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Rotorcraft Pioneers, Part III: Stanley Hiller Jr.

Posted 13 years 181 days ago ago by Admin

By Brad McNally, Contributing Editor - In the early 1940s the American Helicopter Industry was emerging in the northeastern United States.  Igor Sikorsky was building helicopters in New England, Frank Piasecki was closing in on the second successful American helicopter in Philadelphia and in upstate New York Arthur Young and Larry Bell were laying the frame work for the first commercially produced helicopter.  On the west coast a young man by the name of Stanley Hiller Jr. was also beginning to develop an aircraft capable of vertical flight.  Like all of these men Stanley Hiller’s quest to develop a helicopter was full of challenges.  He overcame these challenges to design several successful helicopter models along with creating one of the most innovative research and development programs of its time.  To see how someone so young and so far away from the epicenter of the emerging American helicopter industry was able to become so successful you need to go back to the start. 

Stanley Hiller Jr. was born in California on November 15, 1924.  His father, Stanley Hiller Sr., was an engineer, accomplished inventor and aviation pioneer who had built and flown his own airplane in 1910 at the age of 20 years old.  Stanley Sr. was a significant influence in Stanley Jr.’s life.  When he was asked at the age of 23 how he had been able to achieve so much at such a young age, his answer was “I was fortunate in my choice of a father (Stanley Hiller Jr. Biography, n.d.).”  By the time he was eight years old his father taught him to fly and he developed an interest in model airplanes.  When he was ten he used his father’s tools to turn an old washing machine engine into a motorized buggy that he drove around the neighborhood.  At the age of 13, he crashed one of his model airplanes but was able to salvage the engine which he later put into a model race car.  This powered model car became very popular in his neighborhood.  He started building them for his friends and the demand quickly outpaced his manufacturing ability.  In 1940 at the age of 16, he founded Hiller Industries to produce the powered model car that became known as the Hiller Comet (Spenser, 2003).  Within a year Hiller Industries was building 350 Comets a month, with yearly sales totaling one hundred thousand dollars.  Stanley Hiller Jr. and his father invented a process to make high strength aluminum castings to build the metal bodies of the Comet race car.  By the time he had enrolled as a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley World War II was looming and Hiller Industries was using this process to make high strength aluminum parts for U.S. Military fighter planes.

Stanley Hiller’s interest in rotary-wing flight began when he was 15 years old.  He had read about the work that Igor Sikorsky was doing and began to develop his own ideas about how to build a helicopter.  While still in high school he started building model helicopters and he left college after only one year to pursue helicopter design full time.  In 1942 he sold Hiller Industries and formed Hiller Aircraft.  Hiller Aircraft started with only three employees, an engineer and two jack-of-all-trades craftsmen who were adept at metal working, welding and machining.  Although he did not have a formal engineering degree, Stanley Hiller knew that a coaxial rotor design would eliminate the power requirements of a tail rotor giving him extra power for lift.  He was undaunted by the complexity of the coaxial rotor head and along with his three employees began work on this design at the end of 1942.  The Hiller team faced many challenges, not the least of which was getting parts for the new helicopter, specifically an engine.  Due to war time restrictions they had to manufacture many of their own parts.  Stanley Hiller himself made several trips to Washington DC to plead his case for an engine and after several months of lobbying and many rejections he was granted permission by the War Production Board to purchase a 90 horsepower air cooled Franklin engine (Spenser, 2003).  By the end of 1943 the XH-44 Hiller-copter was completed and ready for ground runs.  Due to a limited budget Stanley Hiller took on test pilot duties.  The first ground runs of the XH-44 were conducted in the garage where the helicopter had been built.  After letting the engine run, Stanley Hiller applied pitch to the rotor blades creating a vacuum above the rotor disk which sucked in the skylights of the garage (Hiller XH-44, n.d.).  The following test flights were done in the driveway of the Hiller home with the aircraft tethered to the ground.  Stanley Hiller did not have any helicopter flying experience so he had to teach himself how to fly and evaluate his new aircraft at the same time.  On the morning of July 4, 1944, in the football stadium at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanley Hiller lifted the XH-44 off the ground, flew forward then circled around and landed back where he had started.  The XH-44 became the first successful American coaxial helicopter and the first helicopter to fly on the west coast.  Due to the fact that the XH-44 was coaxial and had two rotor disks mounted one on top of the other its rotor blades had to be restricted from flapping like the blades of the other single main rotor helicopters of the day did.  To accomplish this, the innovative XH-44 rotor blades were rigid and all metal instead of wood, which were also both firsts (Spenser, 2003).  

