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Rotorcraft Museums Worth Visiting

Posted 13 years 356 days ago ago by Admin

Article by Brad McNally

While few places can match the truly amazing collection of aviation history that is on display at the Smithsonian National Air Space Museum, those with a particular interest in rotary wing flight might be left wanting a little more after a visit to the Smithsonian. Luckily there are some great aviation museums scattered around the country that, while not as large individually as the National Air and Space Museum, collectively hold an equally impressive amount of aviation history. Three of these museums, each with a tie to the history of rotary wing flight, are detailed below.

American Helicopter Museum and Education Center
The Philadelphia area has long been a hotbed for rotorcraft activity. Some of the earliest work in both autogiros and helicopters happened in this area. Today four major helicopter companies, Augusta-Westland, Boeing Rotorcraft Systems, Keystone Helicopter and Piasecki Aircraft, all call the greater metropolitan Philadelphia area home. With such a rich history and large amount of current rotorcraft activity, this area is a perfect home for the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center. One of the driving forces behind the museum and education center was the late Peter Wright, a legend not only in the Philadelphia rotorcraft community but also a decorated military aviator and a pioneer in the commercial helicopter industry. He founded Keystone Helicopter in 1953, a company that is today part of Sikorsky Global Helicopters and is located only a short drive from the museum and education center at the Heliplex in Coatesville, PA. Due in large part to the efforts of Mr. Wright and the other founders, the museum and education center opened in October of 1996. In 2003, it received a generous one million dollar grant from Frank Robinson and the Robinson Helicopter Company. Thanks to many volunteers and supporters the museum and education center has continued to expand and last year it had over 40,000 visitors.
As the name implies, the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center is all about helicopters. It houses an amazing collection of rotorcraft that spans the history of rotary wing flight. On the one end of the spectrum you can see some of the earliest helicopter models. There is a Bell 47B which became the first commercially certified helicopter in the United States in 1946. There is also a Sikorsky S-52, which was the third helicopter to receive certification in the U.S. and the first with all metal rotor blades. The newest aircraft is a Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey. This aircraft first flew in 2002 and was the third of six Osprey Prototypes. It is the only V-22 on public display. The remaining 35 plus aircraft on display include everything in between, both military and civilian, experimental aircraft and some of the most successful production models ever made. Also located at the museum is the Renzo Pierpaoli Memorial Library. The library has over 12,000 items including books, magazines, manuals, reports, drawings, patents, technical papers, articles, photographs, films, and videos all related to rotary wing flight. Not only does the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center do an outstanding job of preserving and showcasing rotorcraft history, but museum president Sean Saunders and his dedicated staff have made educating the public a priority. They put on several programs designed to educate children as young as kindergarten age all the way up to adults on vertical flight. There are six, hour long courses that are done at the museum and education center and are perfect for school field trips. There is also a mobile training aid known as Stubby, a trailer mounted Hughes TH-55AOsage. This helicopter was originally used to train U.S. Army pilots how to fly and it now teaches kids about the inner workings of a helicopter. In the summer the museum and education center hosts Aerocamp, a two day event held several times over the course of the summer.
During the camp, attendees ages 8 to 14 learn the fundamentals of flight while designing, building and flying their own gliders. These programs have received both regional and national recognition. The museum and education center was named “best scientific outing for kids" by Aviation History Magazine, "best science museum for children" by Philadelphia Magazine, “best educational outing for kids” by Mainline Magazine and received the Nickelodeon Parent’s Choice Award for “best Philadelphia area kids culture museum”. The museum and education center hosts the annual Rotorfest all rotorcraft air show. Typically held in October, this two day event is billed as “the world’s largest all helicopter air show”. Rotorfest boasts an impressive lineup of military and civilian aircraft and had over 7,000 people attend in 2009. Previous attendees include the U.S. Army Black Daggers parachute team, Coast Guard Search and Rescue helicopters, Army Blackhawks and Chinooks, Marine Corps attack helicopters, home builts, news helicopters and medevac helicopters. 
Check it out on the web at:
Flying in?
The American Helicopter Museum and Education Center is located at the Brandywine Airport (KOQN) in West Chester, PA.
If you go be sure to see:
V22 OspreyThe most popular display is the V-22 Osprey. It is the one of newest rotorcraft in the museum’s collection and is the only V-22 on public display.
