Sikorsky on March 17, 1941.


Although Morris would start work in March he would not fly for several months.  Igor Sikorsky had planned to set an official American helicopter endurance record in April of 1941.  When that effort went well it was then decided to attempt to break the official world helicopter endurance record in May of 1941.  So while Igor Sikorsky and his team were flight testing and making adjustments to the VS-300 in hopes of establishing the new records, Les Morris went to work reading and studying all the helicopter information he could get his hands on.  Eventually both records were set and Morris got his first chance to fly a helicopter on May 12, 1941.  In typical beginner’s fashion, Morris over controlled the helicopter (a problem that has not changed for first time helicopter pilots over the past 70 years).  However, Morris’s helicopter piloting skills quickly improved.  Soon in addition to helping him learn to fly, Morris’s flights were collecting valuable information on the center of gravity of the VS-300 and how the amount of fabric covering the frame of the aircraft affected the controllability (Morris, C. L., 1945).  Late in the summer of 1941, Igor Sikorsky decided to resume development of full azimuth control.  Early versions of the VS-300 had two outriggers on the tail near the vertical tail rotor.  Each of these outriggers had a small horizontal rotor mounted on it.  When the rotor blade pitch was increased on both horizontal tail rotors the tail pitched up and the nose pitched down controlling fore and aft movement of the helicopter.  When the pitch on one of the horizontal tail rotors was increased and the pitch on the other one was decreased, the helicopter would roll to one side controlling lateral movement.  Using rotor blade pitch changes in the main rotor to control the direction of the helicopter was determined to be much more efficient and effective.  However, this method of full azimuth control in the main rotor was unproven and had led to an earlier crash in the VS-300.  Incrementally, Igor Sikorsky and his team began to move towards full azimuth control.  With each design change Morris would test fly the aircraft to evaluate its controllability.  By the end of 1941, full azimuth control was deemed a success and Morris was able to reach speeds of over 80 miles per hour under full control (Morris, C. G., 2010).  This configuration is today known as cyclic control and is a basic feature on all almost all helicopters. 


Les Morris continued test flying the VS-300, helping Dr. Sikorsky and the engineering staff make adjustments to the new control configuration.  Morris was also frequently called on to give demonstration flights for many visitors who did not believe the reports they were reading about the new helicopter and its capabilities.  As full azimuth control was being refined, the development of the XR-4 was accelerating.  The XR-4 was designed for the U.S. Army and would become the second successful Sikorsky helicopter and the first production helicopter in the world.  Morris flew the VS-300 to evaluate many of the proposed design features of the XR-4.   On January 14, 1942, Les Morris made the maiden flight in the XR-4 (Morris, C. L., 1945).  The first flight lasted only 3 minutes.  Over the course of the first day of test flying a total of six flights were made which lasted just over 25 minutes combined.  Over the next two weeks 32 test flights were conducted and the XR-4 was significantly refined.  A demonstration flight of the XR-4 for Army officials was scheduled for April of 1942.  One of the Army requirements was for the helicopter to demonstrate autorotation.  This had never before been performed in a Sikorsky helicopter and no procedures for how to do it existed.  Even more alarming for Morris was that the engineers weren’t even sure if the XR-4 would still be controllable during power-off flight.  Over the course of several days Morris developed a procedure to autorotate the XR-4 and proved that the helicopter was both safe and controllable in autorotation.  Les Morris made what is believed to be the first powered off landing of a helicopter in North America in early April of 1942.  During test flights in preparation for the Army demonstration, Morris set many unofficial helicopter speed and altitude records.  He was prohibited from setting official records due to World War II and the secrecy of the helicopter project.  The demonstration flight for the Army was extremely successful, largely due to Morris’s by now expert piloting abilities.


Les MorrisAfter the success of the XR-4 demonstration flights the Army required that the helicopter be delivered by air to Wright Field in Dayton, OH.  Wright Field was nearly 700 miles from Stratford, CT and the XR-4 had not traveled more than one mile from the Sikorsky factory.  So starting in May of 1942, Morris began making short cross country flights in the XR-4 to check its ability for sustained flight and evaluate the effects of longer flight times on the engine and transmission.  Finally on May 13, 1942, Morris departed the Vought-Sikorsky factory to deliver the XR-4 to the Army.  Five days later, Morris touched down at Wright Field in Dayton.  Although this type of trip would be considered commonplace today, it was a historic event in helicopter history.  The total trip lasted 5 days, covering 761 miles in 16 separate flights.  The total flight time was over 16 hours.  Numerous unofficial records were established.  These included the helicopter single flight distance record (repeatedly broken) which was set at 92 miles, the first interstate helicopter flight (4 states covered), first interstate helicopter passenger flight, and the world helicopter endurance record which ended up at 1 hour and 50 minutes (Morris, C. L., 1945). 