The success of the XH-44 proved that there was something very special about the new company and its leader, but without an infusion of new financial support the company would have been short lived.  Luckily in the months to follow Stanley Hiller and the XH-44 did a number of public demonstrations in the San Francisco area.  One of which caught the eye of a wealthy shipbuilder with an interest in helicopter development named Henry J. Kaiser.  Kaiser had the financial support that was needed and Hiller Aircraft became the Hiller-copter Division of Kaiser Cargo.  A larger, two seat version of the XH-44 was built.  Known as the X-2-235 it was powered by a 235 Lycoming engine and had super rigid rotor blades which could support a grown man standing on the tip without deflecting (Spenser, 2003).  One of the three X-2-235s that were built was procured by the Navy for testing and evaluation.  Out of a second Navy contract came the Sky Hook, the first successful gasoline powered model helicopter.  This helicopter had a 1.1 horsepower gasoline engine and was capable of lifting an emergency transmitter 300 feet in the air and small enough to fit in a three foot by six inch tube that could be carried in a life raft (Spenser, 1998).  Stanley Hiller and Henry Kaiser parted ways in 1945 due largely in part to Kaiser’s refusal to increase the Hiller-copter Division’s funding to levels that were required to begin full scale helicopter production.  Stanley Hiller renamed the company United Helicopters and began to look for new financial backing.  He and his team turned toward their next helicopter which was a single seat, single main rotor aircraft with a ducted tail fan known as the J-5.  This precursor to the NOTAR aircraft that we know today was ahead of its time but ultimately abandoned due to a lack of power.  United Helicopters then entered a bid to build its first aircraft specifically for a military application.  They offered a five seat coaxial helicopter called the HO-346 for a Navy ship-based light transport helicopter solicitation.  They ultimately lost the Navy contract, but out of this design a two seat commercial variant known as the Commuter was born.  The UH-4 Commuter was publicly unveiled in 1947 at the Presidio in San Francisco.  It was the first successful two seat coaxial helicopter and as the name implies it was intended for private use to replace the automobile.  The commuter aircraft market never materialized and full scale production of the UH-4 was given up in favor of a more versatile aircraft.  The result was a period of development involving several new models and a breakthrough in helicopter stability.  This breakthrough was what Stanley Hiller called the “Rotormatic” cyclic control.  It used a series of small paddles mounted on the main rotor blades, which were controlled by the pilot, to control the movement of the main rotor disk.  This system reduced the control forces and greatly increased the stability of the aircraft.  All of this led to what became arguably the most successful of Stanley Hiller’s helicopters the Hiller 360 or UN-12. 

The Hiller 360, introduced in 1948, was a single main rotor and tail rotor helicopter.  It became only the third helicopter Hiller Picturecertified for production by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (Spenser, 2003).  The Hiller 360 went into production in 1949, that same year a 360 made the first transcontinental commercial helicopter flight.  Stanley Hiller himself flew the last leg of the three month, 5,200 mile demonstration tour, landing in Manhattan to showcase his helicopter.  The 360 caught on quickly and found many uses including agricultural, sight seeing and VIP transport applications.  A military application quickly became apparent when the United States entered the Korean War.  With demand for the new found capabilities of helicopters quickly outpacing the ability of the current helicopter fleets, the U.S. Army turned to United Helicopters to produce a military version of the 360 known as the YH-23 in the Army and HTE-1 in the Navy.  The Army began receiving the original YH-23A models in 1950.  Although these aircraft were credited with saving many lives in Korea they had a low availability rate.  An upgraded YN-23B model solved many of these problems and in 1951 alone, 273 B models were received by the military.  Another 453 were built between 1952 and 1955 and they were flown by the British, French, Swiss, Canadian, Dutch and Thai militaries and police forces (Spenser, 2003).  In the early 1950s United Helicopters changed its name to Hiller Helicopters and annual sales increased to nearly 15 million dollars in 1952.  This marked a 25 time increase from just four years earlier.  The Korean War and its associated military contracts had put Hiller Helicopters on the map.  At its peak, Hiller Helicopters employed over 2,000 people.  Several upgraded and enlarged versions of the Hiller 360 followed.  To date over 3,000 military and civilian variants of the Hiller 360 have been manufactured.  It remains in production today and is one of the longest running production models ever built.   