In December Santa makes an appearance minus the reindeer.  He arrives via helicopter for photos, refreshments and holiday activities. 
Several of the display aircraft are available for kids of all ages to climb inside and see what it feels like to get your hands on the controls of a real helicopter, no hovering though.
Lawrence D. Bell Aircraft Museum
The Lawrence D. Bell Aircraft Museum is located about 2 hrs due north of Indianapolis in the town of Mentone Indiana (population 900). Surrounded by corn fields and silos, the small town of Mentone might seem like a strange place for an aviation museum. However, if you head to the viewing area in the Museum’s hangar and watch the 15 minute biography on Larry Bell you’ll quickly find out that Bell was born in Mentone in 1894. In fact, the house that he was born in still stands less than a mile down the road from the museum. In 1907 his parents moved the family to California to be closer to their older children and it would be because of this move that Larry Bell would get into aviation. In California, Larry attended what is believed to have been the first organized air show in the United States; he began building model airplanes with his brother Grover and then started working on the real thing. He quickly made a name for himself in the growing aviation industry, serving as shop supervisor for the Martin Aircraft Company at the age of 20 and starting the Bell Aircraft Company in 1935. Larry Bell never forgot Mentone, IN and the people there have never forgotten him. The Aviation Museum isn’t the only building in town with Bell’s name on it. The Bell Memorial Library, named after Larry Bell’s parents was funded largely through a donation Bell willed to the town.
In 1956 Larry Bell passed away and left his extensive collection of awards, photographs and personal documents to the town of Mentone. Thanks to the men and women who run the Bell Aircraft Museum the story of Larry Bell’s life and the history of Bell aircraft have been preserved and are on display. The museum started in 1976 when a small group of loyal volunteers began meeting in the office of current Museum Board of Directors President Gerald Romine. In 1979 the museum opened its doors to the public. A helipad was built behind the museum in 2004 and in 2006, thanks to a generous donation from another Mentone resident; a 5600 square foot hangar was constructed to showcase several aircraft and more of Larry Bell’s personal archives. As you turn off of Oak Street and into the museum’s parking lot the first thing you’ll see is a restored UH-1 Iroquois. Better known as the Huey, this particular aircraft saw service in Vietnam and was later used as a trainer at the U.S. Army Flight School at Fort Rucker, AL. This extremely successful model, which is still in use today and is considered by some to be the face of the Vietnam War, is a fitting tribute to mark the entrance to the museum and the rotary wing legacy of Larry Bell. Inside the hangar are two more Bell Helicopters. A restored Bell H-13 Sioux helicopter, this military version of the 47-G is stark reminder of how far helicopters have come since the early days. This model is commonly known as the “MASH Helicopter” and these aircraft were used extensively during the Korean War; saving many lives and proving that helicopters were not just a novelty. Helicopters just like this one justified the procurement of larger military helicopter fleets and proved the helicopters utility in military search and rescue and civilian EMS roles. Also on display in the hangar is a 47-H that has been restored to look like Larry Bell’s personal helicopter. The museum houses an impressive collection of Bell’s paintings, aircraft models, pictures and personal documents. Talk to one of the dedicated volunteers that staffs the museum such as Tim Whetstone the Vice President of the Board of Directors, and they’ll be quick to point out a had written letter to Larry Bell from President Truman and Bell’s childhood report card. In the back corner of the hangar is a full size replica of Bell’s personal office at the time of his death. Thanks to some help from Bell’s personal secretary, his office has been re-created to include the actual furniture that was in it at the time of his death along with his display cases and aircraft models. Adjacent to the office is Larry Bell’s impressive collection of awards which includes his Collier Trophy for the Bell X-1 breaking the sound barrier and the Society of Automotive Engineer’s Guggenheim Medal for his design and construction of military aircraft.
Check it out on the web at:
Flying in?
A concrete helipad is located behind the museum for visiting helicopters (2IG5). The nearest paved runway is located at the Mentone Airport (C92), 2 miles southwest of the museum.
If you go be sure to see:
-The restored H-13 Sioux, if you’ve never seen one up close you’ll be impressed with how far helicopters have come.
-Larry Bell’s reconstructed office and his personal and professional memorabilia collection.
-The Larry Bell biography video, it highlights the great legacy that Larry Bell left behind in both fixed wing and rotary wing aviation.