Following the successful delivery of the XR-4, Morris spent considerable time giving additional demonstrations and passenger flights to Army personnel.  There was a level of excitement around the helicopter that had never been reached before.  Soon Les Morris was back in Connecticut helping develop the next group of Sikorsky helicopters.  In May of 1943 Morris made the maiden flight in the XR-5 followed by the first flight in the XR-6 in October of the same year (Morris, C. L., 1945).  Morris also continued test flying the VS-300.  The VS-300 was used to test a variety of new concepts including a two bladed main rotor, pontoon landing gear and an improved tail rotor.  In addition to testing new configurations on the helicopter, Morris pushed the envelope of helicopter operations.  He was one of the first people to fly a helicopter at night, in fog and made many confined area landings to his own backyard to demonstrate how little space was actually needed to land a helicopter.  During this time, Les Morris also received what is thought to be the first commercial helicopter rating in the United States (Morris, C. L., 1945).      


Along with playing an important role in developing and delivering the XR-4 and subsequent models, Les Morris was instrumental in instructing new helicopter pilots.  Morris’s list of students includes both civilian and military pilots from the United States and Great Britain.  From this list of students came several prominent helicopter pilots.  One student was Army Colonel Douglas Kirkpatrick who, along with Morris, did early helicopter bombing trials.  Another student was Dimitry “Jimmy” Viner, a nephew of Igor Sikorsky who made the first civilian helicopter rescue and was later a chief test pilot for Sikorsky Aircraft.  Legendary Coast Guard helicopter pilot Frank Erickson also learned to fly helicopters from Morris.  Erickson would go on to conduct the first helicopter rescue mission and is now considered the father of Coast Guard rotary-wing aviation.  Brigadier General Frank Gregory had learned to fly helicopters before Morris began working for Vought-Sikorsky.  However, Morris did give Gregory instruction in the XR-4 and demonstrated many of the helicopters unique capabilities with Gregory as a passenger.  Gregory was the helicopter project officer for the Army and was responsible for the contract between the Army and Vought-Sikorsky for the XR-4.  Morris also taught Igor Sikorsky’s personal friend Charles Lindbergh to fly the VS-300.


Les Morris continued working for Sikorsky as the Chief Test Pilot and Field Service Manager until 1944.  During this time he conducted the majority of the initial test flights on nine different helicopter models, taking eight of them to advanced stages of development (Morris, C. G., 2010).


Morris left Sikorsky after what he later described as “an unfortunate misunderstanding between himself and the upper management at Sikorsky Aircraft”.  Although Les Morris never spoke openly in public about the reason for his departure, he did say that the disagreement did not involve Igor Sikorsky and described the situation as “understandable but unfortunate (personal communication with Mr. C. G. Morris, January 2010)”.  Following employment at Sikorsky, Morris remained very active in the helicopter industry.  He was the Assistant to the President and Director of Field Operations for the short lived Bendix Helicopters and also worked for Kaman Aircraft Corporation for 12 years as an Assistant Vice President, Field Service Manager and Chief Staff Engineer.  Morris was a charter member and the second president of the American Helicopter Society (AHS).  After retiring from the helicopter industry Morris stayed active in promoting and recording helicopter history.  Morris co-founded and served as the president of the Twirly Birds, an organization for helicopter pioneers and pilots.  In his later years, he also worked for Sikorsky Aircraft as a consultant on helicopter history.  Morris helped document the early years of the helicopter by narrating a Helicopter Association International video on helicopter development and writing a book titled “Pioneering the Helicopter”.  The book was first published in 1945, and chronicles the early development of the Sikorsky VS-300 and XR-4.  It includes first-hand accounts of Morris’s test flights and a unique perspective on how Igor Sikorsky and his team developed the first North American helicopters.  For his tremendous contributions to rotary-wing flight, the American Helicopter Society made Les Morris an Honorary Fellow in 1971.  Morris passed away in 1991 at the age of 82.


Les Morris was a not only a pioneer in helicopter development but also a pioneer in helicopter test piloting.  Although he arrived at Sikorsky after the first North American helicopter had already successfully flown, he was in time to participate in the extensive test and evaluation period that followed.  Through his thorough evaluation and reporting, Morris helped test and refine many design characteristics on the VS-300.  The information collected from these test flights was invaluable and guided helicopter development for many years.  Morris was also instrumental in the development of the first production helicopter, the R-4.  Les Morris’s many unofficial helicopter records are only a small part of his pioneering contributions to rotary-winged flight.  Morris pushed the helicopter to do things once thought impossible by many.  He piloted an aircraft that was not only experimental, but was so much so, that at times nearly every move he made established new boundaries for helicopter operations in North America.  Morris was one of the first to show how the helicopter’s unique capabilities could be utilized for confined area landings, precision maneuvering, extended cross country flight and over water flight, all common operations today.  Les Morris played an important part in helping to launch Sikorsky Aircraft on a path that would lead it to being one of the premier helicopter manufacturer’s in the world, a position that it still holds today.  He also held key positions at several other manufacturers during the early days of the helicopter.  When his time flying and developing helicopters was over, Morris was a central figure in preserving and chronicling helicopter history and heritage.  Morris undoubtedly played a key role in helicopter development in the 1940s and has left a lasting mark on rotary-wing flight, making him a true Rotorcraft Pioneer.




Morris, C. G. (2010). Morris Ancestry: Vol. I - Mayflower Lines. Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan



Morris, C. L., (1945). Pioneering the Helicopter. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.