A robust research and development program ensued.  Many innovative designs were developed by the Hiller Helicopters Advanced Research Division.  The XROE-1 or Rotorcycle was a one man collapsible helicopter that could be assembled in nine minutes on the ground and was capable of flying and hovering just like a larger helicopter (Stanley Hiller Jr. Biography, n.d.).  The VZ-1 Pawnee or Flying Platform was a military ducted fan project.  Its maiden flight in 1955 marked the first time that a ducted fan aircraft successfully completed a vertical takeoff and landing.  Several tilt rotor Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft were also built, including the Vought Hiller Ryan XC-142A.  With a gross weight of over 40,000 pounds and a max speed of 430 miles per hour the XC-142A was the largest VTOL aircraft ever flown at the time (Spenser, 2003).  One of the most impressive endeavors was the significant strides Hiller Helicopters made in rotor tip powered helicopters.  Stanley Hiller realized that powering a helicopter’s blades right at the tips would decrease overall weight and increase the power available for lift by eliminating the torque that necessitated a tail rotor. The entire Hiller team was convinced that this design could be used in everything from small commuter helicopters to large aerial cranes. Several years of intense work in tip jet power began in 1947 and culminated with multiple military contracts and the first ever American produced tip powered helicopters.  The HJ-1 or Hiller Hornet tip powered helicopter first flew in 1950 and later both the Army and Navy would accept a small quantity of military variants for testing and evaluation.  Out of this tip powered effort was born the Hiller 8RJ2B ramjet engine, which was the first American designed and built jet engine to be approved for productionhiller rotorcycle picture (Spenser, 2003).  This is just a short sample of the tremendous research and development work that was done.  At one point the Advanced Research Division was simultaneously involved in 13 different classified projects for the military.  By the end of the 1950s so much non helicopter work was being done that Hiller Helicopters changed its name back to Hiller Aircraft Corporation.

In 1960 the U.S. military announced a competition for a new Light Observation Helicopter or LOH.  Winning this contract meant a huge military helicopter order that would provide Hiller Aircraft with a much needed influx of funding and a significant potential to cross over to a commercial variant.  The highly successful Hiller R&D program was not generating much money and winning the LOH contract was vital to the continued success of Hiller Aircraft.  Hiller Aircraft proposed the OH-5A and it was selected by the Navy while the Army selected the Bell and Hiller proposals for a final evaluation.  Even though the Hughes offering was out of the running, Howard Hughes was able to orchestrate some back behind the scenes deals which he combined with underbidding Bell and Hiller to win the contract.  The loss of this contract was a blow that the Hiller Aircraft Corporation was never able to recover from and ultimately started its decline.  In 1964 Hiller Aircraft Corporation became part of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Company.  Stanley Hiller became the executive vice president and the two companies became the Fairchild Hiller Corporation (Spenser, 2003).  

After leaving the Fairchild Hiller Corporation in 1968, Stanley Hiller put his considerable talents to use in the corporate world.  He became a well known businessman who specialized in turning around companies that were headed for failure.  In a strange twist of fate he orchestrated the merger of the same Hughes Tool Company that had beaten out his company for the Army’s LOH contract with Baker International in 1987.  Stanley Hiller Jr. passed away in 2006 at the age of 81 but not before he made one last contribution to the aviation world. In 1998 he founded the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, CA.  The museum was not only a way of giving back to the same area in California that had given him his start but also a way to preserve the sometimes overlooked contributions to aviation that came from the west coast.  He was the recipient of many prestigious awards over his lifetime including the National Air and Space Museum Trophy for Lifetime Achievement, the Helicopter Foundation International Heritage Award, the Fawcett Aviation Award for major contributions to the advancement of aviation, the San Francisco Aeronautical Society’s Medal of Achievement and is inducted into the U.S. Army Aviation Hall of Fame (Stanley Hiller Jr. Biography, n.d.).  Stanley Hiller’s extraordinary engineering ability, keen business sense and remarkable entrepreneurial spirit enabled him to make tremendous contributions to rotary wing flight.  From the start of his aviation career his innovative designs were on the cutting edge of rotary wing aviation, a trait which became a trademark of his companies.  His business acumen allowed him to create a company that was able to extend well beyond just developing cutting edge prototypes and into successful helicopter production on a scale that few other companies were able to achieve.  His production models became some of the most reliable and sought after aircraft of their time for both commercial and military applications.  Unfortunately, we’ll never know what could have been had Fairchild Hiller won the U.S. Army LOH contract.  Regardless, it remains that Stanley Hiller succeeded in rotary wing flight like few others had before or since and is a true Rotorcraft Pioneer.




















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Retrieved February 20, 2010, from http://www.nasm.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?id=A19530081000

Hiller XH-44 Hiller-copter. (n.d.). Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Website.