For more information on the life and legacy of Lawrence Bell visit the gift shop and pick up copy of “Larry-A Biography of Larry D. Bell” by Donald Norton.
Hiller Aviation Museum
While much of the early American helicopter history was made on the East Coast there were some important contributions that came from the West Coast. Of these, none were more important than those of Stanley Hiller and the Hiller Aircraft Company. Stanley Hiller Jr. was born in 1924 and grew up in Berkeley, CA. He had his interest in aviation peaked Hiller Aviation Museumby his father Stanley Sr. who was both an inventor and engineer who had built and flown his own airplane in 1910. By the time Stanley Jr. was 10 he was building model planes and by the time he was 17 he had dropped out of college at U.C. Berkeley and begun working on a full scale helicopter. In 1944, he completed the first successful helicopter flight in the western United States. His coaxial helicopter design was known as the X-44 “Hiller-Copter” and led to the development of the Hiller “360” which marked a major step forward in helicopter stability. Throughout the 1950’s and into the late 1960’s Stanley Hiller ran the Hiller Aircraft Company. This company was a leading civil and military helicopter manufacturer and developed many experimental models for the U.S. Military which included some of the earliest work on tilt rotor aircraft and ducted fan technology. Stanley Hiller donated money and aircraft to found the Hiller Aviation Museum which opened its doors in June of 1998.
Today the Hiller Aviation Museum is a fitting tribute to one of the true rotorcraft pioneers. Many of Stanley Hiller’s achievements were revolutionary and paved the way for later success in rotary wing flight; thankfully some of these aircraft and the story of the Hiller Aircraft Company are preserved at the Hiller Aviation Museum.   Many of Hiller’s ground-breaking aircraft were produced in limited quantities as they were prototypes for military projects and few of the originals exist today. The XROE-1 or “Rotorcycle” was a one man helicopter that could be parachuted behind enemy lines to waiting troops. The “Rotorcycle” could then be assembled in nine minutes on the ground and was capable of flying and hovering just like a larger helicopter. Starting in 1954, a dozen “Rotorcycles” were built and tested before the military canceled the project. The Hiller Museum has one of the original “Rotorcycles” on display. The VZ-1 Pawnee or “Flying Platform” is another one of these prototypes that was built for the military. The “Flying Platform” project was started in 1953 and a total of 6 prototypes were built. The “Flying Platform’s” first flight in 1955 marked the first time that a ducted fan aircraft successfully completed a vertical takeoff and landing. On display is one of only two “Flying Platforms” that are known to exist today. Also on display is a 1945 Hiller “360”. The “360” was a revolutionary aircraft that was later built in larger numbers than the previously mentioned military prototypes. This aircraft solved several key helicopter stability problems and propelled the helicopter forward as a feasible machine despite its complexity. The “360” was one of the first helicopters to be qualified by the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Administration. These rotorcraft and over 50 other aircraft are on display in the Hiller Museum’s impressive collection, which includes some of Hiller’s most innovative models. 
The museum is located at the San Carlos Airport in San Carlos, CA, about a half an hour drive south of San Francisco. Along with its aircraft collection, the 53,000 square foot museum has an aircraft restoration area, a 35 seat theatre and 50 seat conference center. The dedicated full time staff of 15 and over 100 volunteers annually host more than 50,000 visitors. They also put on an annual rotary wing themed air show known as Vertical Challenge. The 2009 version of Vertical Challenge included demonstrations by Chuck Aaron and the Red Bull Stunt Helicopter, the U.S. Coast Guard, California Highway Patrol and California Department of Forestry. 
Check it out on the web at:
Flying in?
The Hiller Aviation Museum is located at the San Carlos Airport (KSQL).
If you go be sure to see:
-The 1956 XROE-1 “Rotorcycle”, this fully collapsible, one man helicopter was truly ahead of its time.
-Come for Vertical Challenge, the Hiller Museum’s annual rotary wing air show which is typically held in the summer. The lineup of civilian and military aircraft is sure to impress. 
-Visit the restoration shop where large picture windows allow visitors to see the loyal volunteers in action and their ongoing aircraft restoration work.
For more information on the life and legacy of Stanley Hiller visit the gift shop and pick up copy of “Vertical Challenge-The Hiller Aircraft Story” by Jay P. Spenser.